Monday, December 08, 2008

The 156th good things about Lagos: Nuns caring about empowerment for women

The thing I most appreciate about my charity responsibilities with the American Women's Club is getting acquainted with people who are devoting their lives to doing good things. It makes me realize how self-centered my life is and how feeble my little attempts to serve and contribute. Monday I went to visit the Cardoso Catholic Community Project -- a charity with which the club has a long history of support. We had lost connection with them this past year when their contact person with the club left Lagos, so Sister Bernadette was very glad to hear from someone from the American Women's Club and was happy to receive some Christmas gift bags and money to help with their children's Christmas party.

It was a treat to meet and visit with Sister Bernadette. She is warm and thoughtful and also very educated. She lived in California for 6 years, getting two Masters degrees and a doctorate at Berkeley in areas of theological studies. As we toured Cardoso, she reached out to greet and visit with the people around her. Her caring for them was evident.

It was a Muslim holiday, so much of the center was quiet, but we enjoyed getting a look at some of the many good works they do there. There are seven nuns in the convent here at this center, which is supported by St. Mary's Catholic Church. They have a staff of around 100 helping them with their works, with the main purpose of empowering women to improve their lives.

The clinic was open on the holiday -- the nuns and staff work 6 days a week at the clinic, and on Sunday the nuns are busy with the work of the church, so they don't get a lot of down time.

This waiting area is often full of people, they said. They see 70-100 people a day. They have ante-natal care and training, they give immunizations, and provide all kinds of health services for the local community. They also have feeding times for malnourished children. People pay what they can for their services.

This is the staff of the lab, where they have some pretty good equipment. They do their own disease testing. They will do HIV testing upon request and give counseling and direct those testing positive to government centers where they can get free drug therapy.

The pharmacy was not really well-stocked, but better than in many charity clinics I've seen here. The clinic overall was very impressive (considering the Nigerian standard) in their facilities.

While we were visiting the clinic and meeting the nuns working there, the noon bell rang and the sisters explained that it was a reminder for them to stop their work and invite everyone in the center to join them in prayer. It was sweet to see their devotion and be a part of their group prayer -- just as visiting the Muslim world last week with their regular calls to prayer, it was a reminder to me of the importance of regular connection to God through prayer.

Education is a central focus to the Cardoso mission. They have schools ranging from pre-school through adult education. They were all quiet on this holiday. The buildings all looked very well cared-for.

Sister Bernadette said that often this library is filled with members of the community enjoying a place to read.

They are expanding their secondary school and are in the process of building and equipping their science lab. They are hoping to receive donated funds to allow them to finish these rooms and provide materials so they can properly teach the sciences.

Sister Bernadette said the secondary classrooms are also used for adult education in the evenings. But a central focus of their education is with women's training classes. They just had a graduation ceremony (their women's training educational year runs with the calendar year) where 100 women graduated from their program. They run a two-year program which trains women in various areas to prepare them for meaningful employment or with skills allowing them to start their own businesses. They teach tailoring skills, cake decorating, hotel management, English, and a number of other classes.

To travel to Cardoso, we were glad to drive on highways more passable because of the Muslim holiday, and as we neared the church compound, we passed through a busy market area teeming with activity. The mass of humanity and need here in Lagos is overwhelming at times, but it's rewarding to visit places like Cardoso where they are making a great contribution in making better the lives of many Nigerians.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The 155th good thing about Lagos: Twins are special

This past year I know a number of mothers who have given birth to twins, so I was especially interested at a lecture I attended this past week at the National Museum. The lecture was on the Ere-Ibeji, the twin figures, of the Yoruba. The predominant tribe here in Lagos is the Yoruba, and I knew of their high rates of twin births -- one of the highest rates in the world. I was familiar with Ibeji figures, there are some of them in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and I had seen them other museums; the curator here said they have around 7,000 ere-ibeji in the museum collection here (though only a few on display at any time).

In ancient times, twins were considered subhuman and there was a practice of infanticide among twins in the Yoruba land. This practice was changed, one tradition says, because some parents consulted an oracle after a series of mysterious deaths among their children, and the oracle said the deaths were occurring because of their practice of killing twins. He told the people to stop killing twins and honor them. By the 18th century this developed into a practice of twin worship among the Yoruba. Twins get extra attention -- their mothers will carry the twins to the market to dance in their honor, sing their praises, and get gifts from passersby. So the coming of twins is associated with a rise in the fortune of the family and there is rejoicing. At the lecture, one of the museum staffers sang and danced a traditional song of a mother of twins. She sang, "I am not afraid, I am not afraid of giving birth to twins. There is palm oil, there are beans." It is believed that the best food for twins is palm oil and beans because these bland foods are thought to cool their spirited temperaments. The mother of twins, known as "Iya-ibeji" is given special honor.

