Saturday, August 30, 2008

Religion: A "Public " Way of Life & Competition for the Soul

One question I am asked repeatedly is "Which church do you go to?" In India, my response to that would have been,"I believe in something larger than me, but I don't believe in one God. I believe in myself and the people that I love." That is not the answer I can give in Nigeria if I want to save myself from a long unrelenting sermon! It is easier to just say, I am a Hindu! I got first hand experience when I was living with my host family for a month when I first came to Lagos. Pastor Samson used to hold the services in their backyard!

With over 200 tribes, Nigeria has a rich history of traditional religious beliefs and practices which are visible today in museums, "juju" (black magic) stalls in the markets, currently prevalent practices of ancient masquerades (living connecting with the dead) and few "well-preserved" sacred places across the country. The Yoruba religion, for instance, mirrors Hinduism with the multiple functional Gods and Goddesses and idol worship. I have also heard of instances "cannibalism" and opposing belief systems. In the east, twins were considered evil and hence killed until the practice was stopped by a Swedish missionary; whereas in the west, twins were considered a special omen and actually worshiped!

The arrival of Christianity and Islam has converted most Nigerians and marginalized the traditional religious systems. Today, Muslims and Christians alike, religious practice is very public and is taken very very seriously. In the Christian-South, the signs are everywhere. They all know the Bible. People go for Bible Studies and you keep hearing verses being sited in articles, quoted in speeches and not just in church. The hundreds of churches are an highly organized social institution with branches who work to attract parishioners to their parish through large billboards, flyers, bumper stickers. You can become a part of various "groups/ clubs" like singles, youth...(remember the talk I gave on personal development to 200 singles). They even have sports tournaments! It is an intense feeling of belonging to something larger than yourself.

Pastors are not shy of starting a sermon in the bus or on the streets with a loudspeaker. Meetings and workshops always start and end with a prayer. Attending the service at church is a must atleast typically once or twice during weekdays, all night on Friday's and always always on Sunday mornings (a good day to catch soul stirring music and the best of Nigerian fabric). Paying tithe (the religious tax) is a public event during the Sunday service. I witnessed one where all the parishioners danced their way forward with an envelope to a box near the altar.

Though I don't know much of the Muslin north, but with sharia laws in practice, the intensity of belief is the quite similar. On our visit to Kano, all traffic stopped when it was time for the Friday prayer with all the men coming out of their cars and prayed in the middle of the road! Like India, religion is a common cause for conflict with frequent riots at slight provocation. From what I have heard of the sermons, the pastors and imams could do a little more to preach unity and harmony!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Another fantastic play by Crowne Troupe

We were lucky to catch another performance by the Crown Troupe in an exclusive location called "Studio 868"-home to salsa classes, high life parties and art exhibitions. As with the previous play, the central theme of this play was the polarised yet captivating contrast between tradition and modernity.

Titled "The Divorce of Lawino and Ochol", the play captures the anguish and disbelief of the conservative "village wife"-Lawino when her educated "city bred" husband-Ochol wants to divorce her for a "modern" white city-lady! The playwright cast a new perspective on the seemingly obvious debate between tradition and modernity. The soulful music of the drums, flute, harmonica with the intermingling of English and Yoruba was a matching metaphor to the play's theme.

On Air Again!

Our previous brief interview on air led Nike and I to be invited to a one-hour call-in show called "Matters Arising". The presenter -having dedicated the show to "volunteering"- pushed us to persuade him along with the young university listeners of the show on why and how they should volunteer! Nike was absolutely brilliant sharing her own experiences with volunteering. We received three congratulatory phone calls on air!

Happy Anniversary to US!

You can imagine how difficult this 7th anniversary was for Parth and me but it was the best "separate" anni celebration ever! Parth had already given a heads up to my office. Mayowa is great at planning surprise celebrations with a lovely heart-shaped cake and a customized card for the "SHAHs" signed by everyone! We cut the cake with all the GIVE and HOPE staff. We got many many wishes for many more happy years and TWINS!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Happy Anniversary Dalu!

Mana and I have many firsts and so, many anniversaries. August 21 is special since it's the day we went to Delhi magistrate's office to register ourselves legally as a couple. It is the first time in seven years that we are on two different continents on this day. The folklore talks about a seven-year itch--well, then this is ours. And that is all there will be! Never again we shall be separated like this. That is my promise on this seventh anniversary, dalu! Love you! You can't imagine how much I miss you!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Happy Birthday CCS!

August 2000...I was sitting quietly pretending to listen to my accounts professor...two women hurriedly entered our class (mistaking it for the pol science section) and very unconvincingly told us about this residential seminar in about 10 days...and the application deadline was in 2 days! Well my ears were struck by the word "residential" and for the fun of it I took the form. I put all my sincerity in completing the application and promptly submitted it to CCS! I was ecstatic to receive a call informing me of my selection and a day before I received a packet of readings...With my bags packed, anxious Mom came to drop me off to the venue (Jamia Hamdard)...3-6 September 2000...the first time I saw Parth was when he made his entry into the hall once all of us had been registered and settled....Those four days changed my life...

