Monday, January 28, 2008

The 104th good thing about Lagos: Efforts to organize and beautify our environment start small

Today I had the 3rd day of a 4-day stint subbing for the pre-K teacher at the American school. I had subbed for her before and enjoyed the experience, and I'm still having a lot of fun with these 4-5 year-olds. But I'm glad that I had a weekend to rest after the first 2 days. I have come home pretty worn out each day. The class is a very international one -- around 20 students from Nigeria and the US, as well as several Asian countries, Israel, other African countries and European countries. The children all have quite a good facility with English. I was amazed by one girl who recently arrived from Holland. She talked my ear off as we were waiting for her transport home and she said she speaks Dutch at home.

The children have a very rigid routine and a song for every activity -- and they correct me each time I start to do something that's not quite the "way it's done." (My 3 (!!) teaching assistants are also a big help.) It's taken me a while to figure it all out and maybe on my last day tomorrow I'll remember to pick out the names for the "busy bees" (helpers) with my bare hand while buzzing the bee attached to the glove I'm wearing on my other hand. These things are obviously very important. One favorite: before the children go outside for recess they have "hand cream time." The children stand in their circle with hands out while the "hand cream helper" busy bee goes around and gives them each a dollop of hand cream (it's a cute tradition, but it would make a bit more sense to me if they used sunscreen instead of just hand lotion). After everyone has their dollop of lotion, the "hand cream helper" says "Hello friends -- it's hand cream time!" Then we all sing together "rub a dub the hand cream" -- onto our cheeks and our nose and so on. The song ends with a deep sniff of the sweet smelling cream. Then we sing our "boys and girls go out to play..." song and then the line leader touches each child on the head when it's their turn to get in line. The whole day is like this with routines for each scheduled activity. My favorite is before our snack (lunch) time when the "snack table organizer" busy bee lays out individualized place mats and little wicker bouquets of silk flowers on each table. Something about those little tilting baskets of flowers on each table really makes me smile. I think it's a good thing in this country where so much is undependable and chaotic and not working and dirty, that these children can come to school and things are done a certain way and cleaned up before we go on to a new activity and we make a point to beautify our table before we sit down to eat.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The 103rd good thing about Lagos: A peek at natural Nigeria.

Life is settling into a familiar rhythm here. The weather has actually been very pleasant -- not too hot, though we have the Harmattan winds bringing dust from the Sahara, so it can be somewhat hazy. But it's quite a nice time to be here. We finally got our outdoor grill hooked up to the gas (here they have butane in the tanks instead of the propane we have in the States) and grilled some chicken and had dinner out on the balcony tonight.

In light of the nice weather, we decided last Saturday to take an outing we had been trying to schedule for a while out to the Lekki Conservation Center. This is an area that is across from the Chevron compound on the Lekki Peninsula where they have designated a nature preserve. It is funded and maintained by Chevron, which is quite a good thing for them to do. The plants and trees are indigenous to the property.

It's kind of amazing to see the lush growth and realize that this is what the peninsula used to be like before the mad expansion of Lagos led to the clearing of the land. We arrived and looked through a photography display in the main building, and were met by a staff member who informed us that they were replacing the boardwalks through the nature area, so we wouldn't be able to walk through the different habitats on that day. Too bad! We'll have to wait for another visit to check out the crocodiles. But the guide did walk us around to show us a few things that we could see around the main building.

When we walked toward the boardwalk, we had a bunch of peahens come running in a mad dash for us. They didn't waste too much time around us after learning that we hadn't brought any treats for them. Next time, I promise! But the peacock didn't have any hard feelings and pirouetted for a nice display.

The staff member pointed out a couple of very large tortoises -- one sheltered by the lumber being stored under one of the residence buildings, and another sunning itself in the open. There were also 5 babies that had been born last July. He showed us the hole under the roots of a tree which was the home for another tortoise that he said was the oldest at 101 years. (He didn't say who documented the birth year.) The big ones were at least a couple of feet in diameter and the babies were about as big as my palm.

He pointed out the monkeys in the trees. He said that the ones peering out at us from a distance would come into the open if we had a banana or other treats to offer, but they were wild and would keep their distance from us. But they were clearly curious about us and whether we had any offerings for them. Later we had a visit from a Mona monkey in the branches of a tree right over the path. He said this monkey was donated to the Center and was accustomed to people, so she wasn't shy at all. Next time we'll bring some food to share with them.

I see wildlife like the pictures below on the roads every day, but it was a breath of almost fresh, albeit dusty, air to see some animals in setting that's a bit more natural.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The 102nd good thing about Lagos: I realized I actually WANTED to get back here.

