Sunday, March 23, 2008

River Wonder Falls!

From the main road just out of Kafanchan, all you can see are what seem to be two ordinary small falls of water. Today, thanks to Alok's curiousity and lovely rainy breezy weather, we decided to check them out! And we were amazed by their beauty. It was like an oasis in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the driest season of the year.

Apparently some company has had the brilliant idea of building a holiday resort around the area of the falls and has gotten the land on lease from the government. Rohi, Parul if you are reading, remember the chaos of Kempty? Well, this was far more beautiful and wonderfully non-chaotic!

This marks my first sight of a natural wonder in Africa!

Happy Holi!

This was my first Holi away from home! But luckily for me I found a festive Indian to celebrate it with! Alok is a doctor who is here working as Program Manager for 30 Primary Health Centres servicing 150 villages in 3 local governments. He was nice enough to invite me and a few other
volunteers to his home to celebrate holi together: eat, drink and talk! He has a fabulous cook who cooked lovely poori, aloo matar, papads [that too fried:)], fresh dahi! It was just amazing...

When the other volunteers were asking what does "holi" mean and what is the historical siginifance, I was surprised at myself for not knowing! But I found out that it has many explanations including being a harvesting festival, the burning of the demoness "Holika", throwing of the ayurvedic colours as medicine for cure, etc etc.. [thanks to wikipedia again].

In the photo you see from left to right, Alok, Krystal [VSO volunteer from Holland] and Glenn [VSO Volunteer from Canada]! Behind them is the "Pick House" where the volunteers stay in Kagoro. [yes thats the mountain that I was attempting to climb!]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sannu [Hello] from Kafanchan

Saturday actually was a extra-special day! First, Pradip, an Indian VSO volunteer based in Abuja cooked for the most amazing chicken curry, dal, roti and kheer! [ahh roti:)] I then arrived in Kafanchan on Saturday night where another scrumptious Indian meal was awaiting me at an Indian doctor's house.

Kafanchan in a small town in Kaduna state with a population of about 80,000. It has very weak systems for health, education and infrastructure. I am visiting a local civil society organisation
called Fantsfaum Foundation [named after the local tribe called "Fantsfaum" that is working towards integrated rural development through ICT, micro-finance [modelled after grameen bank], health awareness and facilities, a local volunteering program called "Gaiya" [which means "free gift of labour" in Hausa]. I am here to know more about their volunteering program. The people here are really nice. I am staying at the Foundation guesthouse which is quite comfortable.

We have two VSO volunteers who are working in FF. They live in a smaller town called "Kagaro" which is about half an hour from Kafanchan. We [me and the Director's daughter] spent sunday visiting Kagoro. It is quiet litte place which has a lovely mini-mountain range at its side, which we attempted to climb. But alas, it wasnt meant to be...I got tired too soon...that is now one of my goals for my year in Nigeria, to climb the Kagaro Mountain!

Today I spent mostly meeting the staff and volunteers. Everyone is very impressed with my hausa and cannot believe I ahve been here only 2 weeks...

I have an interesting week ahead!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Happy St Patrick's Day

Happy St Patrick's Day

Remember the energising party and dance sequence in Titanic where Kate Winslet stands on her toes the first time and experiences her first real "live" party? Well I didnt stand on my toes, but I did have my first experience celebrating an Irish festival and it was fun!

Saint Patrick's Day, colloquially St. Paddy's Day or Paddy's Day, is an annual feast day which celebrates Saint Patrick (circa 385–461 AD), one of the patron saints of Ireland, and is generally
celebrated on March 17. Celebrations are generally themed around all things Irish and, by association, the colour green. Both Christians and non-Christians celebrate the secular version of the holiday by wearing green or orange, eating Irish food and/or green foods, imbibing Irish drink (such as Guinness) and attending parades. [thanks wikipedia!]

