Thursday, 30 December 2010

An Ant in my Pant

There has been an ant invasion in our bedroom - lines of the little beggars marching across the walls, up and down the curtains andround the furniture. Swarms of them had gathered on anything that to them resembled food - a dead cockroach for exmple, being dismembered - if he had been alive he would not have been best pleased! They were threatening to invade the bed so I had to get tough. I'm afraid any Buddhist readers aren't going to like the next bit: I decimated their ranks by aerial bombardments of insecticide and when I thought I had eradicated every last one I brushed them up and literally filled a dust pan with their remains. They died instantly. I've no idea where they came from but I hope they got the message and don't mess with me again!
Late at night, watching a footy match on TV which I had rather regretted bothering to stay up for - but someone has to watch it!, an ant crawled out of my pants, up my shirt and was heading for my jugular.
No mercy was shown - he could have been a suicide ant. If they can down a cockroach the size of a Cumberland sausage, these critters are capable of anything but he had clearly underestimated the ruthlessness of  a British mopping up operation. A lone Nigerian ninja ant is no match for a Penguin paperback novel!

Talking of mopping up operations, I woke up to a flooded kitchen this morning - blocked sink, blocked overflow, dripping tap. A new platoon of ants was making its getaway under cover of semi darkness across the draining board, my theory being that they had dragged the cockroach remains into the kitchen, up the sink unit and hurled them into the sink where they clogged up the plumbing with the sappers of the ant engineering corps. I've not quite worked out yet how they got the tap on! Clearly the war is not over!
(Perhaps I've got too much time on my hands - or the sun is getting to me!!).

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Day

Awake at 4am, like most of the kids in the UK, I guess! I think my body clock is programmed to wake me up early on Christmas Day, after 58 years of practice - or maybe it was the pack of dogs howling in the distance, or the Imam in the mosque callling the faithful to prayer, or it could have been the chill of the night, enhanced by the wceiling fan whirling like the blades of a hovercraft above my head, combined with the fact that Caroilne had acquired all the bed linen and left me exposed to the elements

The early mornings are pleasantly cool at this time of year - about16 degrees I would guess. For us this is definitely T-shirt weather, but the locals muffle up and use face masks to avoid breathing in the early morning fog - probably quite wisely as, from its tang, it probably contains carcinogens from  the burning last night of plastic bags full of rubbish. It is a smell that lingers in the air, tainting your clothes and embedding itself into your nostrils or relevant receptors of the brain - probably one of the mental scarrings that I will remember Nigeria by till my dying day..

We stayed in till lunchtime and enjoyed skyping our friends and family back home -did us a lot of good and restored our spirits - as did the bottle of Merlot that Lillian kindly left for us. My chicken dinner brought back culinary memories of the fantastic kind - and there's still enough left for chicken butties well into the New Year. Hurrah!

Santa lives!

I don't think they believe in Father Christmas in Nigeria.When we tell people how this jolly, fat, white-bearded old man would, on Christmas Eve night, race across the sky in a sleigh pulled by a team of reindeer the leader of which has a shiny red nose that guides their way through the wind and snow (pause while I explain what a reindeer looks like - there are no reindeer in Nigeria, with or without red noses) and how once the sleigh lands on your roof, he clambers down your chimney (more explanation) bearing gifts, enters your bedroom and leaves your FREE stash of goodies at the foot of your bed - or else leaves them in a neat pile beneath the tree that is growing in your living room (!), and how he scoffs a mince pie and sherry before zooming off to deliver presents to every child in the world before dawn ( embarrassing pause while you try to answer the predictable question as to why he never came to them), - well, would YOU believe it?  They find it highly amusing.
Anyway, FC did spare some time from his busy schedule to drop off a pair of undies. The guards must clearly have been sleeping or they would surely have noticed and commented on the illegally parked reindeer and sleigh - then, maybe not!

So today our thoughts are very much with our girls and our grandchildren. We have promised ourselves that this is the one and only time we will not be with them. No amount of roast chicken, cheddar cheese or Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate and Heineken export could make up for not sharing Christmas day with them - even though it is getting quite difficult to fit the 13 of us round the dinner table!

To shop or not to shop?

We have decided/had the decision made for us, not to buy each other prezzies this year. Instead we have bought some food items which we would not normally buy on account of their extortionate price:
a big chunk of Cheddar cheese set us back £8. Its expiry date was ten months ago, but what the hell! Also a large bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk (Fruit and Nut variety) which we hope has not melted and re-set too frequently since its importation.
I did see and was sorely tempted by a copy on sale of the Argos Winter catalogue for 2008/9. I realise that this would be a rare acquisition to the book collection of the most discerning bibliophile but at about £8 I decided that this was one Christmas luxury I would regrettably have to forgo. I was almosr persuaded by its shrink wrapping and unthumbed corners, its uncreased spine. Nevertheless despite its mint condtion I passed it by - realising  that in effect Argos probably don't accept phone or internet service from Nigeria and certainly won't have a home delivery service. Of such things Nigerians can only dream!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas Preamble

