Our Last Day in Nigeria

September 17, 2016


One of the marvelous things about this trip is that the itinerary has seemed to grow with each passing day.  Media interviews appear out of nowhere, more visits with Rotarians.  More.  I learned when I was in Philippines with the GSE trip that there is a fifth line to the Four-Way Test:  Is it a surprise?  and to just roll with the punches.  Since then I’ve gotten much better about asking what is appropriate to wear, however.  In the Philippines I started off by saying, “is it appropriate to wear XXX”?  The answer would always be yes, and then we would be very inappropriately dressed.  Later I asked our mostly male counterparts, “what will you wear?” and tried to come up with the female equivalent, and similarly almost always ended up very inappropriately dressed.  Finally (about the third week in the Philippines, I learned to say, “What will your wife be wearing?” and then I had the information I needed to get it right.

As I say, these many years later we’re getting smarter.  And have learned to wear the dresses we were given. It works. An American in local dress is always dressed appropriately! I think it’s like the dog dancing in the bar.  It’s not really a matter of how well the dog dances. …

Anyway, on Thursday we wore our team shirts for yet another media interview, this one the morning program on the major Abuja station.  This was the first one for which we were made up, so I guess it was the most prestigious, but frankly, the interviewers weren’t as well prepared.  They wanted to know all about the camps, but they didn’t know until Claudia told them that we had only been to one camp, and they wanted to know why we went to Adamawa State instead of Borno State, the real center of the problem.  My answer:  Because our Rotary friends took us to Adamawa State.  I didn’t add:  Why don’t you go to Borno State?  but that would have been the correct come-back.

After that, we were invited to breakfast by Felix and Adetutu.  Their daughter, who is a nutritionist, had cooked for about 20 people; there was a remarkable amount of food, including pancakes made from plantains.

Adetutu had taken our measurements on Sunday, and her dressmaker had been at work.  She had dresses for each of us — very dressy, with a lot of glitter, which apparently is this year’s fashion statement.  So we changed into our new finery, and many kisses and second helpings and farewells later, rolled out the door.

Ogi had previously asked us what we wanted to purchase, and our expectations meant that we needed to visit both the  central market (spices, fabric) and the tourist market (collectables).  And we have been treated royally for the past week and haven’t been allowed to spend any money, so we had a lot of Naira to get rid of.  Off we went to the central market, Ogi leading the way.  The problem was that when the merchants saw her with three white women, the prices immediately escalated.  But we were in our Nigerian up-and-downs, so she just explained that we had recently married Nigerian men and were trying to learn how to cook properly.  I have no idea if anyone believed her, but at least the prices didn’t skyrocket.

Sheila bought some really really hot pepper, but fast-forwarding to later in the evening, when she opened the container (a recycled soda pop bottle) she found a bug crawling in the pepper, so she left it behind.  Ogi couldn’t understand why.  I bought dates and ginger — good, freshly ground ginger.  I guess I will freeze the bottle to kill any protein that might be crawling around …

We also went to the wholesale end of the fabric area, where I indulged myself.  Fabric is sold in six-yard lengths — that’s enough for a dress — and I went wild. I will use the fabric in quilts, of course.  Someday.

Then it was time to go to the Abuja Metro meeting, which meets at lunchtime (but not over lunch) at the Sheraton hotel.  There are about 85 members in the club, and there was a good representation. Since the club includes two past District Governors, not to mention a past RI president, there was also plenty of protocol.  A highlight was the Sgt-at-Arms — who asked each of us to participate, and included a club Rotarian as the fourth person to collect money.  He announced at the beginning that the money would go to one of the club’s projects, and that we wanted to collect 20,000 Naira from each of the four sections of the room, and then he started fining.  At some point, the four sections started a rivalry, and members started adding Naira to the pot in order to “win” with the most donations.  It all got rather scattered and I forget the final total, but we made his number, that’s for sure.

I have already said how President Jonathan called us “angels” in his toast.  I quietly demur, but I also understand that for American women to go to Yola and visit the camp of displaced persons means something.