Luckily for us VSO volunteers, an Irish construction company celebrates this day in Abuja and all VSO volunteers and staff are invited! They flew in an Irish band who played lovely authentic
Irish as well as a few non-Irish, albeit, popular dance numbers [I almost grabbed the lead singer's guitar when he was playing Country Roads by John Denver...I so wanted to play that there!].

We learned a few Irish dancing steps. The food was a lovely spread again a nice pot-pourri of dishes even samosas [mmm....]! We were also talking about how the Irish flag is a lot like the Indian flag...just vertical without the spokes!

Thank you Saint Patrick!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I am on the map!

Hey, as of now as many as 50 volunteers are serving throughout Nigeria and working in various capacities in the areas of secure livelihoods, education, HIV/ AIDS, and national volunteering! I am now on the map!

My programme area is "National Volunteering". Every year, VSO invites stakeholders to come to together to review the past year and collectively plan for next year! I am very lucky that the annual review for my programme area is actually happening tomorrow and dayafter! It will be an excellent way for me to understand what has happened so far and how I could contribute!

Doing an Indian film!

I think it is the first time I have heard of a mention to India in Nigerian metaphors....Nigerians love to watch Indian much so...that when a Nigerian takes very long to do something, the comment that comes is "oh don't be an Indian film"!

Grilled Pepe Fish at Abacha Barracks!

General Abacha was a military ruler of Nigeria whose family looted a lot of public money...but got a barracks named after himself:) The Abacha Barracks is known for its freshly roasted fish! There is a square in the middle of a shanty place and many women are grilling fish with pepe [Nigerian slang for pepper] and bargaining for the best price. A big size fish [as in photo] costs about 500 naira [Rs 150] comes with sauteed onions and a lemon...with the infamous "Star" beer, its the most delicious fish I have ever eaten!

As value adds, we had a lovely cool breeze, live guitar music, and funny company!

Only in India

I cant remember how many people have told me that "we Indians are very unique"; "this can happen only in India"...well just a week in Nigeria and I have learnt that perhaps Indians are not so unique after all!

What should I start with...lets say the constant honking on the roads, the anywhere-pee policy, vendors on the sidewalks selling anything under the sun, the low priority pedestrian status, the dilapidating condition of the taxis and buses to the larger issues of lack of quality education, corruption, poverty, conservative attitude towards girls, lack of livelihoods etc etc etc....

The best one was last night...I swear when I heard the dogs barking at 4 am...I felt right at home:)

But despite all of this, Nigerians are happy see smiles, you hear laughter, you smell pepper, you hear "welcome, welcome, welcome"! I have felt so much warmth and love here in just a few days and it is indeed this that holds for me the promise of an unforgettable experience!

My congratulations!

As part of the session on motivation, the existing volunteers shared that in aiming for high impact, we very often forget our smal achievements and dont congratulate ourselves! To help us do so, we were asked to write a letter to is what I wrote...

Dearest Mana,

You are truly fantastic. I want to congratulate you for taking this leap; for finally doing what you have been thinking about for a long time; for leaving your comfort zone and loved ones to find comfort in and give comfort to some others who are in a similar journey as you; for wanting to understand and live in a new culture and the joys, the pain, the excitement, the passion in
their lives; and finally for venturing from the planned into the unknown!

My first road trip in Nigeria!

Just few days into my entry into a new land, I was on the road. The distance between Abuja and Jos is about 300 km and thanks to the great condition of Nigerian roads [two lane to six lane], we made it there in less that 4 hours! The Nigerians were surprised to here me say that their roads were better than ours in India:)

The drive to Jos was absolutely amazing! Jos is in "Plateau State" and is literally on a plateau, hence, the cool weather...We passed by small green and brown hills, vast expanse of land, Its also an abundant producer of fruits and vegetables...and many volunteers do their grocery shopping here.. Good news is that the mango season is just about to start and I already saw huge mangoes on the road was just amazing...