Getting out of Houston is a bit of a chore -- making sure the house, pool and yard are all as ready as possible for a period of neglect, along with shopping and packing as much as possible in the bags. It was a relief to get to the airport -- I got a ride with an airport shuttle for the first time and the traffic was bad, so I was really worried about missing the flight. Little did I know that the bigger challenge was yet to come. I had a skycap help me with my bags because they were quite heavy, but I still needed to check in inside. He weighed them and I needed to offload some things from one of them to get into the "overweight" allowance. I knew I was going to have to pay extra, but they currently won't allow anything over 70 pounds. It's $50 a bag for 50-70 pounds (I'm saving almost that much just in the cream cheese I brought back), but when I got one bag down to 71.5 lbs, they said I still needed to take out that extra pound and a half -- they are very particular. But I had left some room in my carry-on bag to allow for this, though I already had put a heavy transformer and some books -- the heaviest stuff in there. But when I finally got up to the agent, she looked at my passport and said "I can't let you on the plane because your passport expires in June and you have to have a valid passport for 6 months." My heart just sank when I heard that! I was blown away because I was specifically told by the US consulate here last fall when I went in to get more pages in my passport that I shouldn't bother getting my new passport in the States. They said it would be much easier and less hassle to do it here through them and it just takes 2 weeks and then I can get my new Nigerian visa while here which is less hassle. Nobody said anything about a 6 month rule about getting in the country. Getting a new passport and Nigerian visa in Houston probably would have kept me there for a month or so! Normally, I wouldn't feel too bad about a month more in Houston, but after I went to all the effort of packing my HEAVY bags and getting to the airport and getting the house ready to leave, I didn't want to go back and start all over and deal with those hassles. I asked the Delta agent how somebody was supposed to know something like that and he didn't have an answer for me. The supervisor who was called to look into it pored over his computer screen and finally found a way to go around it because I was a resident alien and not a visitor so they could get me in on a different rule, and also because I was on a return ticket and not beginning a journey. But maybe he just finally accepted my pleadings that it wouldn't matter at all to the immigration people here. They don't hardly even look at your passport picture page, they mostly care that you have a valid visa. But it was scary for a while there and I finally got my boarding pass like 10 minutes before the flight was supposed to leave. They told me to run for it, because the plane wouldn't wait for me -- when they were the ones that created my delay! Good thing there wasn't a line at security! But then the plane ended up sitting there for a while because someone was unable to take the flight after checking in and they had to get his bags off -- so I was able to see my bags loaded on the plane. That was a relief, because I had a cooler with my lunch meat and cheese and I didn't want it to have to wait another 24 hours to get on the next flight to Lagos. The rest of the trip was comparatively very easy: a flight of 1 1/2 hours to Atlanta, a wait of a few hours and then a flight of less than 11 hours to Lagos. I had an entire center row to stretch out in, though I didn't really sleep. But my bags got here fine and the stuff in the cooler was still cold. Of course, the traffic getting home from the airport was another story!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The 101st (sort of) good thing about Lagos: New year and new money

I’m back in Lagos with a new year to find even more good things about life in Lagos. Some of you faithful readers may have been wondering why there was no hoopla and celebration around my 100th good thing post. Finding 100 good things about a place like Lagos is quite an accomplishment, I think (though some of you may scoff at some of my “good things.” My daughter-in-law implied that listing kidnapping victims returned safely is kind of cheating. But what if they HADN'T returned safely? It would be REALLY hard to find a good thing about that!). But the truth is that I’ve been feeling a little bit guilty about my 7th good thing: “No coins to weigh you down.” Because the reality is that last spring they put out some new money and introduced some coins. So, now there ARE coins to weigh you down. I tell you this in the interest of full disclosure about the realities of life in Lagos. There’s also now some new (and much cleaner) small bills :5, 10 and 20 and 50 naira.

I ask you, which of these would YOU rather have in your pocket?
Old money

or New money

And they also introduced several coins: 2 naira, 1 naira, and 50 kobo – which is half a naira. (These coins are dated 2006, but I swear that they weren't introduced into the market until 2007 -- I did not deceive when I wrote my "7th good thing.") The coins are very light with a feel almost like play money.

Why bother with coins, you may ask, when a 5 naira note is worth just over 4 cents (making the 50 kobo coin worth less than half a penny)? Well, the reality is that their money is getting more
valuable all the time! This doesn’t have a lot to do with the stability of the Nigerian economy, but more the instability of the dollar. When we first came, 100 naira was worth a little over 70 cents, but now it’s heading up closer to 90 cents. When we’re just talking about 100 naira, that doesn’t mean a lot. But the reality of life in Lagos is that things cost many times that. A box of cereal, holding steady at 1200 naira did cost about $9 and now it’s closer to $10. And since we get paid still in American dollars, the exchange rate has eroded our buying power by quite a bit. I find myself wishing that we had exchanged a lot of money earlier, instead of waiting and exchanging funds as we need them. Of course, there would be inherent problems with big money exchange – security and storage space being ones that come immediately to mind (the largest bill is still the 1000 naira note – imagine paying for EVERYTHING in cash when your largest bill is worth less than 9$!) – so we just have to bite the bullet and hope that the company will adjust our Commodities and Services allowance to reflect the current exchange rate. I also hope to avoid circumstances that I once found myself in where a cashier didn’t have any small bills and was forced to give me a bag full of around 40 2-naira coins in change. So, there it is, the truth – one less good thing in Lagos because (gasp!) we DO have coins to weigh you down!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The 100th good thing about Lagos: People with kind hearts that inspire me to be a better person

