Monday, November 3, 2008

Batauri Bye Bye

“Batauri, Bye Bye!” As I walked around my adopted hometowns of Kagoro and Kafanchan, I heard this phrase countless times, usually from the children in the village as I passed by. And now, it really is time for this batauri to say goodbye, as my placement in Nigeria is coming to an end and I’m returning to Canada on November 14th. I hope to arrive in Toronto on the 15th.

What a year it’s been! Prior to arriving in Abuja last November, I had only spent three weeks at a time outside of Canada, and the prospect of being away for an entire year was a daunting one, especially given Nigeria’s reputation for corruption, crime and violence. Though I did my best to assure myself through discussions with previous volunteers that I would not be robbed or kidnapped the moment I stepped off the plane, there remained a part of me that was prepared for the worst. With the year now complete, I’m happy to say that all of those fears were unfounded, and in the words of the inimitable Johnny Cash, I’ve ended up a wiser, weaker man for the time spent here; weaker, because my body has taken plenty of hits throughout the year from illnesses and public transport, and wiser, from the truths that I’ve discovered since I’ve been here.

I’ve rarely used this blog as a pulpit, and I don’t intend to turn this last entry into a sermon, but there are certain myths that deserve to be dispelled about Nigeria. I’m careful to be specific to Nigeria here, rather than to apply these thoughts to the broader continent, because just as Canada cannot be said to represent all of North America, it is equally wrong to assume that Nigeria is the standard bearer for Africa. The continent is too diverse for any one country to take on that role.

As I’ve said, Nigeria suffers one of the worst international reputations to be found anywhere in the world. To be sure, the corruption that has come to symbolize the country is rife among government officials and others in positions of power, but the same cannot be said for the average person who lives here. For every person who may have tried to get an additional twenty naira from me for a motorbike ride or a package of sweets, there is another who gave me change when I was expecting none. On the other hand, it is equally false to assume there is an innate nobility within the average Nigerian, just as it wrong to make that same assumption about the average Canadian. And that’s the point I’m trying to make: the people here are not that different from our friends and family back home. The cultures in Nigeria are of course quite different from our own, but underneath all of that, the people here have the same hopes and fears that we all experience. I’ve laughed at the same jokes as I would have back home and I’ve shaken my head at the same stupid behaviours. Treating the people here as something different, either by demonizing them or elevating to the status of angels, does them a tremendous disservice and gets in the way of working with them effectively.

It’s also true to say that there is tremendous need in the country, but it is not of the type that most people would first envision. Most people are familiar with the images of Africa provided by some aid agencies that characterize it as a place beset by starvation and utter deprivation. Crying babies with swollen bellies are used as a prompt to get us to donate and otherwise support their efforts. It should be emphasized that this is not a myth and it is not misrepresentation, as there are parts of Africa that are dealing with crises of this magnitude. But it should not be taken as the situation everywhere on the continent. I can only speak for the communities that I called home for the past year, but in those locations, the people are not suffering from the degree of hunger that is usually associated with famine or other state of severe starvation. The neighbourhood children that live near me are far more likely to be crying because their older siblings smacked them or stole their favourite toys than they are because they are hungry. This is not to say that their situation is perfect, because concerns about proper nutrition and other problems associated with their diet remain unaddressed, not to mention the other needs in their lives, such as health care and education, where huge gaps remain. But the situation is far from hopeless and a solid base does exist that can be used as a starting point for providing assistance and working with the people here to deal with their issues. This should be the focus for anyone considering providing assistance of any kind, rather than being simply overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges to be tackled.

This year has meant much to me, both professionally and personally. As my first assignment in my new career in development, the VSO posting gave me the opportunity to put into practice the training I had received in international project management and to experience the joys and frustrations that go with working in Nigeria. I’ve been driven to insanity by the infrastructure limitations that exist here, but I’ve also experienced the high that comes with finally connecting with my counterparts and seeing them develop new skills. On a personal level, I met many fine people, both Nigerians and ex-pats, and they all contributed to making this year an unforgettable one. The VSO group of volunteers here deserves special mention, because their friendship and support throughout the year helped keep me balanced when things threatened to derail me. And then there’s Kristel, the most important person that I met while I was here. Even if nothing else had gone right during the time I spent here, I would have considered this year my best one because she became a part of my life. I look forward to our next adventure together, wherever it may be!

And to all of you who have been regular readers of this blog, thanks for your interest and your comments. Special thanks should go to Victor and Kevin for their unfailing correspondence over the past year. Emails from friends and family back home were very important to me, as a dose of Canada was the perfect tonic for the occasional Nigerian headache. I hope that we’ll be able to continue exploring the world together whenever this Canuck goes amuck again. This will likely be at the end of January, so stay tuned. Until then, keep well and happy!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hooray for Nollywood

The film director stands in the blazing sun of the Kaduna afternoon. Mopping the sweat from his face, he motions for his newest discovery to take centre stage and deliver his lines to the crowd of extras assembled beneath the protective shade of the gateway arch. The camera man does a sweep of the scene to capture the moment as the star confidently rises from his seat to address his audience. The director leans in for a last-minute word of advice and his leading man nods his understanding before turning to provide the climatic speech. A brief pause for dramatic effect, and then, in a booming voice as warm as the afternoon sun, he calls out, “Sannuku! Lafiya! Oh, no! I messed that up!” The crowd erupts with laughter. The director shakes his head and makes a note to do some serious editing later on or maybe add this scene to the blooper reel.

So much for my film debut.

The film industry in Nigeria is a booming affair, ranking only behind the US and India in terms of production, according to some accounts. Local films run around the clock on the Africa Magic television channel, and shelves in the community shops are overflowing with new titles every month. With so many movies being produced, it should be no surprise that most of the films won’t merit Oscar consideration, with camera work that is shakier than an earthquake and acting that recalls the subtle craft of the Three Stooges. But putting aside the technical considerations, the stories are usually very entertaining, whether retelling old myths or attempting to create new ones. The combination of gangsters and lions might seem an unlikely one at first, but a healthy suspension of disbelief is often rewarded with a tale that would never make it to celluloid anywhere else in the world.

