Monday, 31 January 2011


I wrote this poem following a lesson where I heard the title barked out repeatedly and, in my opinion unjustly, to a pupil. Its effect was merely to embarrass the girl and cause her to take no further part in the lesson.

You say I’m not a proper student -
Not a proper student, you say,
Though I rise with the cockerel at first light of day
Trekking for an hour my hot, dusty way
To arrive here on time – just like you.

I’m not a proper student,  you say -
But wear my uniform with pride
From  the hardest work never hide
Knowing that within me, I’ve always tried
And always clapping you when you ask me to!

So, I’m not a proper student
Though I copy from the chalkboard all day long,
Risk a beating if I get things wrong;
But it’s so hot in here – the sun, so strong
It steals your thoughts  from you.

Not a proper student
Yet absence, I have none
And the homework you set me is always done -
Though outside I could have been having more fun.
Does my commitment mean nothing to you?

Not a proper student
Cause I don’t  answer questions?
Perhaps I’m afraid of your wicked stick
That meets every fault with a whack -
Safer to say nothing to you.

Not a proper student?
With these windows of  distraction
Flies  and  goats  and pupils whose class is  out of action –
Their teacher not in today. What should be my reaction?
Continue with my studies. Could you?

So, to be a proper student
Must I squat on furniture, splintered and broken,
Show some interest but gain only a token
Of recognition, be in no way outspoken
Nor question what’s false and what’s true?

And if I seem to be not a proper student
Perhaps my tiredness is catching up with me
From minding my sisters late into the night,
From doing the chores from first break of light,
From  straining to see with imperfect sight,
Unsure if my future is cloudy or bright,
If  dreams  that I hold could come true.

And if I’m not a proper student,
Then why would I care
That my progress is slow even when you are there,
That my books fall apart from sheer wear and tear?
I want to think for myself but opportunities are rare;
I want more of your time but you have none to spare;
So frustrated I could tear out my hair –
I want to shout out, but I simply don’t dare.
So, like you, I do what I can with what I’ve got
And,  just  like you, I’m still there!

Lea Knowles

Och Aye the Noo! That’s not Cricket!

I have never ever heard anybody actually say this – even with all our visits to friends and relatives in Scotland. No idea what a ‘noo’ is – unless it is ‘Ocheye the Gnu’, but then what is a gnu doing in  Scotland, eh?
Anyway, we had a frustrating morning – got a taxi to the Glo office to query our dongle which is not performing, but none of the staff had bothered to bring their laptops in, so in this major office for the Ilorin area they were unable to test their own product!
We consoled ourselves with a coconut fly and a fruit juice in the nearby Ostrich bakery to make us feel the taxi fare had not been wasted, though actually we didn’t pay it – a fellow passenger paid for us – wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He was called Suraj and was a vet. He said he wanted to talk to us about England and could get us a dog if we wanted one. He took Caroline’s number and has not left us alone since!
The rest of the day was spent at Sue’s house, playing with the kids and watching the fourth round of the FA cup – in between bouts of tickling, playing spiders and making towers out of bricks and eating chips!!
Then Harold, Andrea and several work colleagues turned up and Harold coached us all in the basics of cricket which was great fun. The guards watching us must have thought we were stark raving mad! We plan to have a match against the Ministry of Education when we have perfected our skills – could be a while off yet! Harold put us through our paces with coaching on fielding, bowling and batting techniques as well as sandwich and beer consumption and the finer points of etiquette before, during and after the match. As I said, great fun!
When the children had gone to bed and the Man U match had ended, we belatedly celebrated Burn’s night. We did it with all the trimmings – piping in the haggises (haggi?) including a vegetarian one – a whisky toast to the haggises, neeps and tatties (without the neeps - can't get a neep here for love nor money - a completely neepless society) and Emma reciting the time-honoured verses in praise of them – in her finest Scottish accent. After we had eaten I read my poem ‘A Proper Student’ (see next blog) which was received well. To round off the evening we went outside and lit an eco-friendly Chinese lantern, watching it rise and disappear over the rooftops of Ilorin. I’m sure this would have been quite a surprise to any upturned faces – the star of Bethlehem perhaps, or a sign presaging the end of the harmattan or the world, whichever is the sooner; or a reconnaissance mission from some superior alien race, come to deliver us from goats, traffic and politicians. Anyway, it was very nice and prompted a meditative silence from our group as the lantern rose into the night sky. A geat day after all, spent with great people!

