Goodbye, Nigeria…

Loveth by her daddy's okada

Can you believe it? Can you believe I’m going back to Oregon in two days? Well, if you’ve only been reading my blogs, you probably can’t. But if you’ve been a listening ear (either here in Nigeria or back at home), you probably can. And if there were a window to my heart and mind, you most certainly could.

I agonized over a three-page blog about why I was leaving: writing, rewriting, and editing for about 12 hours in total. I scrapped it. Then I slaved over another one, trying to be really honest and accurate. I scrapped that, too. I can’t find a way to publicly share exactly what happened because there are too many feelings, thoughts, opinions, and other people involved to really expose on the worldwide web. If you’d like to email me privately to get more of the scoop, please feel free! I don’t mind sharing, I just can’t do it via a public blog.

So here goes nothing!


Within days of arriving at my small town placement in Kwara State, I struggled. I struggled with isolation, I struggled with missing my parents and friends, I struggled with the not so far-fetched thought that each time I boarded a vehicle – be it bus, taxi, van, or okada – it could be my last. I struggled with the fear that if anything happened to my family or to me while I was gone, I would never forgive myself. Barely a day went by in the first couple months where I didn’t cry or feel like crying. It. Was. Tough.

And then there were things I didn’t exactly struggle with, but that pulled the tension wires just a bit tighter. These were the expected nuisances like schizophrenic electrical supply, being greeted every 14.2 seconds when out in public, being stared at, being expected to offer money and gifts, sociological beliefs I didn’t agree with, and the heat. (Surprisingly, I didn’t fret too much about having no running water, no refrigeration, taking bucket baths, or sweeping wall-to-wall carpeting with a Nigerian broom).

But the biggest concern was my job at the College of Education and my personal relationship with the work I was supposed to be doing. If I had felt emotionally satisfied or at peace with the work, and if I had felt supported by the College (which had been a ghost town for 2/3 of my time spent in Oro due to on/off strikes), I know I could have worked through all the other struggles and tensions. In many ways I was much tougher than I thought, and was able to pick myself up and forge ahead, despite the hardship. But even with the guidance and support of organizations like VSO and ESSPIN, I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the seemingly hopeless work at the College, and I couldn’t wrap my heart around anything solid to help motivate me. So this was the main issue I had, not the hardships of living in Nigeria, not the isolation, not the culture shock or national security issues.

And after a bit over six months, signs dropped like bombs, both literal and figurative, telling me it was time to go home.

August 25: Fifteen armed robbers stormed into a bank in a very nearby town and murdered three people. This had happened in another town close in proximity just one month before. Locals feared Oro was next.

August 26: A suicide bomber, purportedly from the growing Islamic fundamentalist group in Nigeria called Boko Haram, detonated a bomb at the UN building in Abuja, killing 23 people.

August 27: A personal relationship I was in completely dissolved. This relationship had been wonderful in so many ways and had given me a lot of incentive to stay. It was like my glue. When this disappeared, I wasn’t emotional; I simply looked around and saw that there were precious few reasons for staying, particularly when weighing the risks involved in living here.

But let me clarify. Having “precious few reasons for staying” by no means indicates there weren’t amazing things happening. In fact, the most profound, life-changing, heartfelt, significant experiences of my entire life have happened here in this country. That is no exaggeration and I’ll try to blog on it later. These experiences have come mostly in the form of personal relationships. But when here to do a job, when I’m supposed to be spending the majority of my daytime hours doing a specific task, and that task is not working out for various reasons, it’s really hard to justify staying (especially considering all the struggles and safety issues), despite the wonderful people I have met here. I couldn’t just stay simply to hang out during the evenings on a friend’s porch while she cooked stew. I couldn’t just live here 24 hours a day for one and a half more years because my presence gave the neighbors joy. I couldn’t rationalize suffering during the workweek simply because I enjoyed the company and friendship of other VSO volunteers and expats during the weekends.

