Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Very Nigerian Birthday

On the 18th I celebrated my 23rd birthday. It was my very first birthday abroad. Having a summer birthday has usually meant celebrating with my parents. But the last two years I celebrated at camp and this year I celebrated in the heat of Africa. I had very low expectations for what my birthday would look like here. I didn’t want to get my hopes up and then be disappointed (incase everyone forgot). It started out simply enough, Kerry wished me a happy birthday and I went to work.

When I got to school the teachers greeted me simply enough, a quick happy birthday and then back to work. But at ten o’clock precisely all the teachers in my special class (about five) got together to sing me happy birthday and present me with gifts. The gifts were a large bouquet of plastic orange roses and a packet of biscuits (the Nigerian equivalent of unsweetened cookies). They started singing in Igbo and dancing the lovely and simple dance that Nigerians dance. It isn’t a dance of many moves, but it is beautiful in its simplicity and its beat. The song they sang in Igbo Oriya obuna metu ibe ya aka si ya. Ahurum gi na-nya ibu onye uwa oma . ahuru gin a-nya. Vivian, one of the teachers in my class loosely translated this as “In order to show our love for you, we should all come up and touch you”. As they sang these words, true to the lyrics every single person in the class came up and touched me. It was quite powerful really, being sung to by 30 or so Autistic and Downs Syndrome children. After the class presentation/celebration, the director, Hildegard came into the class with a basket (made by the children at the workshop) filled with even more biscuits and followed by even more teachers. At this point, there were maybe 50 people crammed into the classroom, singing to me and helping me celebrate my birthday.

I got home completely surprised and satisfied by the love that had been shown to me. But it was not finished, not at all. Kerry had stayed home from work this day and in her time planned an amazing scavenger hunt for me. The Nancy Drew Game it was called and had me search all around the compound (helped by certain clues of course) for my gifts. The first clue led me outside to the palm tree, where my second clue was waiting for me. The second clue let me upstairs to the bathroom, where a bottle of Kerry and my favorite wine (in Nigeria) was sitting in bucket. The third clue led me under Kerry’s pillow where a bottle of ground nuts (mmmm my favorite!) was hiding. Number four led me to the scale out in the living room (you see, the Nigerians have this really FLATTERING way of calling me fat as often as they can) where yet another bottle of wine was waiting. One for me, one for her! The fifth clue, which kindly calmed my fears about being fat, led me to the mango trees outside where an imaginary gift from Sebas was waiting. The next clue led me to the fridge and then again to the pantry where a book about a disabled man lay. The seventh clue led me outdoors again, to the clothesline, where a beautiful brass bracelet was hanging. Finally, the last clue led me to the amazing Nigerian birthday card. The thing about Nigerian cards is… they are tacky and strange. “Cheer up, it’s your birthday” it said. And inside, “Because you are special and kind, today will be the beginning of a ceaseless raining of favour over your head! You shall receive in abundance whatever you ask for from God as from today and evermore!” Wow. See what I mean? I am glad to see that from now on, my 23rd birthday, I will get everything I ever wanted! Kerry and I celebrated later that week by drinking the wine and eating the ground nuts. It was a good day.

The 22nd was the final day of celebrations for the birthday. I went downstairs for lunch and everyone gathered to eat. After the sisters prayed, they sang me happy birthday, followed by a chorus of ‘How old are you now?’ and ‘Many more years to come’. When it came time to cut the cake the sisters sang the Swahili song Malaika to me. I wish I could accurately describe these sisters when they are in birthday mode; they are very funny and creative. They also presented me with a gift of beautiful Nigerian fabric and yes, more groundnuts! Annette turned to Kerry and said, “I expect we won’t be seeing much of those”. That is because we will eat them all, in a record breaking short period of time.

So it was my 23rd birthday, and while I didn’t spend it in Minnesota with my stateside family and friends, I did get to spend it with my Nigerian family and friends, and it couldn’t have been better. I am lucky to be in such an amazing place and celebrating with such amazing and creative people, who clearly love me.


Monday, May 12, 2008

The funny thing about Africa is…

The diseases you get. Really it isn’t so funny. I have Malaria and Typhoid. Let me just start at the beginning.