One thing I found very interesting is their belief about who is the older and younger of the twins. Traditionally the first born twin, regardless of sex, is considered the younger of the two, and is named Taiwo, meaning "comes-to-taste-life." The second born is Kehinde, which means "comes-last." Kehinde is considered the eldest twin who sends Taiwo first to see if the world is a good place to live.

Because twins are usually born pre-term and often smaller than single birth infants, there is a high death rate among twins. If one or both of the twins were to die, the parents commission a carver to make an ere-ibeji. "Ere" means image and "ibeji" means twin -- so this is an image of a twin that is carved to take the place of the dead infant. These figures are only carved if a twin dies, it is not made at the death of a single-birth infant. The ibeji figure is believed to house the spirit of the dead twin that was divided in two at the birth of the twins. The carver is given free rein to carve the figure as he wishes and the twin figures, though usually carved for the death of infants, are most often depicted in the fullness of life. The ere-ibeji is given ritual care -- rubbed with oils and sugar cane and sometimes dressed and given food as if it were living. It is often carried by the mother in her clothing wrapper as she would carry a living baby. The Yoruba traditionally believe that if a twin that dies is not remembered by the carving of an image, this slighted twin will trouble the surviving one. If both twins die and are not properly remembered, the mother will have difficulty with conception and other misfortunes such as sudden poverty, destruction of property or persistent sickness may befall the family.

I asked the curator why, with the importance of the ere-ibeji to a family, there are so many ibeji figures in the museum and available for sale at the market. She said that with the influences of Christianity and Islam and with Western influences moving the Yoruba away from native religion, there is less respect in the culture for ibeji figures. Where they once would have been kept and tended for generations, now they are seen as something valuable to sell. Of course, there are also many at the markets that are represented as true ere-ibeji, but are newly made for the market.

I enjoy seeing the differences in styles of the various ere-ibeji, but it is kind of sobering to realize that each one represents a child who has died.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The 154th good thing about Lagos: Lots of help assembling Christmas gifts for charities

I have just over a week in Lagos between our return from our trip to Egypt and my flight back to the States for the holidays. My biggest project during this week was to complete the assembling of holiday gift bags for the staff of the charities that the American Women's Club supports. Last year I assisted with this project, and this year I was in charge. We needed 88 bags and had requested donations of money and goods from club members to stock the bags. I had wonderful assistance purchasing goods from wholesale dealers and we were allowed use of a company's guest house to assemble the bags. After our arrival home from the trip on Sunday, on Monday shoppers went out with the funds we had collected and Tuesday we had a team at the guest house assembling the bags. We distributed the bulk goods in ziplock bags and set up an assembly line, and with all the willing helpers, we had 88 assembled gift bags in no time. Each bag held rice, white and yellow garri, beans, evaporated milk, powdered milk, candles, matches, tea, vegetable oil, maggi cubes (bouillon), salt, sugar, tomato paste, toilet paper, sardines, semovita, pasta, a pen or pencil and an airplane bag stocked with toiletries. No luxuries, but some neccessities that will undoubtedly be useful and appreciated.

I'm still working on distribution -- I have a lot of help with that, but I'm delivering bags to a couple of charities myself. Today I faced some horrible traffic (well, my driver faced it -- admittedly I sat in the back seat with a book and my i-pod -- but it was still aggravating) bringing some gift bags and christmas party money to an orphanage -- but I was rewarded with a crowd of cute little kids who wanted to hold my hand and get some of my attention.

The 153rd good thing about Lagos: a chance to visit a very different African country, with a bonus look at a former home

One big perk about living in Lagos is our R&R trips out of the country. The company covers our airfare and gives us a per diem that doesn't cover our costs, but helps with the expense of the trip. Our university student son really enjoys having them pay for his travel to meet us twice a year. He doesn't have a lot of free time, but he was willing to miss some school around his Thanksgiving break if it meant a trip to a new place. Last Thanksgiving we had a wonderful time in Madeira, and this year we chose to travel to Egypt, via Dubai. We had lived in Dubai from 1990-1992, before it started to boom. Our son, Jordan, was just 6 years old when we left. Jordan and the emirate had both grown tremendously since they were last together. We just stayed there for one night and had a day and a half to look the place over.

This road with the skyscrapers was nothing but desert emptiness when we lived there. Now it's this huge busy highway lined with very tall buildings.

