Monday, 1 August 2011


We are almost half way through our placement in Nigeria and are enjoying a temporary break in the UK to attend our daughter's wedding. On the flight back I was reflecting on our experiences of the past year or so. Amongst all the frustrations there have been good experiences and if somebody were to ask me would I rather have not come here to do this, then my answer would definitely be  'No!' It has been challenging in the extreme and you do question the validity and usefulness of your work at times, but you influence so many people in so many ways - ways that are often unseen and unheard.
You also question whether the money that has been spent on our training, flights, visas, accommodation and living allowance has been well spent. VSO gets a lot of funding from the British government and in these stringent times there is a case to answer in terms of the disbursement of tax-payers' money.
I came out here with only a vague notion of what I would be doing - in spite of IC Training - but we all hope and expect to make a difference somehow.
I have spent months delivering training to corper volunteers and class teachers; I have discussed educational issues with heads and deputies, but  feel that any inroads into an improvement in classroom practice, performance and efficiency are yet to be demonstrated and it this implementation which is the crucial next step. Perhaps at some future date a teacher may recall an aspect of training I have delivered  and give it a try. Perhaps in the real world that's as good as it can get when schools and head teachers are so locked into practices that are dictated by lack of resources, lack of expertise and particular social and cultural norms that are at odds with the way that 'we' think they should be progressing.
While there is a public examination system which remains rigidly committed to outdated modes of assessment, and while those modes of assessement are the outcome of the poverty of resources and lack of child-centred teaching that results in rote learning ad nauseam, then we have grid-lock. For the cycle to be broken, there needs to be massive input of resources and imagination at grass roots level and also at government level. So basically, that is why we are here and local schools would be worse off if we were not !
A locally-based fundamentalist group has been raising its head in unfortunate ways recently, in various parts of the country, as usual, attempting to impose a political agenda through religious argument. They are fighting what they see as hostile western influences and view education as one of the ways in which  their culture is being subverted.  But there is no debate or discussion - definitely another 'brick in the wall' and you wonder where its all going .
 Then, I think about the impact we have on a daily basis - the trainee we have spoken to about lesson planning, the child we have spoken to in the street who this time last year had never seen a white person, let alone spoken to, greeted and laughed with one; the neighbour who used to assume all white people were loaded with money and when their children reach 18,  gave them a car and  house and told them to leave home; the school girl told by her father that all Americans eat cow dung for breakfast!; the class of school children writing letters to pupils in the UK and receiving letters from them; the orphanage benefitting from donations from well-wishers and the children who now realise there are good people out there who care about them - even though they have never met them and probably never will ; the colleague who refused to talk to a person of no religion because they are afraid their atheism will  literally rub off on them. Such views and misrepresentations can only be met through direct contact and free discussion, and numerous people have said how they welcome the chance to ask questions and to learn about life outside Kwara State.
So, progress is  slow, certainly, and there are those who want to derail the system for their own ends  but nevertheless, our impact is huge.
So what does the British government get out of it? I suppose it depends on your political stance but I think  there is genuine payback in terms of a build-up, a reservoir of knowledge and understanding that returning VSOs bring with them. There is the contact, the network that we plug back into when we tell of our experiences, sharing perceptions, countering misunderstanding, facing prejudicial or biased views arising out of ignorance and intolerance - not just in schools, but in everyday conversations with family, friends, chance acquaintances in so many different contexts.  Then there is the goodwill factor and the knowledge we bring to people who rarely travel and hardly ever read,  about the UK/USA/wherever, and the chance to help people realise that what a biased media tells them may not  be a true reflection of what ordinary people are like and think and feel - and that works both ways. And I think all this builds into the British psyche which for the most parts believes in supporting those less fortunate and those who are victims of injustice and wrong-doing. If we consider that is good about being British, I would certainly say that this world view is part of it.
I am a great believer in what VSO is doing - and other NGOs - and the potential it has to bring about lasting change. I wish at times that progress was faster and easier and more sustained, but then if that were the case, we would not be needed here. So, one year in, I am more positive than I was even two months ago. It does take time to get a firm handle on what you are here to do - even though you don't expect this to be an issue, and when the handle seems loose and the screws missing you wonder if it will all fall apart; I have been through that and now hopefully have the tools and  am getting the materials i need to fix my own little bit of things as best I can - and I am looking forward to the second half.

A Child called Gift

A child called Gift
Conceived in fear and knife-edged pain
Paid in the currency of wickedness
A mother too young to survive,
A child
Having forgotten
Or not yet knowing
How to love
A gift from God
Wrapped in a plastic bag
And thrown.
The gift of sharp eyes
Of the boy who rescued her;
A gift to the world
Here, at this time,
A gift of life
To sadden and gladden,
A gift from the spirit of the universe.

African Magic

African Magic is the name of a Nigerian TV soap opera which would make 'Crossroads' or 'Acorn Antiques' (for those with long memories)  look like a performance of the RSC.
Wherever you go there is an episode of A.M. within sight and earshot  - from a scheduled meeting with the perm. Sec at the Ministry of education, to the barber of Sabo-Oke; from the MTN mobile phone office to the Anchor Hospital waiting area, African magic is your constant companion - more ubiquitous than Celine Dion! - but not so irritating!! This week i have been in three important meetings at which the blare and glare of AM has been present, competing for the attention of the person I am supposed to be discussing with.
A.M. takes place in a middle class suburb, presumably in Lagos, where the lives, intrigues, crimes, affairs and misconstrued events are supposed to take place.
The men-folk tend to be cast as either 'Oga' - 'big' men who are made to regret selfish or criminal acts, or they are dupes to the wiles of flirty wives or evil business partners.
The women usually end up shouting at a rival who has seduced their husband, or at an unreasonable boss, or is in tears, confiding in a woman- friend,  over a domestic tragedy.
I am genuinely not certain whether the ham acting is deliberate or whether it is a particular style adopted for this Nollywood production. There are frequent occasions when actors miss a cue or forget a line, or there is a break in continuity or a particular shot looks highly amateurish -  but is it all deliberate, I wonder?
The subject matter is entirely in keeping with Nigerian societal issues - crime, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, corruption, witchcraft, breaches of the 10 Commandments etc. It is all a question of men and women behaving badly - but with a moral message for us all.
In a recent episode an 'oga' was arrested on suspicion of having murdered his own son - having 'confessed' to an informant who he was just about to have killed by two henchmen. The conversation was being recorded and listened into by the police, who happened to be waiting in the next street in an unmarked car, on the informant's hidden mobile phone. As the 'baddies' were led away, the 'goody' , who had just been praised by the police for his role in apprehending the villains, seemed to have forgotten his role and was led away in disgrace by police officers along with the baddies. The scene cuts to the lounge of the oga's wife where she is in floods over her wicked husband and on the wall behind her is a large poster declaring 'The Police is your friend'!

One of my Corper trainees has been trying to get into the film industry now that his volunteering year is almost over. I hope he sets his professional sights higher than the producer of African magic ( or does its producer know his audience really well - they take it all very seriously!), unless the production is entirely tongue-in-cheek in which case it is masterful and  really good fun! It is almost worth persuing VSO to get us a telly for!