I Don’t Need Help Anymore…Thanks, Friends

My previous blog created quite a stir and brought up such strong
emotions among not only my readership but also within me, that I
couldn’t just leave it alone to fester in all of our minds. I had to
find the answers to my questions.

And as life often does when we ask something of it, the answers were
given to me in bits and pieces through heartfelt emails, deep
conversations, and inspired self-reflection.

I don’t feel guilty about being privileged anymore, nor do I feel
lucky, nor do I feel like I don’t deserve what I have. In fact, it’s
not even a question of guilt, luck, or deserving. It’s  not even a
question at all. Let me explain.

Tonight I spoke with one of my expat road contractor friends. You
know, the one with the nice house, the fancy cheeses, the driver, and
the poker nights. He, too, was moved by my blog, not only because he
featured in it, but because he featured in it twice. You see, he
revealed to me that not only was he the expat character, but at one
point he was also the okada driver. Not literally, of course, but his
story mirrored that of so many men and women who have found the
strength and means to pull themselves out of a life of hardship to
provide for themselves, their families, and others.

When he told me this, my heart and stomach curled right up like a
sowbug in a child’s hand. I was stunned, to say the least. While I
didn’t have the words to express my thoughts at that moment, I have
luckily found them now.

It occurred to me that rich and poor is not a permanent state of
being. One can start off rich and end up poor, or start off poor and
end up rich. One can start off middle-class and go in either
direction. One can start off upper-middle and step down to
lower-middle. The combinations are endless, and they can happen to
anyone. But this doesn’t answer my questions: How do I get rid of the
guilt? Am I just lucky? How do I become more compassionate?

So taking it one step further, I discovered that if our state of
privilege can change in one lifetime alone, how much can it change
during the course of multiple generations? Sure, I’ve personally lived
and benefited from a life of privilege, but how about my father or
grandfather? Or my great grandmother? Or my great-great grandfather?
Were any of my ancestors dirt-poor? Did we ever struggle? And where is
the guarantee that my children’s children will never face devastation
or poverty?

Before British rule, were the Yoruba people inhabiting this land we
now call “Nigeria” considered impoverished? Who were my okada driver’s
great-great-great grandparents? How did they live? Can I really, truly
believe that throughout his entire family history runs a continuous
line of poverty?

It seems to me, that if you look at all this from a macroscopic lens
rather than a microscopic one, it becomes evident that we are all just
part of this cycle and circle, swirling around, taking turns,
oscillating like waves where the peaks and valleys are the rich and
poor, the luxury and the hard-knock. Sometimes you can witness
various cycles in one lifetime, like that of my expat friend, while
other times it may take generations for the crests and troughs to
reverse position.

Right now, it’s not my turn to be in the trough of the wave. That’s
not good nor bad, not guilt-laden nor lucky. It just is. And I won’t
lie and say I don’t enjoy this life of abundance. I love and
appreciate it a great deal. But realizing that I’m part of this
continuous cycle, that I’m not an isolated being, and that I’ve – at
some point – come from nothing (so to speak), I can clearly see that
we’re all in this together. And we always have been in this together.

So while we’re stuck in this seemingly out-of-whack and unbalanced
mess, can we not just do our best to hold each other’s hands and lift
each other up, in whatever way matches our spirit? Knowing that
somewhere down the line we’ve all been there, are presently there, or
may even be going there, we can unlock that door to compassion and
say, “Hey, I know your predicament. And I got your back. So
come…take my hand.”

We can help to balance the scales in our lifetime, to give what we
can, receive what we will, and share in the wealth that belongs to us
all. My expat friend told me that by building roads in Nigeria, he is
not only employing Nigerians and providing them with means for
shelter, food, and security, but he is also paving the way for okada
drivers like mine to ride safely over smooth and quality roads, which
is something Nigeria desperately needs. He’s stabilizing the scales in
a way that jives with his spirit.

And now I know why I’m here. To share what I’ve got and to help
balance out this madness. While my way of balancing may not primarily
involve my actual job here, I know that I’m doing it in countless
other ways. And now that I’ve emerged from the water and shaken off
the heavy weight of guilt, I feel light and free. I don’t feel bad
about being me; instead, I feel honored to be me because I have been
placed in a position to give. What a noble and worthy assignment! I
guess this is my burgeoning Mother Theresa/Dalai Lama/Jesus
Christ-ness pushing through. We’ve all got it in there somewhere. Dig
it out and let it shine!

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I Need Help! Loving It Here, But…..

Sometimes I love being tightly pressed between the bare metal door of an outdated taxi and the strong body of a cologned Nigerian youth, dressed in blazer and jeans, wiping the sweat from his brow with a washcloth while texting sweet nothings to his girlfriend.

Sometimes I love chilling in the comfort of an air-conditioned SUV, listening to Lebanese electronic music, checking my Facebook from a Blackberry phone, and being chauffeured to my hometown by an official driver…luxuries of which I never even had at home.

Sometimes I love buying little sachets of salt and detergent from one of the countless wooden shanties with their notoriously rusted corrugated tin roofs. And if I’ve got any change, I – not sometimes but always – love to buy candies and biscuits for the neighborhood children whom are milling about their mother’s shop, still wearing their thin and tattered school uniforms and dusty white socks.