Christmas Preamble
As we amble towards Christmas the bleakness of not being able to spend time with our wonderful family gets harder to contemplate. We are the only ones in the office now – everyone else has gone ’travelling’ ie has returned to their village to be with their relatives.
Apart from not having our passports, we couldn’t return to our village if we wanted to,  given the Big Freeze conditions back home which have grounded most of the flights.
Earlier this week we were taken to a local carol concert in another part of Ilorin. Katherine is in the choir and was eager that we should accompany her –  which was fine, but after three hours in a cushion-free zone, my bum was definitely complaining.
There were several choirs, based on age/ experience, who sang a medley of familiar carols as well as ones we had not heard before including some in Yoruba and Igbo languages.   Ashamedly, we had to stifle the odd giggle at some of the performances, but with others the harmonies and rhythms were emotionally quite powerful. It still seemed odd to be singing ‘While shepherds watched etc’ with the temperature in the high 20s; every bit of me is still expecting  the days to get cold and dark some time soon (they won’t!) 
Nobody could accuse the Nigerians of over-commercialising the festive season. Even in the church the decorations were plain and simple – long drapes of colourful cloth reaching across the air space and down the walls, and some fairy lights around the altar – that was it!
The shops are almost completely devoid of Christmas cheer except for a few ‘department stores’ that often have the gaudiest of decorations around the front door – huge singing plastic Father Christmases who could be heard  several blocks away. No reindeers though, red-nosed or otherwise! Santa doesn’t even have a sleigh during his quick visit to Nigeria - because he has so little to carry, I would guess. The locals find our description of a jolly fat man climbing down chimneys to drop off gifts into stockings and pillow cases, partaking of a mince pie and a glass of sherry before zooming off next door, highly amusing.
The only presents that are commonly given here are small ‘washing baskets’ of groceries that are presented to the household. You see them outside the larger shops - a bit like hampers, wrapped up in cellophane and tied with a ribbon.
And yet everyone, Christians certainly, are looking forward to Christmas because of what it means to them in terms of the birth of Jesus and also the chance to greet their families again – often after many months of being away.  They are excited far more about these things than by the receiving of gifts, over-indulgence and hours spent in front of the TV. Hmmmm!
So while we watch an ice-bound Britain struggling to make preparations for the festive season on Sky News, we try to deflect our thoughts by working, at least until Christmas Day, and vainly attempting to convince ourselves that we would rather be smothering ourselves with sun-cream than  Vick’s decongestant!
P.S.  The goat population does not seem to have diminished yet – nevertheless we are preparing ourselves for an evening or two of sorrowful bleating! 

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Holy Smoke!

Walking past the old cemetery today, it was hard not to notice that someone had set fire to the rubbish that forms a mini mountain over the gravestones - keeps the overall height of the heap down I suppose but envelopes the area in unpleasant grey smoke with aroma of burning plastic. ' Holy smoke', I thought. On top of the mountain was a goat - possibly a mountain goat -picking his way through the ashes and presumably avoiding walking over hot coals. I wonder if smoked goat will be on the menu over Christmas!
Later on I saw a dog - poor wretched little thing, walking down the street with the head of a goat in his mouth - perhaps he got there first!! Actually, I don't think it was the same goat - its head had been severed with a clean cut, it seemed to me, and I haven't yet seen any axe-wielding dogs in the neighbourhood!

Not much happening at school this week - it is exam time. In all subjects children answer about 30 multiple choice questions followed by two extended answer questions. On the basis of their answers they progress into the next class up or stay where they are and repeat the year. The pupils are eager to do well and those I have spoken to have literally memorised their whole exercise books.
After the exams are over it seems that the term fizzles out, though I understand that activities are put on to encourage the pupils to keep attending - not unlike home, really.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Meet the Chief

An unexpected day – well I sort of expected that Wednesday might follow on from Tuesday, but events did not go as planned – rather better, in fact!
With the offer of a free car ride – air-con, tinted windows, leather seats, seat belts, suspension, safe driver, no loose doors or dodgy wiring – it would have been churlish to refuse. S, not wanting to come across as a churl, I got in and accompanied Caroline on her excursion to primary schools in the Offa district where I also have two schools to visit.
Barely had we arrived at Moremi High School and been reintroduced to the staff, than we were off on an unscheduled visit to see/ pay homage/respects to the traditional Chief of Offa.
We drove a short distance into Ogidiri, turned into a rather dismal, narrow street lined with rusting tin shacks and then turned into an almost as grim courtyard. Along one side of this was a mint and cream coloured ‘palace’ which was the chief’s house. We went up a marble step on which was inlaid the words ‘welcome to Essa’s palace’, and were ushered into a large meeting room. A Huge couch occupied a dais on the opposite wall and carpets were laid out across the polished stone floor.
One by one, large men in flowing , embroidered gowns entered, each of whom I assumed was the Chief and so greeted each with what I considered to be due deference and respect. None of them was the chief but all seemed delighted at the degree of courtesy and subservience I displayed. And then the real chief came in – big man, big voice, commanding presence. He apologised for not having a present to give me, which was fine by me as I hadn’t got one for him either. While people stood bowing (in a way that has to be seen to be believed!), courtseying, or prostrating themselves , the chief came towards me and shook my hand.
Everybody except me had remembered to take their shoes off and I tried to conceal myself behind others so as not to be noticed. This cunning plan was fine until the chief  beckoned me over to sit next to him  in full view of a room full of corpers, head teachers, acolytes and a rather mediaevalesque dwarf who scampered round attending to his masters needs. If the chief noticed my dusty footgear, he certainly said nothing.  
We discussed the work of VSO, the concept of volunteering, why Nigeria? (again), and what I thought of the environment, by which is meant  the weather and the general appearance of the local area, to which the expected answer seems to be ‘fine!’ After I had developed a few comments more positively concerning the Offa environment and its people, the chief mentioned his eldest son, studying for a PhD in London. He seemed mildly disappointed that I had not met him and even pointing out that I came from Liverpool, not London, did not improve things as he said his son had been there too!
We moved on to discuss his state of health and how he had been advised to reduce his activity level – which is why he did not have a present for me, I had no such excuse, though it would be nice to be told to reduce my activity level sometimes.
There was an issue with the accommodation for the national volunteers over holiday periods –it is not funded and the head teacher has been paying for it from her own pocket. The chief  then put a curse on those employed by local government who sequestered funds that had been earmarked for education in order to build themselves houses and buy cars.  This sounded like a real curse, such was the venom with which he spoke. A former lecturer, he is clearly an intelligent man who has a passion for education- free education, and seems as angered by corrupt officials as many others are. He offered me his full support in helping to raise the standards of teaching in the schools I am assigned to and now have his personal number in my mobile – and his son’s!
Just put a note in my diary to ring the son when we go home – just in case; don’t want any undue curses falling on me, thank you!