Monday, 17 January 2011

A Walk on the Wild Side.

I set out today to walk a part of the city I had not previously visited in order to expand the area of my map - the one I am compiling because I can't seem to acquire one from anywhere else. I headed for Muritala – possibly the busiest road in the city – grid-locked at a police-controlled intersection where rush hour traffic does anything but! Judging by the looks I was getting, either my flies were undone or they don’t see many ‘oybos’ round here. I got talking to two guys who were just sitting in the shade on sacks of grain because they had nothing else to do. One was an out-of-work construction engineer who pleaded for me to help get him to the UK.- failing that, to give him something – ‘anything at all, it doesn’t matter how little’. I had nothing to offer, venturing out with just a pencil and notebook, neither of which I thought they would have had in mind.
So I wished them luck and walked on, shortly passing a taxi which had driven  into the roadside ditch and was now listing completely at a 45 degree angle (possibly only 40 degrees) .  Several young men were in the ditch with it inspecting the suspension –or maybe wondering if it had actually had any!
I was planning to do a circular walk, but with no maps to guide me ....!  I took a right and walked along Fate Road, enclosing more of my circle by walking east, I hoped. Someone in a car stopped to ask where my vehicle was and why was I walking and did I want him to take me somewhere?  I assured him all was well and explained my cartographic mission which really needed to be carried out on foot....  ‘and you need the exercise’ he added.
‘Thanks!’ I thought, as he pulled away, ‘I’ll have you know I am at least one trouser size less now than when I first came out here!’ I strode off purposefully in case he was looking back through his rear-view mirror, so he would see me in athletic stride, belieing my age and apparent obesity.
I decided to take the next right which by my reckoning would half enclose the circle and lead me back towards the inner city. Fifteen minutes later I turned into a pleasant street where, lo and behold, I could see on the skyline the rear of the Kwara Hotel, not far from home. My sense of direction was still intact unaffected seemingly, by  my body mass or the utter lunacy of trekking in the late morning heat. Coming up the road towards me was a herd of bony, white cattle with fearsome looking horns that could shred a tyre, no problem, trying to nibble the roadside weeds and neatly trimmed hedges in this fairly affluent suburb. Their drover seemed a fairly laid-back guy, weilding his stick with less energy than a sloth with a hangover. Slowly they moved up the street, turned into a leafy crescent and were soon out of sight. 
I hadn’t realised that I had been gaining in height – or rather altitude – I am still somewhat vertically challenged, personally, and would welcome a few extra inches! I came to a spot where I had a nice view down to a small dam and lake where flocks of birds – egrets I think – were paddling. Framed by glades of banana and paw-paw, this green oasis in the dusty harmattan smog was a sight for saw eyes. A nice place for a picnic, possibly, but you never know what is lurking in the undergrowth and a little way down towards the lake was a huge bloke with a machete - I decided not to ask! 
After a short breather (which I didn’t really need!) I continued, keeping the hotel in my sights, until I realised my circle was more complete than I had thought. Another right took me down a dusty track and into the ‘Flower Garden’ – a tangle of tropical forest left undisturbed apart from a few squatter families. It looked as though it would be ’mosquito city’ in the evening; this is where all those bats were heading from that we saw last week. The track led me into a lush valley, across a rickety wooden bridge made of planks, and up the other side into Sabo-Oke. On this final leg of my walk I met a white-robed gent who, clearly seeing his opportunity to make a quick buck, took out of his shoulder bag a small drum and hooked drumstick and started beating out a rhythm for his one-man audience. After a couple of dozen beats and with no sign of a tip forthcoming, he held out his hand for money. I lamely praised the level of his expertise, was tempted but refrained from mentioning X factor, made a weak apology and continued uphill, arriving back just before my brain reached boiling point!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

