Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Speak of the Devil

Me and my big blog. No sooner do I start telling the tales of woe of my fellow volunteers than I contract something that turns my stomach to concrete and my bowels to TNT. Dy-no-mite! Luckily, the four-day Easter weekend was planned as a low-key affair, with the only highlights being visits from Kristel and Mana and a small dinner party hosted by Alok Kumal, a doctor recently arrived from India. Though Alok’s appearance in town meant I had to relinquish my title as the Only Batauri in the Village, I happily gave it up in favour of sharing the dubious honour with my new friend. An instantly likeable guy with an easy laugh and a ponytail and shades befitting a Bollywood star, Alok arrived with a mandate from his NGO to assist the local health clinics with their immunizations and other needs as well as building their capacities to continue provide services once he leaves. As many volunteers have done, he made the sacrifice of leaving his wife and young children behind in order to take on the new assignment, though the extended nature of his placement will mean that he will try to bring his family to stay with him in Kafanchan sometime soon.

But getting back to my bowels. Good Friday was anything but, I’m afraid, although the day starts full of promise, as I decorate the guest bedroom with a brand new mosquito net and brave the guest bathroom, which hadn’t seen a human visitor since I arrived four months ago. Notice I said human visitor. Lunch consists of the ever-reliable package of Indomie noodles and my weekly ration of half a Snickers bar. The chocolate-nutty goodness fails to deliver its usual high, replaced by a slight brain cramp centred over my left eye. At the time, I chalk it up to the heat of the day and my inhalation of vermin-clearing chemicals. But by mid-afternoon, my deepening headache is joined by what the insightful Pooh Bear once described as a “rumbly in my tumbly”, though the cause this time is definitely not a lack of honey. Soon, my head is issuing evacuation orders to my other end, and I begin my residency in my ensuite bathroom. By evening, I’m sending text messages to Alok and Kristel that are decidedly less romantic than the ones promoted by Adomi Ochuko’s book, although I now know I can summarize my condition as “Xtrem Di R E Ah”.

This isn’t my first bout of illness in Nigeria, so I’ve learned a few things about treatment. A case of food poisoning in Jos three weeks ago had me expelling at both ends at speeds that would impress Chuck Yeager. Just call me Upchuck Yeager. It was in Jos that I was introduced to the wonders of ORS. For the uninitiated, ORS stands for Oral Rehydration Solution, and it’s a mixture meant to replace essential minerals lost when the body badly dehydrates for whatever reason. It can be as fancy as the packets sold at Mountain Equipment Co-op or as simple as salt and sugar mixed in a water bottle. ORS is nobody’s idea of an enjoyable cocktail. Drinking it brought back memories of swimming in the ocean as a child and having an unexpected wave jam a mixture of saltwater and snot down my throat. But as a treatment for dehydration, it’s very effective, so I summoned up all my powers of imagination and turned it into……..lukewarm, snot-filled seawater. Hey, what do you expect? I’m sick and weak, remember?

Of course, whenever any type of illness presents itself, one assumes the worst, or at least I do, and the deadly duo of malaria and typhoid are immediately suspected in Africa. Recent contact with malicious mosquitoes or questionable water are remembered and regretted. High fever is a common symptom of both, so I clap my hand to my forehead so many times that I look like I’m auditioning for a V-8 juice commercial. Wow, I could have had an attack of malaria! Hand smacks are rather unreliable tests for fever, so I take this opportunity to try out my brand new thermometer. Searching through my motorcycle helmet that now acts as my medicine cabinet, I find the thermometer and dig it out of packaging designed to withstand a nuclear blast. A new car comes with fewer instructions. I eventually decipher that I have my choice of three places to stick it, only two of which are diagrammed in the instructions, presumably due to censorship or the timidity of the manufacturer. My condition makes the unillustrated choice rather hazardous, so I opt for under the tongue. Unlike the old mercury thermometers, the NASA-approved ones beep and light up according to your temperature and need for entertainment. Following the traffic light pattern, green means you’re good to go, yellow is a caution, and red means you’re doomed. After five seconds, my temperature chimes in at a yellow and I overreact accordingly. I text Alok for his interpretation, and he responds, “It’s OK”, which somehow sounds both reassuring and disappointed. He offers to see me at his place in the morning if things haven't improved. I take a swig of brine and go to bed.