First of all, I probably deserve this, because Kerry is eternally getting bit by mosquitoes. Any time of the day I can look over at her and she will be swatting furiously at some little winged creatures. I always laugh, rather cruelly, to be honest, that it is her and not me. The mosquitoes don’t even bother with me. Then we laugh and joke about how Nigeria is so mean to her, with the mosquitoes, mango mouth and heat rash. I have even been so bold as to say, “You will probably get malaria at least once, while I will be malaria free!” I am sure you would agree that I have jinxed myself.

This whole scene has been happening for months now. But add to it the multiplying fatigue and headaches and I was starting to feel a bit run down. Finally, on Thursday, I called my boss and told her I was sick and not coming into school. “Check for Malaria” was her reply. I didn’t. I thought, how could I possibly have malaria? I can count the number of times on one hand that I have been bitten. So I ignored her advice and went to sleep. O, it was not good. I had this pain all up and down my arms and legs, my head was splitting and I was so tired. I just lay in my bed and tried to escape the misery. Half way through the day there was a knock on the door. It was one of the sisters, mad at me that I didn’t tell them I was not feeling well. I described what I was feeling and I saw her lips turn into a thin line. “You have malaria”, she said. Later that afternoon I was escorted to the hospital for a blood test. I also decided to have the typhoid test too, just to be sure.

The next day I went back for my results and sure enough I have them both! I came back to the house, armed with several different kinds of antibiotics to combat the diseases. Now I am taking about a dozen pills a day, and getting better. People keep freaking out about my ‘diseases’. I don’t know why I am putting that in quotations, because I do have ‘diseases’. I guess it just feels funny to call them ‘diseases’. But the truth of the matter is this: I have malaria and typhoid. But I am in no way in danger. I was lucky to have been tested early on while the bacteria were young. I have not suffered most of the awful symptoms that people associate with malaria and typhoid: high fevers, nausea, chills ect. I am just a bit tired, and if I exert myself too much I tend to have a headache and need a nap. Hopefully I will be back to my old self in no time.

Actually, in a little side note… My worrying mother emailed Kerry to ask “How is she, really”? Kerry in her response noted that at that very moment I was sitting in front of my closet, exclaiming in English and Spanish that I couldn’t find my razors. So that is an indication that I must be ok…

To sum it all up, I had a note on my bed from Kerry yesterday: ‘Congratulations on your African Baptism’ it said. You haven’t really experienced Africa till you have malaria and/or typhoid. At least that’s what people tell me.

You know you’re in Nigeria when…

I have been thinking a lot lately what my family and friends would find odd or even scary in Nigeria. So I decided to create a list. These are all things I have gotten used to over the course of the last few months, so they no longer seem bizarre. But to other people, they just might.

You know you’re in Nigeria when…

A small bus meant to hold 12 people actually holds about 20.

When the electricity turns off randomly, everyone simultaneously shouts ‘NEPA!’ (Usually accompanied by shaking fists, at least with Kerry and I)

The rooster starts crowing by about 3 am. Whoever said they start when the sun comes up was lying.

You respond when people call out ‘Sister’ (As in Reverend Sister…)

You hear about 50 people a day calling Nyacha. When that doesn’t get your attention they shout Oibo. If that also fails, they yell White!

You will get in the car with most strangers, since they already seem to know who you are, your phone number, where you live, where you work and who your ‘sister’ is (And all of her information as well).

You no longer find it strange to find whole animals in food. Usually it is a chicken or fish, but it has been known to be a goat head or something.

The torrential rains can start and stop at any moment. One minute the sun will be shining, the next it will be hurricane season in Nigeria. Soon after that, it will be 90 degrees again.

With in a few minutes of getting asked out, or asked for your number, you are then proposed to. Usually this happens to Kerry. As she is ‘unattached’, she can accept numbers and such. I think I am better at being aloof (or rude, depending on how you look at it). As her mothers asked one day, “Is Malika doing a better job of behaving herself than you?’

You dream about the day you will be able to wear long pants again, or even better, a jacket…

You realize that you don’t remember the last time you showered.

You can walk out the front door and pick oranges, avocados and mangoes right off the tree.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Chidemma and myself at the school in Awkunanaw

Fridays in Awkunanaw

Every Friday, Kerry and I go to Awkunanaw. We really love it there, and miss it since we have moved to the Nwodo community. Here is what a Friday looks like for me.