Sabo -Oke

In this edition of my blog, I thought I would describe Sabo-Oke – the district we live in not far from the centre of Ilorin. Most of my colleagues in schools are surprised if not shocked that we have been given accommodation in this district, clearly regarding it as not a place where respectable professional people should be living. Nevertheless, in our block of four flats there is a  chap who works for the local TV station as editor,  who has an old Austrian car,  a bank manager who has a newish car – Volvo I think, the landlord who has a bigger, newer car, and us – with no car!  I had a lift home last night by a school deputy who drives a Passat with over 300,000 on the clock – don’t be fooled by the cars in the photos! Having said that, you see lots of nice Hummers, Audis, Mercedes on the roads, but I suspect not many of them live in this locality.
 We would classify Sabo-Oke as an old inner city area, but it’s difficult to put an actual age on it as most of the buildings look dilapidated, though have not necessarily been  

there a long time – I’m guessing that the oldest solid buildings probably date from the  early to mid 20th century.
There are very few ‘nice’ buildings here – this was communicated to me by a local person who used to live here but has moved out. Most of the main roadsides have deep, wide gutters to cope with the extreme levels of surface water in the wet season, but it means you have to be eternally vigilant as you walk down the road in case you end up in one. There is no kerb and vehicles could easily fall in – or nudge you in! The traffic swerves wildly to avoid potholes, pedestrians or each other.  There is a crossroads where you take your life in your hands when trying to cross over. If you are lucky there may be a traffic policeman conducting affairs but he, or she, is more like a conductor whose orchestra is going to do their own thing anyway. Away from the noisy, smelly hectic main roads there are dusty tracks that lead in to the poorest housing areas where everything you have heard or seen about shantytowns is suddenly there in front of you. At one end of our road is a long abandoned cemetery which has become a dumping ground for domestic rubbish. Some of it has been there for so long there are trees growing through it.
 Goats pick through the plastic bags to find odd scraps of anything they consider edible. Needless to say there is no proper refuse disposal, though a truck calls once a fortnight to collect door to door, mainly looking for recyclables. There must be an effective sewerage system or the area would smell a lot worse than it does – though there is a stinking alley round the corner from us with rather unpleasant green/blue/ grey liquid running down it, so clearly not all properties are connected up. Most of the more substantial buildings are made of concrete blocks and have corrugated iron roofs; the less salubrious have been patched up with rough timbers and have battered and rusting iron roofs. The best kept are the churches which are fine looking buildings. This is predominantly a Christian area and there are many churches. Not all are elegant and fine though; some are little more than large sheds with some sort of plaque indicating that it is the’ Kingdom of God’ church or the ‘Divine Grace’ chapel. I saw a car with a ‘Jesus Saves’ transfer across the back window, and underneath it ‘Chelsea’. Well if Chelsea has the power of the Lord directing  their  goalkeeper, there can be no hope for the rest of the Premier League!
 They are fervent believers here – to the extent that choir practice seems to happen 24/7. The largest church, a Baptist church, delivers rousing sermons/admonitions in the early hours of the morning, inciting the congregation by microphone to loud commotion which does not always sound joyful – often riotous, in fact – though I’m sure it isn’t - though between  1am  and 4am it is a most unwelcome disturbance – night after night, when most god-fearing people should be asleep, in my opinion!  
At the opposite end of our road from the cemetery is a small restaurant which we haven’t tried yet – I don’t think we have felt THAT hungry! The proprietress always calls ‘good morning’ to us, possibly in the hope that one day we will pop in for a bite to eat. The chips do smell good though! There are always goats, hens, cockerels and the odd sheep wandering about. Lord knows what they find to eat! – maybe chips!
On one corner there is a woman who seems to spend all day either making charcoal from huge logs heaped up outside her house, or cooking something up in a great cauldron.  Every so often you come across small fires where they are burning rubbish – in the gutters or on the road. A few days ago they were burning a great pile of rubber tyres and the whole area was treated to dense acrid smoke clouds for most of the morning.
Some of the activities are fascinating to watch, especially the furniture makers who seem to produce quite ornate bed frames, chairs, settees etc from planks hewn straight from tree trunks. You often see piles of ‘scrap’ timber just waiting to be put to better use, often recycled .
Car mechanics abound, as you would expect in a place where the majority of vehicles were probably destined for scrap in their country of origin – often Germany or Switzerland - before being rescued by enterprising people who saw a market for them on the streets of Nigerian towns.
Opposite the  charcoal maker/cook is a small family kiosk- style shop, very common everywhere, where we buy basic vegetables and things we have forgotten to buy elsewhere.
People here are most friendly and welcoming, always passing the time of day – especially the children. I think it will be some time though before I get used to  ‘OYbo’ ( white person) being called after me every day, even if it is usually accompanied by extravagant waving and big grins. We are told it is a mark of their respect for us, but I am not always convinced!
Physically, this is a hard area to live in – hot, noisy, dusty, dirty and at times, smelly. It is all hard-edged – no parks or outdoor locations where you can just be at peace, no pleasant green spaces, very few trees even. Little or no attention is paid to the outside of buildings – it is all functional , raw, crumbling or unfinished.  And yet it is vibrant – people are making a go of things and the community seems close- knit and friendly which makes it bearable.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Mmmmm Chips!

