Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Tayters in the mould

Whenever Nigerians come up to me and ask me if I will ‘take them to my place’ I always say that they wouldn’t want to go there because it’s really cold. But do you know what? Despite saying that repeatedly I had actually forgotten just how cold it is.

As BA 082 from Abuja waited on the tarmac at Heathrow for our plane’s parking spot to be vacated I gazed out on the grey, drizzly twilight of 4.30pm on a English winter’s evening, having just been told that it was 1 degree outside, and turned to my Nigerian neighbour (albeit from Birmingham) and said: ‘Welcome to Britain’.

I can honestly say that the only culture shock has been the weather. But boy – has it been terrible. Apart from messing up two out of three of my plans to meet up with friends, it is simply depressing. I even failed to find the beauty in the snow-trimmed garden and clear blue skies.

Even cheese, chocolate, cable TV, and gin and tonic have failed to capture my excitement. Things that I was craving don’t seem to be so special now I’m here and I suddenly realise how it is incredibly easy to live on what you have rather that what you’re used to.

What’s more important are the people that you see and what’s been really nice is that we’re all just the way we were before I left. OK I probably talk even more than I used to (is that possible?) to tell people about Nigeria however after about 5 minutes that novelty wears off and it’s back to being just regular family and friends.

However I have found that my year in Nigeria has changed a few things about me:
- I burst out laughing whilst walking along High Holborn in Central London in the middle of a blizzard when the thought spontaneously popped into my head: “All white people look the same”. The bature residents of the Pink House know this as we’re continually getting mistaken for one another, but it hadn’t actually occurred to me before.

- I don’t get so angry or stressed any more: when the miserable Leather Lane hairdresser harrumphs audibly when I ask her if she could actually ‘dry’ my hair (as opposed to leaving it damp) before I step out into sub-zero temperatures, I just smile and put up with it. I was also not bothered by the fact that our preparations for Christmas ‘lunch’ meant there was no possible way it would be served before 7pm.

- I don’t need TV: I think I have watched about 3 hours in total since I’ve been in the UK. The slightly worrying thing however is that I do spend more time on the internet. It’s more interesting.

As I write this blog I realise that I haven’t taken any pictures of the family outside Christmas. In addition the camera didn’t make a single appearance as I visited my oldest friend Deborah and her family in the winter wonderland of her home in Chorleywood.

Thankfully though we had a very special friend with us for Christmas this year – who does snap like a true Nigerian, probably because he is one. We were very lucky that Billy, son of Mama Laraba, a nurse at Fantsuam’s clinic, was able to join us for Christmas. I travelled up to Luton to collect him from his digs at the University of Bedfordshire where we bumped into his neighbour Norman, also a resident of Kagoro, who was running the other ISP in Kafanchan before coming to do a BA at the same university.

We spent the whole of Christmas Eve all together – driving around the sights of central London (unfortunately not stopping as parking is too expensive and parking attendants too diligent), before making a trip to Canary Wharf (one of my favourite tourist spots of London!) and my local Sainsbury’s in North Greenwich to stock up for Christmas.

Billy and Norman standing yards away from the Greenwich Meridien that had unfortunately closed early for Christmas; Two freezing Kagorians standing on the edge of Greenwich Park. Slight warmer Kagorians on London Bridge with Tower Bridge in the background.

Showing off my very own Sainsburys at Greenwich Peninsula

Having dropped the shopping off at my father’s in East Dulwich, we returned to the City for the Christmas Mass and dinner at St Magnus’.

Billy tucking into his first Christmas dinner, and then snapping with my sister Belinda and Father Philip, priest of St Magnus.

My sister and I spent the next day taking our time to prepare a delicious Christmas dinner featuring roast goose, roast duck, red cabbage and all the trimmings topped off by a holly-trimmed and flaming Christmas pudding. And the assembled party spent into the wee hours opening presents... well opening my niece’s Susanna’s presents. And I have to say that she was an absolute angel: maintaining a lively and exceptionally good humour until 2 a.m. in the morning. Not many three-year olds you can say that about.

