Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Children's Day

Yesterday afternoon we attended a celebration in the State Governor’s banquet hall  to mark the occasion of the commissioning of lesson plans for Primary 1 to 3, which will now be used throughout all State primary schools and marks a watershed, hopefully, in the quality of teaching in literacy and numeracy delivered to young children. A huge effort has been made, supported by the Honourable Commissioner for Education, by many dedicated professionals to get these plans in place. Caroline has had a large hand in this (her hands aren’t really very large but her fingers are quite slender!) and had spent most of the morning helping decorate the hall to give it the sense of occasion that the event deserved. The Governor himself was to address the assembled dignitaries, press, members of the public, children and their teachers, ex-pats and those who are still fairly ‘pat’.
The children had been rehearsing all week and had prepared a number of songs, role plays and mock lessons as demonstrations of just how far things have progressed over the past four years.
Three hours later than the scheduled start of the celebration there was still no news as to when the Governor would arrive. Seemingly out of the question for a text message or phone call to be sent to let us know what was going on! The children had been sitting for hours – nothing to eat or drink and good as gold, having performed all the tricks asked of them and probably understanding little of what the occasion was about.
Eventually the High Table was assembled – the Governor would not be present after all and would be represented by his deputy. Those who clapped the loudest and longest as each dignitary was invited to take their place, were the children. All due protocols having been observed, speeches were made and the children got to perform part of their programme.
When he finally came to make his brief speech, the deputy governor started by saying ‘I started as a teacher’, which earned him a round of applause.  By the end I would have liked to be able to say ‘Then you should know what it is like for the children and their teachers to prepare for events such as this, and at the very least thank them for their essential contribution to the occasion!’ Those kids deserved better, their teachers deserved congratulations as did all the staff who had  planned and prepared the lesson plans. This didn’t happen! The boxes of lesson plans that had been brought into the hall prior to being distributed to hundreds of schools remained unveiled, not even looked at by the politicians. In the end people were told to cut their speeches short and the kids did not get to perform some of the routines they had practised. ‘Children are used to disappointment!’ I was told. In my opinion this had turned out to be an event for political self-gratification, not to celebrate the efforts of those who have worked hard to bring it all to fruition, nor for the children or for this milestone hopefully pointing towards brighter future prospects. I'm sure the children will have something to remember of the day, other than thirst and hunger pangs, but as an objective observer I can only think back to the comment of the teenager at Pakata Girls School who told me she loved her country but didn't think her country loved her!
Yesterday was National Children’s Day!

