Saturday, August 16, 2014

i prefer broken stereotypes, but sometimes they just don't break

One of my favorite Lagos experiences: volunteering with
my friend at this Vacation Bible School.
(Note that this post's photos don't go with this story,
except that photos and story are all set in Nigeria. :-) )
So let's just start this post with the text message I sent my Lagos host after I finally boarded the flight to leave her city a couple days ago:

"Adventures! Am at the gate now. Through all security, etc. But when I arrived, there was no counter for my flight. I asked around. Was told the counter closed completely 2 hours before the flight leaves!!! Don't know how anyone is supposed to know that. Went to the Alitalia office. They finally told the closed counter to accept me after looking at me blankly for several seconds as though I would have to stay in Nigeria forever. Had to check my bag because it was too heavy to carry on. Really hope it makes it! Then had to show my passport to two other guys at the desk. And they took a photo of the info page with their iPhone. I was like what are you doing? They said they normally have to scan them but because I was late they were able to do it this way. Not sure I believe them. Then some guy guided me toward the next line. And helpfully helped me fill out the immigration form. Then started telling me that my flight was already boarding and I might not make it unless I took the fast track line. Then the phrase I was expecting by that point: what can you pay us? Thankfully I could honestly say I only had 200 naira. He asked about euros. I lied and said I had none. Then he filled in my occupation in the form. When I told him "writer" and that I don't make a lot of money, he seemed a smidge sympathetic. From there everything went fairly straight forwardly. Except the gate didn't have the flight listed and the first guy I asked said he was in the line for Frankfort not Rome. I think he was in the wrong line and I think I'm about to board the right flight now. :-) I figured this story is worth the 27 centimes it will cost me to send it. :-) thanks again for a lovely visit! Sleep well tonight!"
Moses and the Israelites!

Now here's the back story:
Unusual for me, I was really ready to leave Nigeria when the big day arrived, like counting-down-the-days ready. I didn't like feeling that way, but that didn't change feeling it. My first trip to the continent seven years ago was great. I loved it. I loved Africa, as much of it as I experienced anyway, though Uganda was my favorite. This time though, while I loved everyone I met in Togo and Nigeria and it was super great to see my friends, these places just didn't grab my heart. Maybe that's just because it was gray, rainy season the whole time. Maybe it's because my heart was elsewhere. Who knows.

But I was ready to leave.

What's VBS without music?!
The night of my flight, as my friend and I inched ahead in her car in the arrivals line that was made slower by recent security changes, my hostess assured me we were arriving at the Lagos airport in plenty of time for my flight. So when I couldn't find any counter for my flight and then was told that the counter had closed completely two hours before the flight--I arrived about 1.5 hours before--I didn't know what to do. Finally, a helpful worker told me to go to the Alitalia ticket office. I walked town a dark corridor, and expecting a ticket counter set-up behind the closed door, I opened it without knocking. And walked into what appeared to be either a meeting or a bunch of good ol' boys standing around chewing the fat in a sparse office room with only a desk or two. After they all stared at me for several seconds and then I finally blurted out my problem, the man behind the desk who seemed to have the authority--and I had learned during the preceding week that authority and proper respect for it are a big deal in Nigeria--asked what time it was. I wasn't 100% sure and said, "7:45 pm." "No," he said, "it's nearly 8 pm. The desk closed at 7:15." And then they stared at me again. Offering no solutions. By now, I was in an internal panic that I might not really get to leave Nigeria that night. 

And I was so ready to leave. 

Finally, he told me to go back to the front desk. "But they told me to come here," I said. "Go to the desk," he repeated. And then I realized maybe he was going to tell them to let me on anyway. 

Which is what happened. But then there was that bit about the guys in airport uniforms laughing as they used an iPhone to take a photo of the info page of my passport. Um, have you ever received any email scam messages from Nigeria asking for your bank account numbers in order to deposit that inheritance from that complete stranger? Yeah, me too. But there was nothing I could really do to stop them at that point, so I had to move on, while hoping my identity wasn't going be stolen before I touched down in Europe again.

Fresh off of maybe-there-will-soon-be-another-Kami-Rice-who-looks-nothing-like-me-gate, this "helpful" man came up to whisk me through immigration. I thought he was with the airline and the counter people had alerted him. But that was wishful thinking. Still, this was the first bribe I was asked for during two-weeks in West Africa, so maybe that does break stereotypes after all? 

