Sunday, February 24, 2008

The 112th good thing about Lagos: Mission Presidents: Past, Present and Future

Last Sunday after our Stake Conference meeting, the US expatriates were invited to dinner by the Dyrengs, our Lagos mission president and his wife. There are 2 LDS missions in Lagos and both of the mission presidents will be going home this summer. Mission presidents here have 2-year terms instead of the typical 3-year service period, due to the hard duty of this posting. We had an especially interesting discussion, as we were joined by the Harpers, who were the Dyreng's predecessors in this mission, though at that time it was headquartered in another city. During the Dyreng's tenure, the mission headquarters was moved to Lagos. The Harpers had been home for only a year when they were called to be the President and Matron of the Aba Nigeria temple. Sister Harper told about how she wrote up her post-mission report and said she loved Nigerians and loved serving here, but she never wanted to go back to Nigeria again in her life. Big mistake! They didn't get much time away from here, but were very faithful and willing to come back here for two years to serve in the temple. She said they loved serving there, but I know it has to be difficult in many ways because the temple is in an area where white people are a particular target, so they are very limited in their activities outside the temple compound. Along with the Dyrengs and Harpers in this picture are the Neuders. They are in our ward and were recently called to serve as mission presidents. Though last week when we took this picture we didn't know where they would serve, there was a strong suspicion that they would be returning to Lagos to serve. They are currently in their second stint here working for an oil company and have lived in Lagos for a total of 11 years, so they have a lot of experience with life here. Today, on their last Sunday before retirement and leaving town, they announced that they received their call to the Nigeria, Lagos West mission. This is not the mission that we are currently in, but I'm sure our paths will cross after they return to Lagos in July. Heading up a mission in Nigeria is not an easy task. These leaders have special challenges that are not typical in other missions of the church. I'm thankful that these couples are willing to sacrifice two years of their lives to serve the people of Nigeria.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The 111th good thing about Lagos: I didn't break my nose

The last time I fainted, quite a few years ago, was the morning after a day when I had some minor outpatient surgery. I arose out of bed and promptly went into the bathroom and fainted, likely a result of some reaction to the anesthesia or other surgery trauma. I fell flat on my face on the tile floor and as a result, broke my nose. This led to a lot more trauma and, within a month, another surgery to fix my broken nose.

I fainted early this morning and, thankfully, only have a scrape and a couple of sore spots to show for it. I woke up around 3:30 AM needing to use the bathroom, but felt fine otherwise. But immediately after returning to bed, I started having severe abdominal cramps and broke out in a cold sweat. Something was really wrong. Brent wasn't in bed -- often when he can't sleep he goes into the other room and starts working or watching TV. So I got up to find him to see if he was having similar problems. We've been lucky with our health here and haven't had any major problems related to food poisoning, but it is fairly common here with the lack of hygiene in society in general. Before I got to him, I fainted, apparently, because the next thing I was aware of was wondering where I was and what was happening after realizing I was on the floor. I called out to him and he came and I was able to fill him in on what was going on with me. He wasn't having any ill effects so I was reassured that this illness wasn't due to the grilled chicken or salad I had fixed for dinner. I laid on the floor for a while until I felt secure enough to have him help me back to bed. The chills, sweating and severe cramps lasted only about an hour and then abruptly went away. This morning I woke up feeling sore in a few places and a bit weak, but, thankfully, otherwise okay. I'm very lucky it wasn't more serious. I was talking with a friend the other day whose illness began much like mine, very quickly, and she ended up in the hospital here for several days and feeling sick for over a week and was looking into having to leave the country. They decided it was likely some kind of virus and she said she had heard of other people who have had similar symptoms. Many gatherings of women here devolve into a kind of "old people's" illness and ailments talk where we discuss health problems and symptoms. And there was a very scary situation with an Indian contract worker in our company a couple of weeks ago who took sick and the clinic either diagnosed him inaccurately or didn't realize the critical nature of his condition. By the time they evacuated him it was too late and he died upon his arrival in Johannesburg. It turns out that he had septic shock. Now, that is a serious problem and likely a majority of people die from it no matter where they are, but it was a reminder that we are living a bit on the edge as far as health care goes while we are here in Nigeria. When talking about this worker's death, Brent made the comment that he thinks the reality is that if an American or a European were as sick as this guy was, they would have shipped him out sooner -- the fact that he was an Indian contract worker may have meant his insurance didn't provide for the same level of emergency service we have. I don't know if I should be embarrassed or reassured by that. But, this morning I'm very grateful that for a while longer I don't have to have personal experience with our SOS health clinic's services.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The 110th good thing about Lagos: Easy driving on the Third Mainland Bridge

