Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pounded Yam

(Sung to the tune of Elton John's "Rocket Man")

I packed my lunch last night, what a sight
Pounded yam, once again
And my dinnertime sighs can be heard for miles
I miss dessert so much, I miss my spice
It’s boring on my plate
Bite after tasteless bite

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Til I see a veggie of some other kind
There’s better food lying out on the road
Oh no, no, no
I’m eating pounded yam

Pounded yam
I would eat moth balls with more gusto

Yam ain’t the kind of food to raise a thrill
In fact, it’s dull as hell
And there’s no way to embrace it
If you tried.
And fancy dishes, I don’t ever eat
I’m sucking yam five days a week
Pounded y—a—a—a—m, Pounded yam

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Til my colon gets rid of this starchy bind
I feel my stomach getting set to explode
Oh no, no, no
I’m eating pounded yam

Pounded yam
You’re a big white cement turd of stone

And I think it’s going to be a long, long time….

The Pink House

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Never Expect Power Again

When you're in the dark and you want to see,
You need... Electricity, Electricity
Flip that switch and what do you get?
You get … Electricity, Electricity
Every room can now be lit
With just... Electricity, Electricity
- Schoolhouse Rock, c. 1970’s

On August 14, 2003, I was standing at the photocopier at an IBM Mobility Centre in downtown Toronto when the Big Blackout occurred. I still remember thinking when the lights went out, “Uh oh. Did I cause that?” How’s that for a guilty conscience? For the next forty hours or so, my apartment languished without power. Even when homes on neighbouring blocks lit up again, mine stayed dark. My housemates and I developed a serious case of power envy, as we contemplated pressing our noses against our neighbours’ windows just to catch a glimpse of television again. Devolution into Lord of the Flies brutality was just around the corner. But come Saturday morning, power was restored, along with our sense of order, and we ran to happily hug our air conditioners.

And that was just forty hours without power.

It’s now been over seven weeks since I moved into the Pink House, and I’m still in the dark, literally and figuratively. Only this time, there aren’t any neighbours’ windows to provide me with hope that power is on its way. The entire community of Kagoro is lightless, and we’re not alone. Throughout Nigeria, only an estimated 10% of homes in rural communities such as Kagoro have access to power (and only 40% of all homes in the country). Considering that the population now stands at close to 140 million people, that’s an astonishing number to be in the Dark Ages in the 21st century. Now, to be completely honest, some homes in Kagoro (including mine) are wired for electricity, and power does come on sporadically. But the amount is so low that no appliances can be run and the light provided is barely enough to avoid collisions with furniture. So, I’ve given up and now rely strictly on lanterns and flashlights after the sun goes down.

It’s a strange existence. By day, I’m working on my laptop, accessing the internet and listening to people discuss network issues that I don’t understand. By night, I’m living in a Dickens novel. Crouched by my kerosene lantern, I inhale more smoke than the Marlboro Man. When someone knocks on my door, I have to resist the urge to call out, “Who goes there?” All I need to complete my Victorian existence is a raven quothing “Nevermore!” But there are benefits to being stuck in the dark. I’ve learned how to use my windup flashlight as a musical instrument, its whining wheeze especially evocative on “Smoke on the Water” and, oddly enough, “Dancing Queen”. And the darkness hides my evening visitors, although the pitch black does nothing to muffle the skittering of their claws on the concrete floor.

But the lack of power is more than inconvenient. It can be deadly. We have been warned repeatedly as newcomers to the country about the dangers of driving at night. That caution is issued for many reasons, including the preference of drivers to use the cover of darkness to attempt to break the sound barrier without the aid of headlights. But without electricity to power the few streetlights that exist along the highways, one truly drives in a void. The results of such blindness can be horrific. On the trip to Ossiomo, the sides of the road were littered with the carcasses of vehicles destroyed overnight. And when I say destroyed, I’m understating the wreckage. Cars fused together to the point of being indistinguishable. Tanker trucks flipped on their side and scorched by the explosion of the fuel they carried. The carnage left me in an apocalyptic daze. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Mad Max waiting for me around the next corner. And drivers aren’t the only ones at risk. On the handful of occasions that I’ve been on local roads after dark, I’ve been amazed at the number of people walking along the shoulder of the roads, close enough to touch. The effect is eerie as the headlights catch them, revealing silent phantoms on the periphery that appear and vanish in an instant. I can only imagine how many lose their lives due to a moment’s inattention.

