Thursday, 31 March 2011

White Hairy Beast

I was sitting in the bus today, whizzing along roads newly repaired  - someone's attempt to try and convince local voters that the State highway agency really does care about them, when out of extreme fatigue I started to contemplate the tan I have acquired on my arms over the last six months. I was surprised and mildly horrified to discover that a large proportion of the hairs on my arms are white. Have they always been, or do they just show up more easily against a tanned background? Are they additions to my collection, or are they newly bleached by the sun? Is the aging process gathering momentum in the tropical heat, is it the result of my addiction to bottled peanuts, or are my arm hairs responding to the over-use of Omo?
The real question is what, if anything, do I do about this situation?  Young children are already sometimes traumatised as I approach them - only yesterday in the ECCE school in Oro, I inadvertantly reduced a little girl to tears from a distance of 20 feet or so; she only recovered once she had been relocated by a classroom helper to a safe distance at the far end of the room and she had seen me retreating  in the opposite direction towards the door. And little Bridget's lip was certainly quivering when I touched her arm on greeting as I walked past the oil can shop - who is this white hairy beast with the shiny brown head who keeps making strange scary sounds at me?
So, should I pluck or am I stuck?
I'm not really a plucking sort of guy - chest, eye-brow, nasal, aural or any other kind - too much associated pain - and life's too short! Shaving is definitely out - can't discriminate between the white and the rest, and at Martrite prices I'm not prepared to fork out for shaving foam. So it looks like I will have to accept the inevitable - after all, my chest has borne a tangled white mat for over a decade - it makes me feel like a real old grandad though - the sort that tells stories of exploits during the war and how he got shrapnel in his leg; who once nearly met Mr Churchill, who needs a glass of beer in his local every evening and several pairs of glasses to cope with everyday life; the sort who irritates the hell out of grandma, wears a cloth cap and drives at 20mph on the motorway.
No, I have decided! Young children of Nigeria beware - I'll be out and about, in a bus or in a shop near you soon, bare-armed,  but ready to retreat once the wailing begins!   


What is it with Celine Dion? It seems the good people of Kwara State can't get enough of her. If she were to do an open-air concert in Ilorin Stadium she would fill the place to bursting - especially if there was a snack promised during the interval!
The car mechanics opposite us never seem to tire of her yodelling and if there is a need to bang and hammer at metal objects in the process of their work, then they just turn up the volume. Someone in our compound who I have yet to identify owing to the fact that Miss Dion's warblings echo and reverberate from all surrounding walls and premises, feels the need to entertain the neighbourhood at regular intervals with ALL of her greatest hits.
Even the local barber salon is no refuge. Along with a trim, I was treated to an MTV performance of Celine Dion which seriously impaired a reasonable conversation over footy, to the extent that I'm sure the barber of Sabo-Oke now thinks I DO support Arsenal, Chelsea and Man U, thereby hedging my bets over supporting this season's contenders for the Premier League Championship.
As I write, spooky or what! - CD has just come on in the bakery next door - occasionally drowned out by the noise of industrial machinery in action - Miss Dion usually wins this battle too!
Kwara Radio seems to have only Celine Dion discs in their 'western music' collection, with regular playings interrupting irritating adverts in which the only words I recognise are 'Only 50 Naira!' - possibly the current market price of a CD CD at the Emir's Palace Market.
I half expect to hear her blasting out at 1.30 am through the loudspeaker system of  our local Baptist church on some sort of tape loop. I hope she never records an album of Best Loved Hymns and Psalms or I'll be turning to drink - and I don't mean 'Maltina' (have you ever tasted anything so foul?')
Still, it could all be so much worse - it could be Whitney Houston - then I would seriously have to consider going home!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Aaaargh! (Think that's how you spell it!)

I've just acquired a worm virus - or rather my memory stick has. A momentary lapse of reason on my part - when I wanted to print off a document for a colleague and used a 'rogue' PC to do so. Some of my key folders are now infected - the ones I value the most, naturally! All my Bob Dylan stuff to start with, all my poems - 40 year's worth, and all my Nigeria workshops. It is so maddening! I wish I could get hold of the guy who is doing this and inject him with some toxic substance - or send Luigi and the boys round for a nice 'chat'. But, I am hoping all is not lost - I think I have back-up  on my PC at home - apart from the Nigeria stuff. I've been written a collection of poems since I have been here and only have a few scribbled notes left. I could kick myself, hard - but don't want to suffer the consequence of having to visit the Anchor Medical Centre!
 I can delete the infected folders from my stick, seemingly, but then when I next come to use it, they're back again - cunning little buggers! I presume my stick is now totally risky and is best abandoned. Its times like this when I wish I knew a bit more about these things.
So there is a lesson in this for all -  and no amount of ant powder poured into the USB port will remove them - I almost thought of trying it! - only joking. On the other hand ....!

