Saturday, August 22, 2009

Working with young people: is there a magic formula?

In my years before me, I can say I have decent amoung of experience in working with youth. But if one were to ask me what is the secret of their success or what is one thing that should be done in creating maximum outcomes, I would answer with a typical Indian unidentifiable nod!

As someone who is supporting, guiding, mentoring youth groups, should one give more autonomy and flexibility (and then take a chill pill and wait for the spontaneous order to create the magic)? Should one provide frameworks and structures within which young people can play with (and then scringe if one of those frameworks are not often referred to again until one plays the job of a constant reminder)? Should one insist on reporting and documentation after a great program when one knows that will take its own time to come? Should one provide more spaces to meet and interact face to face or create multiple online forums? Should one wait and control the impulse to rush in to "rescue" or "correct" eve though it can add more value? How does one balance task and process? Does it always have to be a good job but an incoherent group or a so-so job but a happy team? Do they work best when they work for themselves?

What is the one thing that makes young people work their magic? What can one do to really help young people clarify their vision, learn from their experiences, connect with others, think through the whats and hows and think about the future??

For me working with youth has been and is a magical experience, but I often wonder, is there a magic formula to really "help" young people in achieving their dreams or do we just leave it at "it just depends"!

Disclaimer: some of those reading this may belong to one or more of the youth groups I have worked with..i am not referring to a particular group but looking at my own and others experiences in this work!

What are the world's smartest education "experts" doing?

After reading James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree! I felt angry, inspired, surprised, and most of all completely bewildered as to how the education experts of the world from 19th century onwards were just ignoring how majority of the poor were choosing the education for their children.

His experiences of working with schools in India, China, Nigeria, Ghana, and Zimbabwe all showed him the same thing! That the poor had made a choice for the betterment of their children. The educational entreprenuers were not looting the poor "ignoramous" parents. The children in private schools, even the village schools, were performing way better than their counterparts in government schools.

It was the first time I had read a counter to Britain's feather in the cap-of bringing education to the uncivilised world! He documents again and again how in Kenya, China, India, and even in England had a history of well-functioning private schools which used a unique peer-learning methodoly!

Given the recent debates around the Right to Education Bill, its seems so clear that we hvae not learnt anything from our own history and that the edu-experts are clinging on to some utopian system of all-public-education which has failed to deliver over and over again!

The book was published by Cato and there is soon going to be an Indian edition, hopefully! Keep your eye on that one!

Way to go, James and thanks for educating me about how my ancestors were educating themselves!

Monday, June 15, 2009

I am back!

One thing I will always be grateful to my Nigeria experience, would be that it made me write:) Its the first time in my life that I wrote about the big and small happenings in my volunteer life and I found this an excellent medium to share my thoughts of my loved ones (fortunately, the positive thoughts!) But since I have been back, I have not had the motivation or the idea on the form the blog should take.

One of my dear friends from Nigeria, Ayo, challenged this extended leave of absense from this blog, by saying carpe diem shouldnt end just because I have left Nigeria!!

So here I am, back atleast with this new post and some alterations to the blog layout! This transition is still work in progress so it will be a while till it looks smooth! I want to keep some of the old elements as many aspiring volunteers look to my blog as a source of information on the ups and downs of volunteer life.

Keep reading, hopefully my mental mutterings will entertain you.....

Monday, March 2, 2009

Goodbye Naija

Its difficult to believe that almost a year has passed since I became a part of GIVE's family. I came to GIVE and to Nigeria with a lot hope, excitement, curiosity and eagerness to make a difference. Lagos to me was very much like India in all its hustle & bustle and vibrancy. Though the traffic and NEPA were tough to get used to, the music, the art & culture scene, the BRT, the beaches and most importantly the PEOPLE have made this an unforgettable experience.

Over the past year, working with the Network gave me the opportunity to work with a number of organizations and different people. I have been lucky to witness some impactful initiatives and meet committed visionaries. Thank you especially to Falana Martin-Mary, Princess, Ijeoma, Felix, Charles, Dr Chika for accepting my small contributions. As a volunteer, there was tremendous value and respect for my experience, skills and perspective. It was humbling to receive invitations to workshops and seminars outside GIVE.

One of the reasons that I chose to volunteer with VSO is that I wanted to test myself and my skills to see how much I really know and can do. Working at GIVE, I have had my hands full throughout my time here, which is a great thing. Its better to be busy than bored! I had a great boss-Mayowa Joel who listens, advices, asks & appreciates! He has given me the freedom to plan out my work and has been open to my comments, complaints, and ideas. colleagues-Ike Nwibe & Nike Fagade and volunteers especially Titi Kazeem, Yinka Coker and Shittu Abiodun have been patient and welcoming of my inputs and work style. I have had challenges from not being able to plan realistically to having to multitask and focus of things which were outside my initial work plan. But I have enjoyed most of it. The struggle, stress and challenge occasionally came from the constant thought in the back of my head that my job is to not just do the job but make sure they can continue to do it after I leave. And also good to know that the Network is also seriously concerned and taking necessary steps to address this issue. I cannot say that I have found the answer to that for every situation, but the process has been quite intellectually invigorating! As a volunteer, there was tremendous value and respect for my experience, skills and perspective. It was humbling to receive invitations to workshops and seminars outside GIVE. In my time here, I have realised what is it that I like, what I hate, what I am good at and what I am not good at. I have realised that there are levels of perfection, that I am good at making something from bad to good but I sometimes lack the patience, discipline & creativity to take it from good to great. I get too concerned with the how and the process and sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. Having these realisations and sporadic light bulbs in my head have made me come closer to being aware of myself and understand my actions.