I came here to do some soul-searching. I came here to find myself, to gain strength and confidence, to have an impact, to acquire new perspectives on life. I accomplished all of these things and SO much more. I have changed the lives of others for the better. I have made connections and friends which will alter my life forever. I have left a legacy and have been an ambassador of not only my country but of the West. I have discovered more about what I want in life, and even more about what I don’t want. I have finally found peace with who I am and where I’m from. I know that the journey will continue, and I’m looking forward to every moment.

I am not leaving Nigeria because of safety and security issues. I am not leaving because of the relationship falling apart. I am not leaving because I miss my family and friends. I am not leaving because of my job. I am not leaving because a lizard once fell on my head or because the weather gives me zits. There is no singular event that has pushed me to this. I am leaving because a voice inside of me, which I’m starting to trust more and more, whispered to me that it was time. It hadn’t been the right time before, not even when I was crying every day for weeks straight. The voice didn’t really speak to me then, which is why I stayed. But now it has spoken and it’s time to go.

And the way I can know that this is true is because I feel at peace in my heart. I feel this strange sense of contentedness which one only finds after making the right choice or when one has completely finished a project. Despite the four days of crying while saying my goodbyes to my neighbors and friends, and despite the fact that there are many things about Nigeria that I will deeply miss, and despite the fact that this experience has changed me forever, my work here is done.

And to completely affirm my decision, a couple of days ago, a volunteer friend of mine called me with some very sad news. She was visiting her homeland to celebrate her mother’s 65th birthday. Several days after the birthday celebration while my friend was still visiting, her mother died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. I. Can’t. Imagine. And this has been a fear of mine, varying in intensity, from the start of this trip: that something would happen to me or my family while I was gone. How I interpret this fear is that I love my home, I love my family, I love my life in America. And I know this is such a cliche, but I have to say it: I absolutely had to leave home to appreciate it. And who knows, I may have to leave again somewhere down the road. Life is funny like that.

But when weighing the pros and cons, which I painstakingly did at the end, I have found that the reasons for staying here no longer outweigh the reasons for going back home. And that’s the end of it.

I feel terrible that I’ve broken my promise to CUSO-VSO, VSO, ESSPIN, and the people I’ve met and am leaving behind, and even for the College. I promised two years and I gave them six and a half months. But when considering intensity of impact rather than longevity of stay, I would say that my VSO placement was beyond 110% successful (wink to those who read my last blog post!).

VSO’s motto is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives.” I did that to the max. However, my skills had little to do with “teacher training” and everything to do with just being me. For example, I gave one family love, hope, and quite a bit of financial support, which will give them the opportunity to start a business and pull themselves out of poverty. I offered a young boy a new standard of what it means to be treated well when he cried and told me, “Julie, nobody has ever been as good to me as you have.” I gave neighborhood children time and space to express their creativity by inviting them to color and play at my house, and soon I’ll be selling their bookmark artwork in the States and wiring the money back so they can have new art supplies, school uniforms, and support with school fees. I had a short but powerful relationship with someone which helped both of us heal to become stronger and better people. The sheer number of tears shed and sad words shared (my own included) on account of my departure proved to me that lasting impressions were made.

It’s not like I came to hurt people or myself by this coming-and-going. I came to feel more alive. Nigeria and its people will make you feel alive.

This blog post is long enough. Sorry it’s not as well written as some of my others. My brain is just tired. I will write some more on the bookmark project, lessons I’ve learned, and more stories as I recall them, especially about the potential culture shock I may experience from going back home!

And for those curious, my plan now is to temporarily move back home with my parents, then find a lovely little house in Lake Oswego, a good job, perhaps a partner, certainly a cat, and live with appreciation and joy for my life. Until the next bug gets me and I have to stir it all up again. Such is life.

I can’t thank all of you readers enough for joining me on this journey. Knowing you have been here, graciously allowing me to share my ups and downs, has been such a blessing. You have inspired me to dig deeply into myself and uncover both the jewels and the junk. In fact, when I recently compiled my (weighted) pros and cons list to help in my decision-making, I found that writing this blog and receiving your responses in the form of emails, comments, and phone calls was one of the highly-rated pros. So thank you, thank you, thank you.


Breaking Up with “Doing My Best”

Aim High!
Give it 110%!
You can do anything!
Reach for the stars!