So, who is to blame for the appalling state of the power grid? Many in Nigeria point the finger at the National Electric Power Authority, known as NEPA for short. NEPA is a term in regular usage and has even replaced "electricity" or "light", so that when power does come on, one hears shouts of "NEPA is back!" Reflecting the cynicism engendered by the consistently terrible service provided, that acronym is now widely interpreted as Never Expect Power Again, although I prefer the slightly more profane No Electricity is a Pain in the Ass. Currently, the state-run agency produces less than half of its generating capacity and the power cuts have become part of its operating strategy. I spoke with one of my co-workers regarding the crisis. He said, with tongue firmly in cheek, that only three things are missing from the Nigerian electrical system: generation, transmission and distribution. I asked whether the unstable political situation of years past contributed to the lack of focus on resolving the crisis. He shook his head and listed the periods of rule which extended for years without any progress made. At 28, he can’t remember a time when there was a stable source of power in the country.

This might be one of the keys to the continuing crisis. Now that the country has been effectively without power for generations, most of the population has never experienced a consistent electrical supply. It’s difficult to miss what has never existed. This is not to say that Nigerians are ignorant of the benefits of electricity or that they don’t understand that their country is lagging behind other nations. It simply means there’s a certain amount of resignation to living with the status quo. People have adapted to a life without electricity, so it has not fixed itself in the national psyche as something which must change. Politicians campaign on anti-corruption platforms first, and issues such as the power grid are assigned a lower priority. The hope remains that once the issue of corruption is addressed, the rest of the items on the agenda will soon follow suit. With corruption endemic to the political system and influencing the management of utilities, this may prove to be a faint hope at best.

But recent events indicate that the patience of the Nigerian people may finally be running out. A demonstration in Kaduna on January 15th was precipitated by anger over NEPA and the non-existent supply of electricity. Police responded by firing on the protestors, and four people were killed. This resulted in a further escalation of the violence over the course of the day, as those involved in the demonstration burned vehicles and buildings. It’s difficult to say at this point whether this will prove to be an isolated incident or the beginning of a larger movement for change. One can only hope that more lives won’t be lost if the nation is in fact rising up to demand a stable power supply. I fully support their cause, but I won’t be joining them on the front lines if the demonstrations persist. Instead, I’ll be settling in to my Little House on the Prairie lifestyle for the time that I’m here, weakly resigned to using the light from my wheezing flashlight to read a book rather than shining it on my placards for the protest.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Ossiomo Project

Until last week, my knowledge of leprosy was limited to what I learned in Sunday School, namely:

1. Leprosy is a horrible disease that causes limbs to fall off; and

2. Jesus touched the lepers and turned them into wine.

Hmmm. Maybe I should have paid closer attention in class. In any event, my point is that I’ve always considered leprosy to be a disease of the ancients, mentioned in the same breath as pharaohs and plagues of frogs. Like the Black Death, its place was in the history books – its only relevance today to make us happy we didn’t live Back Then.

Of course, there was no reason for me to assume leprosy had been eradicated, except for its lack of coverage in the mainstream media. (Now, that’s a painful admission to make.) For me, a disease is relegated to the dark recesses of my faulty memory unless it receives press. Modern epidemics like HIV/AIDS command the bulk of medical headlines today and rightly so, killing people as they do in numbers not seen since the bad old days. But unlike faded celebrities, diseases rarely exist as has-beens, and a failure to make the news does not translate into a cure.

So, with my ignorance of leprosy now firmly established, it should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that I was ill-prepared to meet up with a community of ex-leprosy patients. Yes, you read that right. Ex-leprosy patients. A cure for leprosy has been in existence since the 1950’s, and if caught in its early stages, it can be eliminated without the patient suffering the awful losses commonly associated with the disease. But not all people are lucky enough to benefit from such early intervention and the crippling effects still result. For those in developing countries such as Nigeria, the loss of fingers, toes or eyesight can effectively end the working life of someone who depends on manual labour for his or her livelihood. Equally debilitating is the stigmatization from one’s own community due to fear borne of ignorance of the disease. The shame is that the transmission of the disease now understood, so exile is no longer needed.