My introduction to Nollywood happened last weekend when Kristel invited me to the release party for her first film – Called to Missions. She had been asked to star in the film over a year ago through an acquaintance who knew people in the movie industry. Her role as a development worker in the film benefited from her actual experience of working in the field, and she impressed the director so much that her role was expanded through later shoots. During the course of my time in Nigeria, I heard many times about the progress that was being made on getting the film ready to be launched, but delays pushed the release date back repeatedly, until it seemed that it would be unlikely that we would see the film before we left the country in November. When told of her departure date, the director assured Kristel that it would be ready in time, so a party was planned and Kristel extended invitations to a handful of her closest friends.

As with most things in Nigeria, the event turned out to be quite different than expected. Instead of a simple occasion where DVDs would be handed out after the requisite speeches and thank you’s, we arrived to find that the director had a different agenda in mind. Apologizing from the start that the DVD was still not completed and would not be available for us to take away, he was determined that the event should not go to waste, so he decided that it would be filmed and incorporated into the final cut of the movie or at least form part of the documentary that he wanted to complete that would chronicle the making of the film. These would all be details that would presumably be worked out at some other time .

Speaking to the understandably confused group of people in front of him, he thanked us for coming and then asked us to come again. Right now. Leading us out to the road, he pointed to our vehicle parked in the shade of a tree and asked us to get into the truck and drive down the road with a couple of the other cars. “We want to capture your arrival, so turn the truck around at the end of road and drive toward us. We’ll wait here and greet you when you get here.” Seeing our chance for stardom, Kristel’s entourage eagerly piled into the truck and drove down the road to await our cue. I suddenly became aware of how sad I was going to look on film, wearing a T-shirt and pants that would have been appropriate if I was portraying Charlie Brown in a Peanuts epic. My hair was also a wonder, with sprigs sticking out from the side of my head in what I hoped would be seen as my homage to Kramer from Seinfeld. Seeing the director wave, we drove down the road with deliberate slowness to convey the seriousness and passion of NGO workers. As promised, the crowd waved and welcomed us and we greeted the people that we had already met. My sunglasses hid my eyes well, so my efforts to make them twinkle with delight probably weren’t captured by the camera following us around.

After a tour of the village, we assembled under an arch that provided the only shade in the immediate area. The director pointed at various cast members seated among the crew and gave them their instructions regarding their lines. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether we were still filming the movie or if we had moved on to the documentary, so my performance technique shifted between method acting and pretending I was on Survivor. Eventually, the director came over to Kristel and explained what he wanted from her. “I want you to stand up and greet the crowd,” he said, “Use all of the Hausa that you know.” Kristel happily obliged and delivered a series of greetings in fluent Hausa that were warmly received by the crowd. “And now, I want you to do the same,” he said, looking at me. And that’s how I came to make a complete arse of myself on film in two languages. Giving me the opportunity to redeem myself, he asked me to explain why I had left Canada and what I had accomplished in Nigeria. “Get him to do it in Hausa,” some wiseass in the crowd said. I hope they can edit that out.

With the speeches complete, the film crew had a special surprise in store for Kristel. Bringing out a framed certificate that confirmed her contributions to the film, they thanked her for everything that she had done and wished her well when she returned to the Netherlands. Promising that the DVD would be available before she left, the director assured us that the film would be complete by the following weekend. “And now, it’s time for us to film you leaving,” he said, which we took as our cue to go. Lining up beside the vehicle, the film’s crew and stars shook hands with each of us as we climbed into the truck and drove away. It was too early in the day for us to drive off into the sunset, but I’m sure they can add that in later on.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Chief of Kagoro Dies

On January 1st of this year, Kristel and I attended the Kagoro Festival, presided over by the chief of the community, Chief Gwamna Awan. Chief for 63 years, he was one of the longest serving rulers in the country, and his death at the age of 90, while not unexpected, has deeply affected the community. What follows is his obituary from the Nigerian Daily Trust newspaper.

The longest serving traditional ruler in Northern Nigeria, Chief of Kagoro Malam Danladi Gwamna Awan, died in Jos on Tuesday after a protracted illness, the Kaduna State Government announced yesterday. He was 90. It said Awan died at the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) Hospitday.

Malam Gwamna Awan was born at Kagoro in 1918. He started school with evening classes in 1928-32, before he went to the Elementary Teachers Centre, Toro in present-day Bauchi State in 1933-35. Awan started teaching at the Sudan Interior Mission [SIM] Elementary School, Kagoro in 1936, and was transferred to the South Sudan Mission Elementary School, Kafanchan in 1938, where he combined teaching with Christian evangelism. He returned to Kagoro in 1939 to teach at the Elementary Teachers Centre.

In 1940, Malam Gwamna Awan joined the Zazzau Native Authority as an Assistant Scribe. His contemporaries said his acumen greatly improved the tax collection system in those days and led to the execution of many development projects in the area, including the building of a modern palace for the then Chief of Kagoro, his uncle Malam Biya Kaka, in 1943.

When Malam Biya Kaka died in August 1944, Gwamna Awan was appointed the acting Chief, and he was formally installed as the 5th Chief of Kagoro by the then colonial Resident of Zaria Province on April 11, 1945. Many eminent citizens yesterday described the departed Awan as a bridge builder and a pillar of support whose long reign was characterised by peace and progress in Kagoro Chiefdom.

Former three-time chairman of Kaura Local Government in Kaduna State and current House of Representatives member for the area Mr. Barnabas Bala Bantex said Awan was an icon of peace and development who ranked alongside the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello in leadership vision. He also described him as a fair and just ruler who wished the best for his people and for Northern Nigeria. Awan was deeply interested in Western education and empowerment of the youth, Bantex also said.

For his part, member of the House of Representatives representing Kaduna North, Alhaji Muhammadu Sani Ibrahim, Wakilin Jema’a, said Awan was a detribalised Nigerian who shunned all ethnic and religious bigotry and worked very hard for the upliftment of his people, his state, country and all mankind. al in Jos. He had been the Chief of Kagoro since 1945, and had outlived colonial rule, three republics, three phases of military rule and dozens of presidents and state governors. Kaduna State Governor Muhammad Namadi Sambo said Chief Awan’s death was a great loss not only to the people of Kagoro chiefdom but to the entire people of the state. He described the late monarch as “one of the greatest elders of our time”.