But I ask you this: what’s wrong with aiming no higher than personal satisfaction? Or giving it a percentage that mathematically exists? Or recognizing that yes, you might be able to do anything, but do you really want to? Or seeing that reaching for the stars is a bit overkill?

I’m taking you in this direction for a reason, so just bear with me for the next few paragraphs.

This past week, thanks to the creativity of my Supermom and my own get-up-and-go-ness, I have embarked on a little project for the neighborhood kiddos whom I enjoy so much (read the previous post for more details).

Since they adore hanging out at my house, either coloring, reading, or playing games, I figured why not turn my home into a little playhouse of sorts? Well, to do this would be great, but I have no books (the ones they read last time belong to a school), a short order of art supplies, and limited games (aside from the ones made out of throwaway items).

Soooo, the idea is that we will sit together and design and decorate bookmarks. These will all be very unique, particularly considering the children range from ages 4-15. After they make a zillion gajillion bookmarks, we will have them laminated and tasseled, and then when my sister comes in October to visit, she will take them back to the States and give them to my mom who will then sell them for whatever people are willing to give. All of the proceeds would then come back to setup the playhouse, where kids can come and do activities that they normally don’t get to do in their own homes.

So that’s the plan. We had our first and second bookmark making sessions this week and they were both a success.

Success? Did she just say success? Martha Stuart would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that and if she had one. To start, the first day I didn’t provide appropriate cardstock or art supplies to make the bookmarks, so we just used regular typing paper and markers. I didn’t really show them any special way to make the bookmarks look professional and artistic; I just gave them a few ground rules and said “Go For It.” The second day I did obtain cardstock, but the crayons were too thick and the markers too few.

Nevertheless, between ten and twelve children joyfully made 58 bookmarks this week, and they can’t wait to come back and do it again. And I had fun, too! See the pictures attached.

(If you want to place an order, please leave a comment on my blog saying, “I want, I want!” And I will figure out a way to send some to you; but you won’t receive them till November!)

But after they left my house, I kept hearing the fiendish little voice from the Ghost of Julie Past haranguing in my head,

You could have done better. You didn’t try very hard to find the right cardstock or coloring materials. You’re kind of doing a half-ass job of this. Everyone’s going to tell you this could be really big, but you don’t really want it to get that big. That sounds like a lot of work. What’s wrong with you? Why are you so unambitious? Why don’t you want to make it better and more professional and more successful? You know you can do better and not be so half-hearted about it. Don’t you care about the kids? Don’t you want the most for them?

And during this episode of psychotic self-beratement, I stopped dead in my mental tracks and thought, “Julie! Shush!” I know, I know…not a deep thought. But the subsequent thoughts kind of were. I started questioning why I felt so bad about doing something good in the first place. It shouldn’t be that way. I should feel proud of what I’m doing, not guilty for not doing enough.

AHA! That was it! …not doing enough. Not good enough. Not working hard enough. ENOUGH! Western culture is constantly pushing the idea that one can always improve, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also told that not only can we improve, but that we should improve. That we should not settle. We can always work harder, be happier, be wealthier, be thinner, be stronger, do better, and all those other irritating “-er” words.

Why can’t we just be who we are? By believing we should always seek to “do better,” many of us assume therefore that we must not be good enough as we are.

I am finding a lot about myself here, particularly in terms of balance. I’m not a person who enjoys or functions well on stress and high expectations (particularly the self-inflicted sort). I gather many people aren’t. Ironically, that’s how I’ve spent much of my life. And I’ve made the mistake too many times of quitting or not even starting something because I didn’t think I’d be good enough at it, or because I knew I wouldn’t be willing to put in the effort – the 110% it would take – to be exceptional. You can see how this kind of logic actually works against a person.

So with this bookmark project I realized I had three choices:

1. Quit and not do it at all because I know good-and-well that I don’t have the energy or desire to turn this into a entrepreneurial escapade resulting in a fully equipped play center with a multimedia library, a laser tag venue, an art studio, and an inflatable castle.
2. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, yet all the while feeling guilty and ashamed for not “reaching for the stars” and only giving my 65%.
3. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, and all the while feeling good that the kids can come over and be excited and proud of their work, and even make a little money from it, despite me only giving my 65%.