CCS is my family...the seven roller-coaster years I spent there groomed me, angered me, annoyed me, excited me, and energised me! CCS has grown in the past eleven years from an infant to an adolescent...I am quite excited about the next eleven years and look forward to being a part of its journey...Happy Birthday, CCS!

Happy Independence Day, India!

In the close to 28 years of my life, I have never attended the independence or republic day celebrations live, watching on TV from the comfort of home, was always the more attractive option!
So you can sense my excitement at attending the celebrations here at the Indian High Commission in Lagos! I must be very patriotic--I left home at 7:30 am and two bikes and a BRT bus ride later I managed to reach 15 minutes late. The Indians are apparently very punctual in Nigeria! There were about 200-300 Indians, a few non-Indians, short speeches, some patriotic songs ("swades, yeh des he mera" from Swades brought me close to tears...), FOOD (chole bhature, samosas, idli, vada, sambhar, gulab jamun....).

I did a lot of networking for GIVE and got a lot of cards from corporate honchos and social workers. But there was some reservation which I expected, they were not so forthcoming! Well anyways, I gave my best pitch and the rest I leave to their conscience!

Celebrating International Youth Day!

As with other "days", UN has declared 12 August as the International Youth Day! Many NGOs and youth across the world do events for youth on this day and Lagosians are of course never behind! My organisation supported a group of youth volunteers in putting together a awareness and action program on the theme of climate change, which is the chosen theme for this year's IYD.

We had a full house: 170 people ranging from 11-35 year olds. The program was quite eclectic, starting with the national anthem (the talking drum giving the beat), a documentary screening, a short play accompanied by the infamous Yoruba drums, and a panel discussion! We were supposed to organise a tree planting but could not get the necessary permissions from local government!

Working with you can be exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, as was this event!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Trip to Alpha Beach...

Nike (my colleague and dear friend) convinced one of her dear friends-Ayo-to drive us to Alpha Beach in Lagos. We stocked up on light food and drinks and after a three-hour traffic-struck drive, we reached the Beach. Ah, the sight of water made the drive completely worth it. We ate freshly made suya (barbecued meat), had a short (and uncomfortable) horse back ride, played ball with an orange and dabbled our feet in the water. The torrential rain the day before made the weather perfect for a day at the beach.

What was interesting about the beach was the complete private "management" and seemingly invisible presence of the local government! A few private guys took a entrance fee of 200 Naira per person and then we paid for use of the shack and the chairs. They were again very eagerly waiting us to pay on our exit but we just drove. The horses also were privately owned (purchased at Naira 150,000). The riders would charge Naira 200 for a small ride and also an additional Naira 200 for every picture you took on the horse even with your own camera!
On my prompting, they all shared what they loved and disliked about Nigeria. Interestingly the bad stuff came to mind more easily than the good stuff. The Nigerian spirit, the food, the weather, the clothes were listed under the good things and of course the government and the attitude of the people among the not so good things....

On Air!

Thanks to Nike's contacts, she and I got invited as guests on a radio show on UNILAG FM (the radio station run and managed by students of University of Lagos, the first university radio in Nigeria). We were asked about the upcoming International Youth Day on 12 August and youth and volunteering! The producer must have liked us as they promised us free air time and invited us for a longer call-in show on 15 August!

Promoting Volunteering in Nigeria

Many of have pointed out to me that I have not been writing about my work. I am working as an Organizational Development Advisor with GIVE (Greater Involvement in Volunteering Efforts) Network: a network of volunteer-involving organizations in Nigeria. It was established in 2005 with an aim to promote volunteering for development and to build capacity of NGOs in managing volunteers. We have about 20 member organizations across Nigeria. I work at the Network Secretariat where besides me, there is one staff member (Nike-Program Officer). My oga (boss) is Mayowa Joel, who is the coordinator of the Network Steering Committee (a select leadership group representing the network members which manages the network).

My main job here is to develop the necessary systems and policies for effective functioning of the network for example, the membership policy, the roles and responsibilities of the various groups, fundraising etc. I am also helping some member organizations in organizational development. One such organization is Media Concern which works on the issue of sexual violence in Nigeria. I have just completed an intensive and participatory assessment process with them and will start with trainings for their lovely staff on project management and fundraising.

Everyday, I am discovering many new things about myself and my skills (or lack of them!). Some things are easy, some challenging and some very very difficult....I have to not just do my work but also build capacity of the organization so that they can continue the work after I leave. I hope I am able to complete atleast 80 % of my very ambitious work goals!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Happy Birthday Moni!!

Moni is the undoubtedly "the CHEF" of the Shah family, not to leave out the "maths wiz", the "moodiest person you don't want to anger", "the critical sister"....and of course the "BOOKWORM"...

I remember when I was young, Moni started a library in the back of the house with all her piles and piles of books (though I dont know what happened to all those books)!

She would voluntarily take on the roll of my maths tutor and I was absolutely petrified of her questioning when I returned home from my exams...the first thing she would say would be, "how many silly mistakes did you make?"