The statement, which was signed by the Director General, Media and Publicity in the Sir Kashim Ibrahim House, Alhaji Umar Sani, said, “With a heavy heart, total submission to the will of the Almighty God and deep sense of loss, [Governor Sambo] regrets to announce the passing away to glory of the oldest monarch in Africa and the Chief of Kagoro Malam (Dr) Danladi Gwamna Awan, Member of the British Empire (MBE) and Officer of the Order of the Niger(OON), which sad event occurred in the early hours of 30th September, 2008 at the ECWA Evangelical Hospital, Jos, Plateau State after a protracted illness”.

The governor prayed for the repose of the deceased’s soul and is expected to pay a condolence visit to the family at Kagoro.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Batauri Blues

(With apologies to Bob Dylan)

Broken sunglasses (two pair)
Got big holes in my broken underwear
Broken alarm clock won't wake me it seems
From sleep that's broken by Lariam dreams
Car's out of gas, you must be jokin'
Everything is broken

Broken school system, a strike descends
Weeks go by and no one attends
Broken education, no children learning
Except how bleak their future's turning
Young minds wasted, a damning trend
Everything is broken

Broken laptop battery, how I cried
Replaced the battery, then my laptop died
Broken DVDs, some won't play
Broke copyright laws buying them anyway
Broken lantern spits fumes that are chokin'
Everything is broken

Broken roads, craters abound
Broken speed limits, no cops around
Broken bodies in broken cars
Broken headlights? Drive by the stars
Pass that van, though a semi is approachin'
Everything is broken

Broken watch tells me time I can't trust
Its broken replacement is collecting dust
Broken shaver won't trim my goatee
Broken mirror won't set my reflection free
Broken mosquito net invites malaria in
Everything is broken

Broken NEPA, no switches work
Broken water, diseases lurk
Broken babies face broken starts
HIV silences broken hearts
The hardships mount, the deluge soakin'
Everything is broken

All the things that I have broken
Are only things, their losses token
People here bear worse and remain
Comparing our struggles would leave me ashamed
Their spirit still soars, their faith has no end
Seems not everything is broken

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Disbursement Day

One of the projects that I worked on for the Fantsuam Foundation was the development of a proposal for funding from the Friends of Nigeria, a group of former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in Nigeria in the 1960's and 1970's. Upon review of the proposal, the FON generously agreed to provide a grant to Fantsuam's Microfinance Department. For those of you unfamiliar with microfinance, it consists of very small loans (often $100 or less) provided to each member of a group of women needing support to start up their own businesses or expand their existing enterprises. These loans are repaid to the lender according to an agreed upon schedule, and the group members are responsible for ensuring that all members make this repayment. Upon successful repayment, the group may then qualify for a larger loan if desired. Though the amounts may not sound substantial to those of us accustomed to borrowing large sums for the purchase of homes or cars, these microfinance loans make a world of difference for people who need only very modest amounts to achieve much for themselves. For more on microfinance, check out the granddaddy of them all, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh:

After reviewing the potential groups who could receive the FON loan, it was decided that a group of women in the Zankan Marwa chiefdom, close to Kafanchan, would be the recipients. These women had previously received and repaid a loan to support themselves in the production and sale of maize and yam to their fellow villagers. On September 9th, I travelled with a group from Fantsuam as they made the disbursement of the loan to the women. After a series of discussions with the women regarding the loans, the leader of the group was presented with the loan, and she presided over the presentation of a share of the loan to each of the other women in the group.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Only Penguin in Nigeria (Part II)

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had just arrived in Bashu village after a harrowing bike ride that left bricks in the pants of one of them. What awaits them in the village? Read on, if you dare.........

By this time, the entire village was aware of our arrival. From the looks we were getting, we may as well have descended from the heavens in a shiny spaceship and demanded to see their leader. The children were especially curious, and a crowd soon assembled outside the office where we had been deposited by our drivers. The boldest of them gave us waves that we returned, something that the daredevils could boast about to their pals later on at the bar when they were doing shots of milk. Eventually, a delegation of clearly perplexed men arrived to let us into the office. After the exchange of greetings, the spokesman for the group politely asked us why we had come. Kristel explained that Joseph from the Obudu Cattle Ranch said we should visit, hoping the mention of our guide’s name would kickstart the welcome wagon. From the confused looks on the faces of our new hosts, we may as well have said we were sent by Darth Vader. Taking the lead, another of the group introduced himself as a representative of the Cross River National Park and he welcomed us to the Park. Now, if he could just have a look at our visitors’ permit? Uh oh. Looking at each other, Kristel and I played a mental game of rock-paper-scissors. Rock beats scissors. Kristel broke the bad news, “We don’t have a permit. Joseph didn’t tell us we needed one.” A murmur went through the delegation. Whoever this Joseph was, he was clearly a troublemaker, sending hopeless white people to them without the proper paperwork.

Explaining that a permit was necessary to visit the Park, the rep helpfully explained that we could get one from the Park office and then return. “And where’s the office?” I asked. “Near Ikom,” he replied. Ikom, as in Ikom-at-the-other-end-of-our-dirt-road-nightmare. “The Park is very wonderful,” the rep continued, ignoring the distressed look on our faces. “There are elephants and gorillas and chimpanzees and unicorns and leprechauns”. Well, OK, he didn’t mention the last two, but he may as well have, considering we wouldn’t be seeing any of the others, either. “We’re only here for a day,” Kristel replied, “Is there anything we can do without the permit?” “Of course!”, said the spokesman, seizing control of the conversation again, “You can sleep in our eco-lodges and visit the Picathartes Sanctuary.” “Sounds great!” Kristel and I exclaimed, neither one of us knowing what the hell a Picathartes was, though if forced to guess, I would have said it was either a dinosaur or an ancient Greek philosopher. Either way, the pictures would be interesting.