A Game of Two Halves

Caught an early morning bus to town X to support corpers in their community Environmental Sanitization project. They had organised this event at their own expense - the concept being to invite the local community to volunteer to clean up their own neighbourhood – meaning on this occasion the central market area which had accumulated many years-worth of debris. All the corpers in the area turned up and together with scores of school children and local people, they raked the area and filled a large lorry to overflowing with garbage. To me the end result, though not actually clean, was a great improvement on what it had been and there is every chance that future outbreaks of salmonella and other food-related complaints may be averted. The link between public health and rubbish has, I think been made and I hope the community resolves to maintain and even improve things for the future. My role was to basically stand on a platform as the representative 'from Abuja', meet several VIPs and take part briefly in an interview for Kwara Sate TV.
When all was done and those ‘volunteers’ who had expected payment for turning up had been fobbed off with peaked caps bearing our logo, we headed for the palace to meet the local King. I remembered to take my shoes off before entering the large greeting room but completely failed to note where the king was and walked straight past him. Everyone was dressed in more or less equal degrees of finery and there was no crown in evidence, and no corgies, so what was I supposed to do. We met instead a sort of business secretary, whose title escapes me – very pleasant guy, once he came off his mobile, and very supportive of the morning’s action – even prepared to wear the t-shirt and cap – definitely not court apparel.
We then all trooped out again, and again I missed the king. I had noticed a level of deep bowing taking place but this was going on to all and sundry – nobody seemed to have been singled out for extra deep genuflecting. Well at least I did not have any holes in my socks!
That was the good part of the day. We then went off, guided by a local councillor, to meet other dignitaries and I was just being guided by the corpers. Our final meeting was with a smartly suited man who turned out to be the head of Security Services and he was not best pleased with us because we had not registered our presence with him in ‘his country’ – meaning town X. We were kept for about an hour while I had to justify being in Kwara, in town X and what was VSO all about anyway – neither had he heard of ESSPIN. My photocopied passport was grudgingly accepted once I had explained that the original was still going through Immigration procedure in Abuja – even he was surprised it had not been completed six months after arriving in the country! Apparently, I could be perceived as a security risk and may be targeted by hoodlums in which case it would be his responsibility to protect me, as a foreigner. I fully appreciated his concern and so in future I have to inform him whenever I come to his town, state where I am going and why – even though I had just told him where I go and why! He said he might want to check up on what I was doing – probably hoping a snack will come his way. No way Ade!
The meeting was not what I had expected. I was quite stunned at the heavy atmosphere and implied irresponsibility on our part – by now I was perceived to be the leader of our group, even though we tried to explain that we do not have leaders. This was a concept he could not get his head round at all. The main feeling of anger that was welling within me, was over the way the corpers were being addressed who, after all, had just performed a great public service in his town. He told them their preparations had ignored public safety when in reality his own internal communication system was at fault – nobody had told him of the event, though the police department knew about it weeks ago and had even turned up to maintain a level of supervision and security - and very pleasant they were too. My main issue was over his insults to the corpers’ intelligence. This was a most unfortunate, heavy-handed incident  which has implications, it seems, for any outsider who visits this place, especially if you are white and work for an NGO! As you may detect, I am still a tad annoyed about it all!!  To be fair, he did say my work in schools was laudable and he appreciated the aims of our organisation in his schools, but by now the damage had been done as far as we were concerned – and he never commented on the contribution the corpers had made to the community over which he has jurisdiction. He will not be getting an Easter egg from me!    