“But,” you ask, “wouldn’t the kids be more proud and more excited if they had better materials and a more prepared teacher, willing to go the extra mile to make these bookmarks look like they came out of Barnes and Noble?” Probably. “But, Julie!” you exclaim, “It would be so easy to turn this thing into something really successful if you just dedicated more of yourself to it!” Probably. But that would be at the expense of me and my time/energy expenditure allotment. I just want everyone to have fun with this and see where it goes. It’s just that simple. No stress, just good times.

I know that in order to be at peace with myself, I need to live in balance, both literally and mentally. If I don’t, I’ll just end up quitting or crying or both. Not pretty. I’m not saying never try to improve or never work hard. Not at all. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t put out great effort. I’m just saying that it helps to know what your priorities are and to not beat yourself up for having to prioritize in the first place. I can’t (no do I want to) give everything my all, and I’m finally learning that feeling guilty about that is highly counterproductive.

Sometimes reaching for the stars burns you. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you actually doesn’t make you stronger, it might really end up killing you. And sometimes you freeze and end up doing nothing because you’ve been told you can do anything. So I’m peacefully pleased to be starting this humble little bookmark venture, seeing where it goes, and enjoying each moment of it with the kids. And that’s good enough for me.

Quitters Sometimes Never Prosper

I’m approaching August 13th, my six-month mark, and as many of my friends and family know, that was the day I was going to allow myself to pack up my bags and a few Nigerian souvenirs and go home. During those first three months, when a general underlying misery got the better of me, I told myself that I couldn’t leave before six months were up. I knew I had to give this experience time, and I also felt that it would be very irresponsible and unfair to CUSO-VSO and VSO to leave so prematurely. I had to at least stick it out for 25% of my commitment.

And I’m really glad I did. Like REALLY glad. This is not to say I don’t ever miss home or that I don’t have those moments where I wish I were at the 23 month mark instead of the six. Disappointingly (to myself), I’m not one of those volunteers who integrates into her new environment so much that she disappears into the background like Waldo from those 1990s Where’s Waldo books. No, unfortunately, up to this point I’ve been the volunteer that still feels and lives like an outsider looking in. A happy and lovable outsider with a growing number of Nigerian friendships, but an outsider nonetheless. I guess I’m less like Waldo and more like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I’ve been finding that when I get in downer moods here, I get a strong urge to throw in the towel and call it quits. But when everything is hunky dory peachy keen, I absolutely love this place and never want to leave. (I call this the Pendulum Syndrome). In Oregon I didn’t have the luxury of “quitting” and going home when things got rough, because I was already there! There was no home to go back to. But if I dig a bit deeper, I can discover quite a bit of hidden irony: I did indeed quit my life in Oregon, which is perhaps one reason why I’m in Nigeria. But that’s waaaaay to deep to get into here. Let’s just agree that moods are moods, and they happen everywhere you go, whatever the circumstances. It’s just that they feel far more intense when you’re Clifford instead of Waldo.

But despite the ups and downs, life here is pretty darn amazing. So the rest of this post is just going to dish out a few of the reasons and stories that explain why staying here, despite any personal hardship, is worth it. The cake is most certainly worth the candle.

1. A Kindred Spirit.

I have made a friend here that I never would have expected and who is changing my life at every corner. I just thank my lucky * stars * that we met. He’s helping me gain so many new perspectives on life, myself, living in Nigeria, and everything in between. And on top of that, he’s just loads of fun and a breath of fresh air. Merci, D!

2. The Neighborhood Children.

LOVE them. Seriously. It all started with a little 11-year old who I invited over once a week to “tutor.” His mom thought we were being all academic and responsible, but really we just ended up playing games like hangman and making puzzles and coloring (which, by the way, is just what the doctor ordered for both of us). He started opening up to me about all sorts of things – some sad and some shocking – and I know that just me being me is changing this little guy’s life. The other day as he was leaving my house, he turned around and said, “I will never forget you, Julie.” Like WOW.