Pointing at a sketch on the wall, the spokesman told us that the Picathartes was a rare species of bird found in this region. A bird? I risked my life to see a bird? So much for making the cover of National Geographic or Philosophers Monthly. I tried to conceal my disappointment as he explained the project designed to ensure the preservation of this stupid bird. Asking if we wanted to go to the Sanctuary now, we said we preferred to settle in to our eco-lodge first. Before leaving the office, we were presented with their visitors’ register and we were amazed to find we were their first guests in over six months. Six months! Small wonder that we caused such a commotion.

Leading us down a path away from the village, the spokesman started up what would become a familiar refrain throughout our stay, “You really should have let us know you were coming. We aren’t prepared”. The tone wasn’t angry, more apologetic than anything else. Reaching the group of eco-lodges, we found a site that likely hadn’t been touched since the last visitors were here. “Eco-lodge” is a term in common use throughout the world and generally is applied to any inn that practices some form of ecologically responsible operation, whether it's recycling its waste water or running its systems off solar power. In this case, the best that could be said was that the site was producing very little waste of any kind. But the cabins were in a decent state of repair, and we had the pick of the lot. Settling on #5, we were ushered away by our entourage, who promised to do a radical makeover of the inside. Kristel and I were charmed by the effort that was being made and feeling somewhat guilty over the obvious disruption we had caused.

A tour of the village was the next item on the itinerary, and our walk revealed a community that was surprisingly large, given how remote it had seemed. A school with an attractive football field was the centrepiece of the village, and the shops and bars found in other places also made their presence known here. We were joined on the tour by practically every child in the village, so we began to feel like pied pipers. Two girls with albinism were pushed toward us by the other children, who obviously thought we should meet others like us. The girls seemed an accepted part of the community, but our visit seemed to aggravate the divide between them and the other children, resulting in much unwanted attention. “They call these girls ‘Oyibos’, just like you!” our tour guide said with a laugh. What a tough life they must lead, I thought.

Returning to our cabin, we found the delegation had been true to its word, and mattresses and floor mats now decorated our new home. Stretched out on the mattresses for a lunch of sardines and crackers, we soon heard the return of the delegation. A knock on the door was followed by shouted greetings, even though they were only five feet away from us. One by one, they entered and said hello, and soon our one-room cabin was filled. After another exchange of greetings, the room fell silent, and Kristel and I exchanged “What is this?” glances. Finally, one of the delegation identified himself as the Director of Tourism and introduced each of the others in turn, and we understood that this was our official welcoming ceremony. The Director apologized for the state of the cabin and seemed embarrassed that we had caught them so unprepared. We assured them that everything was more than fine and that we appreciated their efforts. Settling on a time of four o’clock for our visit to the Sanctuary, we said our goodbyes and the delegation departed, only to reassemble in front our cabin. After an intense discussion, another knock on the door and shouted greetings, as if they hadn’t just left five minutes ago. “What do you take for your dinner?” came the question through the screen door, “We will tell the cook lady to cook for you.” After some debate over why we didn’t want meat, we reached agreement with them on rice and stew (a sauce for the rice), and the delegation once again bid us farewell, leaving us to our sardines.

At four o’clock, we made our way up the path and found a new delegation waiting for us at the top of the hill. The leader this time was the Parks rep, who had apparently resigned himself to the fact that we were never going to visit his park. Walking along the same road that we had flown over with the bikes, we soon came to a stream that seemed bound to defeat my waterproof boots. “No problem. I will carry you.” offered the rep, crouching down. Given that my last piggyback ride was when I was five, I was somewhat reluctant, but it came down to my dignity versus my dry feet. So long, pride! With Kristel snapping pictures to capture the moment, I jumped on the rep’s back and he waded through the stream, carrying me like the world’s biggest toddler. Actually, I started to like being carried, so I was sad when I was dumped on the other side of the stream. We next tackled the hill leading to the Sanctuary, and this provided ample evidence of how badly out of shape I am. I was afraid my wheezing would scare away any Picathartes not accustomed to flabby birdwatchers, so I was glad to finally see the Sanctuary shack jutting out of the hillside.

Arriving inside, the rep flipped down one of the sideboards and motioned for us to follow his lead and look outside. And there we sat, for the next hour. Every once in a while, the rep would stir and point with quiet excitement up in the trees and his companions would make noises indicating their awe. I started to think they were having us on, because I couldn’t see a thing, so every once in a while, I would point up in the trees as well, even if it was just my imagination playing tricks on me. Maybe I watched too many music videos in my youth, but my attention span isn’t what it used to be, so after twenty minutes of staring at leaves, I started to get restless and walked around the inside of the shack, mindful of every creak and snap I was causing. On one of my strolls, I looked up through a crack in the roof and there it was! A Picathartes! Its great grey head bobbed up and down on a branch not twenty feet away. I tried to get people’s attention through a series of whimpers and coughs, and finally Kristel turned around to see what was wrong with me. Pointing up through the roof, I tried to get my message across, but my attempt was in vain, for by the time that Kristel looked up, the bird was gone. But I had seen the damn thing, so my march up the mountain was not for nothing. After another forty minutes of watching the rain fall on the leaves, the rep gave the signal and we started down the hill. “So, I saw one of them”, I said proudly to the rep as we descended. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he replied, “Especially that brilliant red head”. Red head? What the %$*$ did I see? “Yeah, it was pretty spectacular,” I lied. Stupid Picathartes.

As we headed down the hill, Kristel and one of the guides carried on ahead of the rest of us and soon disappeared from view. Suddenly, there was a series of shouts coming from their direction. At last! I thought. A Picathartes! Or maybe at least a pretty crow! Rushing to catch up to them, we found Kristel spinning around and swatting at her legs while the guide stood to one side and watched her. Poor girl, I thought. She’s finally snapped. Travelling with me has finally sent her over the edge. “Ants! Ants are biting me!” she yelled as she continued her solo dance. Seeing her in distress, I sprang into action and immediately tried to find another path for myself. Soon, I started to feel things crawling up my legs as well, and Kristel and I began grooving together to a silent beat. Watching us with a mixture of sympathy and amusement, our companions seemed curiously unaffected by the ants. Finally, the rep said, “Maybe we will walk on and leave you to….” he mimed dropping his pants. Once the delegation was out of sight, we did just that, any sense of embarrassment being overshadowed by the need to get to the ants before they got to our naughty bits. The ants were nothing if not tenacious, and once they latched on to the skin, they refused to let go. Taking our cue from the chimps at Afi Mountain, Kristel and I did a good job of inspecting each other and picking off the offending insects one by one. Finally, when no more could be found, we pulled up our pants and joined the others at the base of the hill, our dignity in tatters but our private parts intact.

