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.....

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Last Wednesday I found myself seated on a high table in front of about 150, young Nigerians dressed in matching T-shirts, trousers, jackets and shoes, hailing from all corners of the country.

This was the exit seminar for the Corpers of Zonkwa District, batch C, who were due to ‘graduate’ from their year’s Youth Service.

Corpers’ are members of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) – an institution established in 1973 to bring young Nigerians together and to prevent a repetition of the bloody Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s.

Although (I recently learned) youth service is not technically compulsory like national service, employers expect all graduates to be able to produce their Youth Service certificate.

After attending a month’s orientation in regional NYSC camps, the Corpers can be sent anywhere in the country to their ‘Place of Primary Assignment’ (PPA) which could be in a school, local government, NGO or other organisation (including Fantsuam!). It is not at all uncommon for a Lagos city boy to be posted to a rural backwater like Kafanchan, or indeed even further into the bush.

I had been invited to speak to the group about “Marketing yourself: How to create a results-oriented CV” by Corper Akin – King Corper of the Kafanchan area (I think the official title is Corpers Liaison Officer, but I think King Corper sounds better). Akin is also a Fantsuam volunteer and friend. I feel a particular connection with Akin as, when he’s not being a Corper or a graduate student, he’s helping run his father’s Lagos print packaging factory (I think all my readers will be aware – but for those that aren’t – my entire career prior to VSO has been spent in the printing industry).
Me up on the top table of the assembly hall of the local Government Secondary School in Kagarko where the Corper event was being held

In addition to Corpers’ primary assignments they are also encouraged to take on volunteer projects in their communities, in line with the Millennium Development Goals. However the motivation of Corpers to undertake both their compulsory and voluntary roles varies greatly: after I had delivered my 15 minute ‘lecture’ which featured a section on how to best describe ‘work experience’, one cocky Corper stood up and asked how they were expected to include work experience in their CVs when they’d spent four years at university and one doing Youth Service.

A group of graduating Corpers from the Kafanchan District. Akin's taking the photo!
Fantsuam has had the privilege of working with Corpers like Akin who, in addition to their PPA, has three additional teaching jobs and has initiated a project in the region to improve the quality of drinking water in order to reduce (from over 50%) hospital admissions from water borne diseases. This, by anyone’s measure, is a huge amount of work experience for someone fresh out of university. It is not always the case though, and there are other Corpers who will turn up at their PPA in protest and use every opportunity to avoid responsibilities. It’s the same as youth around the world! However it is really inspiring to see those who really seize their opportunities.
And they need to: every one of the 2,500 Corpers that completed their year of service in 1973 were snapped up by recruiters. In 2009, that number of Corpers will be in a single batch graduating from one of the smaller states. There are probably between 100,000 – 150,000 Corpers arriving on the job market every year. Many do not find jobs and this is one of the reasons that VSO has started working with NYSC on the ‘Corper Plus’ programme which complements both VSO’s National Volunteering Programme and the NYSC Programme in Nasarawa and Kwara States, adjacent to Abuja’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
From the advertising literature, the Corper Plus programme is:

“a one-year volunteering programme, which gives young people the opportunity to give back to the society and contribute to raising the standard of education in Nigeria. Volunteering on Corper Plus requires you to provide selfless service without monetary gain or financial incentives. This programme harnesses the energy and enthusiasm of exceptional graduates to provide leadership and motivation to students in schools and at the same time it transforms those graduates into inspiring leaders ready to excel in their future careers.”

“Without monetary gain or financial incentives isn’t quite true”: there is a monthly stipend of N12,000 a month and ‘modest’ accommodation. N12,000 is more than non-graduates earn at FF (and right across Nigeria) in full-time jobs and they need to pay for accommodation out of that salary.

The requirements to qualify are not easy though: it’s not for every Corper that finds themself out of a job. Selection for Corper Plus is based entirely on your ability to demonstrate a high degree of proficiency in the following competencies and qualities:
• Values diversity and respects opinions of others.
• Humility, Respect and Empathy
• Flexibility, Resilience, Knowledge and Leadership
• Planning, Organising, Problem solving and Self-evaluation
It occurs to me that it would be helpful to instil this spirit of volunteering into the over-developed countries currently struggling with recession and high unemployment?