Belinda starts carving the goose... as the duck looks on surrounded by the trimmings; Billy with my father.

Pulling Christmas crackers across the generations: grandpa and granddaughter, as I present the flaming pudding (it is.... really).

On Boxing Day, we discovered that there was no way for Billy to return to Luton via public transport (so unlike Nigeria where I remember no problems returning from Gidan Waya to Kagoro on Christmas Day), so I travelled with him to visit his uncle and aunt in Stratford: the couple, who have been in the UK over 20 years and have 5 children, are ECWA missionaries. Much more needed in London that Kagoro, I can assure you. It was wonderful to spend the afternoon with them, discussing Kagoro and the family and I very much hope that they will visit the Pink House if/when they travel back to Kagoro next year

I’m finishing this blog from the Giraffe restaurant in Heathrow’s Terminal 5 departure lounge, enjoying ‘fries with skins’ and a large glass of a South African white wine after a tasty but very unsatisfying sushi salad. I’m looking forward to a big, filling semovita dumpling when I get back! And that’s not the only thing I’m looking forward to... I can seriously say that I wholeheartedly prefer a cold shower in a hot climate to a hot shower in a cold climate. Outside it’s 5 degrees centigrade and raining. Not allowing for delays, in approximately 12 hours I hope to be in Kagoro.

To be in the Pink House: next to no electricity, intermittent running water, kerosene cooking, screaming children and barking dogs, greeting everyone you meet with a smile, being asked (as I’m sure I will!) for a ‘Happy Christmas’ and having ‘baturia!’ shouted at you as you walk along the street.

Oh yes.... And the sun.... the warmth.... AFRICA.

PS for my readers who aren’t from London – ‘Tayters in the mould’ is Cockney rhyming slang. I let you guess what the last word rhymes with......

Monday, 7 December 2009

An alternative Christmas gift?

I don’t usually count myself as one to be influenced too much by what I see on TV however I must confess that Top Gear’s systematic, yet unsuccessful attempts, to destroy a Toyota HiLux in 2002 have lingered deep in my memory.

(Left) Top Gear's Toyota HiLux that was driven down steps, crashed into a tree, drowned in the English Channel, had a caravan dropped on it, crashed through a small wooden building, hit with a wrecking ball, set on fire, and placed at the top of a tower block while being demolished, yet still started and ran (although the chassis is cracked and the body is holding it together). Ref: Benjiya

Unfortunately Fantsuam's only vehicle, a Nigerian-made Peugeot 504 whilst hardy, does not exhibit similar levels of stamina.

In December 2008, I wrote one of my first blogs about the journey down the ‘Follow the yellow sand track’ to Kono, one of our more remote microfinance centres, and how our ‘trusty’ old Peugeot only broke down, what was it, four or five times?

Right: Half way back from Kono, still 2 hours from home and the Peugeot is getting its exhaust pipe re-welded and idling mended and ......

Exactly one year later and our reliance on the battered old workhorse has become too much. The frequency of its breakdowns is not only threatening Fantsuam’s finances but also preventing us from reaching the rural communities that need us most. Field officers lives are put at risk having to travel long distances on the back of under-powered motorbikes driven by reckless youths, and loan repayment rates are suffering when we don’t reach our clients at the appointed time on the appointed day to make a collection.

Reaching communities like Kanem has become more difficult where roads and bridges are not really designed for road-going vehicles

A loan disbursement in Zankan: the Field Officers know they can reach their appointments on time and safely when there’s a car they can rely on

One trip to Kono in the dry season nearly destroyed the Peugeot. We can’t even attempt disbursements to this remote community during the rainy season.

So having had enough of talking about needing a new vehicle I set about finding one: there is a bit of a chicken and egg situation when an organisation like ours needing a big capital item: you don’t have the money to pay for it but you don’t know how much money to raise until you’ve found it – and by the time you’ve raised the money – someone else has bought it.