With the sun dropping below the mountains, I retired to our cabin while Kristel went to settle our account and take another look at the sketch of the bird we never saw. Arriving shortly after me, she entered the cabin to find me cleaning off the remaining dead ants clinging to me. I barely had time to cover up before the delegation paid us another visit to check on us and drop off our dinner. Bidding us a good night, they walked up the path and stopped within earshot. Another intense discussion. “What do you suppose they’re talking about this time?” Kristel asked. “My guess is they’re trying to figure out how to get us some light.” I replied. Sure enough, twenty minutes later, the delegation returned with a battery operated nightlight for us, just in time to save us from the encroaching gloom. Confirming our departure time of six a.m. with them, we wished them a good night once more and settled in to fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and probably a few Picathartes. Bastards.

Getting up the next morning before dawn, we stumbled out of the cabin to wash up and brush our teeth, hoping that we made enough noise to scare away anything big enough to eat us. The delegation awaited us at the office in the village and we met the director of the Sanctuary project for the first time. “You really should have let us know you were coming,” he said. But we assured him that everything was great, and we meant it. The effort made by the villagers was touching and we appreciated everything they did for us. Refusing to let us leave before taking a few pictures, the director posed us on either side of the sign for the Sanctuary and snapped away. Considering how I looked, I doubted I would merit consideration as their poster child. Twin barking coughs down the road signaled the return of our bikes and I resisted the urge to embrace my driver, sensing this might spike the cost of the return trip. Handing me a piece of paper with contact information on it, the director made me promise to tell others about them so that they could expect more visitors like us. And one last time: “But please tell them to contact us before they come.”

On the road once again, we sped along at an even faster clip than the day before, our drivers obviously in a hurry to return to their beds or maybe meet their Maker. A bridge proved insurmountable for two of us on the bike, so my driver reluctantly asked me to get off, as though this diminished his reputation for good service. Stopping short of the main road to clean his legs in a stream, my driver asked me what I could give him. “Like what?” I asked, fearing the worst. “How about a book?” he replied, “Or maybe a shirt?” “You want one of my shirts?” I asked incredulously. Having smelled the inside of my backpack over the past two days, I wasn’t sure I wanted any of my shirts, but I agreed to give him one when we arrived at the main road. Handing him one of the shirts, he said, “No, I want the red one you wore yesterday”. My Antarctica shirt. The one emblazoned with the name of the ship that took me there and a picture of one of the penguins that greeted me when I arrived. A collector’s item now, considering that the ship was now sitting at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean, the victim of an undetected iceberg. But I thought of the conversations bound to be sparked in the village by a shirt bearing a penguin and the name of a continent a world away, and I realized it probably had more value for him than for me. Tossing it to him, I told him it needed a good wash and he proudly unfurled it across his chest for all to see, a smelly souvenir of the two Oyibos who came to visit without calling first.

Bashu Village and Picathartes Sanctuary

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Only Penguin in Nigeria (Part I)

The network of VSO volunteers in Nigeria has covered the country like a spy ring, minus the nifty gadgets and femmes fatales. Few groups have travelled as extensively as this hardy group of expats, and the information they have gathered could fill a guidebook. And has, in fact. The most recent version of the Bradt guide contains extensive submissions from Kevin O’Rourke, a volunteer stationed in Kaduna for two years. His output was legendary, extending even to the design of a transit map for the local buses. Of course, the amount of exploration undertaken by the VSO gang does lend itself to a kind of healthy competition. Mention a weekend outing to a fellow volunteer and one is likely to receive a slight smile in return, followed by a long-winded tale that begins “You should have been there with me in ’06 when I was robbed by a cross-eyed pirate with a wooden nose. Now, that was interesting.” Travel to such famous locations as the Wikki Warm Springs is usually only mentioned in passing to avoid the embarrassment of being outed as some kind of tourist virgin. So, discovering an area as yet unexplored by fellow VSO’ers is a bit like finding the Fountain of Youth in the middle of the Lost City of Gold. And that’s just what Kristel and I did on the last leg of our visit to Cross River State.

The discovery almost didn’t happen, thanks to my rapid transformation into a crotchety old man. As I’ve said before, travel in this country is not for the faint of heart or the prone of bitchiness. A week on the road here is the equivalent of 87 years in Canada. So, on what I thought was our final stop on our tour through the state, I was less than enthusiastic when our nature reserve guide leaned in and, in a low voice that could easily have been mistaken for a conspiratorial whisper, told us of a place that was relatively unknown and difficult to find. I acknowledged his directions with a quick nod of the head and a “Uh huh. Yup. Got it”, only to look over and see Kristel carefully writing down every last dirt road and police station. Fuckaduck, I thought. But at this point, our choices were to head back a day early to face a premature return to our respective offices or to press on into the unknown, so I gave my head a shake and opted for a new adventure.

It didn’t begin well. The rainy season was on full display as our car splashed its way down the road. Public transport is always a novel experience, and this time was no exception, as there were actually two people sitting in the driver’s seat. Not sure whose foot was on the gas pedal, but my money was on the guy who had more interest in the radio than the road. As we reached our destination, Kristel asked that we be dropped at the police station. “What? Back there?” one of our drivers said, as we sailed on down the highway. “No, this is just as good”, he said, stopping the car by a lonely lean-to that was currently sheltering a dozen people from the monsoon. Dragging our sodden bags under cover, we joined the others and listened to their discussion that likely centred on building an ark. When the rain finally eased to a downpour, Kristel began the negotiations for our bike ride to the village. Told by our guide a day earlier that the cost should be no more than 500 naira each, we were less than impressed by the opening demand of four times that much. This was soon halved by Kristel’s persistence and my supportive frowning. The deal hit a stalemate at this point and we considered abandoning the whole trip, going so far as to stand by the side of the road to try to flag down another overcrowded vehicle.