After a night spent wearing a groove in the floor between my bed and the bathroom, I decide in the morning to take Alok up on his offer and let him check me over. Through some unknown miracle, the phone network is still operating, so I reach Alok immediately and he makes arrangements for a car to come and pick me up. How’s that for service? I may need to start faking illnesses on grocery day. I also get in contact with Kristel and let her know that this weekend will be a dreary affair, but she wants to come anyway. Soon after, Alok’s vehicle pulls up outside and I walk out to meet him, looking like an extra from a M*A*S*H episode. We climb into his truck and head to Kafanchan, the cool air conditioning already making me feel 2% better. Arriving at his compound, Alok takes me into his residence and gives me a tour. It’s a bit like the Pink House, if the Pink House had new furniture, satellite TV and electricity. I look for his medical office, but he ushers me into his living room instead and motions for me to have a seat on the couch. I start to think something is a bit amiss. When I realize that there’s been a misunderstanding and a medical examination isn’t on the agenda, I mention that I should be getting back to Kagoro soon to meet Kristel. Alok flips on the TV and says, “Oh, no. You’ll be staying here until you’re better.”

Remember the film “Misery”, the one where Kathy Bates plays an obsessed fan who initially helps a famous author recover from a car wreck, only to end up going to gruesome lengths to keep him captive? When Alok goes into the other room to get us tea, I expect him to return with a sledgehammer and hobbling blocks. No, not really. I know his kind offer of a place to stay is made out of concern for my health, but the prospect of recovery in someone else’s home just isn’t that inviting to me. If I’m going to be miserable, I prefer to be unhappy under my own Teletubbies sheets. So, after a brief period of argument, Alok relents and agrees to drive me back to Kagoro once Mana, another VSO volunteer, has arrived. Mana soon appears, expecting to find us getting set for the dinner party that night, and is understandably confused when asked to pack her Cokes and Star beer into a cooler so that we can take them to Kagoro. We arrive back at the Pink House to find Kristel waiting for us. The lack of sleep from the previous night is starting to catch up to me and I’m starting to fade, but I can’t ask people to leave right away, so we end up sitting in my living room for an hour or so, drinking Mana’s beverages and discussing the commonalities between Bollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria’s film industry). Kristel relates her tale of starring in a Nollywood feature, and we make plans to get together to watch the DVD when it’s released. The group eventually decides to leave me to my recovery nap and returns to Kafanchan to follow through on its dinner party plans.

After a two-hour slumber, I actually feel somewhat healthy. No more distress down below and a semblance of hunger has appeared. I decide to test the limits with a little pasta and tomato sauce. If my NASA thermometer came with a gastronomical recovery setting, it would be flashing red at me at this point, but without any guardian for my gut, I blunder on and eat a big plateful of mistake. Soon, I’m walking that familiar groove again. And again. And again. Though I’m choking back the ORS as best I can, my bowels are outpacing me and at around 4 am, my body momentarily throws in the towel. I can’t be sure, but I think I start to go into a form of shock, with buckets of sweat pouring down my face and my stomach convulsing. Thankfully, it doesn’t proceed past these symptoms and my body settles down again. Luckily, Kristel had returned earlier in the evening from the party at Alok’s, so she is able to take one look at me in the kitchen and know I’m not in good shape. She insists on me continuing the ORS treatment, which is a good thing, since I may have abandoned it otherwise. Eventually, my system starts to balance itself again and I can grab a few hours sleep before my neighbour welcomes the dawn with his woodsplitter.