As inexcusable as ostracism is as a solution today to protect a community, it’s easy to understand the basis of people’s fear. I wish I could shake a finger at people who still shun those afflicted with the disease, but the truth is that I didn’t know myself how leprosy is spread, so I admit to a certain amount of apprehension at the prospect of visiting a community of ex-leprosy patients. Of course, the fact that they were EX-leprosy patients should have been enough to calm my nerves, but I always have been lousy at reading the specifics.

The invitation to visit came from Mart and Elly, a husband and wife team of VSO volunteers from Holland, who had set themselves up in Ossiomo in the southern part of Nigeria last year. The trip to Ossiomo from my adopted hometown of Kagoro is a thirteen-hour odyssey worthy of its own blog entry. For now, suffice to say that the journey does not lend itself to a weekend excursion. But with two weeks of Christmas vacation providing a significant break in our schedules, my friend Kristel and I hit the highway and headed South.

After an evening spent soothing our road-weary nerves with Guilder beer and red wine in the comfort of Mart and Elly’s home, we set out the next day to explore the project. Officially known as the Patient Rehabilitation Project (or PRP for short), the Ossiomo project developed as a way for patients to generate income for themselves. Having worked on a similar assignment in northern Nigeria, Mart and Elly took on the task of working with the local community to get the present project underway in Ossiomo. Essentially, the PRP consists of producing bed sheets, table cloths, T-shirts and wall decorations that are then dyed and screen printed by the patients and their family members. The participants are involved at all stages of the process, from the purchase of the cloth and sewing of the products to the design creations and ultimate sale to the buyers. Money earned from the sales is used in turn to buy more materials, and any remaining profit is shared among the patients according to their efforts. The hope is to have the participants running the entire operation themselves by the time Mart and Elly leave in the Fall of this year.

Acting as our guide for the morning, Elly first showed us the Rehabilitation Centre of the Daughters of Charity where the project is housed. The Centre itself is quite comprehensive, with a number of different wards, a pair of surgical theatres and a physiotherapy room. Saving her pride and joy for the last, Elly then led us through the PRP rooms. The quiet of the rooms stood in contrast to their usual level of activity, as the participants were also off enjoying their Christmas holidays. The bustle of full operation would have been great to witness. Instead, we were treated to a display of the products produced, and the designs were as impressive as promised. Lizards, turtles, and snakes, oh my! From the simple animal prints to the elaborate abstract borders, the T-shirts and bedsheets were bold and eye-catching, with bright background colours offsetting the black designs. We lingered in the display shop for some time before moving on to our final stop, the home for elderly ex-leprosy patients.

If it’s possible for a place to be both heartbreaking and uplifting, this was it. As long-time survivors of leprosy, the fourteen men and eight women housed in the two buildings have experienced the worst effects of the disease, with many losing limbs, eyesight or both. But as we approached the men’s building, the mood was anything but sad. The sound of Afrobeat music greeted us, as though a celebration was in full swing. We met the first resident on the front porch, and he leapt up from his seat and insisted on making his way to his bed so that we could greet him again there, his memory replacing his sight as his guide as we moved inside.

As we walked from bed to bed, each man greeted us enthusiastically, though most could no longer see us. Holding out hands scarred and battered, they received our handshakes with pleasure as they wished us a Happy New Year and asked us questions about where we were from. One man seemed likely to be the exception, as the pain in his leg caused him to shudder and hunch over the side of his bed. Elly greeted him on her own first and spent some time with him before introducing Kristel and me. As though a switch were flicked, he lit up brightly and warmly welcomed us, the pain being momentarily shoved aside in favour of being a good host. We spent some time joking with him before saying our goodbyes to everyone and making our way to the women’s home.

On the front porch of that building, we met two of the residents. The first, Vero, short for Veronique, was an unapologetic flirt. When she heard my voice, she turned her head toward me and asked, “Are you a man?” I replied in my best masculine voice and she asked, “Are you married?”, followed by a gale of laughter. She also wanted to know what I brought her from Canada and seemed to think that my answer of “a smile” was as lame as it sounded. The women inside greeted us as happily as the men, and Elly circled the room with the same great bedside manner as before. We left the room to repeated calls of “Happy New Year!” and said our goodbyes to Vero, laughing with her as she claimed Elly’s husband as her own.