The food...hmm...I can never forget that one night, Pinky, Moni and I were trying hard to sleep in one bed (back them we were small enough to fit in one bed!), and we all were hungry but no one wanted to say anything...when one of us finally confessed to the hunger, Moni of course was delegated the task of fixing a mid night snack...left over chole and bread or was it bhel? anyways it was the best mid night snack ever!

She is ten years older to me but she doesn't show it...looks young and vibrant and ready to party as ever....I love you! Happy Birthday!

My First Burial: Celebrating Life of 120 years!

Our office admin Mommy's (as she is lovingly called in office) mother-in-law passed away at the glorious age of 120! In Nigeria burials, especially of elderly people, are regarded as opportunities of celebration rather than mourning and the party can take place within 1-3 months of the person's demise. This burial was arranged as the commonly seen "street party" (tents, chairs and tables are arranged in a street with feet-tapping and bum-bum shaking Afro-beat music). Most guests wear the same fabric and there is lots of food, drinks and return gifts (very useful items like umbrellas, cups, bags this party we got salt, tomato paste, cup and hankerchief). I even experienced the practice of "spraying", where people literally spray money at each other....

Idanre Hills: The Yosemite of Nigeria!

About two hours-drive from Ife takes you to Idanre Hills which were created out of volcanic eruptions and were home to a civilization of people about 800 years ago! After climbing about 600 steps (thankfully with five resting points along the way) we reached the top and trekked through forest and rocky trails to see remnants of the Ancient Palace, the first customary court, the school, market, unreadable letters (carved on the rock's surface), the wonderful rock (huge rock seemingly balanced at the bottom), the Arun river (believed to cure ailments like my pimples)!

The Idanre Hills reminded us of the rock formations at Yosemite Park in US! Along the trek, we came across men doing wood carvings, veggies and fruits (maize, chillies, mangoes)...Inside the ancient palace there was a stack of sacrificed cow bones-whose numbers used to tally the number of years served by the king!

Ile Ife: The Origin of the Yorubas

With Thompson as our ride and guide, we set out to visit Ile-Ife (Old Ife) which is said to be the birth place of all Yoruba people. All Yoruba chiefs and obas trace their descent from Oduduwa-the first mythical ruler of Ife and the founder of the Yorubas and they regard the reigning oba of Ife as their ritual superior.

Thompson studied in the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) which has a sprawling campus with a well stocked book shop and a musuem of natural history! We also visited the Ife Musuem where we bought a lovely replica of Nok terracotta (earliest civilization in Nigerian soil dating 500 BC). You can see the ornate entrance of the current Chief's residence!

VSO: 50 years in Nigeria!

In 1958, the first two VSO volunteers got their placement descriptions on the boat bound to Nigeria. 50 years later, VSO has about 56 volunteers all over the country! We were quite happy to be part of the 50 years celebrations at British Council in Abuja on 9 July! It was a rare occasion which brought together all the volunteers and of course everyone was delighted to meet my hubby! Of course it was quite easy to spot him since we both were wearing very similar clothes! In Nigeria family members tend to wear the same fabric clothes when attending parties!

Jos: The Best Weather in Nigeria!

This was my second visit to the cool city of Jos. We stayed with an Indian couple (both VSO volunteers with the same organization)-Biswajit and Himadri. Himadri made us scrumptious three-full-Indian-meals-a-day and their baby Yash was giving lovely the smiley faces to the sweet melody of my nursery rhymes!

Jos's origins go as far back as 500 BC attested to by the discovery of the Nok Terracotta. Jos itself was built by the British in early 1900s as a tin-mining centre and a "cool healthy retreat" for the British officers. Jos's climate allows for growth of many fruits and veggies which are found only here. It has a huge expat community and one which I have seen actually walking around town unlike in Lagos where you only see foreign faces in cars!

The Jos Museum has a lovely collection of musical instruments, masquerades (huge masks to facilitate the interaction between the spirit world and the real world), masks, currencies (cowrie shells, feathers, metal, West Africa in 17th century a cupful of cowries equalled a wife or a slave!) and a huge terracotta collection of funny looking pots. Parth was fascinated by one of the pots with holes which was used as a musical instrument! The highlight though was the many mangoes which Biswajit managed to pluck from the trees with the help of the curator!

We then strolled into the deserted entrance of the Museum of Traditional Architecture where you can walk through full-size replicas representing different styles of Nigerian Architecture including Katsina Palance, Zaria Mosque, Illorin Mosque and the Kano City Wall.

Jos is also the home to Alternative Trade Network which markets local and traditional crafts. Their shop provides information about the origin of the product and how it was produced. We bought nice stuff for my Lagos home and India including a floor mat made out of rubber slippers' material, traditionally dressed men/ women magnets, wood carvings and a jute hot plate! In the photo you see Sebastian (VSO Volunteer with ATN), his boss, his colleague and us!

The drive to and from Jos was green and mesmerizing with clouds draping over the hills. We made a stop enroute to Abuja to Assop Falls!