Sunday morning’s breakfast of a cracker and half a banana shows there is nowhere to go but up and that my troubles are finally, um, behind me. By the time Kristel is ready to leave on Sunday afternoon, I actually think I may survive. The remainder of the long weekend is blissfully bland, filled with long stretches of watching DVD’s and reading books and no repeat incidents of medical drama. So, my Nigerian Easter weekend was less than ideal, but what it lacked in chocolate eggs and bunnies, it more than made up for in ORS and a story that will hopefully prove to be unique for me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

True Grit

Every generation defines toughness through its cinematic icons. The hardboiled private detectives of the film noir ‘40’s were personified by Humphrey Bogart, wearing his world weariness like a bullet-proof vest. John Wayne swaggered his way across the screen in the 1950’s, bringing the hero back into the light while ensuring his essential toughness remained undiminished. The Sixties inserted coolness into the equation and found its role model in the anti-heroes of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. For a kid growing up in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, Eastwood was the beginning and end of discussion when it came to toughness, his squinty stare striking fear into the hearts of bank robbers, cowboys and the occasional orangutan. But toughness extends beyond bar fights and broken noses, and as one grows up, one realizes that there are forms of toughness that are much quieter and more admirable than those possessed by the fictional heroes of the big screen.

This week’s edition of the blog is dedicated to possibly the toughest group of people that I’ve ever met: my fellow VSO volunteers stationed in Nigeria. Over the course of the past four months (just celebrated my four-month anniversary in the country – I believe that’s generally commemorated with a can of Spam.), I’ve met up with many of the volunteers who have been working in the country over the past year or so and listened to the stories they’ve had to tell. As you may have gathered from my previous blog entries, Nigeria isn’t the easiest place to operate effectively. Combine the lack of basic utilities with the dangerous road conditions, sprinkle a dash of gastronomical dreariness on top, and you have a perfect serving of the expat challenges that we all face here. But none of the difficulties that I’ve whinged about in the past come close to some of the horrors faced by some of the people who have chosen to make Nigeria home. Their toughness isn’t defined by these horrors. Rather, it’s their responses to them and their refusal throughout to quit the country for an easier lifestyle that speaks to their inner resolve. In most cases, I’ve left out their names, since most would likely prefer to remain anonymous when it comes to discussing their struggles.

The most common danger that the volunteers have faced comes from illnesses. Like many of the services provided in Nigeria, the medical system here has a reputation so poor that I’ve developed a paranoia about ever needing to seek treatment. Stories of volunteers coming down with malaria are common enough that it ranks just slightly above catching a cold when it comes to comparing battle scars. In most cases, volunteers have adhered to a weekly routine of taking Lariam, so when malaria does present itself, its effects are somewhat subdued and recovery is all but assured. For some volunteers, however, the side effects of taking Lariam have been worse than the threat posed by the disease. Hallucinations of maggots the size of small dogs crawling up one’s leg or ghostly children standing by one’s bedside have caused some to drop the pills from their regimen and assume a greater risk by going unprotected. Sometimes, the exposure to malarial conditions can come in the most unexpected of places. A VSO meeting for volunteers in Kano resulted in multiple cases of malaria when the hotel that was booked for the gathering proved to be missing the screens needed to keep out the mosquitoes carrying the disease. More recently, a volunteer who had recently arrived in the country fell victim to a double whammy of malaria followed by typhoid (initially misdiagnosed and therefore untreated). Had she not been properly immunized against the latter, she would have been in serious trouble.

But the worst case of illness that I’ve heard so far came from a much more innocuous cause. A simple bladder infection that was undetected in its early stages developed into something much more serious – a case of blood poisoning that became life-threatening. In this particular case, the volunteer returned to her home country to seek treatment after being discovered on the brink of incapacity by another volunteer. After receiving the needed treatment, she was told by her doctor that her condition proved fatal in the majority of cases that had progressed to the stage she had reached. After a period of recovery, the volunteer packed her bags and returned to Nigeria to complete her placement.

The Nigerian roads have also caused their share of damage to the volunteers. A retired couple were one week into their new assignment when they were involved in a terrible accident not far from where they were working. Ironically enough, they ended up receiving their initial treatment at a hospital located on the premises of the organization they were set to support. Once again, the seriousness of their conditions mandated that they seek treatment in their home country to ensure proper care and rehabilitation. And once again, there was a resolve to see out the balance of their assignment, rather than allowing their misfortune to define their experience. Returning to Nigeria with pins in place to help mend their bones, the couple resumed the planning for the commencement of local operations.

