The First Three Months Were Hard…

…and then they were over. I’m now into my fourth month here in Nigeria, and things are looking quite a bit sunnier (though I wish the real sun would simmer down a bit; it’s so dang hot here)! I have discovered something very important recently: the toughest thing about the first three months was that I felt strongly attached to my life in the United States and blatantly detached from most things Nigerian. I identified with home so deeply that Nigeria felt like an alien planet. I was assigned a position as teacher trainer, which in itself is pretty alien work to me. My colleagues and neighbors also felt like aliens, but aliens that spoke English and were really, really nice.

But as Month Three slowly passed me by, I started to feel strange…like I was becoming a bit alien myself! My house that once depressed me has started welcoming me each day after work. My Nigerian neighbors whom I barely knew have become true friends with whom I regularly engage in laughing fits and silly gossip sessions. My work has shifted from dismally intimidating to rhythmically productive (I promise that soon I’ll write a whole blog about my job; I’m just waiting for the right moment and mood). The ways I’ve touched people’s lives in one manner or another have already become evident. The expat friends I’ve made in the nearby city of Ilorin, ranging from Canucks to Brits to Lebanese to Indians to Finnish, have webbed together to form my perfect community safety net. I’ve become more and more active in VSO as an organization, proudly participating in a strategic planning project which will determine VSO Nigeria’s future.

For all these reasons, Nigeria is slowly morphing into a home of sorts, and I’m beginning to identify and connect with it on seriously deep levels. This by no means implies that I’m disidentifying from my life in the United States, especially from my amazing friends and family who have helped me weather the storm of the past few months. It simply means that I’m adding another wing, building a new extension to my life’s construction.

All of this makes me realize that when we as humans feel connected to something, we can justify it more easily in our hearts. Connecting and identifying with our surroundings enhance so many aspects of our lives: our happiness, our relationships, our work, our everything! The reason the first few months were so hard for me was not because of my circumstances, but rather because I had not yet integrated with my new surroundings. Nothing felt like me. And everything that did feel like me was thousands of miles away. This was a very isolating and emotionally searing experience, I kid you not. But as time went on, sticky little bits and pieces of Nigeria started clinging to me and absorbing into my identity and my heart. I’m starting to discover a brand new possibility of who I am hidden underneath, which is something that can only be brought out by new experiences. And it feels wonderful.

So here’s to the next twenty-one months!! Whatever will become of me??

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church: Not a Boring Post, I Swear!!

You know you’re out of shape when kneeling in church makes your thighs burn. You also know you’re at a serious Catholic church when you have the choice of kneeling on cement or on a wooden board. I choose the cement, not because I want to punish myself, but because the board is awkwardly positioned between the wooden pews and makes every muscle in my legs spasm.

St. Augustine’s is the Catholic church I attend here in Oro. I don’t know a single soul who does not attend some kind of Christian or Muslim service here in Nigeria. And yes, I am generalizing the entire country of Nigeria. And yes, I stand by that generalization 100%. So not attending Church was not an option for me, which of course isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, I quite enjoy going.

St. Augustine’s is a small red building (I have posted a photo of it in a previous blog) with steps leading up to it. The fourteen pictures of the Stations of the Cross hang around the inside perimeter, with the drums and choir stationed at the left. Candles are lit during mass, and since the windows have to be open because of the heat, the flames inevitably and regularly blow out, so the altar boys are constantly getting up and down to relight them. On a chair in the corner, there is a large, hard plastic suitcase which contains the holy cup and other Communion wares.

Our church, like most Nigerian Christian churches, is accompanied by an underage boy playing a drum kit. I think he’s about 8. He’s pretty decent, but mostly he’s just absolutely adorable. We also have a couple of bongo players, which adds a nice touch. It’s no Guster or anything, but its just fine. We sing songs during mass, mostly in Yoruba, so I hum along to their tunes the best I can. Nigerians sing in a different scale then westerners (not nearly as American Idolish, and quite a bit more nasal).

St. Augustine’s choir consists of about 8 girls ages 10 to 18. As is typical with girls this age, they’re always giggling and gossiping in whispers as if no one can see them. They wear black and tan graduation caps and gowns, which amuses me greatly. The other children sit with each other in the front pews, not with their parents. Mama Aina, my lovely neighbor and friend, will sit in the row right behind them, always with a thin stick close at hand to gently tap them if they’re acting up.

The mass is quite traditionally Catholic, unlike some of the other Christian services I’ve attended which I won’t go too much into here because I don’t know how I could describe them without sounding critical. Catholic churches here have masses which last about an hour and a half while the other Christian churches boast a shocking three to four hour service, so I’m very grateful to have been baptized Catholic. They also don’t speak in tongues at my church, which is okay by me, since I don’t speak in tongues either.

There are two to three money collections during the mass, though as per Rome I think we’re only supposed to have one. I’m cool with it though, as long as Pope Benedict is, because one is for a local charity and the other is to support a congregant’s family. Each week the charity and family rotate. When we donate, instead of passing around a basket, we walk up to a plastic dustbin which sits in front of the altar and drop in our naira. I’ve heard from a Nigerian that doing it this way acts as a form of peer pressure: if you choose not to contribute, everyone will see you sitting in your pew, selfishly not giving, which can be embarrassing. There is always a song for giving time, and if the drumbeats move the congregation, they will dance their way up to the dustbin.