When we leave Victoria Island, where we live, to travel to the airport or, as we did this past weekend, to the church Stake Center, we travel on the Third Mainland Bridge. This is a very long (about 12 km), low bridge on pillars over the water. Wikipedia says that it is the longest bridge in Africa (somebody told me that it was the longest in West Africa, but maybe it actually is the longest on the continent). In this photo, it's somewhat difficult to see the turn in the bridge in the Harmattan haze, which was particularly bad this past weekend. We were lucky this weekend, this long stretch is often clogged with traffic at a standstill, but it was free and clear on both our trips Saturday and Sunday. It took us about 40 minutes to get to the Stake Center -- it's just a little farther on to the airport past there. But I have a friend who was coming back from a trip and took 5 hours(!) to get home from the airport because of the traffic. That's hard on the bladder AND the nerves. The "go-slows" on this bridge are notoriously dangerous for armed robbers and the local "area boys" (the categories often overlap, but sometimes the area boys aren't armed, but threaten harm if you don't hand over the goods) threatening vehicles when there is no escape. That is a big reason why the company wants us to travel with armed guards when we travel this route. But if we had bikes here with us, this next weekend during the Environmental Saturday morning when no cars are allowed on the roads, we could join in a bike ride on the bridge with the Nigerian Field Society. They get approval to have a police van accompany the bikes, and bike the bridge stretch and back before cars are allowed back on the road. I think that would be an interesting way to see it. As it is, we get a quick glance at the "ijawa," which are these rickety houses on stilts built over the water accompanied by equally ramshackle boats. This is home for many fishermen and other people who eke out survival from the water.
The bridge was opened in 1990. There were reports in the fall of 2006 that there were signs that the bridge was in danger of collapsing. They had previously a couple of collapses of interchanges off the bridge. I have no idea if they have addressed the issues of the bridge structure. I doubt it, or they would likely still be working on it. And, more recently, there have been threats by MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta), a homegrown terrorist organization responsible for a lot of the kidnapping and unrest in the Delta region, to blow up the bridge. They certainly know that this would be a target that would have a huge potential for upheaval. I did find out that there is another option for travel to the airport, but it's much longer and goes over a couple of other big bridges. So, in the meantime, I say a prayer that the bridge won't collapse or be blown up while I'm on it, and I breathe a sigh when the road is clear and we can get off it as quickly as possible!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The 109th good thing about Lagos: Beautiful flowers at Stake Conference

It was our church's semi-annual Lagos Stake Conference this weekend, so we made the trip to Ikeja both Saturday and Sunday. We were able to convince the company security to let us travel without the armed chase vehicle, so we just went in the bullet-proof SUV with a single armed policeman. It was great to not have the entourage. I'll have some more on the weekend later, but for now I wanted to post a couple of pictures of the lovely flowers around the pulpit. They really do that up big here. I think they look to General Conference as a model for their conferences, and in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, THEY always have masses of flowers around the pulpit, so they think that's how it should be done. They ushered us up to the reserved seats on the front row. They like to honor the white folks that way, even if we don't wish to have that honor. But I got to sit right in front of these flowers and enjoy them through the meeting.

