Thursday, 25 June 2009

Force of habit

When did you last change the way you did something because of your environment? When I thought about any instances of noticeable change in my habits before I came to Nigeria, I really struggled. I remember that I fought hard against letting the word ‘leverage’ enter my vocabulary when I began to work at Accenture, but quickly became accustomed to working 12 hours a day (6 days a week) during my MBA at IMD.

I think the need to change habits is a function of choice. In London, very few customs are so entrenched that you really need to follow them. Indeed in London, society is so diverse that it’s hard to even identify specific local customs which one might adapt to: perhaps not speaking to people on the morning commute? So many conveniences are available that you can basically choose to do whatever you want, without having the environment dictate what you do. Whatever food you want to eat, what television you want to watch, what exercise you wish to take.

That’s not quite the case here in Nigeria and I started thinking about the things that I do differently, but habitually (and, might I say, usually happily) now that I am here. Here's a short list (and for those I will meet on my return - forgive my strange manners!).

  • Greeting everyone you pass (including total strangers): not to do so would be an affront (and if for any reason, you miss an opportunity to greet, you will invariably be reminded)

  • Using new phrases with ease for example:
    - “on” or “off” the gen (turn the generator on or off)
    - Climb a machine (get on a motorbike taxi)
    - NEPA brought light (the electricity came on). NEPA took light (you can work that out).
    - “He really tried” (he did a good job).... just to name a few
  • Happily taking a cold shower every evening as well as in the morning. This is such a habit that I forgot to turn on the hot tap on a recent visit to an Abuja hotel.

  • Staying (relatively!) calm when things are late or don’t go to plan. Any progress is good progress. The fact it’s not what was expected is not necessarily bad. Most of the time you can’t control events and everyone else knows that too
  • Asking questions completely directly – I have almost discarded British diplomacy: unfortunately politeness in terms of making a request merely confuses people. You need something, you ask for it.
  • Not switching the lights on: more often than not, it’s the (rare) click of the stabiliser in the kitchen, and if NEPA is powerful enough, hearing the hum of the refrigerator, that reminds us we have the option of electricity
  • Never watching television and not missing it: we don’t have a television – there’s not a lot of point. It’s fun to watch football or Top Gear when it’s showing on a TV across the bar at the New World, but otherwise I don’t miss it.
  • Drinking beer: when I was in London, given a choice between a cold white wine, a G & T, a red wine or frankly most drinks, a beer will come last on my list. Now all I ever drink when offered is Star. The leading local lager (and I don’t care what you Harp or Gulder fans say). And, warm, cold or positively hot – it tastes great!
  • Drawing the attention of bar staff by hissing. "Excuse me", "oi" are completely useless. A subtle hiss will be responded to across a crowded bar!
  • Eating only farm fresh vegetables and virtually no meat (the experience of buying meat is traumatic, killing it beyond our capabilities).

As I said, virtually no meat.

A plate of shingge (shingay) our neighbour Mr Shinggu (no relation) kindly offered us. This actually was the second time we've tried them and, with a crunchy delicate taste, a little like sweet pork, they really (and I know you won't believe me) are quite nice.

We haven't drummed up the courage for certain bushmeats... yet...

A neighbour prepares a bushmeat from the previous night's hunt for sale: apparently this isn't brugu (bush rat or grasscutter - apparently 'the sweetest meat')... although it looks like it could be to me.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow

Last Tuesday the ladies (and gentleman!) of the Pink House joined their neighbour Mrs Aka’ahs at the dedication of the new building for her foundation, The Vincent Kawai Memorial Foundation who has as its mission: “Motivating and empowering the disadvantaged youth of Kaura Local Government to achieve their full potential”. Mrs Aka’ahs (Rebecca) and her husband are both indigenes of Kagoro, and love the village and its people, particularly its children.

In recent years they have been distressed by the degree of alcoholism and delinquency in the local youth. The vagrancy of small children running around unfettered and seemingly uncared for by their parents. The Foundation aims to help children and youths first see and then realise their potential, whether it be in music, business or other activity. Mrs Aka’ahs has been running a Tuesday afternoon kids club for several weeks now with up to 70 children gathering in her driveway for story-telling, singing, prayers and puff puffs, a local doughnut which Rebecca makes to perfection enriched with sugar and eggs.