Then the meeting after the meeting.  Bob had done a great deal of work since we talked on Saturday (the first night of our visit – it seems months ago by now) and Claudia fine-tuned what he had accomplished, and he will send to us electronically, and I am cautiously optimistic.  We talked of many things over lunch — a working lunch — and left the table around 4:30.  But we still had Naira to spend, so Ogi took us to the craft market, where we stayed until we were out of money.  Well, almost:  We went to the shopping center to get to the supermarket and purchase champagne and Bailey’s Irish Creme (a local favorite) as thank-you gifts.

We arrived home in time to change (wearing an up-and-down all day can be tiring in itself!) and dinner at Big Mike and Missy’s house, next door to the guest quarters were we have been staying.  Missy and her maid have been cooking up another storm, and so we faced the third big meal of the day.  It was a small gathering — just Felix and Ogi and president Bob from Abuja Metro, BIg Mike and Missy and the three of us.  Felix showed up in the Boothbay Harbor club shirt I had had made/personalized for him back in 2012.  (The next morning Ogi wore the tie-dyed “Peace through Service” tee I had had made for President Sakuji’s visit and given to members of the GSE team!).

We ate, we talked, we laughed, we exchanged gifts, and I am afraid Big Mike won the gift-giving contest  … he had had a whole collection of Rotary tschochkes made for his District Governor year and District conference — everything from a “Four-Way Test board game” to picnic paraphernalia to a book he had written and, well, you get the idea.  It was all wonderful, but the careful planning we had done for packing went out the window.  (He offered to give us an extra suitcase if we wanted …) In the end, the three of us fit into two large duffel bags and two roll-aboards.  To put that in perspective, we had come with four large bags and three small ones.  So we left three bags in Nigeria.  Good.

We tumbled into bed around 10:00 p.m. and the alarm went off at 4:15.  We left for the airport at 5:00 for an 8:00 flight.  We changed planes in Heathrow and arrived in Logan about 1 hour late, at 8:00 or so local time.  All of which recommends that I save reflections for a later post and go to bed myself!



Society with Class

September 16, 2016


Wednesday (was it only Wednesday?) our airplane landed in Abuja at about 1:00 p.m.  We were met at the airport by Oge, and we waited a few minutes for Big Mike’s airplane to come in as well.  Then we left in a parade — guys with guns, baggage, two trucks of Rotarians — for the village of Sauka.  Frankly, Big Mike always travels in a parade, and the guys with guns seem to me more for the show of a big man than for actual security, but since I don’t really know, I’m really not in a position to complain.

Sauka is a small village located not too far from Abuja, but the dirt road to get there is practically non-existent.  The trucks — as opposed to city cars — were an absolute necessity.  When we finally got there, we found the chief of the village, various elders, and members of a Rotary Community Corps waiting for us.  Abuja Metro Rotary Club has been working to build the school, and it is almost completed.  Kirstin Kershner of the Saco Bay club has worked hard to raise the money and make it all happen.  By “it all” I mean literacy training and materials, a sanitation block and new borehole.  It’s  been quite a saga – by combining so many different elements the Rotary Foundation grant has been very difficult to put together.  The first night we were in Abuja we had talked to Bob, president of Abuja Metro, about what still needed to be done, and over the course of the past few days he has done a remarkable amount of work on the grant.  All of which is to say, I am cautiously optimistic that we can now move forward and get this thing accomplished.

Then we returned to our quarters at Big Mike’s house, changed quickly, and off we went to dinner with RI President Jonathan. He was hosting a dinner in our honor, and of course with various members of the club — Abuja Metro is his home club — plus a representative of the current District Governor, et cetera.  President Jonathan could not have been more gracious – and the evening could not have been more memorable.  First, of course, the parade of cars to get to his house just seemed to grow.  And the entrance to his home is quite grand.  And we were ushered into the living room and served wine (big deal in Nigeria, where beer is the standard fare) and sweet potato cakes.  Much talk, and as all the Nigerians greeted Jonathan many bows and curtseys.  It was all quite old world and wonderful.  Then Jonathan invited us to come into his room of Rotary memorabilia, and it is quite a room.  Several rooms, to be exact.  He has lots of banners over the bar, for example, but the room itself is chock-a-block with what I am sure is the best of the best of all the memorabilia he collected in a lifetime of service.