I have never lived on my own before. I was living a very comfortable life with my parents and then with my husband. I have never been away from Delhi for more than a month. In Delhi, I go around in my car and seldom use public transport. With the maid and cook, I have never had to do my own laundry, cleaning, or cooking. Given that here, I have managed to get around using public transport, done my own cleaning, washing and cooking, I feel I have conquered Everest! Living away from my husband has been more hard than I had imagined. But being on my own, I have learnt to take care of myself in ways i can’t describe here. I made some smart decisions and some stupid decisions, but the feeling that these have been my decisions have made the consequences quite bearable. Though I am sociable, I have been uncomfortable and stressed thinking about creating a whole new social life for myself away from home. But I am amazed at both the warmth and acceptance of my landlords, colleagues and friends here as well as my ability to develop and maintain relationships which will surely last beyond this one year.
Living in a different developing country, I cannot help but notice the stark similarities between India and Nigeria. Being here I believe even more strongly that a country cannot be defined by the nature, attitudes and limitations of its people. I flinch when anyone’s reaction to a problem, is “well, this is Nigeria!” I see the same problems and frustrations in India and I believe that a country works because of the system that governs it. People are essentially the same everywhere. Though contexts and history is different, human nature is homogenous. Nigeria has the same mix of the good, bad, and in betweens as in India as in any other country. My first host family (Pastor Samson, Lizzy, Christabelle) and second host family (Professor & Mrs Victor Adefela) have loved and cared for me as their daughter. All the wonderful people at HOPE have made my days very colourful, happy and fun. I have made many dear friends over the year who have showered me with their love, warmth and protection and its difficult to name them all.

Working with a Network gave me the opportunity to work with a number of organizations and different people during my limited time here. I have been lucky to witness some impactful initiatives and meet committed visionaries. But it pains me to see that mostly all the organizations I worked with, though they have great leaders, they are struggling with the same issues—lack of systems and processes for organizational and program management. They seem to be stuck in a captivating spiral of insufficient resources and lack of competent & dedicated staff to enable them to scale up and multiply the reach of their impact. I hope this frustration of mine will guide me choosing what I do with my life in the future.

I have been also lucky enough to travel across Nigeria and witness the sights, sounds, and vibrancy of the Calabar Christmas Carnival, coolness of Jos, the ancient markets of Kano, the lush sacred forests of Osogbo, and the moving slave relics of Badagry.
Nigeria is an exciting place to be and I am very glad it was my first stop in Africa!

Nigeria has a terrible reputation outside, particularly Lagos. Crime, traffic, filth are all alleged to contribute to making it the "worst" place to live! Yes there is crime, traffic and garbage everywhere, but not as bad as it is made out to be. I actually felt safer in Lagos buses then in Delhi buses! It is also good to know that the government is doing lot to improve on these things and there have been good improvements since my first arrival in Lagos. There have been many moments where I have witnessed kindness, acceptance, and humility. Twice I did not have sufficient change to pay for the bike ride from my home to the main road, the bike guy humbly accepted whatever change I had. People occasionally give up their seats for the elderly, pregnant women, and even me! I greet this one lady vendor while going to work and when I first bought a recharge card from her, she actually refused to take any money!

E ku se o Naija!

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Calabar Christmas Carnival: The Main Parade

Day 1 of the carnival had boosted our curiosity, eagerness and energy to catch the main parade. After walking around for a while, we finally settled in the media stand which was perched up on wooden beams to offer a good view of the parade and it was right opposite the judges point so we got to witness the best dance performances.

Donald Duke-the creator of the Carnival led one of the bands and the crowd went absolutely crazy when he and his wife made their appearance!

After catching the morning three-hour parade, I somehow still had some reserve energy and after some refreshments, I accompanied Roy to the Stadium where all the bands were returning after their tour of the city. They performed one last time in the stadium and this time I was right in the front on the tracks and I got excellent frontal views of the entire parade.