Because of my visits with this little guy, word on the street is that Julie’s house is fun. So now I find myself in a situation like yesterday, with one young girl absolutely absorbed in a storybook on my couch, another little boy drawing, five other kids “bowling” on my veranda with a balled up reusable shopping bag (Thanks Mom!) and fifteen plastic bottles, and me and another boy keeping score. Every now and then they would break into dance when my iTunes started playing something groovy like electronic raver music or Kathryn Claire’s KinderQueen. It was just too awesome for words. The best part was when I turned around to see one tiny three-year old girl giggling behind the visor of my full-face motorcycle helmet, her neck swaying to keep her heavy head in place. I don’t know how she didn’t tip right over with the weight of it!

And just a few days before that, I had four children of various ages, reading silently for over an hour on the couches in my sitting room. When they were done with one book, they went quietly over to the box of storybooks I have (that are actually for a school but I haven’t delivered them yet) and would choose another one. In the midst of this, I was trying to read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but it’s near impossible to read about existential despair when you’ve got four adorable children sitting around you with their heads buried in books because there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.

3. Animals.

Oh, the joys of fauna here in Naija. The other night as I was walking across my yard with my neighbor friend, I felt a sharp bite on the top of my foot. I lifted my leg to brush whatever it was off and noticed that it was just an ant. But oh, no! Don’t be fooled! There is no such thing as “just an ant” when it’s the biting kind! I gulped, looked down around the steps to my front door, and saw exactly what I knew I’d see but hoped I wouldn’t. Soldier ants. Thousands of them. And the little terrors were marching not in lines but in blobby masses right toward my front door and into my veranda. At this point I already felt at least three more pinches, from my feet all the way to my chest. They can get under your clothes and up your body in seconds! If you’ve ever heard stories about ants in the millions killing sleeping infants and small children, these be the ones. Thank God I’m a 5’10” adult. And if you haven’t heard the stories, Google it. (Sister, I know what you’re thinking…don’t you DARE back out of coming to visit! Read on!)

Anyway, long story short, my neighbor ordered me to take off my clothes immediately and hang them up on the washing line. She then got some insecticide from my kitchen and doused the area where the ants were invading. In minutes, they were dead. My security guard refused to go home when I told him to, even though he spends the night in the open-air garage of my house. That night I slept with my door shut tight and the insecticide bottle by my door, ready for action. The next morning, I was pleased to see my brave guard alive and well, yet not so pleased to find him laughing jovially at me and my previous night’s display of trepidation. I guess this wasn’t his first time with soldier ants. Eventually some guys came over and sprayed chemicals on my lawn and cut it down with handheld tools called grass cutters.

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Soldier Ants Bite. (See, Sister? It’s all okay now! See you in a couple months!)

And on a lighter and less lethal note, the other day when I was going on a run I came across about twenty Fulani cattle and their herder (quite an adorable young man, might I add). I didn’t want to scare them, so I very considerately slowed down to walk past them. As I was greeting the herder with a wide smile and wave, I ever so gracefully stumbled over a rock and yelped. ALL the cattle (and about five goats) started bolting in every direction imaginable. The herder looked quite bemused but not without a slight trace of annoyance. He went along to regroup his herd, and right when he had them all back together, I skidded a bit on a rocky little dip in the road, and the poor beasts started running away again, this time back in the direction from which they came! Oh boy…the cute herder man was not amused this time! He rounded them all up again, and – with intense concentration – I managed to get past them without a stumble.

So hello and goodbye August 13th; you’re just another day on the calendar now.

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!

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.

The Job.

Enough people have asked about my job and the work I do here for me to actually feel enough pressure to let the cat out of the bag. I tend to skim over it or not really include it in my blogs simply because I don’t know what to say about it, or more appropriately, I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding a bit sullen.

So here’s the nitty gritty, broken down in plain text:

I work at the Kwara State College of Education (CoE), which is one of three CoEs in Kwara. This particular CoE is dubbed the “reform” college, meaning it has undergone serious administrative, curricular, methodological, and logistical changes in order that it will become the model CoE in Kwara, and theoretically in Nigeria.