Then, because there was construction or something going on in the house, we walked to another Rotarian’s house for dinner.  It turned out there were about 20 of us, and after more wine, we settled down for dinner.  Much good talk, many toasts, more curtseying, much ceremony.  Truly an evening to be savored.

But wait, there’s more! Because jumping ahead in the story, at the Abuja Metro meeting yesterday at lunchtime, President Jonathan was asked to make the closing toast.  Among other things, he called the three of us “angels” for our trip here, and our willingness to go to Yola and Jada.  Again, the answer is that one is not an angel if one is traveling with Rotarians and friends who are committed to your safety, but apparently it is true that some Nigerians refuse to go to Yola.  Well, their loss, is all I can say.

Foreign Perceptions and Peace

September 15, 2016


And so, after three incredible days in Yola, we have returned to Abuja.

All this media interest in us, I am slowly realizing, is because three American women chose of their own free will to come to Yola, which — if you pay attention to the State Department site — is the epicenter of Boko Haram and a place to avoid at all costs.  I think I speak for Sheila and Claudia when I say we beg to disagree.

First, I had absolutely no concerns about coming here.  We were the guests of Felix and Big Mike, both  Rotarians and Past District Governors, and therefore we would be safe.  Simple as that.  I knew that between their own resources, contacts, influenced and guys with guns, all would be well.  But it turned out to be even more simple, because Yola is a “safe zone.”  Yes, Boko Haram is recruiting from there (and everywhere) but the discord does not play out in the streets.  And even more importantly, we were staying at the American University.

The American University in Nigeria, or AUN, started as a joint venture with American University in Washington DC.  It’s now completely separate, but retains American-grade professors, teaching system, infrastructure. It’s also crawling with Rotarians.  Senior staff, professors are Rotarians; many students are Rotaractors.  Our hotel stay and all meals were taken care of, for example, because the University president, an American woman, made the decision.  More critically, there’s a perception of first-world mentality that pervades the place. From academics to internationality to, yes, security, the University is clearly an oasis.

The University is also a complete surprise.  I have been hearing about the University from Felix since I first met him in 2010.  It’s where, from the beginning, he said the GSE team would stay, et cetera.  What he neglected to tell me is that he was a cofounder of the University in 2000 or so.  He’s the one who was in Washington cutting the deal with American University there.  He’s the one who made sure that the University had enough land for expansion.  And expand they have.  As he explained, if the Univeristy needs something and it doesn’t exist, they start it.  So they have started new curriculums and a faculty center.

And it’s at the University that, for example, the returned Chibok girls are living.  THey are working with Amy, one of the Rotarians who specializes in dealing with troubled youth, and the University is making sure they complete their education.  Can I tell you how incredible it was to sit across the table from Amy and hear her speak matter-of-factly about working with these girls?  But this is everyday at the University, because this is the frontlines in the battle for peace.  The feed-and-read girls aren’t being saved from a life on the streets.  They are being saved from recruitment by Boko Haram.  The Internally Displaced Persons Camp isn’t a camp just of homeless poor.  It is a camp for people displaced by Boko Haram.  The JADA school for disabled kids isn’t short on supplies because the government is underfunded or doesn’t care.  I’m sure that’s part of it, but the government also has had to turn its attention to the fight against Boko Haram.  The fighters we witnessed during Sallah pledging fealty to their king weren’t just acting out an ancient ritual.  They have been in the bush fighting Boko Haram and may well be out there again.

In Rotary we talk a lot about peace. Here we are on the front lines, and every action — every bag of rice or gift of a Beanie Baby toy or small purchase of a craft — has immediate consequences.

Frankly, it’s been humbling to witness even in a small degree and to work hand-in-hand to the Rotarians who are here, fighting every day for the peace we all fervently desire.


Playing Catch up

September 14, 2016


I have fallen behind on this blog, which is not a good thing when running as fast as we have been running.  We started off with a full itinerary, and things have only been added to it … quite remarkable.