It was also Stake Conference at our home stake in Katy, Texas this weekend. I'm sure THEY didn't have masses of flowers around the pulpit. And I probably would have had to stake out a front row seat very, very early in the morning, or fight someone for it. No reserved seats for us there. In Katy this weekend our Stake President was being released from this service. He was a good friend even before he was our excellent Bishop, Counselor in the Stake Presidency and then Stake President. He and his family have given many years of service to the church in Katy, so, from far away, I'd like to thank President Pickerd.

So they don't have masses of beautiful flowers surrounding the church pulpit in Katy, but they do have air conditioning. Any guesses on which I would choose if given the option?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The 108th good thing about Lagos: It's a small world

Last Saturday night we had a social event, a not so frequent thing in our life here. It was "Small World," an evening hosted by the combined women's clubs in Lagos to benefit their favorite charities. It seems that each nationality has their own Women's organization, and there were 27 of them that joined together to sponsor this evening. Each of the clubs nominated a charity to be their recipient for their portion of the shared proceeds. This charity had to be approved so no single charity could get funds from more than one club, to allow the wealth to be shared, and also the charity's planned use of the funds had to be approved. The American Women's club charity is the Family Life Center, which I have visited. They will use their profits to purchase a real dental chair to replace the converted car seat which they presently use for dental work. On purchase of the tickets -- a not insignificant price of 7000 Naira each (almost $60) we received a fat program detailing the charities that would receive proceeds from the evening along with Lagos business directory with nice glossy advertising pages from the sponsors. This advertising essentially paid for the expenses of the event so all the ticket receipts could go to the charities. The tickets for this event are really in demand -- they limit the number to 3000, and the American Women's Club's share was sold out in a couple of days.
Small World was held on the grounds of the British International School and it was a perfect evening, not too hot and with a light breeze. We began with the eating portion of the evening and there was quite a varied offering, as each of the clubs hosted a booth with representative food and drink from their country. Our favorites were the Indian food, the Lebanese mini-schwarmas, and the French plate with a sampling of delicious cheeses along with a baguette. We didn't have stomach to taste everything, but we did our best. The American booth served hot dogs, which we gave a pass, but we did drink the American lemonade. The drinkers in the crowd got a better value for their money than did us teetotalers, because there was a plentiful offering of wine and alcohol from many of the countries represented. The alcohol samplings made for a loud and lively audience for the program, and I was glad that most of the crowd had drivers outside waiting to transport them home. After 1 1/2 hours of eating and visiting, the crowd took their seats in front of the large stage area and the program began. Along with an opening and closing dance number, each of the women's club had an offering of dance or drama. It was clear that a lot of people had spent many hours of practice time preparing for this evening. There were elaborate costumes and some interesting folk dances, along with humorous numbers. Before this evening I knew there was a large Indian population here (isn't that the case everywhere?), and I knew there were a lot of Lebanese, as they run many of the grocery stores and restaurants. But they were a lot more numerous, or at least louder, than I would have guessed. There were also a lot of Russians and even a Women's organization representing the West Indies. Most of the areas of the world were represented here. The Phillipines club did an elegant dance with steaming bowls (dry ice?) on their heads, and the American Club had a fun dance number to "Candyman," Christine Aquilera's tribute to the Andrews Sisters. The evening ended with a flag parade with flag bearers from each of the countries with represented organizations, which was, thankfully, NOT set to the music of "It's a Small World." Then there was a modest fireworks show. In the middle of the program, the emcees announced that there was a police action in the area and no one should leave until they announced that they had received the all-clear. By the end of the program, they said the issue had been resolved (our driver told us that there had been a robbery where there was gunfire, but it was not in the immediate vicinity of the event) and we were free to go or to stay and dance. They did give us the warning that the event had a police cordon around the area, but once we left that police protection, we were on our own. We were definitely out later than is typical for us here, but we made it home without incident. The emcees had announced that the evening had raised at least 30,000,000 Naira for the charities --almost $255,000! Quite a good sum! It was a nice evening, and a good thing to know that many worthwhile charities will be receiving a nice check to help them continue their important and necessary work.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The 107th good thing about Lagos: Church thoughts remind me to feel grateful as I consider how to love my neighbor here