19th November
Still not quite managed to open bank account yet, so no monthly allowance, so I have had to curtail my journeying to distant schools. Instead I am working from home today on my work plan which needs approval of NYSC and the Ministry of Education.
I needed a map of Kwara to help me to set up a visit schedule and was directed to the Min. Of Tourism.  A large notice outside a newly built high-rise office block proudly declared it to be the site of said Ministry. There were five guards on the gate, presumably to guard the precious supply of Kwara maps, but when I asked one of them the whereabouts of the Min.of Tourism, they all displayed an impressive synchronised blankness, shortly followed by searching looks of each other’s local knowledge.
In the end I was told there was no Min.of Tourism, in spite of the clear and presumably costly signs that stated otherwise. I settled for directions to the Min of Information and Communication instead, with whom I had extreme difficulty in communicating, and came away with no information whatsoever, apart from directions by some circuitous route to the Min. of Land who I was assured would be able to help me. I managed the first few hundred metres but then gave up through lack of real interest and came home to cool off.  Only 10.00am and it’s in the high 20’s!
All this followed my newly arranged meeting with Mrs C. on the pavement outside - even yesterday’s scheduled brief encounter managed to make it to the car park. We had arranged for my work plan to be downloaded onto her laptop which she said she would bring – but didn’t. So I was passed on to a gentleman from the school registry office who may have access to a PC. Within ten minutes I was  downloading my plan into an email, only to be told  by Yahoo that the sending process was taking ‘longer than usual’ and that they would let me know when it had been sent.  I was still waiting a quarter of an hour later and for all I know could take days, so I gave up and went in search of my map!
But the worst aspect of the morning was when Mrs C. commented that I had put on weight! I protested, pointing out all the walking I was doing and all the stress of long bus journeys in great heat and my virtually chip-free diet  but she wasn’t buying it – I had definitely put on weight! Which has made me feel a whole lot better!!  

Off to Offa

12th November
Visited another two schools on my list, one secondary and one primary, both in rural locations in the Offa district. The road to Offa makes the surface of the moon seem as smooth as a fairway. Some of the potholes stretch right across the road and in the rainy season must surely  fill with water and pose an added hazard to the unwary driver.
When I almost fell out of the bus on arrival in Offa – no step! – two sheep were being unloaded from the back. They had been bound and gagged and stowed away under the back seat for the entire length of the journey , presumably destined to be active ingredients in a barbecue at some point during the forthcoming religious holiday. There were sheep everywhere, being guarded by boys and men with sticks who would occasionally prod some poor animal into life of drag it off by the horns.
As usual, the staff at the schools were very welcoming and delighted that I was there to offer whatever support I could over the coming months. The previous VSO has done a fantastic job – I only hope I can live up to expectations!
The journey home again was not without incident. A Fulani herder, walking casually along the roadside was nearly killed by a huge construction site style wheelbarrow as it burst from the rear compartment of the bus – one pot hole too many. The retaining strap, which appeared to have been holding up someone’s trousers in a previous existence, snapped and the barrow went spinning through the air, crashing and somersaulting onto the tarmac and missing the poor guy by inches. It was fortunate there was no following vehicle or there could have been a nasty mess. Anyway, our driver screeched to a halt – well the bus did, the driver uttered what sounded as though it was an obscenity  and ran back to get the barrow. Meanwhile the herder chap had walked on.  Our driver yelled at him to come back, not to apologise, but to get him to help reload the wheelbarrow into the bus! The actual owner of the barrow who could not get out to inspect any damage, being wedged into the third row of seats by people who clearly were in no mind to budge, did not seem best pleased – much grumbling and sucking of teeth!
I have now visited most of the ten schools allocated to me in Kwara, and spoken to many priccipals, teachers, corpers and children. The more I hear about the politics surrounding – infecting – the education system here, the more intractable the situation seems to be. Whether you look at the system from the bottom (pupils) up or from the top (politicians) down, there is an equal depth of bleakness. That is not to say that things aren’t changing, albeit very slowly. Many teachers, in spite of their condemnation of those in authority who control the purse strings and basically dictate their and the pupils’ working conditions, are dedicated and have a professional outlook which is not only encouraging but really quite heroic under the circumstances. I have met two corpers who have delivered, resourced and paid for workshops in the school community out of their meagre allowances. They are an inspiration and it is people like them who, when things get you down and you feel like jacking it in, keep you on track.
It is on the domestic front that things tend to get to you:  intermittent and unpredictable electricity supply is a big factor, but the fact that I had three electric shocks last weekend did not help my take on things. Also, with no TV or radio, cooking by candle-light, no hot water, dodgy plumbing, inadequate mosquito nets, pathetically weak internet connections, lack of green vegetables and not a cold Guinness in prospect, we experience great frustration on a daily basis.  And don’t get me started on the traffic!!
Anyway, hey-ho – tomorrow’s another day – a holiday in fact, though we’ll still get woken up early by the 4am gospel choir and the bloody cockerel outside our gate!! Splashed out on chicken and chips at ‘Royals’ yesterday. Chips were fab but the fried chicken was the scrawniest excuse for poultry I have ever seen – barely enough meat on it to confirm it actually was chicken!  They spend most of their life dodging traffic, I think, so I suppose it’s not surprising  they have muscles and tendons of the road-runner – bleep, bleep! Snails had been on the menu but I’m not – and probably never will be – brave enough to give them a go.  You’ve got to draw the line somewhere!!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Grim Realities!