And the most recent example of a VSO volunteer overcoming challenges demonstrates a toughness of a different kind. In this case, it isn’t a reaction to a mishap or illness suffered here that demonstrated a determination to persevere, but rather a pre-existing condition that would give most people pause to travel to a country as daunting as Nigeria. The newest group of volunteers to arrive included a young woman from Canada who is both visually and hearing impaired. Christine, or Coco, as she prefers to call herself, has no hearing, so she communicates through sign language and writing. Her vision isn’t much better, with only a low percentage of sight in one eye, so that she can only see the hand signals at eye level up to five feet away. When darkness falls, even this limited ability fails her, so she relies on whatever light source is available to help her see. With such a severe amount of impairment, Coco depends on the assistance provided by two interveners who handle the translation duties and help her to adjust to new locations.

Coco’s attitude and personality defies any initial expectations that people may have before meeting her. Determined to take part in any meeting or gathering as an equal participant, she soon puts those around her at ease with her sense of humour and enthusiasm. At the after-hours party that ended the series of VSO meetings, Coco was among the last to leave the dance floor. Her strength will soon be put to the test in her placement, as her interveners are due to return to the US in the next six weeks and be replaced by more inexperienced local counterparts, but if the resolve she demonstrated over the course of the days spent with us is any indication of her determination to succeed, I’m sure she will be fine.

I don’t mention these examples to give a congratulatory pat on the back to my VSO colleagues, since most would likely see this as unnecessary. I've told their stories only because I stand somewhat in awe of what they’ve gone through and, more importantly, of their stubborn refusal to let illness, accident or limiting condition stop them from helping others. I really don’t know if I would react as admirably to a setback, and I hope I don’t have to find out. But if I do need to respond to a challenge, I hope that I can draw some inspiration from the examples that they’ve set and continue on as they have.

Monday, March 10, 2008

My Drink with Goodvoice

The Kagoro Motel is a scary place. Even in the bright sunshine of a late Saturday afternoon, it can give one the shivers. Though still in full operation, there’s an emptiness here that suggests a checkout time of 11 am…..twenty years ago. Deserted hallways lead to lonely rooms, with an echo the only response received to a call for assistance. Norman Bates would have second thoughts about running this place, especially since the showers aren’t up to his standards. Despite its spookiness, the motel has become a central gathering place for the community. A neighbouring building houses the sole dance club in the village, although it’s unlikely to ever be confused with Studio 54. Its sound system is impressive, however, as it keeps the volume pumped on an extensive repertoire of five songs. I’ve drifted off to sleep to the subtle lyrics of P-Square’s “Do Me” enough times that the song is burned into my subconscious like some kind of macho brainwashing for bashful nerds.

At the entrance of the motel, a suya stand offers grilled meat to those who don’t ask too many questions. When I first arrived in Kagoro, I asked my neighbour whether the motel was a good place to eat. He cheerfully replied that all three of the previous VSO volunteers who ate there became sick afterwards, but he’d be happy to go with me if I wanted to try it. Well, sign me up! If nothing else, the motel offers consistent results, but any place that could promote itself as “No shirt, No shoes, No salmonella” is worth a miss.

The motel does offer a nice courtyard/parking lot at the rear of the main building where one can sit under a tree and enjoy a drink or two. There’s usually a handful of locals also taking advantage of the cool shade and cooler Star beer. My exchanges with them rarely go beyond the customary greetings and Queen Elizabeth waves, but every now and then, curiosity gets the better of someone and he needs to find out more about the batauris in their midst. This is usually when the fun begins. On this particular occasion, Kristel and I are waiting for our drinks and the day to draw to a close when a man walks up to our table and offers to introduce us to everyone in the courtyard. Since there are only four other people seated nearby, his shouted introductions only take a minute or two. Describing himself as being from the US, he also assigns a country of origin to Kristel and me, and I begin to doubt his geographical sanity, since Kristel looks about as Chinese as I do Ghanaian. He wishes us a good afternoon and disappears into the restaurant, only to reappear a minute later with a chair in hand and a look of determination on his face. Approaching our table, he asks us whether we would like some company, an offer not meant to be refused.