One of our speakers in our church service today spoke on the subject of loving our neighbor. As part of his talk, he quoted the verse detailing the commandment not to covet in Exodus 20:17: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." He talked about this being an issue here where many Nigerians live in very close quarters with their neighbors and they are able to see other's belongings and, he said, "we may forget sometimes that it is through their toil that they were able to have those things" and he went on to state that if we individually work hard we can receive what we need and we shouldn't covet what our neighbor has. This comment left me feeling more than a twinge of guilt as I reflect on how much I possess and how my life is so much easier than the lives of most of the Nigerians here. This past week I've had a couple of my piano students from church come to my house for piano lessons. I invited them because I have had more children at church want to learn the piano and there isn't time after church for individual teaching, and also because often the power is off and the keyboard doesn't work, or there is a meeting in the chapel where the keyboard is located, so we are unable to have much of a piano lesson after church. Anyway, Brent has visited the home of one of my piano students, whose family lives in the servants quarters of the housing compound of one of the large oil companies here. Of course, it's better housing than many Nigerians, who live just off the street in ramshackle shacks made of scraps of wood and corrugated tin. This is an actual constructed building, but the family with 2 parents and 4 big children, live in a single room with one bed and 2 chairs that is about the size of one of our bedrooms. Brent assumed that the children have some kind of mat that they spread on the floor for sleep. There is likely a communal kitchen and bathroom down the hall, as is typical in these "boys quarters" buildings, though Brent didn't see those rooms. I feel a little uneasy as these students come into my very comfortable apartment with 3 bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths and 2 living areas for the two of us. I am acutely aware that I have this standard of living not because of my "toil" but because my husband and I were born into families in the United States where we had opportunities for education and good employment. I know that many of these Nigerians will work hard their entire lives and still not be able to live as comfortably as we do. One of my biggest dilemmas here continues to be how to love and support my Nigerian "neighbors," while not promoting the corruptive culture of begging. But as I continue to struggle daily with the issue of how best to demonstrate charity and not get hardened to the needs of others as I am faced with everpresent beggars, I must always remember that most of the material blessings I have came as gifts to me, blessings in the form of opportunities by virtue of where and when I was born. I must always remember that those blessings don't make me a better person than these Nigerians without those same opportunities, just a person with more responsibility to give and share.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The 106th good thing about Lagos: Meeting the First Lady, who laughs a lot and says "okay-dokey"

I just got back from an interesting experience. I got to be part of a private audience with the First Lady of Lagos State. This came about because I have been actively looking with other interested women for a new location for the American Women's club library, which recently had to close because we lost our lease on the house where it was located. One of the VP's of the club, Mary, is a long-time resident here who had connections with the First Lady and she wanted to meet with her to see if Lagos State could help us by giving us a good deal with a long term lease on one of their many vacant houses in the area. Mary had previously met with the vice-chairman of one of the larger oil companies here who agreed they would sponsor the library and provide funds for a new location, so now it's just a matter of finding the right place. I've been out a couple of times with estate agents, but rents are extremely high here, and if the government would help us with a house, it would be very beneficial. Anyway, Mary asked for and received an appointment for a private audience with the First Lady and she asked me to come along to speak about our need for a library.

Lagos is not just a big city, it is also a State. My driver said it was not allowed for me to take pictures of the government buildings in the compound we entered. They were nice buildings, but nothing too impressive.