1st November 2010
My first day at Pakata High School. I was greeted on arrival by the whole school, lined up and singing a welcome.After a few words from the head teacher, who kindly told the pupils I was freely available to meet them and be questioned during my break - also that I wolud be assisting them with their maths (Don't think so!), I was invited to address the congregation. My words clearly went down well as I was treated to a round of applause and much cheering.I was introduced to my office, which I share with a deputy head, and during the morning observed two lessons of Geography - both of which would send an Ofsted inspector into paroxysms . It was like turning the clock back to Victorian times in terms of discipline and rote learning. During one lesson a couple of goats wandered in, must have sensed the uninspiring and somewhat fearful atmosphere and promptly left to scavenge a meal outside.
Most classes I have observed have between 80 and 100 pupils, sitting three to a bench and clearly at risk from splinters. In a science class of 100 there were only chairs for 80 - the rest knelt on the floor or shared chairs while they copied from the board. The girls remain in their form room all day apart from a half hour breakfast break around 10am and a short break of 10 minutes around 12.30. By hometime (no lunch hour) at 2pm, they will have had 8 x 40 minute lessons identical in terms of teaching methodology. Any misdemeanour merits being sent outside and\or being breaten or slapped on the head with a stick or knotted rope. Toilets consist of an outside classroom wall at the far end of the site. The lack of proper facilities is a major factor in the erratic attendancee of girls generally in Nigeria.
Up to now I have seen no resources other than the blackboard. Class SS2 were studying Lord of the Flies but the only copy is possessed by the teacher who won't read it to the class because the chapters are too long and he is under pressure to complete a syllabus. So plot and characterisation is done through copied notes culled from the West African version of Brodie's. Other set works, including The Merchant of Venice and poems by Wordsworth are similarly treated. This is a situation virtually imposed on a young teacher who is doing his best against a host of difficulties. He clearly loves literature and feels the frustration of not being able to impart this enthusiasm the way he knows it could be. 
The teachers are all very friendly and welcoming but it seems they can only teach the way they were taught themselves - they know no other way, and the big stick is their only stand-by for when the pupils show lack of application. It was well over 30 degrees in one class this afternoon. I was feeling drowsy and so were many girls, some of whom had barely eaten since the previous evening. Only the sight of a monster insect flying about and frequently in my direction, kept me awake - until that is, my white knuckle car ride back into the city centre at the end of the day.
I then had to meet the very pleasant, well-groomed and suited Commissioner in his nice plush office with air conditioning and a carpet, while I felt like a bit of chewed string.
One of my national volunteers made my day when I showed him how to do a mind map, how to set a lesson objective, and how to manage a minor discipliary matter better without recourse to a piece of wood or rope. He has been struggling with no training whatsoever and his face lit up when he actually believed I was here to help him and could show him a better way of doing things. Matthew is enthusiastic and determined to be the best teacher he can be even with all the frustrations that afflict his chosen profession. If any of you have spare copies of Lord of the Flies, The Tempest , Animal Farm or The Importance of Being Earnest, please send to GSS Pakata Girls School, c\o Mrs Comfort Adeoti, Ag.D/SC, Room 22 Block C, Teaching Service Commission, Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. Matthew and the girls will be thrilled.
5th November
I have observed in a great number of lessons this week, across most of the subjects being studied in the school. There is a great and obvious need to reform teaching methodologies and classroom management, but when you sit down with teachers here and discuss with them the reality of teaching huge classes in cramped conditions with virtually no aids or resources, you have to admire them for their sheer persistence. I don’t think a lot of time or thought is spent on lesson planning, and there is certainly no differentiation of task – rarely a task, in fact! I really hope that in the months to come I can persuade the national volunteers and at least some of the staff to break out of their mould and attempt to use some of the strategies which have been in long use in the developed world – even without resources. That is my goal and my challenge –  I hope I am up to it!
I discovered that each pupil has funding to the tune of 40 Naira (16 pence) per term, and some of that has to be paid back to the Ministry of Education!
I wonder if I will ever get used to the traffic. The amazing thing is that I have seen no accidents. Cars swerve past each other with the slimmest of gaps, and pedestrians – even primary aged children crossing the roads on their own or in small groups- are risking their lives with every passing vehicle. They, the goats, sheep and chickens must all be living charmed lives, If I had been a driver, I’m sure I would be dead by now.
On the domestic front, we received a new desk and chair today, so we have somewhere where we can work. NEPA is still erratic but it seems to be improving – famous last words – its just gone off again!
Tuesday 9th November
Observed a class today where boys were sitting on makeshift seats put togwther from pieces of wood and broken furniture heaped up at the back of the room. Two others were sharing the frame of a stool – there was no seat. I asked why the caretaker had not at least  contributed the odd nail to hold it all together and was told it was not his job – so nothing is done.
By way of greeting, the children called out numbers 1 to 20, spelling each one in turn.  Once the  lesson got under way, the teacher seemed more concerned that the boys could spell ‘numerator’’ and ‘ denominator’ rather than understand the concept of a fraction. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I knew that what the children were being taught was actually incorrect but I did not feel that it was my place to interfere – not yet! There are times when you just don’t know where to begin to address the problems there are in secondary schools I have seen. I am hoping there is good practice somewhere. The kids are delightful and eager to please / avoid being beaten, but no sticks today, thank God.