After our Christmas 'vacation' in Sue's house, we have moved back to out flat in Sabo-Oke - or should that be Sabo- Pokey or, with the harmattan in full flow, Sabo-Chokey! A cool, dry, north wind has been blowing for the past couple of weeks, straight down from the Sahara.
Good points:
  • It reduces the morning temperatures to somewhere in the lower 20s which makes it feel quite fresh - a good time of day for travelling, getting the shopping done or even visiting the pool (too cold for the locals so it is less crowded).
  • Cockroaches don't seem to like it - they are often found in the morning, belly up and gasping their last.
Bad points:
  •  it brings with it a fine dust which has no problem penetrating the anti-mosquito defences at our windows. Everywhere and everything is coated in it. It gives you a dry throat and eyes and makes you feel generally grubby.
  • unless you have a firm grasp of the covers, you wake in the early hours with chilled feet - and a light dusting of sand!
So, its back to 'normality'. We have been spoiled over the past few weeks - electricity 24/7, satellite TV, someone to clean for us, space to work and cook without getting on top of each other - metaphorically speaking! The ability to prepare scrumptious repasts on a two ring gas cooker, with minimal work surfaces, by candle-light, has taken some time to perfect and I now fear my skills in this area have been allowed to atrophy. Tonight's meal was an indicator test - spag bol - without the bol - fried onions, tomatoes and chick peas replacing the quorn I had come to know and love so much! What could go wrong? Running out of candle, and not being able to distinguish whether or not those black splodges on the kitchen floor are part of the 'mosaic' patterning on the tiles or a military operation by a platoon of cockroaches, ready to take advantage of any spillages as I try to spoon out the grub. I don't really like treading on cockroaches - it makes a crunching sound not unlike - though much quieter - the colliding of two okadas, or one okada with a wall. Anyway, if the harmattan returns tonight they may all blitzed by the morning!

Monday, 10 January 2011

A Blessing in Disguise?

Midway through an uneventful morning, wandering round Pakata taking photographs, the Head of JS school arrived in her 'new' car. She parked it beneath the shade tree, got out, greeted all who were around and put the bonnet lid up, possibly expecting everybody to admire the engine as much as the bodywork and interior design, or alternatively, about to seek advice on some mechanical difficulty; a small group assembled near the open bonnet and from their rather solemn demeanour I assumed it was the latter. They gave the engine a serious staring at, which would have had just as much effect as thrashing it within an inch of its life with a bunch of twigs - Basil Fawlty style! More people arrived plus a wandering cockerel, and eventually the car was surrounded. Then a religious-looking guy started chanting. I didn't think voodoo stuff would work either and in any case this was a moslem chap. Soon everyone was reciting or joining in prayers, palms of their hands upraised - not for some mystical resurrection of the engine, my friend told me, but as blessings for the safety and no doubt the courage the driver would need to display on a daily basis; also for the wellbeing of any future passengers. It was a surprise and a nice thing to do, effected with sincerity and affection. I challenge the AA to offer such a service as part of their customer care package alongside Relay and Homestart. They could hook up with the Anglican church and maybe offer discount MOTs while -u-pray. The possibilities are endless!Twenty minutes later and procedings did not look a though they would be ending any time soon so, curiosity sated, I took my leave and went to hail  a taxi home from outside the school gate. The one that eventually stopped had a boot lid that refused to shut. At every junction some well-meaning passer-by would attempt to close it forcibly and at every pothole  or speed bump that we ignored- which was pretty much all of them -the lid crashed down, making the rest of the vehicle shudder. At first I thought we were being rammed from behind and fully expected to hear the sound of springs, hubcaps and splintered plastic falling into the road. Clearly this vehicle had not had the benefits of a blessing ..... or had it, as I live to tell the tale!  

Saturday, 1 January 2011

An Oro Story!

Went to Oro, about an hour’s drive from Ilorin – by bus.  Time to face my demons, though some of the drivers are quite pleasant! The trip was as much for a change of scene as anything else, though it was useful to see Kwara State College of Education where there is a possibility I may be working, eventually.
Nearly two hours after getting on the bus, we were dropped at the roadside in Oro, and after a quick drink in a bar before we caught some bite or other, we asked for directions and, to the disbelief of the person we asked, refused the offer of an okada and started to walk in the direction indicated  towards the College.  Almost immediately Caroline tripped and fell, grazing her wrist and knee, banging her head and covering herself in dust. Immediately a small crowd of people came across, offering help, handkerchiefs and sympathy – it was very touching and we were very grateful for their concern.  ‘Perhaps now you will take on okada’, was the advice from our friend. When we again tried to explain that we preferred to walk in order to appreciate the town better, he gave up asking – even offered to pay for us – and escorted us through some short-cuts and alleyways most of the way to the College. It wasn’t far, but walking any sort of distance is not something that Nigerians would choose to do, it seems.  What could have taken only ten minutes in fact took about half an hour with all the waving and acknowledgment  of greetings that accompanied us on our way.
Oro is an old town with many rather quaint but shabby old buildings – difficult to put a date to. There are plenty of old churches too which are probably worth a visit on some future date.
The usual carpet of debris and burning pyres of garbage with attendant  goat  lined our walk to the College, but once we had climbed the hill to the fairly impressive arched gateway and been allowed in by a guard, we were in a neatly laid out and fairly tidy complex of classrooms, auditoria, offices  and lecture halls. There was plenty of seating beneath shady trees where no doubt would-be teachers would spend their free time discussing weighty educational matters and recent Premier League results (though not necessarily in that order!)  This site is destined to become something of a showpiece, a model teacher training facility, a centre of excellence. I could see the potential in the site. I hope it happens and I hope I can be part of it – especially the discussing of weighty Premier League matters beneath shady trees bit!

