The holidays, in chocolate: Part III, Nigeria

Holiday chocolate display at Cameron Road shop, Ikoyi, Lagos

I’m not sure I did have high hopes for a robust holiday chocolate showing in Nigeria. But since I’m here, I thought I would have a look. I have lived in West Africa on and off since my twenties, and while I have usually been able to find chocolate here—perhaps with more variety and elegance in the former French colonies than British ones—it doesn’t transform the holiday retail landscape as it might in North America or Europe. There is more than usual, and more prominently displayed, but still not too much different to other times of the year.

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Holiday chocolate display at Cameron Road shop, Ikoyi, Lagos

Thinking to supplement my research findings of the past week with some internet searching, I Googled “Nigeria chocolate Christmas.” It returned results for “Nigella chocolate Christmas”: all of them Nigella Lawson holiday chocolate fruit cake recipes.

Switching the order of search terms helped a little: “Nigeria Christmas chocolate” returned “10 gift ideas for your girlfriend at Christmas” from the Premium Times. A personally curated chocolate hamper topped the list (10 was a portrait of herself). Ventures Africa listed chocolate cake as one of the five best online Christmas deals in Nigeria, though it made an odd bedfellow with a 16GB iPhone 5, Nikon D90 camera, and Microsoft Surface. (Even odder, the fifth suggestion was the book Why Nations Fail by MIT and Harvard professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. I found this strange because, despite persistent state-disrupting violence by Boko Haram in the north, Nigeria is doing well on the democracy front. Earlier this year, the country celebrated an unprecedented peaceful handover of power when the incumbent head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, lost the presidential election and ceded gracefully to Muhammudu Buhari.)

But while Google may prefer Nigella Lawson to Nigeria when it comes to chocolate searching, chocolates are a gift-giving tradition in this part of the world. Christmas aside, there are certain moments when only chocolate will do, as my boyfriend learned when he started his contract here in Lagos last year. Upon arriving at work on his first day, his assistant greeted him politely by asking, “Where is the chocolate?”

Apparently, it is custom for people traveling in from abroad to bring chocolates as gifts for their colleagues. Not sharing this token of one’s time overseas was a minor, though still grave, cultural offense. I was on my way to Nigeria too at the time, and still en route. After a quick phone call to strategize, I ran through the duty-free shops of Heathrow, gathering bags of bite-size Cadbury bars. These were subsequently parceled out to every one of my boyfriend’s co-workers by his assistant, and much appreciated by all.

I am convinced this wasn’t so much about the chocolate itself. There isn’t a strong sweets culture in West Africa, and in any case it is difficult to maintain a cool chain to distribute chocolate widely throughout the region, so it’s not an everyday luxury here. Chocolate’s function in Nigeria may be less about particular love for it as a food than as a modest but meaningful way of saying, “I care.” It could as easily have been a pencil. When I was working at Port Lockroy in Antarctica and it was my turn to serve in the museum gift shop, I sold pencils by the fistful to Japanese visitors—hundreds and hundreds of them. Every Japanese tourist brought back a pencil for literally every co-worker they had. It seems the same for chocolate here: “I bring to you a small piece of my time away, in a different part of this world.”

To find out if I would have done better to bring pencils than Divine bars, I casually asked my driver, Olivier, if people thought chocolate was a good holiday present here. His reply was one I have heard in Nigeria before: “People appreciate any gift that comes from your heart.” I hope Olivier actually does like the milk chocolate and dark with raspberry varieties that I brought as part of his Christmas gift, but I think the sentiment is more important. I guess that is one of the human universals we ought to remember, anyway, this time of year.

Having said that, Nigeria is not without its extravagant holiday chocolate expressions. I love the Christmas season in Lagos, where banks and telecoms companies string this megalopolis with an abundance of twinkling lights, sometimes with ads embedded in the bulbs (“Airtel: Always on”). Here and there, the OTT displays that mark the giant clumps of wealth around Lagos take a chocolate form. Shopping in my neighborhood grocery store for bottled water and yoghurt this afternoon, I saw this:

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I wasn’t sure it was real, or else I would have bought it to eat (over several hours, obviously). But I didn’t like to take the chance, so instead I continue with my Lagos staple of Lindt Excellence A Touch of Sea Salt and now, awesomely, Coconut Intense. I hope that you are enjoying chocolate so nice as well. Till next time, happy holidays.

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