Monday, 1 November 2010

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.


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