By the Grace of Nigerians

I won’t lie to you. My transition this past week has been rough. But rough is a relative term, and I’m kind of a softy. I’m not only soft as a result of being born and raised in privileged conditions, but also just because it’s who I am. Which isn’t always a bad thing. Until you decide to fly out on your own to live and work in Nigeria.

I finally moved into my accommodation last week. The place was filthy simply because it hadn’t really been used in years. Which in itself is fine, because filth can be cleaned. But I was very unhappy about the place. I hated the large=lonely size, I hated the smell, the vibe, the big fly at the gate that bit my eyelid, the everything. So after sobbing pitifully and using my lifeline to phone my parents, I started therapeutically cleaning like a madwoman. When it got dark (we haven’t had electricity for five days) I quit scrubbing and decided to go for a walk to cool off. During my walk, a neighbor spotted me and invited me to her house. She graciously fed me a delectable Nigerian meal (amala and spinach drawing soup and locust beans with stew, for my Nigerian readership), and I thus started to feel better about life again.

Until around 10 o’clock. It was then that the high fever, vomiting, and other unmentionable intestinal ails set in, and since I don’t have running water I had to flush the toilet with buckets of water I had stored earlier on from my outside water tank. This means that with the cleaning of the house and the flushing of my toilet, I have used up nearly my entire store of water (which is supposed to last several weeks if not more)! Bummer. Luckily, I have a well in my yard, too, so I will be relying on that for the time being.

Anyway, I couldn’t go to work the next day as I still had a high fever. I was visited by several caring neighbors and up-and-coming friends, which was very kind. They probably think I’m a total wussy, though! I even cried in front of one of them, because not only had I been feverish and sick, but I had also been struggling with a serious bout of homesickness. In Nigeria, you don’t cry. And as many of you know, I’m a crier. Not cool here. I think I totally freaked my neighbor out!! She also happens to be the head teacher with whom I work, and oftentimes when children cry at school they get whacked on the head…so I was kind of waiting for her to lay one on me, too! To be honest, the shock would have probably helped!!

So the other tough part of my transition has been my work. See, the VSO volunteer who came before me was a seasoned head teacher with over 15 years of teaching and administrative experience at an excellent school in the UK. Compare that to my one year of teaching and two years assisting experience. She actually developed from scratch the Early Childhood Center in which I’m now working, so pretty much everything the teachers are doing as far as curriculum and all the resources they have are due to this previous VSO volunteer. So here I come trotting in with a few kiddy songs, a wink and a smile. The smile part actually goes a long way in Nigeria. Hopefully it will buy me about two years. My confidence and faith in being the “expert” they see me as has been at an all-time-low this past week.

At work today, I was left alone for nearly two hours with the preschool children, and Oh-My-God: Montessori teachers, you have NO IDEA how hard it can be! Especially when the children only respond to beating, yelling, and threats. Of course I wasn’t going to do that, so the room was more than crazy: children beating each other up, crying, running on tables, screaming, and the list goes on. Add the fact that they are still learning English and can’t understand my accent, and you have a recipe for chaos! It’s not their fault. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. The minute the teacher came back and told them she would beat them, they quieted down instantly. My thoughts: What on earth can I do?? The teacher and I discussed it and she completely understands that it’s not the best way, but also recognizes that it’s not something you can just change. It is deeply embedded in the culture. Where do I go from here?

So with the new place and the work and the longing for many-things-home, I have felt my weaknesses beating down on me like the midday Nigerian sun. But I have been so blessed with the most generous and caring neighbors in the world. They are always checking up on me, inviting me over, teaching me Yoruba (I have an official teacher now), taking me places (I have an official okada driver now), and just spending time with me.

They feel very sorry for me that I’m living all by myself in such a large place, as Nigerians never really live alone. Many live in what are known as compounds, which are clusters of homes, and since most people have families with children, you’ve always got loads of company. It’s a community-based culture, through and through. So it’s natural for them to take me under their wing and look after my homesick heart. In fact, one of my Mama’s renamed me with a Yoruba name: Jumoke, which means something to the effect of, “We take care of/pamper you” That sounds a lot like my folks at home!!

