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!