We had a quick breakfast yesterday morning and set off in the van yesterday morning for Jada, three hours away.  Our van held about 20 people, but by the time we made two stops to pick up club Rotarians and an assortment of media camera men and reporters, we were SRO.  It’s a three hour trip to Jada, mostly because the road alternates between bad dirt and broken  pavement.  We traveled through land that time forgot — round huts behind mud walls and surrounded by corn and other agriculture.

Finally we reached our destination.  Jada is unique in Nigeria — each state (there are six) has institutions for special needs kids; the kids in Jada cover all special needs – deaf, blind, mentally challenged, physically handicapped.  You name it, Jada’s got it, and there are around 1000 kids in the school.  They weren’t there today, because of the Sallah holiday, but about 40 kids had been rounded up for us – mostly blind and deaf.  The three principals (one for the primary school, one for the secondary school, and I never did figure out who the third one was) were also there, and so was the local board of ed representative, head of the Parents Teachers Association; you are beginning to get the picture.

The usual speeches started; the only weird thing was that the TV cameras got in the way and kept the children from being part of what was going on. Then we went off base – it turns out that the bore hole that our District was part of has never operated – villagers are cutting the pipeline.  THe local Rotarians have reconnected the line three times, and still it isn;t working.  Felix got up and demanded attention, and later we all talked to the principals. It’s clear that they may or may not be part of the problem, but they certainly aren’t part of the solution.

After various interviews, we  went to the library to deliver the Braille books.  Sheila had insisted on putting them into the library – not just deliver them in boxes – and she was right to do so.  She also spoke to the teacher who teaches Braille and made sure he understood what was now in the library.  Meanwhile, Felix was getting promises out of the principals that the books would be both used and cared for (the library was pretty dusty and obviously not well used).

We delivered mosquito netting; then went to the bore hole.  At that point Duabi, the Rotarian who happens to be a hydrology engineer and a member of the royal family (we have him to thank for our inclusion in the Sallah on Monday) took over.  He spoke to the local village elder and municipality representative and he came away satisfied that since they had promised him there would be no more vandalism, the vandalism would stop.  From a western perspective I don;t get it, but I was remarkably impressed both by how he handled the situation and by the respect he obviously engenders, so we shall see.

Then it was a long drive back to Yola.  But wait! There’s more. Sheila and Claudia and I had previously decided we wanted to purchase whatever goods we could (made from recycled materials ) from the ladies at the IDP camp.  So we returned there, bought all they had (which wasn;t much); but the highlight of the trip was watching the boys play with the tennis balls we had given them the previous day.  Then back to the hotel, but there was still more – a meeting iwth the two clubs to determine next steps on the myriad of projects we have been discussing over the past two days.  Only then could we have dinner and collapse.  And as I mentioned, I was much too exhausted to face this blog.

This morning we woke to yet another interview, this one on peace initiatives.  I have finally figured out that the real interest in these interviews is to see three American women who are traveling to a place that is on the front-lines of the “war on terrorism.”  Believe me, I have never felt more safe than in the past few days, between the Rotarians, the obvious love, and yes, the guys with guns who have traveled with us. Only after that final (I thought) interview did we return to the airport with four suitcases (we had arrived with eight, but had given the majority of our stuff away.\

And so back to Abuja.  And lots more to talk about, but it will have to wait for tomorrow.  We awake early for yet another media interview! So clearly, I must get my beauty sleep.




Sallah in Yola

September 12, 2016

img_1359 Today is Sallah in the Muslim calendar, the day when Muslims celebrate the fact that God sent a ram to Abraham to sacrifice in place of Isaac by eating barbecued ram for dinner.  We did that, but also, so much more.

The day started with a television interview with the leading morning talk show of northern Nigeria.  We did that, but so much more.

After the interview we changed from our team shirts to our Nigerian up-and-downs.  Destination was the Lamido palace where the Lamido (king, sultan, your choice) of the Fulani was staging his twice-yearly festival. All Fulani chiefs come to pay him homage.  That much we knew, but that’s about it.