It was interesting going into the reception room because I thought security was very lax for entrance into a government building and a meeting with important people. We walked through a metal detector, but they said they didn't need to inspect my bag, so I walked through with it on my arm and, of course, the detector beeped and they didn't care. There is a lot more security to get into the American Club here, where we are members, where we have to not only walk through the metal detector, but they paw through every zippered opening in my purse, opening my lipstick case and everything. Anyway, Mary said she didn't think they wanted to embarrass us by looking through our bags, but I thought that was surprising that they didn't even glance inside. As we waited in the reception room I asked the attendants there if I could take a picture of the room and they said it wasn't allowed, but when the First Lady arrived we could take a picture with her. Anyway, after a short wait in a large lovely reception room, the governor himself walked in, followed by a photographer. He came and greeted us and shook our hands and the photographer took a picture of us with him. That was an extra bonus. He was followed by the First Lady, who is an attractive woman with a big smile and a quick laugh. Mary introduced us -- she also brought two other business people who had interests in our cause. Mary started to talk about the club members and what we were involved in and said that she was going to ask the First Lady for help. The First lady smiled and replied, "okay-dokey." I thought that was kind of amusing. As we started to visit, the photographer was there taking constant pictures and the other two guests with us started taking photos and so I guessed that the photo ban was off, so I was able to take some pictures and hand my camera to others to take photos of me with the First Lady. This first photo is after a bookstore manager talked about some literacy efforts the store was taking and the First Lady spoke animatedly about her efforts as First Lady to increase literacy within the community. It was obviously a topic for which she cared passionately. The First Lady listened to us and asked us to send her something in writing that she could bring to the governor to see if there was a way that they could assist us. We presented her with a new picture book on Lagos and a piece of traditional fabric set in a hand-carved frame. We signed her guest book and she seemed in no hurry to see us off. She said all the picture taking was the thing she hated most about her current position. She was a very pleasant person to visit with. I don't know if the government will be able to help us - they certainly have a lot of bigger problems they are dealing with. But the First Lady acted like she was interested in hearing of our concerns.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The 105th good thing about Lagos: Through the internet we can join with others in our religious community to celebrate a life well lived.

I know that many of the readers of my blog are LDS (Mormon) and are aware that one week ago today our prophet and president, Gordon B. Hinckley, passed away at the age of 97. I've spent many moments during this past week thinking of him and the wonderful legacy he left for all who knew him, loved him and respected him and his incredible life of service. This week I never saw any announcement on CNN about his death, but I learned about it from an email sent to me just after the news was announced publicly. At church today, it seemed that most of the ward members were already aware of his passing, so I guess the news travels even among those who have no internet access. But through the internet this week, I've read and seen many tributes to President Hinckley, many of which were very touching. And at church today, since it was the first Sunday of the month, it was our monthly Fast and Testimony meeting, where members of the congregation are free to go up to the podium and express what is in their hearts. I couldn't help thinking about how all over the world today in Testimony meetings in every country, there were members of the church expressing their love and gratitude for all that this wonderful leader has given to the church during his many years of service. This week I reread my journal writings of my nearest encounter with President Hinckley. In 2000 I was serving on the Houston temple music committee and was able to be in his presence during a weekend with 8 dedicatory sessions. It was an amazing experience! I have imprinted in my mind a clear picture of him waving a white handkerchief with face upturned while shouting "Hosanna" at the dedication. I felt his testimony of the importance of temple blessings. I saw his love for the youth of the church as he bent over the podium and wept when he told about his pain at seeing youth who were inviting evil influences into their lives with their choices. He spoke of his love for members of the Church all over the world, and he spent his energy showing that love as he traveled often the last years of his life, long past the time most people his age have slowed way down.

We were able to watch his funeral on the internet and celebrate his life with many other millions of Mormons throughout the world. I'm grateful to have shared in that feeling of community, the spirit, not of mourning, but of honoring the life of a great prophet and leader. Thank you, President Hinckley for your life of service! I would say "rest in peace," but, knowing President Hinckley, even in the next life he won't be resting very much.