But Fantsum and its beneficiaries (and its volunteers!) cannot wait forever.

Kagoro's Waterboard Road is more suited to children’s tyre rolling than tyres attached to cars which it destroys at will

I called a friend in Jos, the nearest centre of car dealers, and asked him to look out for a suitable vehicle. Well when I say ‘suitable’ there was only one vehicle that I could think of that could take the daily punishment of the Bayan Loco and Kagoro Roads. Only one vehicle that could be mended by the roadside with a spanner and some good luck. Only one vehicle that was ‘man’ (or should I say ‘Jeremy Clarkson’) enough for the job.

After searching the streets of Jos high and low, we found our car: an eight year old HiLux, with all the original engine parts and body work intact; with a double cabin to carry field officers or international volunteers and at a good price: N1.65 million (about $10,500).

But there’s the problem. How to pay it?

So the ‘Bring the HiLux home’ campaign starts: a HiLux belongs on the rutted roads of Bayan Loco. The SUVs of Europe can only dream about the ruggedness of Africa, or more specifically, Kaduna State Nigeria.

A HiLux whose life will be worth living: a HiLux on the streets of Jos is like a qualfied and trained astronaut whose skills are being wasted at a supermarket checkout. A Fantsuam HiLux will be a fulfilled HiLux: bringing loans, business training, health counselling and testing and internet services to the remote rural communities. Saving lives and securing livelihoods. Every ounce of its famed ruggedness being put to the test.

And you can help.

If you'd like to help give this HiLux a chance to help Fantsuam and its many beneficiaries - you can make an online payment here. Very many thanks to our partner organisation Dadamac for making this facility available so quickly. Any donations made by UK tax payers will qualify for Gift Aid.

Unlike the Top Gear HiLux, this HiLux will save lives and change lives for the better.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Out of Sight

Some months ago a young blind men stopped to talk to us as we were enjoying a beer at Rebecca’s bush bar in Kagoro. We’d seen him before – standing completely still about 5 metres away from us. I’d always wondered what he was up to. Just standing there not moving. He’d simply been listening to us. And when he summed up the courage he came to talk to us – he knew our names and where we were from. He introduced himself as Jonathan, a well-spoken, outgoing and chatty young man.

I quickly became friends with Jonathan who lives in a small, simple compound in the street behind Rebecca’s with his mother Esther, younger sister Esther and brothers Vincent and Moses. Both his father and his uncle who subsequently married his widowed mother are ‘late’ and buried, as is the tradition, under the porches in the compound. Jonathan’s passions are music and football.

Jonathan became completely blind aged 9 when his childhood bout of measles went untreated. In his early teens, a bature missionary in Kagoro discovered Jonathan – and sponsored him to attend a blind school run by COCIN (Church of Christ in Nigeria) in Gindiri, not far from Jos. He did well at school, being one of only 5 pupils selected to attend a special maths programme in Abuja. At Gindiri he also learnt his talent for football. I’ve seen Jonathan take penalties in the small compounds of friends and send the ball firing past the goal keepers, out of reach of their outstretched hands.

Last week Jonathan invited me to accompany him to the Gindiri Old Student’s Association (GOSA) workshop where I was given a glimpse into the place that made Jonathan the confident young man he is today.

We set off after an hour’s wait at the small Kagoro motor park as we waited for the large old Peugeot to fill. At Barkin Ladi, just outside Jos, we changed vehicles and were joined by Ladi, a blind woman travelling on Nigerian public transport with an overnight bag and her year-old son Israel. We later learned that she was the financial secretary of the Gindiri Old Students Association (GOSA). Forty-five minutes we changed vehicles again, this time at Mangu. Nine of us entered an extremely battered old Peugeot without any internal fixtures (e.g. door handles and anything else you can think of) apart from seats, and a strong and not entirely pleasant fishy odour, before another blind person joined us and made the car full so that we could leave. Daniel was also a member of the GOSA committee and he and Ladi quickly recognised each other and began discussing the weekend ahead

Whilst it was only three years since Jonathan had finished at Gindiri, Daniel and Ladi had both been there in the 80s however all three knew exactly when the car had made the nine kilometre journey into Gindiri, past the Plateau State College of Education to the entrance of the large COCIN compound which houses not just the school for the blind, but also boys’ and girls’ secondary schools and a seminary.