Another Close Encounter

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Back to Basics

Having enjoyed three weeks in the UK recuperating and girding our loins for the next three months  of our stint out here, we arrived back in Sabo-Oke 24 hours after leaving the family, most of which time was spent hanging around Abuja airport. After admiring the artificial plants in the foyer of the domestic terminal, artificial cacti and palm trees amongst them – why bother, they are growing outside anyway!  there is not a lot else to do – an ATM, a souvenir shop, a currency exchange, four identical cafĂ© bars and a toilet facility. The cafes were upstairs and the lifts would not take a luggage trolley so we could not avail ourselves of these until we had checked in our luggage – which we were not allowed to do until it was practically time to board the plane. Quel dommage!   What I wrote concerning airports in a recent blog ? Doesn’t apply to Abuja!
Anyway, first job on arriving back at the flat was to inspect it for furry creatures, dead or alive, that may have been enticed by the bait I put out for them before we left  - not a wise move, I feel, on retrospect.
Having spent £3.45 in the UK on a humane mouse trap, I was slightly peeved to find no evidence whatsoever of rodent activity – unless they had nibbled the blue peanut butter and all considerately gone off to die somewhere else!  There had been a lot of cockroach activity though. After crunching around through wing cases, dismembered legs and assorted other body parts, armed with dustpan and brush, we scooped up enough remains to supply an oriental soup kitchen for a month. We settled for a hot chocolate – one of our treats from home – and an early night. The Yoruba gods must have been smiling on us as we had NEPA all night to keep the fan going.
It was not long, however, before we awoke to the familiar sounds of the local dawn chorus – from all the surrounding churches, mosques, generators, the car repair facility, local radio afficionados and general domestic argument.
The following morning was spent sweeping dust from every corner of the flat. It is amazing how much accumulated in spite of the fact that all the windows and internal doors were shut!  We bought some essential foodstuffs and in the process met with our neighbours  who were delighted to welcome us back. “What have you brought me?” they usually say once the greetings are over. When we tell them we have only brought things for the orphanage, they are fine – and would have been anyway. Caroline’s stock answer is “We have brought ourselves and our friendship”, which I think gets lost on most people, but  does deflect the conversation onto other things.  We were immediately reminded of one of the main reasons we are doing this:  It is not about the place, the environment, the weather or even the culture, but totally about the people. If we were feeling rather down (to say the least!) on our arrival back here, the big smiles and greetings of everyone around us was most heart-warming and has kept us going through our 'rehabilitation'.
VSO does not really prepare you (how can it!) for the aftermath of the return, mid-placement visit home. On your initial encounter with Nigeria, everything is gobsmackingly different and new, and you find yourself almst overwhelmed by everything you need to take in and digest (including in  a culinary sense). There is so much you gradually get used to and you ease yourself, in a manner of speaking, into the daily rhythm of your life and work. Returning to the UK upset this delicate equilibrium big-style - at least for us. It brought home to us just how much we have missed and value our friends and family and how so much easier life is in the UK in just about every way possible. We thought going back to Nigeria would be easier this time as we knew what to expect, but the flip side of this is that you truly know what you are missing and this time round you are not engaging your reptilian brain, wondering how you are going to survive with restricted power, water and transport services on an unfamiliar diet, while fending off little creatures. Rather, you have the time to dwell on the loss you are feeling and the emotional side of things dominates.
So, having felt a bit sorry for ourselves for a while, its time to knuckle down and pick up the job where we left off - on which point there is some encouraging news: the College have accepted by refurbishment and training proposals for the new Education resource centre and have actually started stripping off the old roof and reconstructing the roof trusses.  'What has brought this about?' I cynically wonder to myself - I'm still waiting for the 'sting'! 

Thursday, 12 May 2011


This blog needs to be written, though it pains me to do so.
Today I witnessed about 30 girls in turn being flogged by a teacher, with something resembling a cat-o-nine tails, made out of knotted ropes. It seems this guy is appointed to the task as I have seen him perform this duty before. He was taking his time over it while the girls waited nervously for their turn; I can only interpret this as a deliberate intention on his part to heighten the fear factor among the girls and maximize the effect ‘pour encourager les autres’ .  He was  watched,  by four other teachers and a large crowd of girls as their friends were publicly ’dealt with’ and ran off sobbing afterwards. Each girl received five or six lashes across back and shoulders while in a kneeling position on the gravel floor. The girls would raise their arms in self defence and the teacher seek out an unprotected area before delivering his blow, which came with some force being  in a raised position. You could hear the lashes across the school site.
I don’t know what the girls had done to deserve this treatment – I suspect nothing much! Earlier, I had seen a class of girls whose teacher was not in school, left to their own devices with no attempt to provide cover or ‘absorb’ them. They were a bit noisy but some had taken the initiative and gone into the next room, which was vacant – actually a building still under construction! – to do some private study. This class received a tongue lashing from a passing teacher and I think this was the same group of girls who were singled out for corporal punishment.
I  made my feelings on this issue known in my first weeks in this school when I first witnessed it. I met with wry smiles from teachers present, including senior management, when I made my comments.  Since them I had not seen a repeat until today’s humiliation.
I now need to think through what course of action I should take. Having witnessed this I cannot let it lie.