That's the Burj Dubai, which will be the tallest building in the world in the background of this next picture. In the foreground is the demolition of the neighborhood club and swimming pool which was across the street from the villa where we lived in Dubai. We also came in time to see the demolition of our former home and the neighborhood by the American school where many of our friends lived. Who knows what will be built in their place.

After our nostalgia tour of our previous home and the school, we visited some malls -- one famous one with a ski slope inside. I enjoyed even more the visits to the old shopping areas of Dubai -- the spice souk, where I replenished my supply of frankincense and myrhh, and the gold souk where we looked, but didn't buy a thing.

We enjoyed taking an abra, a water taxi across the creek to the souks. It was about the only cheap thing in Dubai, costing only a dirham -- about a quarter, to get to the other side of the creek.

Dubai is a playground for the very rich. I am very glad that we lived there back before it became what it is now.

From the old alongside the very new in Dubai, we traveled to Egypt, where old takes on another dimension.

We visited pyramids, this step pyramid in Saqqara (outside Cairo, near the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis) is the earliest pyramid constructed, designed by the innovative architect Imhotep in the 27th century BC.

Of course we also saw the most famous pyramids in Giza, which we could see from our hotel window. I was amazed at how close they were to the city.

We rode a camel,

and saw the Sphinx.

We took a sleeper train to Aswan and spent the day down there (though it's south, it's called "Upper Egypt") sightseeing. We saw the great Aswan and the High dam that have regulated the flow of the Nile and then took a boat to visit the temple complex of Philae, which was relocated to a higher island in the 70s after it was flooded after construction of the High Dam. UNESCO relocated 24 monuments in Egypt and the Sudan that would have been lost under Lake Nasser with the construction of the High Dam. Philae is a beautiful complex and it was awesome to contemplate not only the initial construction of the buildings, but also to wonder how they were able to move the whole thing.

We then went on to Luxor, where we visited some tombs in the barren Valley of the Kings, where King Tut's tomb was found, along with over 60 other tombs, and undoubtedly more still undiscovered. They are still doing lots of excavation and exploration here.

We visited the amazing Temple of Hatshepsut, built against a high cliff. She was a female Pharoah, who reigned in the mid 1400's BC. She was a strong woman who wanted to be pictured as a male so noone would question her strength.

On Thanksgiving Day we got an early start and got to be one of the first of the day in to visit the beautiful temple of Karnak. It was lovely to see the huge pillars and tour enormous complex in stillness in the early morning light.

We then visited the Temple of Luxor,

ate Thanksgiving dinner on the banks of the Nile (no turkey) and took an afternoon ride on a felucca, before catching the sleeper train back to Cairo.

Back in Cairo, we enjoyed seeing the fabulous Egyptian Museum with loads of fantastic ancient treasure. We visited Coptic churchs,

and mosques with beautiful interiors,

and a minaret to climb with a panoramic view of Cairo.

We were very blessed to have a safe journey and all returned to our destinations without any disruption or problem. I had heard a lot about the poverty of Egypt but I'm sure I saw it with very different eyes than I would have had I not been living in Nigeria. It actually looked quite clean and functional in comparison. The trip was a wonderful break from the very real pressures of life in Lagos.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The 152nd good thing about Lagos: Yams get respect

Happy Thanksgiving! I've scheduled this post to publish the day before Thanksgiving, though we'll be travelling at the time. I hope it will work -- I've never done this before -- but I wanted to give you some timely holiday greetings.

Barring changes to our trip itinerary, on Thanksgiving day we will be in Luxor, Egypt, touring the temples of Luxor and Karnak. It should be a very memorable Thanksgiving, though I'm sure we won't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the trimmings. Yams, or sweet potatoes, are an important part of my traditional dinner. My mom always candied them with marshmallows on top, and I've always enjoyed them for dinner and also for leftovers.

Yams are an important part of the Nigerian diet, though the African yam is very different from the orange ones that Americans have for Thanksgiving dinner. They are a huge, starchy tuber. We see them all over the markets, piled on wooden tables, or stacked on the ground. They are carted around in wheelbarrows and stored in storerooms.

My driver said that they are relatively expensive in Lagos because they aren't grown here and they have to be transported in. He said he never buys them in Lagos, but when he's home in his village he eats them every day because they grow them for their own use. This vegetable stores very well, which makes it a useful staple in this country where few people have access to refrigeration. My driver said that usually they have enough from their crop to last till the next crop is ready to be harvested. It's planted just before the beginning of the rainy season and harvested around now, at the end of the rainy season.