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Out in the Sticks

My job has once more morphed into something unexpected: As I cannot work at the College because the lecturers are on strike – and look set to continue their industrial action at least until June – I have been found alternative duties, one of which is to assist with the training and mentoring of the team responsible for the training of the support team who go out into the field to train the teachers! Sounds a bit over managed but it is necessary and it works, by and large.
So today I have been out in the field – literally – miles off the beaten track on tracks that have definitely never been beaten, to visit remote primary schools to see what goes on. Most of what goes on we sort of knew we would find, but to actually witness it as an experienced teacher from the west, really shakes you up and leaves you gobsmacked.
Olokota-Setu school is reached –eventually- by dirt track that winds through cassava and yam fields, through groves of mango and cashew and through small and unkempt villages. It is a one-room school – a large  mud-walled building with a new corrugated iron roof. The only window is a large hole in the wall where the daub has been eroded from the wattle. Yet inside it is cool and your eyes soon adjust to the dimness. There is a mud-walled partition separating Primary 1 from everybody else – possibly because they along with their teacher, do a lot of loud chanting and singing. All other children are arranged in small groups by year group, each with their own teacher and each doing something different – well not quite: Primary 2 and 3 were both practising ‘Letters and Sounds’ but different ones, and a lot of repetitious choral chanting was being created which basically meant that neither group could properly hear the sound being practised. Primary 4 was doing Arabic while Primary 5 and 6 were both being taught Numeracy. Sitting, listening, copying and waiting for their turn to be taught occupied the pupils’ time. Those I spoke to were quite shy and clearly unused to being asked questions or else were being dazzled by the colour of my skin; at least they didn't cry! When their teacher started to get rather angry with them for not answering me I decided to back off.  The staff were all very welcoming and friendly and I suppose most of them were doing the best they could given the circumstances but there is such a long way to go before teachers and children in rural schools get a fair deal.  
We then visited a school in Pakata - basically an urban slum. Shaban LGEA School is a primary school of over 1,000 pupils. There are not enough classrooms so two classes are put together with two teachers. In comparison with what we had just seen in rural Asa, this was progressive. The pupils were responsive and had clearly been taught with thought. There were still many lost opportunities to involve the children actively but overall the rapport was good and the staff willing to develop their skills.
There was one heart pumpin moment when a teacher who was teaching antonyms ordered a boy and girl to the front as 'visual aids' I was waiting for something revelatory to develop and then he said to the class, 'She is beautiful',  which they dutifully repeated a few times. I knew what was coming as he turned his attention to the boy. 'You can't say that. You can't say what you are about to say!' I had to intervene. He looked a bit nonplussed as I shook my head. He'd got the message and we settled for 'the gorilla is ugly' - apologies to any primates that may be following my blogs!
After an impromptu photo session and a singalong with primary 1 we returned to base with a lot to think about concerning future teacher training needs.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A Close Shave

Had a close shave yesterday - well almost: I went to a local barbing salon in Sabo-Oke for a haircut. I am a firm believer in contributing to the local economy so I chose this rather nondescript little hut just off the dirt- road- with- no- name. I chose the 'New Ventures' salon because I could get there early before the sun reached full strength and arrive withour being bathed in a film of sweat and my hair dripping onto my increasingly damp shirt.
The barber was a Chelsea supporter, nevertheless I offered him my custom even though the thought crossed my mind that this might be a bit risky - would he avenge himself of Liverpool's magnificent win over his team last week-end, I wondered, as he attached a razor blade to an ancient brick-sized shaver that was crackling away as he heated the blade with a naked flame. I asked him if he had every shaved an 'oyinbo's hair before. He hadn't, and looked decidedly nervous as he approached the task. I assured him all would be well as I wanted to lose most of my hair anyway but then had doubts as I felt the edge of the blade nick my left earlobe.  I thought I might be emerging with tribal scarring but felt no blood, so in true stiff upper lip style, allowed him to proceed.
A friend of his was watching amusedly and started to translate from Yoruba the words of an obscene song being played on the MTV - a diversionary tactic, no doubt. After a few seconds of allowing the razor to drift tentatively across my scalp, he was clearly uncertain as to how to deal with the whispy hair left on the top of my head - a feeling I once shared! His confidence grew, however, as he attacked the thicker growth at the back and sides, and great clumps fell away. Stray hairs that had been cut and lingered around my eyes and ears he removed with great gusts of breath.  After taking time out to find a huge pair of scissors, he said 'I will just cut through this!', as though he were about to machete his way through tropical undergrowth. As I didn't have my glasses on I thought he meant my neck, as all I could see in the mirror was the steel blade pointing directly at it. If I hadn't been sweating when I entered the salon, I was starting to now. But then, I reassured myself, this is a Christian neighbourhood and they have their salvation to consider so I am probably safe to continue.
Soon the ordeal was over and I leaped from the chair, asking him how much I owed him. 'Small money!' he replied, rather unhelpfully. I gave him what I thought was a fair price for not taking my life and tried to walk nonchalantly out into the street. He was clearly delighted with my contribution to the local economy and invited me to call again soon. The noun 'hell' and the phrasal verb 'freeze over' came quickly to mind!   