So, anyway, I was very relieved to get on that plane. And I hate it that I was so relieved. But I was.

VBS games!!

And apparently, my body affirmed my relief by breaking out in hives by the time the plane landed to pick up more passengers in Accra, Ghana. Hives - triggered by stress. The antihistamines I took, along with arriving back in Europe, made the hives short-lived. But alas, it's now an indelible memory that trying to get out of Nigeria was so stressful it made my skin break out in red, itchy patches.

But, you know, I still might go back one day because aside from the airport-that-gave-me-hives, I met some really great people in Nigeria.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

on ebola and going to nigeria anyway

The form I had to fill out upon leaving Lomé, Togo headed for 
Abuja, Nigeria. Except no one collected it when I arrived, 
despite how official it looks. They did take my temperature though.

In a manner of speaking, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Ebola during my international travels, so that’s partly why it hasn’t phased me too much to come to Lagos despite the news reports and despite the concerns of people who care about me (now, if I’d been slated to travel to the epicenters of Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, I would have reconsidered my plans, to be sure).

In 2007, just about two months after I left Uganda, one of the communities I visited there was hit by an Ebola outbreak. Doctors I had recently met were at the epicenter of fighting the disease. They stayed in the community to do battle while their children and coworkers were evacuated. I followed the doctors’ blog posts and prayed with them. A Ugandan doctor friend of the American doctors I spent time with—a man they had called their best friend and someone they highly respected—was one of the victims of the virus. Ebola is a disease that attacks a community’s most dedicated servants.

Thus, for me, for years now, Ebola has been more than a horrifying plot device from the movies. It’s been a real life reality that touched people and places I know. But sometimes reality actually makes a thing less scary. There are ways to contain Ebola and ways to avoid it. The challenge is a challenge of community health and education and getting people to abide by those containment measures and providing appropriate medical supplies. Reality doesn’t take away risk, but it does make clear that Ebola is something that can be fought and defeated. (Here the Doctors Myhre comment on the current Ebola outbreak.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

nigeria: first impressions

With my friend in Abuja at the tailor's shop for slight alterations.

So here I am reporting live from Lagos, Nigeria. Yep, the same Lagos that’s dominating Ebola news headlines. The virus spread here just days before I left France to work in Togo for a week followed by a week here in Nigeria.

As the headlines have shifted from Boko Haram to Ebola, so have the concerns of my friends and family regarding my travels. So far so good, though, on all fronts. The most trouble I’ve had so far has been side effects of my anti-malaria medications – prescribed by an American doctor and purchased at a pharmacy in France – which completely robbed me of my appetite, making it oh-so-much harder to enjoy jollof rice in its motherland.

As I’ve discovered in my travels the past seven years, news reports often make rather isolated incidents sound like they are much more rampant than they are. Riots rarely encompass an entire city, for example. In Nigeria at least, Ebola is so far still concentrated within the concentric circles of people who had contact with Patrick Sawyer, who it’s increasingly difficult to describe as anything other than arrogant and selfish, at least based on news reports of his blatant actions that exposed so many people needlessly.

That’s what people are talking about here. They’re also, as one must in scary times, making dark jokes, such as passing around messages that simply taking baths in salt will keep you from getting Ebola. Which is now being followed by rumors of people who’ve essentially overdosed on salt. And others who joke that they’ve suddenly entered the salt-selling business.

More authentic word on the streets says that some too-enterprising business-people are taking advantage of the situation by massively increasing the cost of hand sanitizer since everyone is encouraged to use it liberally. Apparently, it’s even hard to find it in shops now. 

In other precautionary measures, some people have stopped shaking hands with others. And a little boy at Vacation Bible School this morning prayed for the protection of God and the angels against the terrible disease (and thanked God for his protection thus far).

In Abuja with my friend (right) and the tailor (left) who made this
lovely dress for me, choosing a style that wouldn't make
 this white girl look like a poser. :-)
Other than these big news stories, Nigeria is so far a study in contrasts. My Nigerian seatmate on the flight from Lomé, Togo to Abuja noted that Nigeria has plenty of resources not to need outside assistance (or at least not so much), but corruption and mismanagement are so rampant that the country appears much poorer than it is. For example, he told me (he seemed well-informed, but I haven’t verified his facts elsewhere) that there have been no major military purchases since 1978. There’s a national defense budget, but it’s getting pocketed. 