My alarm goes off at 5:50 am on Friday morning. I roll out of bed and dress, eat some food and get ready to catch the bus. By 6:20, Kerry and I are walking out the door. We walk to the bus stop and wait with the hordes of other people hoping to go to the village. A small bus rolls to a stop in front of us, calling La-out, La-out, Garicky! (This is translates to New Layout aka the bus we need to take to Awkunanaw) Everyone crowds around the bus. By the time we are all in, there are about 20 people in a bus designed to hold 12. On a good day the bus will not fall apart (though some days it is unavoidable... Ask me someday about the day when the seat broke and the door fell off. The conductor then put the door on top of the bus.). Nigerian roads leave something to be desired, so imagine with every bump in the road, comes a bump on our heads. After about 45 minutes or so, along unimaginable roads, we ask the conductor to pull over and let us out. We hand over about 60 Naira (the equivolent of about 50 cents)and start to walk to school. From where the bus drops us off we should have a 15 minute walk to Notre Dame school. But usually a random car, filled with our students) will pull over and give us a lift the rest of the way.

At school I work in the Nursery Library, tutoring kids and testing them on their reading and English skills. When I am not in the library, I try to go to some classrooms and help out. At noon, I meet with the kids of primary 4A and sing with them. It is a highlight of my week here. We sing for about an hour, and they love it! Right now we have mastered 'Lean on Me', and we are working on 'Seasons of Love' and 'The Hokey Pokey'. They even sang 'Happy Birthday' on the phone to my cousin Grace a few weeks ago. They were so excited to talk on the phone to America.

One little girl, Chidemma, is a love and a dear. She is the most amazing girl I have met here! Everyday, she comes and hugs me, often handing me notes. She is always well behaved, for me and Kerry, who is teaching English. She will often scold the little miscreants in the class, and then apologize profusely for them later. She is the light of my life! School ends at 1:30. The children run around and hug us and say goodbye, always hoping we will come back on Monday instead of Friday.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


I split my time at the Therapeutic Day Care Center between the school, working in the therapy hall, the nursery class for special needs children and the workshop and vocational school down the road. While I have spent almost three weeks at this school, today was my first day at the workshop. There are about a 100 young people that work here. They are graduates of the primary school and have been allowed to continue on to the vocational school to be taught a trade. The hope is, that they will learn a trade (such as carpentry, batik making, sewing, weaving, hairdressing or other various skills) and be able to use these skills to make a living. Some day, becoming self sufficient. I am going to be devoting a large chunk of my time at the workshop to a young man with Autism named Arinze.

Arinze has a sad history. When he was young, his parents were interested in bringing him to this school. The drove several hours, from another state, so he could meet Hildegard and enroll in the school. They, like most people, fell in love and decided he would go here. On the way home they were murdered, in front of Arinze’s very eyes. He lost both of his parents in the blink of an eye, and his two siblings were sent to Canada to live with family there. Arinze was left behind, with no one to care for him, as is often the case with disabled children in Nigeria. Somehow, through the charity and good will of Hildegard, a place was found for him and he started school in Enugu. Now he is 24 years old, and developing his skills as a tailor. The going is slow, but he like all the others here, shows great potential and keep improving.

To be quite honest, Arinze reminds me of the character from Office Space, the one with the stapler. He is very funny, and through out the day has made me laugh so many times. He is very verbal and doesn’t want to stop talking. He is so afraid of losing my attention that he is constantly tapping my arm, for fear I will go somewhere else.

I worked with him for five hours today and this was the extent of our conversation,

“Auntie, I really like school. For Arinze is a hard working boy. Arinze is the hardest working boy here. Auntie headmis (the headmistress) says that she will get me some more sewing materials because I am such a hardworking boy. I came back from the holiday yesterday. I am so happy to be back in school, because I love it and Arinze is a hardworking boy. I love to sew. I want another pocket on this shirt I am sewing, can I have more pockets?”

Me: “Arinze, if there is time, we can start on another pocket.”

Arinze: “Ok. (pause) Is there time? Auntie, I want to teach you to sew because I like your watch. Arinze is the hardest working boy.”

Now add a dozen pokes and multiply the conversation by five hours and mix it around a little bit. That was my time spent with Arinze. One might think that I would not enjoy such time spent with this man, but he was hilarious! I think that such people have a lot to give to the rest of us. I am excited to spend more time with him.