Sitting down across from us, he introduces himself as Goodvoice. A name like that is not uncommon in Nigeria, with many monikers straight out of a James Bond movie. Often, names are given according to the circumstances surrounding one’s birth, so someone born on a Sunday is named Sunday, for example. I've even heard of someone called Borntooearly, which either reflects a premature birth or his parents' displeasure at his arrival so early in the morning. Desirable attributes such as Patience and gracious actions like Comfort and Blessing also appear on the register. And then there's the security guard at the Foundation whose name is Black. I had to check to make sure I had heard that correctly, since calling him Black by mistake would likely cause him to take offence and lead to my immediate demise, given that he’s the size of a small SUV. I was assured that it really was his name; according to one of my coworkers, his parents looked at him when he was born and said, “Well, he’s black”. Let me pause here to express my appreciation that similar naming conventions aren’t usually followed by parents in Canada. I’d hate to have to introduce myself as Baldbaby or Shitsalot.

But getting back to Goodvoice. Not surprisingly, he identifies his chosen career as artist/singer/radio personality. He pulls a form from his pocket and shows it to us. For the reasonable price of 100 naira, I could have him dedicate five songs of my choosing to whomever I want. I even have my pick of radio shows where the dedications can appear. I briefly consider the possibilities: “Folsom Prison Blues” for Conrad Black; “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” to Hockey Night in Canada; “Fool on the Hill” for Stephen Harper; “Mr. Cellophane” to St├ęphane Dion. But instead, I just hand the form back to him with thanks. Smiling broadly, he folds the paper and returns it to his pocket while moving on to the next topic of interest to him. “Have you eaten Nigerian food?”, he asks. Kristel and I nod and list off the staples, including rice, beans and yam. Taking his cue from the strays wandering the courtyard, he leans in and asks conspiratorially, “What about dog?”

I admit that I haven’t yet tried that particular delicacy and Kristel shakes her head as well. Flipping the question back to Goodvoice, he says he hasn’t eaten crispy canine since he was a boy. At this point, one of the patrons at the neighbouring table, who had been taking a keen interest in our conversation, jumps in with a claim that Goodvoice is still indulging in a Scooby snack now and again. Aghast, Goodvoice cleverly plays the rubber band and bounces the same allegation back at his accuser. For the next five minutes, the two play tennis with escalating claims of hotdogging of a different kind, ending with each pointing a finger at the other as the worst betrayer of man’s best friend. None of this is serious, of course, and the two enjoy a good laugh before Goodvoice asks us about our experience with eating cats. At this point, we gently move the conversation to another topic, but not before I realize that I haven’t seen any cats in Kagoro since I arrived.

Eventually, our drinks come to an end and so does our time with Goodvoice. We thank him for his company and walk out of the courtyard, just in time to hear “Do Me” kick off the Saturday night dance party in style.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Kagoro Market

“I love you.”

The three little words that most people long to hear, eclipsed for many Canadians only by “Spring is here” or “Leafs win Cup” (one being an annual expression of relief, the other decidedly not). Normally, I would be pleased to be on the receiving end of such a declaration of affection. On this particular Saturday, however, the person uttering these words is Joseph, one of the vendors I have just met in the Kagoro market. As far as keeping the customer satisfied, it beats “Paper or plastic?”, especially since I didn’t actually buy anything from him. Although I’m sure his use of the phrase was more in keeping with the love he has for his favourite football team rather than an expression of a more profound ardour, I still can’t bring myself to say, “I love you, too”, so I offer a mumbled “Na gode” before retreating to the next stall, where Gideon promptly offers to find me a good Nigerian woman to marry.