He noted that the kidnapped schoolgirls could have been saved if the government had responded immediately—before they were hidden away—but the government didn’t respond until the public raised an outcry. The unresolved problem of Boko Haram isn’t as much inability on the part of Nigeria’s military as it is sluggishness. Nigeria has the resources to have made that story unroll differently, my seatmate said. I’ve tested out his opinions on other friends here, and they agree with his assessments. As a Porsche sped past us in Abuja one afternoon, my host there exclaimed along the lines of, “Look at that car!” Followed by (and taking me by surprise), “He must have stolen a lot of money.”

Mr. Seatmate (I never got his name because I’m not exactly here to work, just to scout and visit
friends) noted that there are changes afoot though, as regular citizens are beginning to mobilize and complain and demand changes in ways that are new in Nigeria. Under the democratically elected president, the press has also claimed freedom they haven’t had in the past. The non-government-directed media can now criticize the government without facing dire consequences. But Mr. Seatmate also noted that in many other areas it was really the last military dictator who made the most positive changes for the country.

In other observations, Nigeria’s fashion culture (and that of all of West Africa) is still alive and well. I’m a bit envious of my friends who live in a place with such a distinctive fashion culture that they can ask me to send my measurements ahead so they can have their tailor make a dress for me as a souvenir. America has little to offer that is quite so distinctive. I’ve been surprised to learn, though, that “traditional” clothes aren’t allowed in some offices every day. In government offices in Abuja, for example, Friday is the day for wearing traditional rather than suits. In my mind, most of the traditional styles (for women at least) look more regal and impressive than Western style suits. But I haven’t grown up surrounded by all the bright, exotic patterns. So maybe it’s not so special and regal looking if it’s normal to you?

These homes on the outskirts of Abuja are charming and very nice, though!
And speaking of those contrasts I mentioned earlier, it’s striking to me that a culture with such high emphasis on personal grooming and beauty and fashion seems, at least according to my personal aesthetic measuring stick, to place markedly less emphasis on the beauty of physical surroundings. Maybe it’s just a different kind of beauty, but I find buildings and their interiors here--especially in Lagos--much less charming than those I’ve encountered in lots of other places in the world, from India to Albania to France to Togo and beyond.

So there you go: some observations from a total non-expert on Nigeria. One can reflect in part in the middle of travels, but it’s usually incomplete. Impressions usually need time to roll around and be tested against other experiences before hoping for real accuracy. So we’ll see which impressions change once I’m no longer living out of a suitcase.

Monday, August 11, 2014

money matters in Togo and Nigeria

With my friend in Lagos.
August 7, 2014 - Lomé, Togo
On the way to the Lomé airport in the pre-arranged cab, I enjoyed a conversation-in-French with the driver. We’d set the price of 5000 CFA ahead of time, but along the way he asked if I had small bills because sometimes visitors don’t have them. I assured him I did, and once we reached the airport, I pulled out 3 bills worth 2000 CFA each. But I guess I don’t really know what counts as small bills in CFA, and alas, he didn’t have 1000 CFA to give me as change. Feeling a little scammed, I still offered to give him the full 6000 since I couldn’t use the money once I left the country anyway. I’d just been hoping for enough for a snack at the airport. But he wouldn’t take it. He would only accept 4000, shorting himself. I dug out my last bits of Togolese change and managed to come up with 650 CFA more, for a total of 4650, closer but still not the full price. That’s a man I want to do business with again. 

Then I entered the airport and tried to pass through immigration, but they told me I had overstayed my visa. I had reported the full dates of my stay when I entered the country, so I just assumed my visa would cover my full stay. But tourist visas, which are received on entry to the country, are only good for 7 days. I was leaving on day 9. They asked for the cost of a whole additional week: US$30 or 15,000 CFA, but all I had left was that 2000 CFA that the cab driver didn’t take. And I don’t have access to US dollars any more. I wasn’t really sure what the options were, so I didn’t suggest anything other than saying that 2000 CFA was all I had. Eventually, they accepted it and let me leave!