In YorubaLand, Nigeria, anything good that happens is “By the Grace of God.” For me, the good that has been happening in the last few days – after what was an extremely rocky start for a softy like myself – is owed to the Grace of Nigerians. Thank you to all my Mamas, Aunties, and Uncles who have helped me through the first of what I’m sure will be many challenges! And who knows, maybe by the time I go home I won’t be such a softy, after all.

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Ten New Things I’d Never Seen or Done

Ten New Things I’d Never Seen and/or Done Until Now

1) Sorted beans before cooking to remove the weevil-infested ones.
2) Said “To heck with it,” and proceeded to cook and eat weevil-infested beans.
3) Watched a chicken flap into an internet cafe from out of nowhere and land on my friend’s lap. (She didn’t find it nearly as funny as I did).
4) Personally requested two 3-foot long metal bars to be installed in an ‘X’ shape on a door to my house.
5) Seen a 5 year-old child crush glass with a stone against pavement during playground time…Then witnessed him brushing the powdery shards onto the dirt with his bare hands.
6) Trained teachers (oh wait…that’s my job now! Wish me luck!)
7) Indirectly participated in a bribe by lending someone a substantial amount of Nigerian currency (well, substantial for a VSO volunteer, that is) that he will use to try to buy himself a job (not something I’m proud of doing or will do again, but I had my reasons).
8 ) Eaten an actual cashew fruit! Yes! They are fruits AND nuts! The fruit hangs off the seed (nut) and it is pepper shaped and delicious! I even have a cashew tree (and a mango tree) at my new home!
9) Gotten into the car of a unknown man who pulled over and asked me if I needed a lift somewhere…Reverse hitchhiking! (Not to worry, the circumstances made it okay).
10) Seen an entire swimming pool of all black people. (I know that sounds odd, but I truly had never seen it before – growing up in Oregon and all – and it caught me by surprise!)

An Update on the Basics

Top Eleven Things I wish I had brought to Nigeria (in no particular order):

1) Tank Tops
2) Flip Flops
3) Black Skin
4) A taste for assorted rubbery cow parts and insanely powerful fishiness
5) Pear, hazelnut, and gorgonzola arrugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette
6) Everyone I love and miss
7) A map of the world and the United States
8 ) Longer skirts to ride the okadas (motorcycle taxis) without feeling self-conscious (as if my big, huge, full-face helmet and white skin isn’t enough!)
9) A Yoruba language learning book
10) A smidge more certainty
11) A portable seat belt and/or a lot of good luck

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So I’ve been out of training for nearly two weeks. I have SO much to say in terms of what I have learned and discovered here, but there’s no way I can even possibly relate it all. Every day is a new adventure, which is a huge reason why I came in the first place, so mission partly-accomplished 🙂

I’ve been having a really hard time figuring out how to write a blog about my experiences thus far in Nigeria. I love writing, and I have a lot of really interesting stories to tell and things to share. Many of these things have to do with what I’ve observed about Nigeria and Nigerians from the point of view of a Westerner (throw in liberal Oregonian for added effect). The things I’ve found most fascinating relate to cultural differences, infrastructure, poverty, religion, gender roles, child rearing/disciplining, marital practices, and so on. But since the nature of a blog is public, I have a huge fear of offending people or being misunderstood.

Many things I have been exposed to here are things that I don’t agree with, partly because I was raised in Portland, Oregon, USA, and partly because I’m Julie. But I don’t feel comfortable sharing these things in my blog because, according to a Yoruba proverb that a Nigerian friend has told me, “One man’s poison is another man’s food.” What works for some might not work for others. And even if someone is doing something that I don’t believe in my own heart is right, I did not come here to judge anyone’s culture. I just have to find a balance between accepting what is theirs and standing by what is mine. Through some wonderful conversations with Nigerians, I am learning a great deal about their lifestyles (generalizations, of course). While I don’t always agree, I am able to value the openness and honesty between us and our ability to respect and listen to each other’s points of view.