Such is the shopping experience in the weekly Kagoro market, a much more social event than visiting the local Loblaws. For six days of the week, the heart of Kagoro beats quietly, with only a few small shops offering the same basic goods as their neighbours on either side. A wide dusty avenue cuts through the centre of the village, an apparent waste of space at odds with the clustered nature of the rest of Kagoro. Poor planning, one might be tempted to sniff, as the ruts carved into the middle of the thoroughfare render it impassable to all but the most dedicate disciples of Evel Knievel. The only clue offered to the bustle lying in wait is the empty framework of poles to the north of the village centre, standing like the skeletal aftermath of a destructive blaze.

But what a difference a day makes. Beginning early Saturday morning, vendors begin arriving to set up their stalls within the framework and the deserted avenue is transformed into a labyrinth of commerce. The sellers number in the hundreds, and the effort to showcase their goods usually means the market isn’t fully set up until noon. In the daylight hours then remaining to them, the merchants will compete with their neighbours for the naira in visitors’ pockets. Presentation is key, so tomatoes and onions are painstakingly laid out in small piles for maximum exposure near the passageways. Ultimately, the competition is a friendly one, as vendors spend much of their time in conversation with each other or sharing a laugh at my attempts to haggle. If one doesn’t have the right amount of change, his or her companions help fill the gap. With the amount of produce up for sale, I can’t help but wonder what happens to the unsold fruits and vegetables at day’s end. Very little is wasted, I’m sure, but the volume on display suggests that the vendors’ families must be receiving the majority of the perishable items, perhaps a welcome addition to the table, but likely a poor substitute for the much-needed income that failed to materialize.

My first few trips to the market ended with me staggering back to the Pink House, clutching my bag of tomatoes like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. It was all too much – sensory overload of the highest order. The constant motion of people, the shouts and animated conversations, the smells of the freshly killed meat on display. Substitute sweaty shoppers for the recently departed animals and you’d swear it was the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day. As the sole white visitor on any given day, I was an instant celebrity, though my stardom lasted only as long as I lingered at my new best fan’s stall. The market seemed impossibly vast, with row upon row of people eager to make my acquaintance. The layout was the very definition of haphazard, as though people set up their shops wherever they could find space. How anyone managed to find anything was a mystery my shell-shocked mind couldn’t solve.

The reality is obviously much different than what I perceived through my overwhelmed senses. A pattern does exist, as the vendors have grouped themselves according to their specialties and the goods they have for sale. One alleyway is dedicated to clothing, while its neighbouring path focuses on hardware and electronics. On one corner, the stalls with household goods are clustered, while the grain sellers have grouped themselves near the edge of the marketplace. Each vendor, for the most part, occupies the same spot week after week, the result of a paid arrangement with the village. So, I now know where to find the only vendor in the market to regularly have green peppers for sale, so I make a point of visiting him every time. The same can be said for vegetable oil, oranges and bananas. For a place I initially deemed chaotic, it’s all begun to seem downright orderly.

By far, the most entertaining shops for me are the ones representing Nigeria’s version of Blockbuster. Pirated versions of movies are completely illegal, of course, but there is no attempt made to police their sale and the DVD’s are everywhere. Regardless of one’s position on the ethics involved, even the most dour defender of copyright protection would be amused by the packaging dreamed up by the video pirates to boost their legitimacy. Logos of every major organization from BMW to the NBA appear on the front of the packages alongside the always trustworthy “Soni” brand. Single discs boasting an incredible 48 movies are sold under such titles as “Adventure Daring Youth Idol” and “Seabed Disaster Thrills”. Often, it’s a stretch to see what the collected movies have in common with each other. My favourite so far is “Hollywood Top Notch Musical Classics” which featured “The Sound of Music” next to such timeless toe-tappers as “Kingpin” and “Goodfellas”. The hills are alive with the sound of me whacking some rat fink bastard?

Three months in to my stay, the market has become an attraction for me. The sensory overload has settled back into an active lively groove, and I look forward to the energy I find there. I’m still an object of fascination at the market, but the reaction is now one of curiosity rather than shock, which is an improvement, since it tends to lead to actual conversations. And the odd declaration of love.