Our first stop was the “Gindiri Materials Centre for the Handicapped” where a small team make and source the equipment , books and other teaching aids needed by the school. Before long a small crowd of GOSA members, staff and officials was meeting, greeting and generally having fun on the small porch.

Congregating on the Materials Centre porch; Jonathan and other GOSA members; and Jonathan with our travelling colleagues Daniel and Ladi.

Materials centre manager Mr Thompson and his team, including Joshua (right) an artist who creates relief versions of technical drawings and diagrams for the blind students.

Jonathan and Ignatius led us from the Materials Centre to the Boys and Girls compounds, past the well where a crowd of students was collecting water to take back to their hostels. Unusually, but not unsurprisingly, it took some time for them to realise there was a bature in their midst but they were excited to meet me and very friendly. Watching the children from a distance laughing and joking as they were hauling the water, place it in large buckets on their heads and walk back to their compounds, you would have had no clue that every one was blind.

The children wave good bye as we make our way to the boys’ hostel where a young man brings water to help a small boy finish his job doing the washing up.

Capable of housing at least 80 boys, many of the rooms were empty, or only holding one or two sets of bunk beds where Jonathan and Ignatius told me there would have been three or four crammed into each small room in their time. It was unlikely that there had been a significant change in the causes of blindness – mainly river blindness caused by a parasite and common in the northern states, and measles. Ignatius suspected that parents were increasingly hiding their disabled children from public life. Additionally though the facilities looked neglected and I couldn’t help wondering if a basic lack of funds was behind the drop. Despite it being 2pm on a Friday afternoon, I could not see any lessons going on and met at least one Braille teacher who lived on the compound who was no longer working.

From the boys hostel we walked across the school grounds, past the girls’ hostel and the large overhead water tank that had been constructed to pipe water around the school. Unfortunately it relied on a mechanical pump which, for one reason or another, no longer functioned, so that the well was once more in use whilst the tank lay in disrepair. Soon we reached Jonathan’s destination, his teacher Mr Obadiah, who like many of the other teachers, lived with his family on the compound. Obadiah had been an inspiration to Jonathan and they greeted each other fondly.

The road through the school, and Jonathan with his science teacher Mr Obadiah and his two young sons.

Nigeria is not an ‘accessible’ country. Unlike Europe or the US, there are next to no facilities for the disabled, limited training opportunities and even fewer chances of employment. Many disabled children are simply hidden away, prisoners in their own families’ homes. Even in its dilapidation, Gindiri was a remarkable place where disability is, well I guess, simply ignored.

It’s not that there were any physical allowances for disability: as uneven roads as you’ll find everywhere, buildings littered with high, irregular steps, no railings: in fact I can’t actually think of a single feature that would have catered for any type of handicap. Yet everyone – the blind and the physically handicapped – copes. In fact it’s more than coping: they are living lives that appear to be as full as many Nigerians will get to enjoy.

I now know how Jonathan walks around the rutted and irregular streets of Kagoro without a cane or any other guide other than his memory. He does his own washing, plays with the kids and gives as good as he gets in any argument with his older friends.

Since 2008 VSO has had a policy to 'mainstream' disability through all of its programmes. Fantsuam's first step is to try and make our ICT training computers accessible for the blind, and to employ a trainer who can teach our students to teach the blind how to use computers. It's just a small step however, as our Programs Director John Dada always said, every long journey starts with a single step. If we can achieve anything like the level of acceptance and inclusion, and empowerment at Fantsuam that they have at Gindiri, we will have come a very long way!