But Kristel refused to quit, so while I stood by the road, she continued to talk to the drivers. At one point, one of the villagers came out to join me by the roadside. Expecting some camaraderie, I instead found him staring at me. “You have something here”, he said, pointing at my face. “Where?” I said, imagining some bug about to suck my brains out through my nose. Apparently, my question was taken as an invitation, because before I could stop him, he jammed his finger in the corner of my eye. “Still there” he said, coming in for another try. “No, I’ve got it, thanks”, I said, waving him off, my watering eye surely drowning anything that posed a threat. Our intimate encounter did not go unnoticed by the rest of the villagers, who now formed an appreciative audience by the roadside. Wading through them, Kristel gave me a smile that showed she had enjoyed the performance as well.

Getting down to business, she said the drivers wouldn’t accept our final offer of 700 naira, so we were finished with them. We had resigned ourselves to a long ride home when a miracle happened. Breaking solidarity with his biker brethren, one of the drivers drove up to us and said he would take us for 700 naira. With the wall now torn down, the others jumped to get a piece of the action and we soon had a half-dozen bikes circling around us like raspy vultures. My bag bounced from one bike to the next before I finally yelled, “SOMEBODY TAKE US!” I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at a group of complete strangers before, and as a first effort, it came across a bit more needy than I would have liked. But it was effective, and two drivers finally broke from the pack and asserted their right to take us. With my backpack nestled between the handlebars, my driver and I took the lead on the dirt road, with Kristel and her man in close pursuit.

And what a road it was. If our previous ride to Afi Mountain was risky, this one was downright dangerous. The rains had turned the road into a treacherous slick, with huge ruts in the road giving way to mounds of mud topped by a track no wider than the tires on the bikes. Zooming along these precipices with the precision of a tightrope walker, the drivers hit them as fast as they could, fearing a stall that would surrender their bikes to a boggy end. The stretches of road that were relatively solid were seen as a way to make up for lost time, so we took them at top speed. I began to pray that the next corner would reveal another wallow, so we could at least stop breaking the sound barrier, Along the way, we passed through villages whose inhabitants clearly weren’t expecting white people to be making an appearance that morning. “Oyibo!” yelled the children as we flew past. “Help meeeeee!” I tried to yell in return. At the forty-five minute mark, we reached a river that I thought signaled the end of the road, but our drivers refused to give in, and we forded it like pioneers on a cattle drive. Finally, we reached the village of Bashu and I clambered off the bike on very shaky legs. Pulling up behind me, Kristel jumped off her bike, showing no signs of our near-death experience. “Maybe we should give them 1000 naira,” she whispered to me and I nodded my wholehearted agreement, recognizing that a small bonus payment might be the only way to ensure that the drivers would return to take us back to the outside world.

Will Kristel and Glenn make it back to the outside world? Will they still be talking to each other by the end of this trip? And where's the penguin? For answers to these questions and more, tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of “The Only Penguin in Nigeria”.

Monday, August 25, 2008

FACC is Funded!

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had developed a proposal on behalf of the Fantsuam Foundation for the creation of the Fantsuam Advocacy Centre for Children (FACC), an organization dedicated to raising awareness of children’s rights and lobbying for changes to the legislation in order to increase the protection given to them. We have now received the good news that the Canadian government, through its international development agency, CIDA, has agreed to fund the proposal! This is very good news, and the Foundation is eager to get started on the project. Though my time at the Foundation is growing short, I hope to assist with the initial project setup that will be completed during my remaining two months here.

What follows is an excerpt from the proposal that describes the need for the project and an overview of how the project will seek to address these concerns. Anyone interested in further details can drop me a note at

The Need for Advocacy on Behalf of Children in Nigeria

Children in the southern part of Kaduna state are regularly subjected to abuses of their human rights and do not currently have a voice to protect them against such abuses or to advocate for changes on their behalf. The abuses are widespread and harm for the children exists at the family, community and institutional levels. The types of domestic abuse to which the children are exposed cover the spectrum of mistreatment from neglect to the infliction of physical and mental cruelty. In extreme cases, children have died as a result of the injuries sustained. Of particular concern is the recent upswing in cases of children being accused of witchcraft by adults who blame them for the misfortunes they are suffering, including those who have contracted HIV and need to find an explanation that absolves them of responsibility. The Fantsuam Foundation found itself cast in the role of intervener in such a situation in January of this year, when six children in Kafanchan were accused of being witches and were in danger of being killed by their community. Had the Foundation not removed the children from that environment, there was a high probability that they would have died. This type of crisis is not limited to Kaduna state. Children throughout Nigeria are increasingly being subjected to abuse by their elders as a response to their alleged involvement with witchcraft. The level of abuse has increased to the point of attracting international media attention, as can be seen with the following link:

Problems for children at the institutional level have also resulted in a dire situation, as there are currently few government programs in place that recognize the special developmental needs that children have, especially those children and youth who find themselves accused of crimes. In most cases, little or no differentiation is made between children and adult offenders, and children often find themselves incarcerated in facilities meant for much older detainees. In these cases, the children may be doubly victimized, as they may be subjected to abuse by the older inmates.

On the international stage, the state of Kaduna has represented itself poorly with respect to children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child were ratified by Nigeria in 1991 and 2000, respectively. The domestication of these international agreements was facilitated through the enactment of the Child’s Rights Act 2003 by the National Assembly of Nigeria in July 2003. Such legislation represents an important step forward in the protection of the rights of children in Nigeria. However, because the issue of child’s rights protection falls within the residual list of the Nigerian Constitution, individual states within Nigeria are given exclusive jurisdiction and responsibility to make laws regarding the protection of such rights. Each state must therefore formally adopt and adapt the Child’s Rights Act 2003. Although fifteen other states have done so, Kaduna State remains one of the states that have failed to formally adopt the Act. Until it has done so, the protections afforded by the Act will remain unavailable to the children who live there. An outline of the Act can be found with the following link:

Constraints that exist in Kaduna State that will prove to be challenges for any project seeking to address the abuse of children’s rights include a fundamental lack of education and appreciation on the part of adults in the area regarding the needs of children. Children are often regarded as being no different from adults or of lesser consequence in many cases. Abuses occur because the children are seen to exist to serve the interest and pleasure of the adults and not as individual human beings. At the institutional level, the interests of children have been assigned a lower priority because they do not possess the capability to influence the direction of government. This ignorance has become ingrained in the government, so any organization seeking to change the government’s position on children’s rights will be significantly challenged to do so.