Preparing yam is a time-consuming process. They are pounded and then fried, boiled or steamed. You can buy pounded yam flour at the grocery stores here, which is labor saving, but, I'm sure, much more expensive than preparing the vegetable from scratch. I thought that there was not a lot of nutritional benefit to yam, that it was just a cheap starch, but Wikipedia set me straight. They say:
Yams are high in Vitamin C, dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese;
while being low in saturated fat and sodium. Vitamin C, dietary fiber and Vitamin B6 may all promote good health. Furthermore, a product that is high in potassium and low in sodium is likely to produce a good potassium-sodium balance in the human body, and so protect against osteoporosis and heart disease. Having a low level of saturated fat is also helpful for protection against heart disease. Yam products generally have a lower glycemic index than potato products, which means that they will provide a more sustained form of energy, and give better protection against obesity and diabetes.

Because it's such an important staple in the Nigerian diet, there are Yam festivals in this country and in some areas, the yam is worshipped. When I went to the National Museum recently for a seminar, I received a handout from the lecture the previous week which I was unable to attend. The museum staff member had been speaking about an area called Obowo in Imo State, east of the Niger River, and south of Lagos. In the traditional religion of the Obowo people, they have a god called Uhiajioko who is the god of yam. She says that "when there is a bountiful harvest of yam, the people of Obowo give reverence to Uhiajoko... by singing praises, confessing their sins or injustices, rendering supplications, pouring libation... to him," They believe that their yam god Uhiajoko plays favorites and "indicates a special interest in an individual who will serve him specially, and this individual he in turn blesses exceptionally. This individual... is called Njoku." This chosen Njoku is given special fertile land suitable for growing yams and "a special palm tree." The really interesting part of this report talks about the death of the Njoku. She says "Uhiajioko designs a way of keeping death at bay, if not for eternity, at least for reasonable number of years. According to Obowo people, especially the Njokus, as long as something of the body still exists, such a one is still alive. Therefore when Njoku dies, his head is not allowed to touch the ground. It is a sacrilege for sand to touch Njoku's head when he is dead. If it does, it is believed that all the male children in the entire family will die. Therefore, when burying Njoku, his corpse is not laid horizontally but vertically and his head must be projected above his grave or tomb to avoid sand from touching it. His grave must not be covered because someone must be appointed to be pouring water on the corpse to facilitate the speedy decay of the body while the head is mummified." Can you picture this? The head of this dead guy is above ground and no dirt can touch it, but someone is pouring water on the ground to speed the body's decay (imagine the smell...) while the head is mummified. When the head loses its connection with the corpse and falls off, "the head will be gently carried and hoisted on the roof of [the Njoko's] room. Immediately a drum is beaten and the beating of the drum heralds the emergence of the chief priest who makes incantations, pours libations to Uhiajioko and elaborate ceremony follows suit."

That is quite an interesting burial custom there -- and it's all due to the Obowo's respect for the yam! May your Thanksgiving dinner be bountiful and you have many blessings to praise God for today. And give your yams some respect!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The 151st good thing about Lagos: Thankful thoughts

Today I had my second Thanksgiving dinner here this year (though today it was at lunchtime). My ladies Bible study group had already finished our semester's course of study and so today we planned a Thanksgiving celebration, as the group won't meet next week on the real Thanksgiving day. We had been told to come prepared to tell the group five things that we are thankful for -- and we were supposed to think "outside the box" and not just list the usual stuff. For me, this was a really nice motivation to spend some time this past week thinking about what I would put on my list. Of course, it's difficult to reduce a list of blessings to merely five, but I kept a frequent tally on the back burner of my mind through the week and it made me more aware of how blessed I am as I lived each day. Our group had a sweet time today as we went around the room with everyone sharing their gratitude with each other. Many expressed gratitude for living in Lagos -- not because Lagos is such a great place to live, but because we can learn so much about life from living here. We learn to appreciate things that we once took for granted, but now often have to go without. We learn to be grateful for opportunities we have in life because we were born into more privileged circumstances than most of the people around us. We learn how to give up control, as here we are constantly at the mercy of traffic delays, power outages, plumbing breaks, no water coming through the taps, and so on. It reminds us of the importance of turning our will over to God and letting Him take control of our lives.

I think because I had concentrated for the week on having an "attitude of gratitude," I was really touched by one of the songs we sang today in our music worship time:

Give thanks with a grateful heart,
Give thanks to the Holy One,
For He has given us Jesus Christ, His Son.
And now, let the weak say "I am strong."
Let the poor say "I am rich."
For He has given Jesus Christ, His Son.

