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.....


Anonymous said...

Waoh! reading through this article, got me asking myself if i've been giving as much as i should have.So touching and inspiring. I wish most Nigerian's will get to read this article and learn from it and also act upon the lesson. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY Cicely. And thanks to you and your "sister's" for putting smiles on faces of all those people and many other's.God bless

Grete & Peter, Copenhagen said...

Beautiful and inspiring. We look forward for the next Blog.

Alison said...

Inspiring as ever - in fact probably the most inspiring post so far... I hope 'reality', indeed, whatever that is (if it's bad) doesn't set in.

Sabine said...

Hi Cicely,

it's definitely time for me to be reminded about my own time in Nigeria more often. I am getting back into the German mood of complaining - meaning I am likely to complain about non-important things (like a non-working TV). Therefore I have just decided to have a bucket bath this week. Brings back Nigerian feelings quite quickly (especially at these temperatures)...
Keep your spirits up & fill massively hugged.

Sai anyuma

Anonymous said...

Well you've certainly made me feel happier today!
PS. Don't worry a big glass of red wine will be waiting for you when we see you in Suffolk!!

Manjose said...

Good work Cicely. very inspiring Keep up the good work and engrave more smiles on the faces of the Nigerians


Anonymous said...

Well done Cecil!
I am so proud of you and your work. From the people whom I've met back in London who have had their lives changed by you - I only hear fantastic things and see only huge happy smiles. I one day wish that I could do something like what you are doing!
It was a pleasure meeting Billy last week and I know he is looking forward to seeing you again at Xmas - so am I and your family.
Take care! Much love.

Unknown said...

Cecily, well you bear witness to that side of life in Africa that is almost always negatively reported.
VSO is the best thing to happen to development, I was one, in Mozambique for two years, hence I feel you and your experiences. I pray God continues to give you very good health.

Anonymous said...

I want to say thank you for one of the most positive portrayals of Nigerians and the Nigerian way of life. Too often the stories seem to be one sided. I am moved by your experiences with the people, material things do not really matter to them - relationships and friendships is often what counts.

I wish you good health.

Fimishola-Samuel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fimishola-Samuel said...

I've been away from home for a while and I never lived in the North and my perception of it was a bunch of uncivilised people who are most unreceptive to change...which still bugs me lol...but from your blog i found new meaning to living and a new point of view to view what actually living a good life means...I never thought I'd go back even at my parents request because i fell into the petty complaints of nigerians who come to england and say there is nothing in that country for anyone...but as reflected by your blog, there is really plenty to do and be given...I'm finally going home to practice medicine for sometime and it's been so inspirational and such a vicarious feeling of your joy in each picture and wirte up.
BTW you looked very beautiful in the braids, I hope still wear them sometimes.

Cicely Brown said...

Mishola - thank you so much for that wonderful comment. It really made my day. Good luck with your career and I hope that you receive as much joy from giving - whether it's in Nigeria or elsewhere. Thank you again for taking the trouble to comment.