Wednesday 10th November
General strike – no schools open – and no electricity. No ceiling fan but at least we are on LPG so we can prepare meals.
The motto of one of my schools – GSS Omu-Aran – is ‘No sweat, no sweet’. There are certainly no sweets in evidence – and definately no chocolate – but plenty of sweat! This school is on a rise on the edge of town with nice views across the forest and a breeze blowing from time to time which reduces the temperature a bit, but even so I can feel myself turning into a crisp whenever I go outside.
Yesterday’s journey home took 3 and a half hours – a distance of abot 120 km. I was in the bus for nearly an hour before it finally over-filled and left. About 1km down the road it stopped, the driver got out leaving the engine running and went into what I assume must have been his or a friend’s house and came out ntwenty minutes later, having left us to cook and choke in the vehicle. A few vkm further on and it stopped again for a very thin, ancient, religious looking man whom I had unsuccessfully tried to engage in conversation, got out to ‘ease himself’ in full view of the other passengers and all passers-by! – When caught short, that’s what you do! As loo roll is scarce, you quickly come to remember not to shake the left hand of people you meet!
We were stopped at two police check-points and I thought we would be in trouble – state of the bus, no seat belts, overcrowded, belching exhaust – you name it; but they just wanted their ‘dash’ – a token for not disrupting your journey any longer. I don’t think they would have been any more bothered if there had been a row of people sitting on the roof – I haven’t seen that yet, but give it time!
On entering Ilorin the bus finally gave up and we chugged to a halt. We were eventually squeezed into an even ropier looking vehicle and, as the last one in, I went to close the sliding door and realised there wasn’t one – just red dust and deisel smoke between me and the stream of traffic jostling for space on the road outside .
If I have to make such journeys on a regular basis – and it seems I do, at least three times a week - I am going to be a quivering wreck by Christmas. You certainly see and meet interesting people but its not that easy to appreciate this when you are concerned about geting to your destination in one piece!
Went for a swim in the pool at the Kwara Hotel this avvo, where the manager, a South African called Lance, lets VSOs in for free – and lets his staff know why. Good bloke!   

Monday, 1 November 2010

Overland - by air!

Wednesday 27th October

Travelled by Overland Airways from Abuja to Ilorin, having paid a stack for all our excess baggage. Overland only allow 10kg per person plus a small item if hand luggage and as we had 86 kilos between us, plus motor cycle helmet, water filter, mosquito nets, personal alarms and hefty ring binders, it all came to something approaching a king’s ransom.
As  we  flew into Ilorin, over the mass of corrugated iron roofs that give the city the appearance of rusting away, we suddenly felt that we had arrived in a place desperate for any sort of investment.
From the airport we drove through the traffic past wood and iron shacks more dilapidated than any we had seen so far. The roadside was, as usual, teeming with life but with the addition of  hundreds of goats, scavenging in the debris.
Eventually we turned into a very poor street called Old Cemetry Rd (their spelling, not mine!) and the driver was slowing down as though he were looking out for the right house. Those we were passing seemed barely habitable so we were not feeling good.
At last we pulled up outside a huge metal gate behind which was a block of low-rise flats, a gated property which was to be our home for the next two years. Jayne, our fellow volunteer, came out to greet us and warmly welcomed us into a comfortable  and reasonably well decorated ground floor flat in which Caroline and I had a double room with its own ensuite!  I think Caroline almost wept with relief.

These two pictures  fail to convey the yellowness of the walls – which are very yellow! They also fail to convey the frequent blackouts and water cut-offs which are just part of life here.
The kitchen is basic and bijoux but the grey-brown  and Everton- blue walls would not have been my colours of choice. Our bedroom also has blue walls and is quite bare of decoration – probably quite resembles the Everton trophy room really! We have been promised a new mosquito net on Monday. Been here nearly two weeks and not had malaria yet –so far so good!

We tried to unpack and to erect a mosquito net  - unsuccessfully, then enjoyed a wonderful  lentil and rice meal -  cooked by Jayne and Rosalind – all without electricity (called NEPA, out here). We chatted till about 8pm, then realising it was Late (!) made the best of a rock hard mattress and equally unyielding pillow  to be ready for our 6am wake-up and the start of our new working life.

Thursday 28th October
Walked into the ESSPIN office where Caroline will be working. Eventually contacted my employer, NYSC and, when I was collected (“picked”), was driven to the school in Pakata where I will have my shared office. The scene on route was one of unremitting  squalour and poverty. It almost matched what we had witnessed in  Delhi, and yet people generally were making a go of it.
I was introduced to the head teacher of GSS Girl’s School, Pakata ,who showed me round the school. Most pupils were on holiday _  I say most because two classes were taking place – their teacher had had time off through illness during the preceding half term and now had to make up  lost time at work. Try getting that one past the NUT!!
Most classes are 40 to 50 in number, which I was told were the small classes. Several have 80 to 90 pupils. The poor teacher I mentioned in the previous paragraph had had to combine three classes in one room – and she was coping! I addressed the classes and said how pleased I was to be in Nigeria and especially in Kwara and in their school, and how everybody we had met was very welcoming and friendly – which is almost entirely true.
I have been told that the national volunteers are off on some sort of boot camp and I think one discussion was being engaged in  proposing to link me up with them in the field; there’s no way I’m joining in any yomping activities in the bush, thank you!
Then I was whisked off to meet local dignitaries whose names and titles became a blur in the end, but I did have some brief conversations with a few “ordinary” people with whom it was good to have a bit of a joke. I must have looked all done in by early afternoon, so they took me home and told me to rest – for tomorrow I meet the Commissioner!