We attended a "Volunteer Patch Meeting" of the northern patch which has about 40 volunteers across the northern states. It was a great opportunity to meet volunteers from Netherlands, Canada, UK, Ireland, Uganda, Kenya, US, Australia who have been serving in Nigeria for six months and more...I was so inspired by all of them...they all shared that after the initial months of a bit of loneliness, frsutration, depression, there comes a time where everybit of this experience is worth cherishing! Each one of them simply loves living here and some have even gotten extensions or gotten jobs here:) One of the volunteers described Nigeria as a "naughty child in your classroom: you get so annoyed by him but you also adore how his excitement and wit livens the classroom!"

We had two days of workshops with volunteers taking creative sessions on planning, cultural diversity, motivation, monitoring and evaluation, sharing skills [popularily known as speed dating], theatre for development!

We just walked around town, went to the Jos museum. The first thing I saw was the currency exchange section and I thought of Parth immediately...this is his favourite part of any museum!
Nigerians have had a history of using various things like cowrie shells, iron materials, even cloth as media of exchange. We saw very nicely preserved pots and pans, musical instruments, dresses, masks [again parth's favourite], weapons...It was quite interesting...

The best icecream in Jos market and my first Nigerian rain were the highlights of the day! We went around the market looking at fabric shops and there were so many lovely colours and shades of fabric...We went to a supermarket and I was surprised to see so many familiar brands and I kept shouting whenever I saw something familiar [Parth, you would have found it quite funny!].

One of the purposes of such a visit is to make the new volunteer familiar with public transport. So we were all paired with an existing volunteer and we had to find our own public transport to
get back to Abuja. Nigeria has a very interesting public transport system. They have these licensed motorparks where you go to take a taxi or minibus to your destination. You wait till a
vehicle fills up and then you are on your way! Then there these motorbikes called "okadas"! These are quite fast and get around much more easily than the taxies. So Steve [from Kenya] and I hopped on an Okada each to reach the nearest motorpark. There we booked a taxi [which takes about 7 people]. The taxi guy was quite happy to see an Indian in his taxi, he even called me "didi"! Our ride back was quite comfortable and we reached Abuja is about 3 hours! Congrats, Mana on your first ride!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Spontaneous Order at work again!

Pidgin english originated in Africa...The early explorers, navigators, and sailors found it difficult to communicate with the natives. On part of Africans, there was keenness to explore new ways of communicating with their visitors. And there developed "Pidgin", a version of English very unique to certain countries in Africa, Nigeria being one of them!

Pidgin is spoken widely in south, so since I am in Lagos, I would ahve to learn this one to be able to connect with the locals including my co-workers, my neighbours, my vendors etc...

Its very much like english but with certain different, "how are you children?" would become "how your pickin them?"...."You go smell pepper"...means "You will ahve hard life."....
So as they say in Pidgin..."I dey manage"...meaning..."I am coping well."!


Its very impolite to walk into an office and not greet everyone...Nigerians love people and they love to ask about your family, your children and at times they have to clarify that "we are not being nosy...just want to know how you are!"

I have already got a taste of that on the plane and also at the training...

One more interesting thing I found out is that if a Nigerian tells you "Oh, you look fat!" it actually is a compliment! They mean to say that you look healthy and you look well... I hope to gain some kilos then...

Coming along....

My trip from Lagos to Abuja was quite exciting...we were taxing the runway and suddenly this lady gets up and starts shouting she is uncomfortable adn wants to get off the plane!! she is very persistent so the plane does turn the other passengers are quite irritated and are very suspicious of her and after she gets off...they wanted to get off was really funny to see the comradarie among the Nigerians...there was a Nigerian sitting next to me and he was also quite friendly...she said that this type of thing happens sometimes:) Anyways the pilot convinved all to stay on board and we did finally take off and I landed safe and sound. The VSO team was there to pick me up and we checked into a very comfortable hotel with AC and internet in the room...very good so far!

The next morning I met the 10 other volunteers who were from UK, Canada, Uganda, Ireland, Netherlands and Kenya. There were a few serving volunteers as well. Its so amazing to see young people who ahve been here for 4 months but who know how to get around, the local food, how to get a sim card and recharge!!