So with that, I will tell you just some basics about being here. Hopefully I will be able to figure out a way to bring up these other subjects as time goes on.

We’re putting the finishing touches on the place I will live in (and by finishing touches, I mean little things like repairing the water tanks/pipes so I’ll have running water, which isn’t something everyone has). I’ve been living out of my carry-on luggage for four weeks, soon to be five, as I am now in Ilorin for a weeklong workshop on the primary school system in Kwara State (the state of Nigeria I’m living/working in). I’m now crashing at my sixth place, so I’ll be thankful when I finally move into my new home and get settled. There is also the chance that two VSO volunteers from the UK will come in April and work/live in the same town as me, which will be nice because as of now I’m the only oyibo (white person), and it gets quite lonely.

The last two weeks I’ve been staying with a hospitable Nigerian family who has taken me in as their own, and I am so grateful for it. They’ve fed me deliciously traditional Nigerian meals, and I feel so lucky because not everyone gets that experience.

The teachers union at the college I am supposed to work at have been on strike for four weeks, so my work has been limited to observing classes at the model preschool/primary schools located on campus which are still operating. People around town have been talking about why the oyibo is on campus, “doesn’t she know we’re on strike?” Also, a white person roaming around signifies reform, so I’ve been told, and reform isn’t always a good thing, especially for the common Nigerian. Hopefully I can break that stereotype, though. It’s not easy.

The model preschool/primary school have been fascinating. The preschool looks quite westernized, very relatively speaking, and apparently the VSO volunteer who was here before collaborated a lot with the teachers, creating templates for lesson plans, a structured curriculum, materials, and introducing classroom management skills. There were, however, some classes in the preschool and primary school where children’s ears were pulled, and hitting children on the head if they got an answer wrong and saying “I will beat you,” is quite commonplace. But I have to say I was impressed overall with the preschool in terms of materials, curriculum, and teaching methods (hitting aside). I guess I was expecting a lot less.

Like I mentioned before, the people I have been staying with have been great. They have a little 6 month old baby girl. They also have an 11 year old girl living with them (not their daughter), and she and I work on reading skills together. She doesn’t go to school and doesn’t know a lot of English (whereas many-most Nigerians do), so I am teaching her phonetics (the Montessori way!) and just some basic English skills. She’s a really nice young girl and a very hard worker. The woman of the house, as mentioned, is an amazing cook. She’s also a teacher at the college I’m working at, so she has been filling me in on the nitty gritty of the strike. It’s not looking too good. The teachers are not getting paid what they’ve been promised, and they’ve had enough. The man of the house is very interesting. We have conversations for hours about anything and everything; he’s been particularly helpful in explaining Nigerian culture to me. Both of them have been very hospitable.

Some side notes:

It’s hot here. Not scorching Arizona hot, but tropical Africa hot. I’d say it’s in the 90s-100s for most of the day, and the 70s and 80s at night. No more big puffy down vests and multiple layers! Once you get used to being sticky and sweaty, it’s not bad at all. Nighttime under the mosquito net can be stifling though, but I haven’t used a net the past couple week and I’ve been malaria free to boot.

Going to the market is still an effort. I get “greeted” ever 4.5 seconds with “Oyibo! Oyibo!” (white person). Then people ask me what I have brought for them, won’t I give them my helmet, won’t I marry them and take them back with me, and the like. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but it’s really hard to shop for unfamiliar items, haggle for prices, practice speaking Yoruba, and constantly greet people (in Nigeria it’s very rude not to greet people if they greet you nicely, and people greet all the time)!

Riding okadas is fun. I never thought I’d say that, but as long as there is no traffic and the driver is not reckless, I actually enjoy the breeze and the freedom of being on a motorcycle. I may just have to buy one when I get home. (Remind me to tell you about the Nigerian automotive world in my next blog…if there is a next blog, considering Nigerian driving habits!)

Well, that’s enough for now. Thanks for pushing through to the end of this epic blog entry! I miss you all and am experiencing a newfound pride for my country these days! Oh, the amazing things a new perspective can do  🙂

Love, Julie