Communion is interesting because even though there are usually only about 40 people at mass (and over half are children), we are issued these little plastic tags which say “Communion, Oro Parish.” Without this tag,No Communion Sacrament for You! So don’t lose it!! A designated woman stands at the left hand of the father collecting your tags right before you have to open your mouth to receive the Body of Christ. We don’t get the Blood of Christ at St. Augustine’s. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the alcohol, perhaps it’s the cost, who knows. I should find out.

Our priest is great. He’s a smiley man who sings songs about things such as problems being plastic bags that we just need to throw away. He squirts holy water out of a plastic spray bottle right in our faces whenever we are within shooting range. I swear he purposely aims right for the eyes. It makes me cower like a cat who has just misbehaved. It always catches me off-guard, despite him doing it every Sunday. I try very hard not to react inappropriately (like snatch the bottle and scream, Water fight! and start squirting maniacally, to name one example). The priest has a lazy eye, and he’s always got one eye on me and one on everybody else, which means that I probably wouldn’t get away with any squirt bottle shenanigans anyway.

Our priest translates the sermons for me, and they’re usually quite interesting and inoffensive. At the other two churches I attended, the sermons emphasized heathens being of the devil (Western heathens being of the worst variety), and that women need to always submit to their men. I guess I had better start getting used to the idea of going to hell! It can’t be much hotter than Nigeria anyway.

So that’s my church. I’m quite happy attending, and it’s been a really great Sunday morning activity. As strange as this sounds, it’s one of the most familiar things that I do in this strange and beautiful place.

Of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Snakes.

The woman who told me back in Portland that Nigeria didn’t have snakes was just plain wrong. And she’s a Nigerian herself, for heaven’s sake! But since she comes from Lagos, I am forced to let it slide. Had I known that snakes outnumber mosquitoes here, I never would have come. Okay, okay, the mosquito thing is probably an exaggeration, as is the not coming, but since living here I’ve seen only a few mosquitoes (I don’t even sleep with a net) and four snakes. Granted, two of those snakes were nonthreateningly dead and one I didn’t actually see, but still! The fourth snake…now, that’s the one worth writing home about.

The other day as I came home from church and walked through my front gate, I apparently startled a nearby snake because both my security guard and I witnessed a frighteningly fluorescent green 2-footer slither rapidly into my garage behind an old dresser and other household junk. We gasped, shot a look at each other, and asked, “Did you see that?” Unfortunately, the answer on both sides was yes.

The guard immediately grabbed a long, thick stick, clutching it like a good ol’ fashioned American baseball bat, and waited. Nothing happened, so he started hitting the dresser with the stick, hoping to scare the snake out of hiding. When no sign of green appeared, he warily pulled the dresser toward him, sliding it out from the corner of the garage. Still nothing. He then bravely yanked out each of the 6 drawers from the dresser, one by one with his hands, leaping back each time he dropped one onto the floor, just in case our friend had curled up inside. Ko si. Nothing.

We both edged a little closer to the pile of junk and craned our necks a bit to see where this serpent had hidden itself. It was nowhere to be seen, so the guard grabbed his stick and with it started pushing everything away from the corner: old fluorescent lightbulbs, pieces of cardboard, dirty cooking pot lids, until the corner was bare save for a bucket full of miscellaneous metal parts. He rapped against the bucket. Nothing.

We then looked at each other, and as if our minds were one, we slowly and uneasily shifted our gaze upward toward the ceiling. Can snakes climb? Luckily this one couldn’t (or at least, didn’t) and we simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief. But where could it be?

My first thought was, “Hey, this is Nigeria, the land of juju, charms, and magic. Perhaps the snake is a divine spirit of sorts, an ancestor coming to give us a message!” Again, my guard completely read my mind, and asked, “You did see it, abi?”

“Yes, did you?” I said, uncertainly.
“Yes,” he replied, and we both looked to the corner again, scratching our heads as confusion overrode concern.

Then, all of a sudden, a flash of neon green flicked out of the bucket full of metal and disappeared. I gasped, pointing towards the movement. We exchanged glances and chuckled in wonder at the snake’s cleverness. But things got serious fast. It was go-time.

“Move out of here,” murmured the guard, tightening his grip on the stick.
“Is it poisonous?” I asked, not wanting to know.
“The green ones? Yes, of course.”

Of course.

So I moved just outside the garage, out of eyeshot but well within biteshot. For some reason I really wanted to be a part of the action. That’s Nigeria for you.

A few seconds later,

Clang, clang, clang!

Then,

Bam, bam! Bam-bam-bam! Bam……BAM!

The unmistakeable sounds of metal hitting cement and wood hitting snake echoed from the garage. At that moment, the snake’s spirit was probably hovering above its body, about to slither its way through a white tunnel of light to meet its maker. I went over to validate this notion only to notice that its head was still moving, its little mouth opening and closing slowly. “It’s still alive!” I squeaked, desperately wanting it to be put out of it’s misery. So the guard whacked it one last time, square on the head.

I won’t lie: I felt very sorry for the snake, and the whole thing made me quite melancholy (for a few brief moments). All the poor thing really wanted to do was get away from me as fast as it could when I entered through the gate in the first place. And it did a phenomenal job of hiding from us, as if it knew what its fate would be had it slacked off for even a second. Which unfortunately it did. But theoretically speaking, we should have let it live if for nothing more than its pure innocence in the matter.

But that would mean that a big, green, poisonous snake would be slithering around my yard or in the garage where my security guard spends the day. I quickly recalled what my eleven year old neighbor animatedly told me the day before: “Snakes can get into anything. Nothing is safe. They will get inside your house and make wahalla (trouble). Watch your shoes. They bite your foot and you never walk again.”

Lovely thought. Truly lovely. Vigilant is now my middle name.