Mobiles are very cheap here...a new sim card costs only Rs 70!

The first day we had an orientation at the VSO programme office [very nice] and then we went for registration to our embassies and the British Council. We all get free membership:)
That day I was really tired and went to sleep early. Today was exciting..we had security and briefings, presentation on the Nigerian social, political context and also a bit on development challenges and cross-cultural workings....It was so strange but half the time it felt as if we were all talking about India...there are so many similarities...

They did some really fun energisers which I have noted for future use...

After the sessions, I had a good discusison with my Programme Manager: National Volunteering about what my role and what to expect in next few weeks. Good news is that my apartment will have all the basic equipement like a fridge, TV thats a relief...

Tomorrow they are taking us to a market to give us a taste of real Nigeria....on Thursday we are going to a city called "Jos" where there is a meeting of about 50 VSO volunteers serving in Nigeria. Its called a "Patch Meeting"! IT should be fun...

We return on Monday and I will visit another city called "Kafanchan" to meet some more volunteers who are doing similar work as I...I will reach Lagos only by end of March....Until next time....

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

My journey begins...

Finally my journey begins! The day I was about to leave, I was numb, I couldnt believe that this is happening.

I am very thankful for my share of good experiences so far. First my bags which were about 45 kg [excess by 5] were checked all ok without any excess baggage charges and then the guy checked it in all the way to Abuja. So I got the excess allowance right upto the last sector which actually allows only 20 kgs!

I was very impressed with Emirates! The entertainment system was excellent, I watched two movies-"Enchanted" [demsey looks really Mcsteamy aka Dr Shephard in Grey's Anatomy], an amalgamation of cartoon and reality, modern day cinderalla story, lovely songs...and "No Reservations" [Anthony Bourdain must not be very happy with use of this name!], a story about lonely hard working chef who discovers meaning in life by living with his niece!

I also watched two episodes of "Greys Anatomy" which I had not seen, it was so nice to watch this after so long..and of course no TV experience is complete without my "Friends"....

The 3 hours at Dubai went by very quickly, the crowd made it a bit exhausting, but I walked around and had a fruit cocktail for breakfast! I chatted with this Indian lady who was gorging on poori aloo...

But both times I got a middle seat:) This is the only downside I ahve experienced about checking in late, that you get the lousiest seats...

But luckily I had an interesting young Nigerian businessman seated next to me who was curious to know my reasons for visiting his country. Our conversation strengthened my opinion about the similarity between India and Nigeria. He was so frustrated with the state his country was in. Government had schools but no teachers nor infrastructure, so the children got little quality education, so parents send their children to private schools only. Those also he said were making money...The government announces various schemes and plans in the name of the poor but most of it is eaten away within the system only. He said that young people were interested in politics only for one of three possible reasons: for money, following father's footsteps, or wanting real governance [of course the minority]. The country lacked basic amenities, like electricity, water, food, good roads...He had businesses in Dubai and he said that he could achieve in 2 hours in Dubai what would take him 8 in Nigeria! People are very enterprising..but vendors also face the same harassment and extortion as in India.

He asked what it took to set up an NGO. He wanted to start a program to donate books in poor communities where there were no or insufficient schools. I suggested he check out room to read...maybe they operate here as well.

I felt so sad after talking to actually seemed he was talking about India as much as Nigeria. I took his number. He looked like someone who would be a good help in time of need...

Now am sitting in Lagos airport. As soon as I landed here, I cleared immigration, lugged around my two heavy bags without a trolley and checked in Virgin for my flight to Abuja! The Virgin staff were very helpful...I can almost feel the air of lightness and fun as I walk around listening to laughter and loud excited voices...

What a relief to have a working phone...Parth has called a few times and so have Dad and Pinky...its just nice to be connected...doesnt make me feel that I am that far away...

I will be in Abuja soon....