But this meant I had no local currency for breakfast/morning snack. Thus, at the airport snack bar, I scrounged through my euro coins (they said they accepted euros) to pay for my 1000 CFA (about US$2) croissant. But the server was trying to figure out the exact correct price in euros, even though I was ready to hand over a 2 euro coin and call it good. A francophone African man ordering coffee beside me observed all the mathematical machinations going on and said he would just pay for my croissant for me. 

So, basically, I met some helpful strangers today!

At the same snack bar, I overheard a couple discussing the man's headache. The server at the bar said you had to go back through security to buy aspirin. So I told the couple I had ibuprofin with me. The man accepted it gratefully. But, even when you're just trying to be helpful, giving over-the-counter medications to a stranger feels sketchy! I could have been giving him anything! It was nice to be trusted, though, and nice to return, in a way, one of the favors I had just been given.

August 11, 2014 - Lagos, Nigeria
This afternoon I went around the corner from my friend Juyin's house, where I'm staying here in Lagos, to eat a bit of late lunch at a traditional café. Most of the food was too spicy for me (I’m a weakling! Especially while recovering from side effects of anti-malaria meds), so I had a few plantains and a Coke and lingered a little while reading. When I stopped to pay before leaving, they told me a gentleman had already paid for my meal. What?! I felt like I was at a bar except no one ever took credit.  No one had even tried to talk to me as I chomped my plantains and read my book. I’m so used to not fully understanding everything in France, that as I walked out the door, I was afraid I’d misunderstood and they’d come chasing after me. If this is how Nigerians treat guests, well, I’ll take it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Seven years exactly after my first sojourn in sub-Saharan Africa began, I'm finally back in West Africa. In Togo this time, a neighbor to Ghana, the country that first welcomed me to this part of the world.

Togo, unlike Ghana, is a francophone country, and it has gifted me with the chance to use the French I've been poring over the past two years in southern France for just such a time as this - I've been studying French to aid in my international reporting work.

I've been here with a small group of people observing the impact of a particular model for poverty reduction (more on that in the future). I loved working with the members of our visiting team as well as our Togolese hosts. But this has also been a reminder of parts of my past sub-Saharan Africa reporting experiences: You will often not be able to perfect or control your reporting experience - you'll have to just go with the flow and really test your journalist muscles.

Many of our "interviews" have taken place in group settings - more like the White House press corps posing questions than a Barbara Walters in-depth one-on-one with someone. I prefer the one-on-ones. I didn't travel all the way here for sound bites.

With the dearth of it on this trip, I'm realizing how much I depend on connecting with interviewees to aid me in my work. It's also part of why I do this work. I'm not a hardened reporter simply out for a good story. I do this work because I love people and find them fascinating. For me, much of the pay-off of interviewing (which is hard work, mind you) comes in the opportunity to connect with a person, to really SEE them, and to receive the gift they offer of letting themselves be seen. In return, I try to share a bit of myself too.

Here, though, that's been hard to do in the genial-though-it-is press conference environment we've been working in.

My favorite experience of this trip so far came on Sunday afternoon when our visiting team arrived to hear the stories of a large group of gathered facilitators in Kpalimé, a city near the Ghana border. The facilitators were divided into three groups, and our team was dispersed between them. But with only two translators aiding our team, I was left to fend for myself with my group. :-) Really, it was an honor that the organizing Togolese pastor and his wife trusted my French enough to leave me unattended. Some group members spoke French, and for the rest, one of the members--a teacher--translated between French and the local language. Left alone as the sole foreigner in their midst, I finally felt like I was able to have the connections with the group that I depend on to give spark to my work. I really enjoyed hearing the insights and experience of that group of people. We got beyond sound bites.

And this was partly possible because we could speak mostly the same language.

Fast forward to this morning when I and the local fixer-new friend headed out for me to do a few more interviews. I've come down with a travel cold and am tired. My French is working less well today. So again, the interviews I'd hoped for didn't play out quite like I'd planned. And I realized part of the reason is that just by nature of having the fixer present--helping with a bit of translating here and there--my usual interview dynamics are changed, no matter how nice and unobtrusive the fixer is. The press conference effect was gone today, but the interviews still weren't one-on-ones.

So, the moral of this little story (that I need to finish so I can go sleep off this cold before tomorrow morning's interviews!) is that it's nearly impossible to have the same interview through an interpreter than you can have on your own with a source. And that's why I needed to learn French and need to keep working toward better fluency. It's an invaluable tool for my work.

Okay, off to sleep. :-)