In true Rotary fashion, we were escorted with a palace guard right to the palace, where we found to our surprise that we were to sit on the reviewing stand, as it were, in the last row behind the Lamido.  Last row was critical, because it meant we could stand to take pictures.  In came his soldiers, chiefs, all Fulani from throughout the Nigerian world.  They come from Camaroon and beyond, we were told, because the Fulani are more than just Nigerian.  Even if they are expats, we were told, they return for this celebration.

The only women in the parade were a few dancers. Sheila said she saw a few in the audience.  I believe her, but can’t confirm.  We were told that the dancing women, once they have been seen by the Lamido, are automatically available as concubines, if he so wishes.  Even today.

Speaking of today.  I’ve been to festivals before.  I was reminded of the Sioux pow-wow Frank and I witnessed in South Dakota.  And then there’s Inti Raymi, the Midsummer Night Festival of the Inca, re-invented for modern times in Cuzco.  This was a similar ancient festival played out in modern times, but with a difference –because these soldiers and chiefs really are fighting the Boko Haram, today, on an as-needed basis.  It’s a fact that some of them, because of magical powers, are impervious to being cut by knives or hit by bullets, but even so, I suspect more than one has died for his Lamido recently.

After the parade was over, Amy, one of the Rotarians who had made the arrangements, took us right up and, to my surprise, introduced us to the Lamido. See photo attached. It turns out that he’s quite a follower of Rotary.

We returned to the hotel and back into our team shirts and off to the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.  We entered a complex where 800 people are living, and have lived for the past three years.  Boko Haram has destroyed their villages and in many cases killed their men; these are the lucky ones who not only got away with the clothes on their back, but managed to get to the sanctuary of a catholic Cathedral.  They are now living on the grounds, with a Brother in charge

But first, the ceremony.  Speeches, with translations by the Brother into Fulani.  We distributed toothbrushes, and later, baseballs.  Claudia had gotten the balls from somewhere, and they are turning out to be the most popular thing we brought with us.  We had a tour.  We saw the room — it was the old church hall before the people arrived.  It’s a room about the size of the hotel swimming pool; about the size of a large tennis court, and 300 people live there.  The church has contained sanity — children younger than 11 sleep with their parents; teen girls are in an area of their own and teen boys are in tents outside . The children go to government school, but most of them have been out of school for some time and so they are way behind.  There’s an area where volunteers try to give them extra work in the afternoons so they can catch up.

There’s a small clinic and birthing center.  40 babies have been born since the crisis began, and the Brother told us proudly that all have been successful births.  There’s an area for cooking.  Dinner is served to everyone, but there’s a space for families who have more to cook on their own.  The latrines are divided by the sexes.  That’s about it.

They need everything.  They have nothing. Including a lack of hope.  THe men want to work, but there’s no farmland nearby.  The women want to have control of their families.  The children want school uniforms so that they can be like other children.  Frankly, a few treadle machines and a supply of material would mean that the mothers could make school uniforms for the children.

Food is a constant issue.  So is education.  So is teaching them about conflict resolution capabilities, not only for their time here, but for when they return — if they return — and they end up living next door to a neighbor who they suspect of evil deeds.

It was a tough visit, but a good one.  All of us — Sheila, Claudia and I — were tremendously affected, and all of us came away determined to do something for these people.  Something sustainable, although what that means in a camp that one hopes is not permanent is one of those questions that needs to be sorted out.

We came back to the hotel and started talking about possibilities, and the left for another part of the University and an ongoing read-and-feed program.  This program takes girls (and separately boys) off the streets where they have been sent to beg and lets them go to and after-school program instead.  The girls learn English, and self respect, and empowerment. The key is the executive director, who is clearly instilling a sense of self in these former street children.  She is amazing.  The girls get an hour of learning and then an hour of play and a meal, and then they go home.  The director truly believes — and I believe her — that by instilling in them a sense of self-worth, she is keeping them from the possibility (probability) of being recruited by Boko Haram.