The Calabar Christmas Carnival: The Kids Parade

Donald Duke-the former governor of Cross River State started the annual Calabar Christmas Carnival in 2000 which has surely put Calabar on the international map of carnivals! The entire month of December is lined up with exciting activities including live concerts, shows, youth development programs etc. The street parades are on 26 December (Kids) and 27 December (adults). The parade starts from one point and walks around the major roads across the city and heads back to the National Stadium. Eager and often undisciplined crowds line up on both sides of the road and other clearer viewing spots (we saw some on back of a billboard). Five bands compete for the best choreography, costume, music etc and of course the overall best band trophy! Each band has about 10-12 sections of different costumes. The overall theme of 2008 carnival was sustaining the earth's treasures. There are 3-4 adjudication points where the bands are at their best to impress the judges. Luckily for us, we befriended a Nigerian-British documentary maker who was making a documentary about carnivals. As press, he had direct access to the carnival, so we hung out with him as his assistants and got a fabulous view of the entire parade on both the days.

The Kids parade was absolutely stunning. The children had endless energy given they were walking around under scorching sun in heavy uncomfortable costumes some ever barefeet!

No Monkey Business

Drill monkeys are short tailed rainforest monkeys that survive only in a handful of places one among which is the Cross River State and are one of Africa's most endangered primates being hunted for bushmeat! We visited two conservation initiatives Cercopan ( and Pandrillus ( Both organizations have a captive facilitates in Calabar and much larger forested areas few hours north of Calabar. Having made up our minds to wake up in a forest on Christmas Day, we headed up to Afi Drill Ranch on 24th morning. After five hours in a taxi and wahalla with our taxi driver over how much we owed him, we completed the final leg of our journey on a "machine" (what they call bikes here) meandering through a uphill and downhill muddy road. The Ranch is home to about thirty gorillas, chimps and drill monkeys and other forest animals including mongooses, parrots, pigs, eagles and others I didnt know about.

The ranch has a shared full equipped cooking facility to allow us to make our own food. It has about six netted cabins which allow for a panoramic view of the forest. They have a hole in the ground loo and an open shower area. Afi is run by an American couple, Liza and Peter who have been here for about twenty years (a number we were repeatedly reminded of).

After settling our stuff in our cabins, we headed for a serene walk in the forest. First stop was the various monkey enclosures. The chimps were the noisiest and the naughtiest of them all-one particular chimp loves to play throw and catch with his food with visitors-he seemed to pick me that day! And as Peter was telling us its not clear who is amused by whom! The male drill was the most striking with a blue and pink bottom!
We then walked over a seemingly rickety but strong canopy walk way built by the former governor of the state-Donald Duke. Its a 40 meter drop and was designed with an aim to allow visitors to enjoy the forest without disturbing the flora and fauna. The views from the canopy (where I did dare to look sideways and down while trying to maintain my balance) were quite breathtaking. The grandiose project was more of a personal wish and showgame without much of a plan for training the staff in maintenance or proper use.

We then headed on to the Bano Waterfalls. The cool and clean water was as close to a pedicure I could ask for!

In the evening, along with the unexpected chill, came christmas carols! I was with a group of people who are used to the tradition of xmas with carols, turkey, wine, the tree and gifts! Our collective peeling, chopping, cooking & eating was accompanied by a intensely polarised debate about the future of Nigeria in which we all were on one side and Peter on the other!

The next day we repeated our walkway and waterfalls tour albeit a bit more slowly this time. Peter was kind enough to offer us fresh palm wine and dropped us in his new land rover (which was a gift from the governor in an attempt to woo him!) to the nearest town.

Calabar: A City I could Retire in!

Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, is a pleasant, laid back town set on top of a hill, overlooking the Cross river. It was a major port town in the East and approximately a third of the slaves were transported out of Africa through here. It is the home of the Efik people , Efik also being the language they speak here. Parts of the city house beautiful colonial buildings which were shipped frame by frame from Europe. The host family we were staying with--their house was shipped from Germany!

It is also home to the 19th century Scottish Missionary, Mary Slessor who is known to be the champion for abolition of inhumane traditional practices like the killing of twins! You see her tomb in the photo below.

We passed by one of the oldest churches in the region, the Duke Town Church built in 1904.

Cross River state is also home to the best conservation initiatives in captive breeding of primates, one species of which is actually found only in this region in the entire world.

Also as everyone who heard we were going to Calabar said, it is the cleanest city in Nigeria with rubbish trucks and garbage bins (though the christmas spirit did allow for some littering!).

The Calabar Museum, housed in a building constructed in 1884, is the best in Nigeria and was quite different from the other museums in Jos and Lagos, in the sense that it had actually preserved complete furniture and other items from 18th and 19th century. It had a numerous photocopies of excerpts as well as original books, journals, newspapers. What caught my attention were vociferous writings of foreigners against colonisation and the slave trade and also a record of the education policy which claimed to register the private schools that existed during that time and wanted to structure the curriculum.

A short trip by speed boat took us to Creek Town, a small settlement near Calabar. After a stroll under the streaking sun, we cooled down with minerals in a cute bar called the "Abuja Bus Stop"! Another town a boat ride away is Oron, from where, boats depart for the neighbouring country Cameroon.

The shots I got of the sunset on the marina, I consider my best sun set shots ever!

We stayed with the most adorable host family who fed us and took care of us to the point that I refused to leave at one point:)