Its an Urban Jungle out there!

Today I was waiting for a lift ro school when a man dressed entirely in a leopardskin print suit walked past. And why shouldn't he - this is Africa!
We exchanged greetings and he continued on his way, attracting no more attention than a scouser in a shell suit walking down Lime Street.
I looked away briefly to check on the time and when I looked up again he had vanished -until I caught a glimpse of his white cap. He was about 200 metres down the road, his suit almost perfectly camouflaging him against the terracotta road surface and the ambient dust. Only his white cap enabled me to spot him as he loped across the road before an onrushing pair of taxis, disappearing into the undergrowth near to the compound of the Ministry of Wildlife Protection - only joking - it was the Surveyor General's office - the one that has no map of Ilorin!
Well I thought it was funny, anyway! 

Friday, 4 March 2011


We have had beans for tea four times this week. Last Saturday morning was spent sorting out the edible ones from those with weevil holes in. We rejected the holey ones and soaked the rest. After a few hours they had swollen up and some revealed a small grey blotch on them. If you pierce one of these you will usually find a little weevil inside – by now well past resuscitation. The problem is that  some of these little blighters get through the system even after double scrutiny, and end up in the pot to become part of  bean stew (Sunday), bean stir fry (Monday), bean, cabbage and potato hash (Tuesday) and, having been deep-frozen overnight, bean and tomato spaghetti( Wednesday). The thing is to add sufficient onion, garlic and spices to mask any weevil  flavouring and just go for it!
I have had no repercussions of the gastro-colonic- urinary kind, so I assume they are non-toxic and may even contribute to my protein intake - though they are evil-looking weevils. I just hope I never have to pick one out of my teeth!   If anyone has a suggestion as to a more efficient way of detecting and sorting beans a la weevil,  so I don’t have to regularly spend half my weekend dealing with them I would be grateful. I suppose one answer would be to opt for the Heinz variety!
Another amazing lightning display last night - or was I hallucinating following an excess of 'bush meat'?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

My Inaugural workshop part 2

Today I delivered my first workshop at Pakata High School. Once they had remembered I was coming and sent a driver to ‘pick’ me, I had a brief chat with the vice principal who clearly was not impressed by my catering arrangements for the workshop I was about to deliver in a few hours time.
I told him I had budgeted for a bottle of water and biscuits for the 50 people or so that I had heard were due to attend. This would not do! (though it ‘did’ last week at Moremi!). We trekked across the road to where a woman had a huge pan of oil boiling on an open fire – with no ingredients in it yet, but a toddler standing close by!. After a short negotiation, she agreed to make 50 egg rolls (Doughnut with an egg in it ) by 2pm for 50 naira each (about 20p). I forked out the money, hoping that her snot dribbling offspring would be playing no part in the food preparation. We then  drove off towards the city centre in search of 50 cans of soft drink, a pack of serviettes and some ice blocks. All this was because it was suggested to me, the success of the workshop would in no small way be gauged by the quality of the catering; they all expected a ‘snack’ and the drinks to be chilled.
Two hours later after visits to many roadside stalls and shops -  even to a senator’s house where it was alleged that ice blocks could be bought, we arrived back in school and I was left to prepare for the afternoon session – until four pupils came into my office clearly wanting to chat and remind me that they wanted me to take them to the UK when I next returned home!
The training was scheduled to start at 2.15pm , the first participants  arriving at around 2.30 and drifted  in over the following twenty minutes, some with babies strapped to their backs. This I sort of expected but had not bargained on the first twenty minutes of the session being set aside for the snack. And I knew we had to start with prayers, so how did this fit in with them eating? This is a potential minefield! We got underway at about 3pm and things went fine until about 3.55 when an activity I had planned turned out to contain rather a contentious issue and there was loud discussion which threatened to continue indefinitely.  I thought things were going from bad to worse when a few men got up and left. Surely ‘Values and Attitudes in Education’ can’t be that contentious an issue here! I think God came to my rescue as I realised it was at 4pm  that the menfolk started to get up and go – the call to prayer had begun.   I thought it was all over and so packed away my stuff.  Just as I was preparing  to leave, some people came back for the rest of the session.  Maybe they had prayed the second half of my presentation would be better than the first and were returning to see whether or not Allah was smiling on them and their prayers had been answered! There was clearly a mismatch of expectations at play here and something I need to address next time I am at Pakata.