Friday 30th October
Getting used to waking up with a stiff neck.  For the second night running we were treated to the vocal accomplishments of the local church choir – started about 11pm and went on till around 2am. They must have an arrangement with the nearest mosque, as when the choir had finished it was not long before the Imam was delivering his prayers to the faithful. It gives a slightly different take on the phrase “24 hour society”.
I didn’t meet the Commissioner after all, which is just as well as when I unclicked  my seat belt I had a dust-brown streak from right shoulder to left trouser pocket  across my new, crisp, pristine white shirt – one of a set of three from ASDA!  If any washing powder company happens to read this, come to Nigeria to make your adverts – anything white is dazzling in the hot sun, and against the dusty backdrop of life in general it appears whiter than white.
 I did meet the head of NYSC though, and thanks to Mrs Comfort at the Ministry of Education, I now have a plan for next week at least.  So it was another early finish!

Akwanga experience

Thursday 21st October

Today our hosted placement started. We have all been billeted with serving volunteers for the next four days to experience first hand the realities of living in a Ngerian community. We have been sent to Akwanga in Nasawara State with Lucy who is laso involved in an education programme. It has taken us four hours to get here, including the hour we spent sitting on the bus waiting for it to fill up – sorry, over-fill -and depart.  Inter city busses (ie ramshackle mini-busses) leave from motorparks on the edge of town. These are bustling, chaotic areas of bare ground, where any number of busses, cars and taxis arrive and depart and where hoards of people try to sell you something you don’t want. We were offered everything from a box of condoms to the message of Jesus through the open door of our bus, which attracted more than its fair share of attention through having three ‘bature’ on board. During our Skwid training back in Birmingham, we were advised not to board any transport that did not look road-worthy; if we followed this advice we would go nowhere and the roads would be fairly empty. Eventually we succumbed and bought a doughnut – but not a doughnut as we know it: this one had a hard boiled egg at its centre instead of jam – but it really was very tasty.
Then we hit the road, crammed for the next two hours inside our bus, trying not to be phased by the activities of the driver as he negotiated pot-holes, okadas and narrow gaps between other vehicles at an indeterminate speed – he had no working speedometer – but I guess he got up to 50 or 60 mph on faster stretches.
For  many miles we passed nothing but roadside shacks and businesses, filth and garbage everywhere, and lots of people all seemingly with things to do and places to go.
As we arrived in Akwaga two bum-aching hours later, the schools were emptying, the clean, crisp, colourful uniforms of the children contrasting with the grim  backdrop of  rubbish piled like snowdrifts along the roadside.
We ‘dropped’ at a confluence of routes near the town centre – another bustling scene of vehicles, market traders,  hawkers and barrow-boys. As we got off the bus, instantly hundreds of eyes focused on us as we stood awkwardly amongst the maelstrom, nervously waiting for our onward drive to the campus of the College of Education where Lucy lives.
Twenty minutes later, we were being driven up the green, tree-lined avenue through the campus towards the block of flats where Lucy has her second storey apartment.
Our sighs of relief were probably audible as we stumbled up the stairs and into her flat, relaxing for the first time since we got up .
After a rice and lentil- based meal we went for a stroll outside and saw a Fulani boy herding his cattle in the fading light.
We slept well that night beneath our mosquito netted bed – until about 3am when we were woken by the yowling and barking of a pair of dogs right  beneath our window.

Friday 22nd October
Slept in till 8am. Later went for our first okada ride to the college provost’s house where Lucy had some business to conduct. We were made most welcome  and shortly after were driven to a local Nigerian restaurant for a lunch which I will not knowingly eat again. The pounded yam was fine but the soup – not as we know it – was a thick tangle of something that might once have been spinach, infused with loads of spices, peppers, some species of fish and some other ingredient which I would rather not know. We were warned not to eat the brown lumps!!
A brief shopping trip to the local market where once again we seemed to be the principal  entertainment of the day, then back on the okada to the flat.

Saturday 23rd October
Woken at dawn again by those dogs, and with the same anxieties I went to sleep on. The more I find out about the situation in schools here, the more impossible it seems to be able to make any difference. Our  stroll last evening around the college buildings, including the ‘Demonstration School’ brought home how bleak  the environment is for those teaching and those trying to learn. We saw a huge lecture theatre – potentially a terrific resource- wreathed in dust and piles of rubble with desks – the old type with seat welded to the same frame as the desk -  strewn loosely in rows, bare breeze block walls and no lighting or air con – and all because the funds for completion had ‘dried up’. Yet the place was still used for lectures on a daily basis. The students we met were extremely neat and very courteous – saying ‘good afternoon’ or ‘good evening’ is something everyone does, and with a short bow and a smile.
 Today’s walk took us through fields of cassava, okra and plantain . At one point we emerged from the undergrowth and plantation crops, upon a small Fulani settlement – about four small round wattle and thatch huts surrounding a space where a mother and fve children were just minding their own business – until we, three white-skinned people with funny hats and shades  arrived out of nowhere and terrified the toddlers half to death. Their mother thought it rather amusing and welcomed us but we thought it better to press on rather than traumatise her youngsters further. 
Sunday 24th October
Travelled alone by public transport back to Abuja and felt very proud of ourselves. En route we struck up a conversation with four students returning to their college – very pleasant, well-spoken and engaging young men, one of whom came from Ilorin and spoke fondly of it – which made us feel  a bit more reassured about the place we would soon be calling home.
On arrival back at the hotel, a hot shower and cup of tea where the priorities!
Reviewing  our hosted placement experience, it was good to get to talk at length to a serving volunteer in our Programme Area of Education. Our learning curve is still sharply upward but at least we now feel we have crossed a threshold in being  able to cope with living in this huge, vibrant, colourful, and yes, chaotic , but very friendly country.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

We're Off (Our Heads!)