It’s been an extraordinary day.  Earlier I mentioned Amy, who has been looking after us.  I didn’t explain that about 30 or so of the Chubuk girls who escaped are here at the University, and that she is working with them, teaching them English and empowerment and generally re-connecting them with society.  I am here at the battlefront of society vs. terrorism, of humanity vs. destruction.  It’s remarkably safe here — that’s why the displaced persons come to Yola, and the university campus is an oasis unto itself — and it’s jarring when the people we meet speak so matter-of-factly about what’s playing out just a few miles from here.





It’s Been Quite a Day

September 11, 2016


img_1158The alarm woke us early; we needed to dress in our Nigerian dress for church.  Felix took us to his Pentacostal church — which was great — very charismatic and definitely a megachurch and filled with the spirit. Unfortunately the PA system has pushing it — Claudia said “too much bass” — and so we couldnt understand the sermon.  Since the service was two hours long this was a real loss –except that we could follow the gist of it from peoples’ expressions and excitement.

We stopped off at Felix’s home to see Adetutu — she had flown home late from Lagos after a week of grandchildren and so had not gone to church — but she needed our measurements for new dresses (!!!!).  Then back to Mike’s guest house, where we had a late breakfast, packed, and off to the airport.

The airport was full.  It’s Sala, the Muslim holiday that celebrates God sending a ram to Abraham so that Isaac won’t be sacrificed — and everyone is headed home for the holidays.  It’s a Muslim holiday, of course, but the Christians enjoy the time off and the eating of the ram as well.  By the way, we’ve seen plenty of rams for sale the past two days — I gather it’s sort of like the turkey killings we have just prior to Thanksgiving.

Anyway, Felix hadn’t been able to get us seats on the airplane unless we upgraded to business class, and it probably saved us some hassle with our checked luggage, since we have so much of it, mostly donations for what’s to come in Jada.

We were met at the airport by about half the two Jada clubs, and got an extensive tour of the American University in Nigeria (AUN) prior to arriving at our hotel, which is on AUN property.  I will spend more time tomorrow talking about the university — it’s late and I need to turn out the light; it’s enough for now to say that, as so often happens when you suspend belief and open yourself to the possibilities, the university turned out to be So Much More …

We finally got to our rooms, and a quick change before a joint fellowship of the two Yola clubs.  Dinner and fellowship lasted until 8:30; then we brought out our suitcases plus the books and supplies that had been sent out before; got everything reasonably organized; went outside to the pool for a beer and to discuss the schedule for tomorrow, and now I have returned to my room to get this written.

Tomorrow we have a media interview.  And Sala.  And the displaced persons camp.  And I’m exhausted already.


Only in Rotary

September 11, 2016


img_1150 The relationship between District 7780 in New England and District 9125 in Nigeria ‘goes back a long way.

In the beginning … Ann Lee Hussey met Saliu Ahmed at the International Convention in about 2007 or so.  Out of that came several NIDs to Nigeria, including the one that introduced me to Africa in 2010.  On that trip I met my governor classmate, Felix Obadan, and a Group Study Exchange was the direct result.  The exchange teams happened to be led by Sheila Rollins and Big Mike, who subsequently were governor classmates in 2015-16.  Got the connection?

In the interim, more than a few grants have taken place, and hundreds of lives changes (on both side of the Atlantic).

Last night, after our naps, Felix had arranged for us to meet president Bob from the Abuja Metro club, along with his president-elect and president nominee.  Abuja Metro and our Saco Bay club have been working on a Global Grant, but it’s gotten “stuck” in Rotary minutiae.  The goal of the dinner was to get the grant unstuck, and see what we could do to move it along.  Everyone wants the same result, but as often happens, when things get bogged down it can be challenging to get them restarted. In this case the issues involve changed expectations as well as devaluation of the Nigerian Naira.  But meeting people and talking directly is good .. I know we made progress, and I am cautiously optimistic that this can be straightened out.

Today is September 11, the 15th anniversary of a day that those who lived through will never forget.  I am awake with jet lag; on the agenda today is to go to church with Felix, and then to return to the airport to fly to Yola, where we will visit the camp for internally displaced families.  I can think of no better way to spend this anniversary than in doing our small part to bring this fractured world back together.