My job is multifold. The bulk of it at this point has been training the existing teachers who work at the on-campus Early Childhood Development facility (ECD) and the Primary School. I train them primarily on learner-centered approaches involving the use of a variety of participatory activities and teaching aids. Most teaching practices in Nigeria still consist of “chalk and talk,” which is where the teacher lectures the students and writes a whole bunch on the chalkboard. This style of teaching has its time and place, but it is not an effective method when used all of the time.

So my job is to teach them other ways of teaching. I facilitate weekly training sessions which I attempt to make fun and interesting, and then I observe their classes throughout the week and give detailed feedback and suggestions for improvement. I really love the primary school teachers and and their students, and they seem to adore me, so this aspect of the work is quite enjoyable.

My work with them relates with the CoE because when the college students training to become teachers go out for their student teaching/practicum, they will have solid role models on which to base their observations and practice. At some point I will be going out to the remaining teaching practice schools in the area and provide support to them as well, but up to this point I’ve only been working in the two schools on campus.

Some other jobs that will likely happen in the future will be to work with the Early Childhood and Primary Education professors (called “lecturers” here) and support them in teaching the college students about learner-centered methods and techniques. This has not happened yet due to the strike.

Alas…the strike.

Read my last blog titled, “Riots, Broken Windows, and Naivete,” for more details about the hows and whys of the strike. The college staff and teachers have been on strike for half of my duration here. This doesn’t bode well for feeling like I actually have a real concrete job, especially when I walk around campus to the sound of bleating goats and my own footsteps. In fact, I’ve felt akin to a plastic bag whipped around by the wind: don’t know where I’m going, don’t know where I’m gonna land. Sometimes I feel like I have a real direction and purpose, other times I feel like I’m just grasping at an amorphous, cloudy goal of which I myself can’t even define. Some weeks I’ll have plenty of work, other weeks I’ll have next to nothing. Recently, it’s been erring toward the “next to nothing” side.

In several ways this is okay. The downtime has allowed me to take several trips to Abuja to work on a side project with the organization I’m here with, VSO. It has also allowed me to spend more time with my neighbors and other friends in the area. And since there is a strike, I can use the empty campus to go on my runs without being stared at like a lunatic oyinbo. On the whole, however, if I had to state a preference, it would be nicer to have everyone back on campus with the college up and running, keeping busier, and having a bit more direction.

But as all plastic bags in the wind do, I’ll just continue to go with the flow and see where I’ll land after all of this (if I land at all)! It’s not like I’m doing nothing, but I’m certainly not plowing through any 10-hour action packed days like I did back in America!

So that’s The Job. I’ll make sure to update you as things progress/regress!

Riots, Broken Windows, and Naivete

Do you ever have those mornings when you wake up and think, “something big is going to happen today”? I do, but yesterday wasn’t one of them. It was just your average roll-out-of-bed-and-schlep-yourself-to-work sort of day. But joy of joys, yesterday was actually much more exciting than I had anticipated! Unfortunately, it wasn’t exciting in a good way.

I’ll start from the beginning:

When I first arrived to Nigeria, the staff at the college I work at went on strike due to the perceived low teacher salary paid to them by the Nigerian government. They were on strike for nearly two full months (most of February and all of March). Finally, the government promised them a raise and assured the teachers that the new salary would be instated by the end of May. So in April the teachers’ union cautiously suspended the strike and returned to the college for work (but please bear in mind the word “suspended”).

So the students gradually trickled in and life at the College of Education settled back to a quasi state of normalcy. Semester exams had been delayed due to the strike, but were rescheduled and had just begun this past Monday, May 30th. Hmmm….May 30th….End of May….I see that your wheels are turning, right?

Bingo! You got it! The government did not come through with the new teacher salaries as promised. The teachers, as of June 2nd, declared that they would resume their strike indefinitely. Right in the middle of exams. Now, it doesn’t take an Einstein to imagine how the college students must feel right about now. They have already paid their tuition, they expect an education to be delivered to them, they can’t finish the year or earn their certificate if they don’t complete their exams, they’ve already had to deal with the previous two-month long strike….feeling angry yet?