Sunday 17th October

It has been a long day already and its only mid afternoon - six hours before our flight is due to leave. It feels as though we have been playing out anend game for the past week. We have had numerous frantic moments to do with renting out the house, packing, cleaning, making wills, packing, cleaning, re-roofing the shed, making storage arrangements and re-packing.
Passports ans visas only arrived yesterday - cutting it a bit fine, I thought!.
Ten there has been the traumas of all the goodbyes. Enough said.  You just have to switch channels and focus on something different or it would drive you crazy. So we focus on the journey to Euston, taxi to Paddington then flopping down inside Heathrow exoress train only to be told to get out again - with our 46kg of luggage - because the train hadn't coupled properly. I'm sure Jake could have given them advice on that! Then back onboard for the 20 minute ride to terminal 5 where Caffe Nero comes to the rescue.
The obligatory VSO crash helmets have been a real pain - taking up space and being so unwieldy when you have three other bags to carry. Heaven knows what Caroline has stuffed in hers, but it has all the weight of a cannon  ball!
Still the sun is blazing through into the  departure ;ounge and we are taking turns to pace the concourse, browse the mags in W H Smith, scan the departure boards for the progress of flight BA083 up the screen. I ponder the other destinations - about 70 before ours - and play mental maps with where they are, what the weather might be like there (forever the brit!) and who might be going there and why, which brings me full circle with another layer of self doubt.
I'm on the lookout for celebs. A spotty youth with a huge kit bag and GB track suit loped across my path but I didn't recognise him. Did see Alan Hardacre of FA notoriety at Lime Srteet, if that counts.Well, only two hours to check-in now - plenty of time to spot Kylie! But would she spot me!!
I'm now looking up at a huge poster of one of the lions in Trafalgar Square . A young woman is stretching up to give him a  kiss on the lip. It is such a  gentle image and the lion has  such a gentle, tender look in his eyes, yet such power and dignity in his face - just thought I'd share that with you!!
Trrrra for now.


Monday, 11 October 2010


In this, my second blog, I should like to acknowledge the generosity of all who have helped me to achieve my target of £1000, being my contribution towards the work of VSO. Friends and relatives have been brilliant, as have the staff at my school, Broughton Hall High School in Liverpool

As well as generous donations, many have bought copies of my two anthologies, 'Liverpool Haiku' and 'A Cycle of Days', both of which have ISBNs and can be ordered through all good bookshops! I would like to thank the staff at Birkenhead Press for their help and generosity in enabling me to bring these projects to fruition.

My 'Liverpool Skyline' paintings have brought in the most money and I have taken great pleasure in producing them - I think there are about 50 originals now in circulation.

My storypaintings have been popular too and I hope to resume this as a hobby when I return from Nigeria. I think I could make more of this - if I had a bit more business sense!

Anyhow, I am truly grateful to all who have donated, purchased and encouraged since I first was accepted for a VSO placement. It has been a long driveway, but now I feel ready to hit the open road!

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Hello dear reader/writer/thinker/insomniac,
Welcome to my blog - taken a bit of time to sort out - Technophobes Anonymous no help at all!
Our Nigerian adventure is now only 10 days away, though we seem to have been preparing for it for ever. We had confirmation today of our flight e-ticket to Abuja so now it all feels very real - and slightly scary!
Most of our prized possessions are now in an assortment of boxes, courtesy of Broughton Hall school, awaiting storage for the next two years. It really feels as though we have packed up our lives and are about to start new ones. The real trauma is yet to kick in - saying goodbye to friends and especially to our girls and grand children. My strategy for coping with this is to view our African experience as an extended 'holiday' rather than a two year absence - in any case we will be back in Blighty next summer for Katie's wedding, so it won't be that bad! We said goodbye to the cat a few days ago - no need there for any strategy on my part - apart from trying to conceal my joy!
The next consideration is going to be how much we can cram into our luggage - bearing in mind we are going to have to carry it ourselves between modes of transport when in Nigeria - assuming it all arrives! It is quite possible that one of those modes will be astride a motorcycle as pillion, which, with 40 kilos of  baggage, should be interesting.
We have been kitted out with full facial crash helmets and visors that conform to British safety standards, in readiness for our daily white-knuckle experiences, though given the road conditions VSO have failed to supply sufficient body armour for my liking.
So the next few days are going to require some hard decision-making - whether we really need to pack our own body weight in insect repellant, sun cream, travel wash, cup-a-soups, rehydration sachets, anti-malarials, after-bite and dark chocolate, or whether we can trust the local economy in Kwara State to supply us with these long term essentials.
I have already wrestled with some weighty issues - like what sort of headgear to buy, bearing in mind it can be extremely wet as well as very hot and dusty, and whether I can get away with not having to mow the lawn again before we leave.
I hope that by the time I come to add a new posting to my blog, I will have mastered the skill of adding a photo - properly. Its probably dead easy but then my ECDL qualification (Yes, I really have one!), did not cover blog-related issues - or if it did I had lost interest by then!
C U next time (Hate it when people use txt instead of proper English. Don't U? )


And it wasn't posted at 16.08 - it was well gone midnight!!