It's taken me a while to get back to the blog -- holiday season with everything that comes with it can be consuming. Being together with children and grandchildren at home in Houston was great -- and life in Lagos seemed far away. But it's feeling closer now as I'm counting down the hours and making final preparations to leave the house and get supplies purchased and bags packed. This past week I've followed with interest a little drama that has been detailed through emails from some women in the American Women's Club in Lagos. One day while out and about they noticed a particularly forlorn girl sitting by a roadside clutching a piece of fabric around her body. When she had not moved after several hours, they felt impressed to help her. They went home and gathered some clothes and some food and went to her. They knew she was hungry when she took a hot boiled egg and bit into it without peeling off the shell. The next egg, they made sure to peel before they handed it to her! They showed her how to peel the banana they offered. She layered on all the clothes they offered to her, even wrapping a skirt around her head as a headdress, but she still didn't speak to them. They remarked that after they returned to check on her several hours later, she looked like a new person, but she still hadn't moved. They surmised that she had probably been abandoned and went about trying to find a place for her. After a lot of phone calls, they were able to find one of the AWC charity organizations that could make a temporary place for "Missing" (the name by which they referred to this homeless woman). The ensuing days led to lots of time spent on the phone, with agencies and at police stations and embassies. They learned that she is not a young teenager, as they had first guessed from her appearance, but that she was 19 or 20 and had already given birth to one child and was pregnant with another. They found that she spoke a Togolese dialect (for a long time she wouldn't speak at all), but after visiting the Togo embassy and then the Ghanian embassy (after the Togo embassy said she was from an tribal area that was in Ghana), both said she was not their problem. She spent nights in several charity organizations (one woman ended up buying a mattress for the first agency after "Missing" wet the bed repeatedly). After learning of "Missing's" incontinence, one woman wrote in that she should be tested for a fistula, which is a problem that can occur after childbirth especially in young girls whose bodies are not ready to carry children. She worked with a charity that sponsored surgery for young women to repair their bodies and change their lives by allowing them to return to society. Anyway, after days with many long hours working on this, they finally found a place for "Missing" to stay in a home and Lagos State accepted responsibility for her care and welfare. They surmised that possibly she had been brought in as househelp and discarded when she was found to be pregnant. Through many email updates, I was continually amazed at the lengths these women with very kind hearts were willing to go to find a place for this forlorn girl/woman. As I responded in an email to them:

"While reading all this, a New Testament scripture came to my
mind: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye
gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed
me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me....
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my [sisters], ye have
done it unto me." "Missing" seems to fit the part of "one of the least of
these." Thanks to all of you for your charitable hearts and example to me
of Christlike service. You are God's hands on earth. You are
inspiring me to be a better person."

While this drama was unfolding in Lagos, a different drama was going on here in Houston, as a stalwart Symphony chorus member and friend was killed last Monday in a tragic automobile accident. Sally was a social ringleader in the chorus -- beautiful, vibrant, creative, bold and with a huge smile -- about as much of a contrast to "Missing" as can be found. I have been feeling so sorrowful about this tragedy, but I was glad to be in town to attend the chorus rehearsal on Tuesday night where we remembered Sally and sang for her and mourned together. And today it was a healing experience to sing in a fabulous 100+ member choir at her memorial service. Along with the Symphony Chorus, Sally had sung in other professional choruses in the Houston area, so she had lots of choir friends needing to sing to celebrate her life. During the service, as there were spoken remembrances of Sally's spirit and personality, I was reminded of the possibilities each of us have to touch the lives of others.

An affirmation that the congregation spoke at Sally's funeral today touched my heart:

"We are convinced that the life God wills for each of us is stronger than
death. The glory of that life exceeds our imagination, but we know we
shall be with Christ; so we treat death as a broken power. Its ultimate
defeat is certain. In the face of death we grieve; yet in hope we
celebrate life. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of
God in Jesus Christ our Lord."

I don't know if I would have been courageous and generous enough to take on the immense challenge of finding a home for a woman left discarded on the roadside. And I certainly haven't touched lives in the same way as did Sally. But through these experiences this week I've gained a greater resolve to share more and care more, to be a better friend, to be more charitable and giving. I hope that in 2008 I'll do something that will make a difference in the lives of others.

But, for now, it's time to get back to packing and weighing the bags to see if anything else can fit in my weight allowance, cleaning and organizing and getting ready to leave the house. More later from Lagos!