So the students rioted.

Today I happened to be in the Administration Block, which is the main building where all the head honchos have their offices. We were right in the middle of a meeting when all of a sudden the Provost shot up and moved quickly to the window. Obviously the administration had been anticipating this. Within two seconds, every single person in the room was huddled around the windows. The one other VSO volunteer and I were just looking at each other with the naive, “Am I missing something?” look.

Sure enough crowds of students were forming in front of the building. Many had broken off large branches from trees, whipping them back and forth. Others were pushing around the security guards. Mostly, though, there was just a lot of yelling. The room cleared pretty much instantly, until only the other VSO and myself and another man were standing there wondering what to do (everyone else seemed to know already).

The other VSO and I went to the window and stared out at all the people. I could recognize several familiar faces of student acquaintances I have. They all began to yell, “NO MORE STRIKE, NO MORE STRIKE!” The provost was outside at that point, likely trying to calm them down. I took out my cell phone and snapped a few photos, considering I had never seen anything like this before, and assuming that the students were “cool” with me and knew that I merely represented the curious and harmless outsider.

Then, without any warning, I heard a huge BANG! and then a shatter. I instantly jumped back with a scream and realized that a rock had been chucked through the window we were standing at, missing our heads by a couple of feet. I then heard a succession of rocks being pelted at the building, probably about ten in total.

After a little while, the rioters settled down and many drifted away. When we felt it was safe to go outside, we did. I was escorted to my office by one of the undercover guards whose job it was to write down the names of anyone who threw stones or caused trouble. He told me several times, “No pictures! NO PICTURES! YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” Okay, OKAY! Got it!! No pictures!!

On our walk down to my office, he bent over and picked up two shiny balls which to me looked like little marbles from a Discovery Toys game or something. Turns out they were bullets! Could’ve fooled me! I quickly collected my things from my office and was given a ride home by a teacher at the college.

The situation is calm now, but the strike is on, which means the exams have been cancelled. My heart goes out to everyone in this situation, really. It shouldn’t have to be this way. I’m not going to share my opinion on the matter more than I already have due to the nature of a public blog, but it’s just so unfortunate. Thank goodness no one was hurt, as far as I could tell, except for one student who I saw holding paper to a wound on his eye.

As far as my work goes, I am still able to go about my business teaching at the Primary School and Early Childhood Development Facility located on campus, but the college has once again resumed “ghost-town” status, and my primary counterparts will not be around.

Today, as I was buying bread from my favorite campus shopkeeper, two male college students approached me, yelling at me in Yoruba. All I could understand was, “Yelling yelling yelling CAMERA yelling yelling CAMERA!” I understood what was happening, but played dumb and asked them to please speak to me in English. They told me that it was by the Grace of God that I wasn’t hurt yesterday and that the students pelted the stones at me intentionally because I was taking pictures. He continued to say that Nigerians hate picture-taking because they assume the snapshots will be used to implicate them. I told them I certainly meant no harm by it, that I’m not going to use those pictures in any negative way, and to please apologize to their friends and fellow students for me. They asked if I was just curious because I’d never seen anything like that at a college campus before, and I emphatically confirmed. As is typical in Nigeria, things went from tense to light-hearted in about five seconds, and all of a sudden they were shaking my hand, laughing, introducing themselves, and asking me to take them back to America, the “powerful country” where you can “take pictures freely.” Sigh.

All this to say that I am not happy nor proud about my naivete. I should have known better than to take those pictures. In fact, part of me did, but I ignored my instinct. I assumed that since I’m this cute, nice American girl that everyone likes, people would without a doubt understand and overlook my innocent and ignorant motives. This is not the case. I guess part of the reason I came out here was to learn about the “other” real world: the one that isn’t so peachy keen and ice-cream-dream. But what needs to happen is that I learn about this environment responsibly: not by testing the limits and expecting others to react the way I think they should, but by being cautious, observant, and sharp. Gosh, all this learning is starting to exhaust me!

Until next time, dear friends. Take care 🙂

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