New Year Resolution

Not sure whether I should be committing this article to blog, but obviously I have!
And I have done so in the interests of recording my true feelings and thoughts as I continue on my VSO journey – and not just the good bits. Also  because I think and hope that anybody reading this who may be considering taking up an overseas placement as a volunteer, will gain from it a sense of the realities of volunteering that could, I suppose affect anyone – so here goes!
For the past week I’ve been designing a series of training workshops for secondary schools. However, I don’t know if I will ever deliver them, and if I were to, who to, where, and increasingly, why? My original placement description has been found to be unworkable in practice for a number of reasons.  For a start, it would have meant at least four hours a day spent on a Nigerian bus getting to and from the ten schools allocated to me. I have tried it over a one week period and, as previous blogs will have conveyed, the experience is not one I would recommend . Its rather painful on the bum muscles.
Having had all this time over Christmas to think and ponder , I am still uncertain as to whether this is really what I should be doing at my time in life. Baby Jesus would have been nearly a week old by now, 2010 years ago, and probably out of nappies, eating solids and discussing the meaning of life with church elders, whilst I can’t seem to get started on a placement which I should be completely comfortable about delivering.
 And yet I am having anxieties. I had been getting over the ‘travel-to-work-in-this-vehicle-at-your-own-risk’ scenario, the daily grind of food shopping on foot, of smiling and waving enthusiastically  at every adult and child who calls ‘Oyibo’ at you in the street, of the constant noise of generators, motorbikes, beeping, bleeping car horns, the grinding of heavy machinery used next door in the process of making bread, the thudding of woodchopper-man,  the evangelical praise and song from a dozen churches delivered through ear-bashing speakers to the entire community, the incessant crowing of cockerels who don’t seem to have heard or grasped that dawn does not last all day and that after about 9am it would be a decent thing to do to shut up!  My nostrils had been sort of getting  accustomed to the daily assault from  plumes of smoke from garbage fires and vehicle exhausts, the whiff of something foul lurking in street drains, the burning of rubber tyres for no other  reason than to get rid of them. I had almost resigned myself to not being able to enjoy a peaceful walk in the countryside, watching birds, admiring trees, feasting my eyes on distant hills and feeling a fresh breeze on my skin.
But the past two weeks has been spent ‘on vacation’ in a fairly well-off suburb, house-sitting for a friend who is on leave in the UK. This, I feel now, has softened me up, set me back, spoiled me, if you will, and soon I must attempt to rebuild my inner fortress. Not that I am ungrateful – far from it. I had been suffering greatly from footy-deprivation and the past couple of weeks have been wonderful in reconnecting me to the beautiful game – Liverpool results not withstanding.
It’s also hard not to be envious of other volunteers in other parts of the world who we trained with who have been enjoying beach parties, visiting far flung places, absorbing wonderful cultural experiences etc. I am genuinely pleased for them, of course, but it makes me wish our placement wasn’t so hard to endure day to day.
So it’s hard to push away thoughts of an early return, especially when we know we could be helping our family through a difficult winter – and saving ourselves a load of money.
There, I’ve said it! The ‘R’ word.  Maybe I’ve got it out of my system now. Maybe having verbalised it and accepted that it is a realistic option, I can be more philosophical about things out here. We are not in a prison, after all, and we are not prisoners.  But a sense of duty, instilled in me from an early age, is a hard burden to bear.
Now that I have given myself licence to moan and probably embarrassed myself to millions – well tens – of people (OK , so there’s 9 of you!), and hopefully having given myself a bit of a talking to, I must now welcome in the New Year. Time to get over it and start focusing on the positives! (Someone please remind me I wrote that, when I revert to a morbid state of mind somewhere down the line!)