With renovations at the new building completed, we attended the main launch along with about 100 children, 30-40 adults including the local church choir and local band. Speeches were given by the local Catholic Reverend Father Richard (from Kenya), the ECWA pastor from nearby Manchok and the local Kagoro Imam. Oh yes – and me, as a representative of the Pink Ladies.
The tiny acorns take their places bright and early for the start of the launch of the new building, which is no longer at 1 Water Board Road but, with road names the way they are, no need to change the signboard.

Laurie and Shinggu help organise some activities with the early-arriving kids before the main programme begins at the new site, not at No. 1 Waterboard Road, but still in Kpak.

Chairwoman and founder greets Father Richard who will perform the dedication; the two fathers consult on the upcoming programme.

Laurie gets the kids singing

Mrs Aka'ahs sits amongst her Kagoro children

With the speeches in Hausa, it’s difficult for me to relay the content. On my own part (with translation into Hausa provided by our neighbour Mr Shinggu) I started off by thanking the adults for the joy that their children brought us. Anyone regularly reading this blog will know that the children never cease (well, so far after 8 months) to happily greet us as though it was the first time they had seen a bature which can bring considerable joy to a heart heavy with a full day’s work and a trip on public transport back to Kagoro.
Father Richard makes the dedication;

I introduce a musical number before making a short speech on behalf of the ladies of the Pink House with Mr Shinggu acting as my translator.

However we know that the children enjoy us because we provide a diversion from the monotony and boredom of their day. Other Nigerian friends have told me how they never had a dull moment in their childhoods as their parents encouraged them to help round the house and farm in any spare moment. One of the problems we see is the lack of engagement by parents – even if just to give them a chore. Toddlers can be seen wandering, often half-naked, some distance from their homes with no adult supervision. Younger children will be seen carried on the backs of their slightly older sisters who seem to become the main carers. The Foundation hopes to enable both the children and their parents to recognise what the children are capable of and somehow provide some avenue through which to realise that potential.

Some parents take part enthusiastically in the proceedings (although later we were saddened to see them grabbing for donuts and drinks with greater effort and more force than the children); one of our local children Madaleine listens intently to a speech (probably not mine...)

The ECWA Women's Fellowship choir entertains the crowd, whilst Dori and I desperately try and get in shot - snap me! snap me!

Mrs Aka’ahs confesses that she is new to the NGO world and she needs all the help she can get. However she has the most important ingredients: commitment, passion and caring. She already has a team of about five young men who help her with the Foundation and the Laurie, Dori and I are happy to help when we have time off from the Foundation.
The smiles are everywhere when the songs are sung and the puff puffs distributed. Let’s hope at least some of these lively acorns grow into mighty Nigerian oaks!
One final group photo before the looming storm breaks!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Mast is up!

Despite the Friday before last holiday being a public holiday in Kaduna State to respect the recent death in London of a former Chief of Army Staff, I travelled to Kwoi with our supervisor of accounts Mack, and microfinance field officer Sarah to disburse to two groups of clients; and back at Fantsuam they began to raise the new mast.

Fantsuam Foundation’s Zittnet department is one of only two internet service providers in Kafanchan, a town of I believe several hundred thousand. The radios on the mast provide services to three of the four local internet cafes as well as to local health clinics. In addition the provision of these services on a commercial basis helps Fantsuam to fund its own services on which the organisation runs, but more importantly, with which it trains the 500 or so students per year in its Computer Learning Centre to use the internet.

The mast falling on 21 April was a terrible, and expensive event, however Fantsuam moved immediately and dug deep into its scarce reserves to ensure that services were returned as soon as possible. Previously deep concrete foundations had been dug, and well watered by the rain, made a robust base for the new 160 ft mast. When we left for Kwoi on the morning of Friday 29 May, construction had not yet started however as we returned in the evening the mast was almost completed with only two sections remaining.

The 10ft foundation pit is filled with concrete. The sections arrive from Kaduna for installation and slowly but surely the mast reaches for the sky.

Once the mast was up, ZittNet's staff were shimmying up and down the mast to install the lightning conductor, aviation light and radios. New more powerful radios were added that enables Fantsuam to offer 'hotspot' services to clients around Kafanchan. Right now we need to try everything that we can to get back the money to pay for our new, higher mast.
Most importantly though - Kafanchan's No.1 Internet Service Provider is back in business!