AFTERWORD: Jonathan would love an audio football (i.e. a football with a bell in it!) for Christmas. If anyone knows how to get hold of these - please leave me a comment. In spare moments I've looked on the internet and it's not as easy to find as you might think. When I told him I this morning I was going to ask - he was very excited. Please don't let me down!

AFTER AFTERWORD: Thank you to all those who have left comments with help or emailed me directly with offers of footballs. You are extremely kind and Jonathan will be so delighted!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Happy Anniversary to me!

I’ve been sitting at my desk for about 3 hours this Saturday morning – trying to work out how to start writing about my one year anniversary in Nigeria?

Hmm – I think the only way to get started will be to describe my deliberations:

The first thing that came to me this morning, exactly one year after arriving in Nigeria – was how lucky I am.. In fact as I would go as far as to say ‘blessed’! My VSO placement (Fantsuam) is pretty much as good as it gets in Nigeria (if not across the world); coming here with 2 other VSOs made a huge difference to the settling in process; Kagoro is (agreed by most VSOs who’ve visited) the best place to live in; I’ve never (yet) been sick or involved in a traffic accident or any crime (a big touch wood on those) in addition to which I’ve been privileged to meet some wonderful people and visit some beautiful places.

Kagoro – possibly the best place to live in Nigeria – well we think so!

Fantsuam Foundation – effectively fighting poverty and disadvantage in southern Kaduna state: me in the Fantsuam compound on my first day;

Program Director John Dada addressing the opening of Kafanchan’s first Children’s Parliament in Bayan Loco; Midwives undergoing Fantsuam’s GAIYA (‘Gift of Labour’) training; a Fantsuam Field officer addressing a new group of microfinance clients

Mama Madaki providing health training to a new microfinance group; local kids surfing the web in Fantsuam’s former Children’s Computer Club; all the staff of FF visit Attachab – our ‘permanent site’

Some of the beautiful places we’ve visited: the extravagant Durbar at the Abuja Carnival; Assops Falls on the way up to Jos: Badagry ‘Point of No Return’ close to Lagos;

On the way up to Afi Mountain in Cross River State; at the start of our tour of the ancient Nok culture; a reservoir close to Kaduna

Then I started thinking about what the impact has been on me? My first thoughts were the changes in what I do, rather than who I am. I can cook well on kerosene, have no qualms navigating the most hectic Nigerian motorpark, I love wearing Nigerian clothes, am quite happy to take cold bucket baths and live without electricity (TV, fridge etc.) and I positively relish a good plate of freshly pounded yam and egussi soup.

Evenings at the Pink House start with cooking by kerosene lamp (what a difference a flash makes!)

washing up by kerosene lamp, and going to bed under the mosquito net, by kerosene lamp.

Freshly pounded yam at the Rockside Hotel in Gwantu. Delicious!

First time in braids at a friend’s wedding party; meeting with a group of Corpers in Kagarko; with the recently turbanned (First Class!) Chief of Kagoro; attending a chiefs’ turbanning in Mangu – Plateau State; being greeted by revellers at my first Kagoro Day

One thing that strikes me is how consistently happy I’ve been. With the exception of when I discovered the horribly cracked screen on my computer, I struggle to find a time when I’ve been unhappy. Sad yes – when colleagues and neighbours have died unexpectedly, when our communications tower fell in a storm, and when proposals that we know would make a difference to our local communities are turned down. Perhaps sad sometimes, but not unhappy.

Living as a VSO in Kagoro and Kafanchan is not an ‘easy life’, but ‘difficult’ does not equal unhappy. So what equals happiness?

Since I’ve been in Nigeria, I think the main source of happiness comes from helping to make other people happy, which in the midst of so much struggle, is easy to do. That probably sounds a bit trite, but I think it’s true. I think the unhappiness – or certainly lack of happiness - of many in the ‘west’ derives from always judging yourself by what other people have, and therefore what potentially you could have, but you don’t. Striving for a bigger house, the better car, recognition at work that you’re performing better than your colleagues, taking more foreign holidays than your neighbours. When I’m on Facebook I see my colleagues in Europe or North America bemoaning the fact that the TV has broken down so they can’t see the next instalment of X Factor, or grappling with trying to select which primary school their child should attend. Stress coming from having a dinner party for ten to cater for or the fact that they had to wait for two hours in an NHS queue.