The establishment of the Fantsuam Advocacy Centre for Children (“FACC”) has as its ultimate goal the alleviation of the abuse of rights suffered by children in the southern part of Kaduna state. It seeks to achieve this goal through a two-pronged approach. The first strategy involves raising awareness of children’s rights and their abuses within the communities of southern Kaduna, with the objective of enhancing the knowledge of community members with respect to children’s rights and securing their increased commitment to the protection of these rights. Secondly, FACC intends to pursue the lobbying of all levels of government for the enforcement of current laws and policies protecting children’s rights and for the drafting and implementation of legislation where gaps exist in the protection provided. The objective of such lobbying is to ensure an effective legislative and policy framework is in place and enforced to protect the rights of children to the fullest extent possible.

With respect to its awareness raising activities, FACC will seek to set up a replicable model of education regarding children’s rights and their abuses. The key enablers of this strategy will be the national volunteers accessed through the Fantsuam Foundation’s GAIYA program, especially those younger volunteers who can act as peer educators regarding these issues. GAIYA, translated as “Gift of Labour”, is the National Volunteering program begun by the Fantsuam Foundation to encourage local volunteers to give their time and skills to their local communities. GAIYA’s work has concentrated on the fields of health and IT in the past, and the Foundation is eager to build the capacity of the volunteers in other areas as well. A curriculum regarding children’s rights and their abuses will be developed with input from local community professionals and delivered to the GAIYA volunteers. These volunteers will then be dispatched to schools and other institutions in the local area to provide the same material to students and other individuals. After a trial period conducted on a local basis to determine necessary revisions to the curriculum, the program will be gradually extended to schools and institutions throughout the three chiefdoms identified below. In order to achieve this, those GAIYA volunteers who have received the training on children’s rights will receive additional training on how to develop other educators in this area.

As the principal stakeholders in FACC, children will remain the focus of consultation as the activities are developed to ensure their appropriateness and relevance to the children’s welfare. This will be done through discussions with the children who will be participating in activities like the Children For Change drama group and the Children’s Parliament. In addition, individuals and groups identified as key stakeholders in the community and elsewhere will be consulted during the planning and implementation phases to ensure the incorporation of their input into the process as appropriate and to encourage their continued support for the project. Regular meetings of such stakeholders will be scheduled to provide briefings and receive their input. An email list of stakeholders will also be developed to provide regular updates and to give them the opportunity for comments or recommendations on the planned activities.

The Fantsuam Foundation sees itself as ideally positioned to work with the local communities to develop FACC. Its work with children in the area has developed its reputation to such a degree that it is sought for consultation where the protection of children is at issue. In conjunction with Save the Children, the Foundation established Child Protection Committees with three local communities in 2006 to help ensure that children at risk receive the protection that they need. The experience that the Foundation has developed through that initiative will prove invaluable in the work to be done with FACC.

Monday, August 11, 2008

When Chimps Attack!

Everybody’s got something to hide, except for me and my monkey
- The Beatles

Until last week, the only monkeys I knew were Tarzan’s Cheeta and Curious George, which led me to believe that monkeys were attracted to men with limited vocabularies or yellow hats. The only yellow hat I ever owned was a hardhat that I wore during my summer job with the local Public Works Department for my hometown. Given that I was an awkward teenager well into my 20’s, my supervisor thought it best that I wear it to prevent serious head trauma when operating heavy equipment like lawn mowers or paint brushes. Sadly, I was asked to return it after I completed my time there, so, without a yellow hat to call my own, I had to trust that my abysmal command of the local Nigerian language would be enough to secure the affection of my fellow primates.

With a week’s vacation circled on the calendar for the beginning of August, I boarded a van bound for Calabar on Nigeria’s southern coast. Highway travel in this country is enjoyed only by masochists and the mentally unstable, and usually both qualities are found in the drivers of public transport. This trip was no exception. Our driver on this occasion favoured a genre of music best described as gospel gangsta, with lyrics like “Shake your booty to the left that Jesus gave you, Shake your booty to the right for the Lord”. I tried to see if the four nuns on board were singing along, but they seemed to be too busy praying that our driver would stop playing chicken with oncoming transport trucks. Ten hours later, I shook my booty out of the van and met Kristel and Esther for the next leg of our trip.

The sanctuary for the monkeys that we would be visiting is located at Afi Mountain, near the border with Cameroon. Home to orphaned drill monkeys and chimpanzees, it has become known as the Drill Ranch, which conjures up images of monkeys in tiny cowboy hats riding sheep and spitting monkey-sized wads of chewing tobacco. Well, it does for me, at least. Operated by Pandrillus, an organization dedicated to the protection of drill monkeys and chimpanzees, the Ranch has been taking in orphaned monkeys for the past dozen years or so, with the goal of reintroducing the drill monkeys into the wild. That same goal is unfortunately not realistic for the chimps, as they tend to become more habituated to humans, so survival on their own is unlikely. For more on Pandrillus and its operations, check out

The Ranch’s location is remote by design and getting there is only slightly easier than finding Shangri-La. The road leading to the Ranch is accessible only by motorbike or the sturdiest of jeeps. With no money to rent the latter, we jumped on the backs of a trio of bikes and sped off into the forest. Now, I’ve had some wild bike rides since arriving in Nigeria, but nothing compares to that one. We flew up and down muddy hills so fast that my rear end spent more time in mid-air than on my seat. I held on to my driver so tightly that I think he was expecting an engagement ring at the end of the ride.