Sometimes I love eating chevre chaud and saucisson, brought fresh from France, drinking Grey Goose cocktails in preparation for a night of Texas Hold ‘Em in the generator-powered house of road contractors. It’s a night of easy gambling in which we begin with 500 Naira each: Pennies or Prosperity, depending which Nigerian, volunteer, or expat you ask.

Sometimes I love careening down the road on a motorcycle, screaming a conversation with my okada driver, my dear okada driver, who often makes only four dollars a day and has to support two baby twins and a three-year-old. And my dear okada driver’s wife, who spends each and every day carrying a baby on her back while nursing another, handwashing the clothes of a family-of-five, preparing three laborious Nigerian meals, and only ever escaping the street on which she lives to attend Church on Sunday.

Sometimes I love giving trainings to the vibrantly enthusiastic teachers at the primary school, who laugh and listen politely as I share with them the crazy ways we teach children in the west. I still dare not really broach the subject of beating as a form of discipline, which is not only accepted, but generally encouraged. As of yet, I lack the courage, the strength, the conviction. Sometimes I don’t know what to think anymore.

Sometimes I love waving to the large group of young men lounging around at the (male) tailor’s shop across the dirt road from my house, gossiping about all the neighbors and especially gossiping about me: my jogging, my clothes, my way of speaking, my house guests, and surely far more than I will ever want to know.

Sometimes I love that the strike at my college allows me to run freely in the evenings through the empty campus, striding to the beat of local Portland music from my Ipod Touch, jogging between abandoned lecture halls and deserted offices. Running towards the setting sun amongst palm trees and bush, leaping over narrow ruts being carved out by millions of marching ants: I know I have this place all to myself…but in a differently deeper way than I do during regular business hours.

Sometimes I love hangin’ with the expat crew, eating delicious food, drinking cold drinks, laughing merry laughs, bemoaning the nature of life in Nigeria. T-I-N, as we say when something doesn’t work, doesn’t happen, reflects injustice, or falls apart. T-I-N. This Is Nigeria.**

Sometimes I love the gratifying rush of stepping out of a stuffy old bus after an 8-hour trip (rather, mad-dash) from Abuja. An adventure full of potholes, police checks, prayers, near head-on collisions, and sights of past wrecks littering the road. And as I deboard I’m thinking, and I mean seriously thinking, “I’m Alive!”

And the truth is, there are so many things I love about being here. But as you see, my experiences range from rich to poor, privileged to pauper. One of the things I don’t love here, one of the things that jolts me into reality and scrapes at my heart, is The Gap. The gap between the rich and the poor. The gap between my life and theirs. The gap between these Nigerians and those Nigerians.

Sometimes this gap feels as passable as a crack on the sidewalk, where one could reach her toe across the line separating the two lives and connect them both. Like when I depart from my okada driver’s house after a nightly visit only to go home, open up my Apple laptop, and type up a blog about his story. But this always happens with the subconscious knowledge that his life experiences are different than my own. To put it more crudely and accurately: I never have – and probably never will – face the kind of poverty he faces. Ever.

Sometimes this gap feels like a 10.0 magnitude earthquake has ripped the world apart. Like when I go to work and see that nearly every single day a child is throwing up or sick from some kind of food- or water-borne illness, that every day a child is chastised for not having an ironed uniform (talk less of the fact that their uniform is ripped and tattered), that every few hours a child has to go to the bush to urinate or defecate, that every day a child who has the potential and brains and spirit to soak up all kinds of knowledge is left to learn the most he can from teachers who often do the best they can with no more resources than some textbooks, chalk, and their own minds. And I think of the old schools where I used to work, with resources aplenty, highly skilled teachers, money, toilets, break rooms, clean rooms, hundreds of books, dignified treatment (of teachers and students), organization, technology, electricity, windows, safety plans, heating and cooling, and the list goes on and on.

And sometimes I feel so distant from it all that I wonder what on earth is wrong with me. Where is my inner Mother Theresa? Where is my emerging Dalai Llama? Where are you, my budding heart of Jesus?

I feel for them, I care for them, I give to them, I spend time with them, I appreciate them, I befriend them, I work with them, I enjoy them, I even love many of them. But the problem in all of this is that I can’t shake the “them.” I catch myself sometimes living my life here as if it were a play: Act I, Act II, Intermission (possibly involving a trip to Europe), Act III, then hop on a big jet plane and go home.

I am starting to find that I will never “live like the people,” as they say in VolunteerLand. But what I’m constantly reminded of is that I “am the people.” We are all the same human beings, just raised in different worlds. How do I let go of the guilt of being raised in my own world? Am I just lucky for being born into my circumstances? Is it really so offensively simple as luck? How do I cross the safe distance I keep which blocks true compassion and empathy? Or do I come to terms with this distance…this distance which allows for gated-community compassion?

Well, just things to think about, I suppose. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks again for your bloggership and positive support!

**I recognize the harm in using this expression and have committed to stopping. Let it be understood, though, that the elongated version, This is Nigeria, is commonly said by Nigerians themselves in most conversations regarding said criteria.