We are all strong and rich and blessed through the gift of Jesus Christ. I'd like to encourage my readers who will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in a week (and also those who don't celebrate Thanksgiving), to think about what is on your list. What are you most thankful for? Life is sweeter when we live it aware of how blessed we are.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The 150th good thing about Lagos: a visit to the Makoko Stilt Village

[I know I'm overdosing on blog posts right now, but I'm trying to play catch-up and get some planned posts done before I head out of town on our Thanksgiving trip. I'm repeating myself, but it's really wonderful to have the internet back!]

I had been so excited about the opportunity to join in a Nigerian Field Society trip to the Makoko Stilt Village, an area that is visible briefly from the Third Mainland Bridge. But the scheduled trip had to be changed when a fierce thunderstorm arrived right at our scheduled departure time. I was really disappointed when they rescheduled the outing for a day when I had a previous commitment to attend a luncheon honoring the AWC's scholarship students. The student I'm sponsoring was making a 5 hour trip to Lagos to attend the luncheon, and I needed to be there to attend with him and also to give him his next installment payment on his scholarship. So, Brent went on the trip without me and I was glad to at least experience the Stilt Village vicariously through the pictures he took. It's a very interesting place.

The group traveled by boat to the Stilt village.

Boats are the only way to get around in this village, which is built on the water.

The group first had an audience with the Balle, the village chief. He told them about the challenges that face this community. The people who built this village came from the Republic of Benin, a French-speaking country that is a neighbor to Nigeria on the North. Many people living here, even the ones born here, just speak their native dialect and French. Most haven't applied for citizenship and the government doesn't really consider the community's problems to be their problems (not that the Nigerian government really has many worries about the concerns of the millions of poor people in this country). The government provides little, if any, services to the community.

The village has a new building to be proud of -- a community center and future school that is actually built on piles with sand fill. It was built with the support of a couple of Lagos expatriate groups. The school was recently completed and they are trying to get funding to provide some furniture before the school opens. They hope that the student fees will be able to pay for a teacher, so the community will be vested in keeping the school going. The village did put up the sum of 50,000 Naira (about $425) toward the building costs, which is a large sum for these very poor people. The school will be the only one in the village that will provide instruction in English.

After the meeting with the Balle, the group divided up to take tours of the area in local "banana boat" canoes.

There were lots of interesting peeks at the residents of the Stilt Village.

I'm assuming that the proximity of the water beneath all the houses means that it's a convenient toilet. Brent said that there is enough tidal flow in the water that it didn't smell like a sewer.

I don't know why the preview of this video isn't visible -- maybe because it's so brief. Brent didn't realize he was taking video here. But I think it's interesting to watch the children boat-hopping in the background. They are obviously very comfortable in these narrow canoes. There are no "streets" or passages between the houses in the village -- people can walk from house landing to house landing or take a boat if they have to go further. Privacy is obviously at a premium here.

This canoe is filling up tubs of drinking water to bring around to the houses -- it's a water boat.

Brent said that some sights here reminded him of the Floating Market we visited in Thailand. I can easily see why, though it's definitely not as pretty here.

The main industry of the village is, of course, fishing. And they do big business smoking the fish they catch. The picture above shows some stacks of wood ready to be burned in the smoker. We see these curled up smoked fish sold on the street, piled high in baskets on the heads of passers-by. (This picture of the fish I took earlier at the market.)

In this picture, this woman is getting ready to smoke some fish. They don't do any cleaning of the fish at all. After the fish is caught and brought to the village, they pierce it with a skewer so it stays in a rounded shape and then smoke it whole.

They enclose the building while smoking. Brent said that the smoke and odor of smoking fish is thick throughout the entire village.

Boat building is also an important local business. These deeper canoes are used for carrying larger loads.

The sign on this building advertises mobile phone recharge cards. I wonder if there's any place so remote in Nigeria that you can't find somewhere to buy phone time for your cell phone.

The residents were curious to see the visitors, and the feeling was mutual.

Brent was on a boat with a visiting doctor, who was very interested to see the local maternity clinic.

Not many supplies in the clinic's pharmacy. The clinic staff showed the doctor a bag full of medication that somebody had dropped off for a donation. They had only a vague idea what many of the drugs were used for. The doctor advised them to not use some of the medications where they could do more harm than good.

The beds in the labor and recovery room didn't look very comfortable!

Neither did the examination and delivery table.

I really hope that I someday I get a chance to visit the Makoko stilt village for myself!