The destination proved worthy of the perilous journey. The Ranch is in a beautiful location, with Afi Mountain dominating the horizon and lush forest surrounding the camp. Cabins are placed to maximize the opportunities to see the drills, so we could sit on our front deck and watch them hop from tree to tree. Our first afternoon was spent trekking in the forest canopy on a walkway suspended high among the trees, followed by a swim at a nearby waterfall on Bano Stream. Both were pleasant enough, but I couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t risk my life for nature walks. I came to see the monkeys, dammit! But the approaching darkness meant we’d have to wait until the next day to see the star attractions. Until then, we sat in the dining area and marvelled at the dozens of bats flying past our heads, some so close you could feel the breeze of their wings. The camp mongooses also provided entertainment, as the pair of them dug for insects around our feet and attempted to finish our meals for us.

An early morning rain shower the next day proved mercifully brief, and the skies cleared enough for us to join the staff on their rounds to feed the monkeys. First up were the drills, Separated into six groups, their numbers have jumped from seventy orphans to a community of almost three hundred monkeys, two hundred of whom were born into the project. Watching them feed, one could sense the power of these animals. The males were especially impressive, built like weightlifters, with broad shoulders and purple and fuchsia asses. OK, maybe weightlifters don’t have colourful asses, but speaking of asses, we also saw a number of females with swollen behinds, which meant they were ready for mating. Obviously, this is a key difference between our species, because if any guy ever said, “Hey, honey, is it just me or is your ass looking huge?”, he could pretty much count on sleeping on the sofa. The drills were somewhat skittish in our presence, but we still managed to see them up close through the electric fence. One male seemed particularly interested in me, even with my bony ass. He continued to present his ass to me, while showing his fangs. “He’s smiling at you,” said the attendant, “That means he likes you.” Maybe for his next meal, I thought.

If the drills were interesting, their chimpanzee cousins were fascinating. Fewer in number because no breeding is allowed, the chimps lived up to their billing as our closest relative. As we approached the enclosure, a rope stood shoulder high between us and the fence some eight feet away. When asked why the rope was there, the attendant explained that it marked how far most of the chimps could throw. Point taken, we lined up behind the rope to watch the attendant feed them. The differences between the chimps and the drills were quickly recognizable. Where the drills were reactive to the food being tossed, the chimps actively motioned and called for it to be thrown to them. They also tended to become irritated if people just stood and stared at them, so we were encouraged to wave our arms and jump up and down. Soon, we were smacking our heads like we were auditioning for a Three Stooges film

Somewhat emboldened by our success at making complete fools of ourselves, we ducked under the rope and walked along the fence toward a stream that passed through the area. One of the big males followed us and waded into the stream on his side of the fence. “Watch out!” cried the attendant, as the chimp swiped his arm through the water and heaved a handful at us. Taking their cue from him, some of the others grabbed mud and began tossing it at us. At least, I hope it was mud. I admired their aim – my camera bag took a direct hit as we ran for the safety of the rope. Taking their food with them back into the forest, the chimps clearly had had enough of our company, one of them making farting noises with her mouth as they left. I loved it. Animals with attitude. I definitely wanted to see more of them. As it turned out, this was part of their plan.

Given the chance to return for the afternoon feeding, Kristel and I once again took our places in the safety zone behind the rope. A larger group of chimps had gathered this time, the most distinctive being a grey-haired male who was approaching his 20th birthday and likely facing his mortality. As before, the attendant encouraged interaction and we happily obliged. The chimps watched us carefully throughout. It’s a cliché to speak of the intelligence behind those eyes, but it’s also too striking not to mention. The feeding complete, the attendant moved on to the next compound and left Kristel and me alone with the chimps for the first time. Without any new tricks to show them, they soon grew bored with us and seemed more interested in scratching themselves. So, we decided to walk around the perimeter of the compound. As we left the safety zone, the path between the forest and the enclosure narrowed to a single track. Suddenly, one of the chimps charged, picking up ammunition as he ran. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, which I assumed was Dutch for “Run!” So we did. A hailstorm of half-eaten pineapples and mud came our way as we reached the forest on the first corner and put some distance between us and the surly monkey. A piece of wood the size of my head soon followed, again with a toss of admirable accuracy. I began to long for my yellow hat. “I don’t like these monkeys,” Kristel said under her breath, her head carefully turned in case they could read lips.

Her vote was to abandon our stroll and head back to our cabin, but I refused, determined to show this monkey what he missed by stopping short on the evolutionary ladder. Peeking out through the branches, we spotted him sitting well away from the fence. As we approached the path, he reached over for a piece of fruit and made a half-hearted attempt to eat it, all the while glancing over his shoulder at us. If he could have whistled nonchalantly, he would have. “You don’t fool me, monkey” I muttered to myself as we inched along the path. Sure enough, as we came even with him, he charged again, his faux snack turned into a nasty projectile. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel. So we did. Eventually, our hairy assailant gave up the chase, likely determining that we were no match for him.

As we caught our breath, the old-timer we had seen earlier came running toward us. Bracing for the worst, we saw instead that he only wanted to walk with us, but the effort of running had been hard on him. One of his back legs had apparently been partially paralyzed since he was an infant and combined with his now advanced age, it clearly pained him to run. So, we sat with him for a few minutes until he caught his breath, and then we moved on slowly to allow him to keep pace.

At the last corner before the safety zone, the path narrowed even further. Perfect place for an ambush, I thought. And so did the chimps. Racing from their hiding place, four of them formed a simian gauntlet between us and the exit and began to pelt us with whatever they could get their paws on. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, but it was too late. They had us pinned against the forest. I was laughing so hard at our predicament that I managed to swallow some of the mud that hit me in the face. I briefly considered retaliating, but in the mud-throwing department, I was clearly outgunned. Instead, we made a break for it, dodging monkey missiles as we sprinted for safety. Reaching the no-fly zone, we collapsed on each other in helpless laughter. I’m sure our attackers were exchanging high-fives on their side of the fence, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back.

“So, what does ‘fuckaduck’ mean in English?” I asked as we walked back to our cabin, spitting out mud as we went. “That was English”, Kristel replied.