Whilst we’re ‘volunteers’, with a stipend of about £100 a month (a king's ransome here), we have a very comfortable roof over our heads, and food to eat every day and no children to worry may die or be permanently disabled from malaria, typhoid or a common childhood illness.

A ‘sannu’ from a bature can brighten up a young child’s day. N10 (4p) for a stick of sugar cane is like their Christmases all came at once. Helping a young unemployed man with N200 (80p) to put enough credit on his phone to make a call to a friend or potential business contact is so invaluable. Teaching a work colleague how to use Excel or execute or mail-merge on a word-processing application can bring gifts of a chicken.
Kagoro neighbour and Fantsuam nurse’s son Billy with his British visa: he’s now doing his Masters at the University of Bedfordshire having worked 10 years to get there. He’s having a great time but is very cold and but kept warm by some of my family in the UK who rustled up some winter clothes for him; the kids at the bottom of Waterboard Rd. Just happy to have their picture snapped; Twins Husseina and Hussana – my screen saver: it brings a smile to my face every day;

Kagoro neighbour and friend Jonathan: untreated measles when 9 left him completely blind. He was sponsored through blind school by a missionary and is now trying to make a career as a rap artist in Kafanchan as well as helping his local community however he can. We discovered we can make my laptop speak and the typing skills he learnt at school allow him to use the computer; Once a month, the children of the Vincent Kawai Memorial Foundation in Kagoro receive a special meal. On this occasion a visitor from America brought them pens for school which every one of them held onto tightly whilst wielding a fork or spoon with the other; Gifted students in Kafanchan are delighted to attend a special weekend programme run by Mohammed, a GAIYA volunteer.

Children in Dangoma in Kaninkon Chiefdom are so excited that a bature is visiting their village and taking their picture; Whether it’s stickball, jump rope, Uno or simply reading from the ‘Teach Yourself Hausa’ book – my room mates Laurie and Dori bring delight to the children of our neighbourhood whenever they have time.

And when people with so little, can be so bright and cheerful – what can someone like me possibly justifiably feel sad about?

Nigerians are extremely giving – certainly around here. They are always looking to look after others. I have good friends earning less than £50 who will still take every opportunity to tip a less fortunate security guard or lend money to a friend. Whilst we sometimes get frustrated by our young neighbours demanding sweets, they will often offer us their oranges (admittedly more often than not plucked from our tree), sugar cane or ground nuts. They give what they can.

In the past month my room-mates have introduced me to a film that I had never heard of before called ‘Pay it Forward’. It is a bit sentimental however it has a wonderful philosophy at heart: if someone does something for you – don’t 'pay them back' – pay that favour or gift forward by giving to someone else. If everyone follows that principle the gift just keeps giving.

Maybe that’s what keeps Nigerians relatively happy in the midst of so much poverty, mismanagement, inefficiency.... as long as they can give something to someone.

I don’t know how long this honeymoon here will last – every day I’m expecting it to end and some form of ‘reality’ to hit home, however until it does I wake up every morning giving thanks for all that has brought me here, and everything that continues to inspire me. I wish I could change some of the desperate conditions around us: the dilapidated infrastructure, the poor sanitation that leads to death amongst the vulnerable, a struggling education system that leaves young minds craving education. But as long as I feel I can help even just one person at a time, help them to feel as happy as I do, then I think I will stay happy!

Thank you Nigeria!

Now all I need is for the immigration authorities to let me stay for another year... but that’s another story........

Afterword: It’s now 9:30 in the evening and, whilst writing this in the dark as we haven’t seen NEPA for about 2 weeks, I knocked over a precious glass of red wine. I can feel a bit of irritation starting to set in.....