Sunday, March 16, 2008

The 116th good thing about Lagos: Getting away to experience spring in other places

Before I left Lagos a week ago, it had gotten very hot and humid as the Harmattan haze had started to lift and the sun was shining full strength. It didn't feel too much like March. There had been a big increase in armed robberies in the past weeks -- each weekend we heard several new reports of criminal activity. And (though luckily I missed it) on the way to church last Sunday some members saw a victim of a stoning (evidence -- dead body surrounded by rocks) along the road. So it was great that business paid for Brent's travel to London and Houston and I was able to use airline miles to go along.

We arrived in London on Monday morning just an hour before one of the biggest storms of the year blew in, with hurricane-force winds. It didn't stop a friend and I from visiting a great museum exhibit that day. The weather during the week was chilly and blustery, but I still enjoyed lots of great art and a fun day with old friends: Cindy, who now lives in London, and Lena, who lives in Abu Dhabi, but was also in London that week. Lena and I went to see the stage version of "The Lord of the Rings" which had some amazing special effects. Even though the weather was not great, I enjoyed walking through the parks and seeing all the spring flowers. We had a great view of the city from our hotel room -- with the "London Eye" -- the big Ferris wheel, and Big Ben and a tower from the Houses of Parliament in this photo.

We arrived in Houston to the most beautiful spring weather. The azaleas in our yard are in full bloom, as well as our Bradford pear trees.

I had a refreshing bike ride on the trail along the bayou where the air smelled like spring.

Then, courtesy of the company, we joined other Nigerians who had traveled to Houston on a visit to the Houston rodeo, one of my favorite Houston-in-March traditions. We donned our rodeo wear, drove down refreshingly clean streets, and, along with the rodeo favorites, a concert by Brad Paisley, and free food in the club box, we enjoyed seeing another sign of spring -- new little chicks freshly hatched and dazed at their first sight of the world.
Sometimes, the best good thing about Lagos is getting away! Wherever you are, I wish you a Happy Spring and a happy Easter week!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The 115th good thing about Lagos: Signs on the street are sometimes a source of amusement

Back home, the "Don't mess with Texas" slogan is not only kind of a catchy phrase, but I think that it (along with fines that are occasionally enforced) may actually give would-be litterers some cause for second thoughts. Here in Nigeria, there doesn't seem to be any respect for the posted warning. People pee right next to the "Do not urinate here" signs. "No Dumping" signs get the same lack of respect. Just in case you can't read this sign: it is posted by the Lagos Waste Management Authority (a government entity that is woefully ineffective, by the looks of the streets) and it states "Strictly no dumping of refuse. Defaulters will be prosecuted."

This next picture is also of a spot beside this sign (I was in a go-slow, so I had time to take pictures at this place that I pass each day -- it's just down the street from our apartment). You can see the smoking mounds. Often there are fires in the mounds of trash along the streets. Sometimes there are big flames, but frequently it's just a smoldering heap of garbage. Maybe that's the tactic the Lagos Waste Management Authority uses to manage the waste.
We leave tomorrow for London, where we are staying in a hotel right across from Hyde Park -- I'm really ready to take a walk and see flowers blooming instead of smoldering heaps of trash along the street!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The 114th good thing about Lagos: I don't have to travel like this

I travel around in the back seat of a company car, a little Toyota. It's not plush or fancy, but I don't have to buy gas or maintain the car at all and I can close my eyes and listen to my I-pod when we're stuck in the go-slows. I see people every day on the road under a lot less comfortable circumstances. I often can't get my camera ready in time to get a photo, but every once in a while I can get the shot.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The 113th good thing about Lagos: All the returning scholarship students passed their interview

This weekend I again took the opportunity to volunteer with the American Women's Club scholarship interview process. I had a fun time interviewing new scholarship applicants last year and Saturday we were interviewing the returning students. These university students have to travel to Lagos for this interview -- some of them are in school quite a distance from Lagos -- one traveled for 8 hours. They must provide us with copies of things that will satisfy the scholarship committee that they are actually enrolled in school: a copy of their student card, a verification of enrollment from the school with a stamp from the school office, a list of their expenses for the past year and a listing of their courses completed and grades. The scholarship committe in the past has had students trying to get money when they weren't actually in school (credit the Nigerian culture of corruption) so the club has compiled this list of requirements which, as the director of the program admits, could easily be faked. But we hope that in the interview process we can ascertain that the students have actually been attending school. The students get from 50,000 - 70,000 Naira ($400- depending on the program they are taking. The schools vary widely in how much the tuition and fees are, but most are quite inexpensive by US standards. One student we interviewed who is in a 6-7 year medical program (this would be like undergraduate and graduate school) has a current tuition fee of under 30,000 Naira (less than $240) and he gets a 70,000 N award with his program. He didn't even have grades to provide for us, as he said medical school is just a pass/fail system. If a student passes his current courses, he is cleared to advance to the next level. This young man wants to be a heart surgeon. My interview partner and I both agreed that we would never allow him to conduct surgery on us. After talking with him about his medical school program, I got further confirmation to stay clear of the Nigerian medical system. He was a nice enough kid, but didn't come across as that bright. One student was complaining about how her school's tuition had gone up from 6,000 N ($48) a year to 20,000 N ($160). Yes, that's a big jump, but still a pretty cheap education (though one can certainly question the quality of the education). We interviewed a girl who was majoring in statistics who got almost straight A's, and another girl who probably had a D average. Their grades were in most cases just hand written by the student themselves. We were informed that usually the grades are posted somewhere and the students just have to write them down for their own record. There's no official transcript. One student still didn't have finalized grades from the 06/07 school year. She said the school got behind with all the strikes and they haven't been able to complete their grading records. All the students have programs that start at different times of the year, and their terms often change because the university systems frequently have strikes, both by teachers and staff as well as students.

The students are also required to have a record of at least 5 hours of volunteer service. Nigeria really doesn't have a culture of volunteering and because the funds for their scholarships come from volunteer efforts, the club wants to expose these students to the idea of giving service. Most of the students we interviewed volunteered in children's homes. The medical student served his hours the week before the interview (he said he helped wash clothes and he wouldn't go back to the same home next year). Other students seemed to have more positive experiences. One girl glowed when she talked about talking with students at the orphanage where she was volunteering. She learned that one of the children was having a birthday that day. She and her friend went out and bought a cake and some gifts for this child. She beamed when she talked about how excited and happy this little girl was with the gifts and attention. This student didn't have the best grades, but she was very excited about her service and how much she enjoys working with children. She is majoring in psychology and wants to teach children and we assured her that it seemed like it would be a career for which she was well suited. We were impressed with this girl because she asked her sponsor from the club (members who agree to mentor the students and also disburse their scholarship funds) to just hand out her money as she needed it. She hadn't received her final alloted 1500 N ($12) because she said she didn't have school expenses to warrant receiving it. We thought that was extremely conscientious of her as she certainly could have found expenses that it could cover. Most of the students said they didn't have time to work while they were in school, but this girl has a business stringing beads into jewelry and said she made some money to help with her school expenses.

A young man we interviewed is studying agribusiness and said his favorite class was learning about farm machinery. He loves to visit farms and said his goal is to have a farm of his own someday, but he said he would have to start working with someone else before he could go on his own. His father is a driver for a club member and the young man said he was the only one in his family with the opportunity for advanced education and he would be expected to support his family. He wanted to get a good job so he could help support his parents and siblings.

After all the students were interviewed left the room and the club members gathered to discuss the interviews they conducted, we found that we all felt good about approving continued scholarship status to all the students interviewed. We talked about the challenges these students face in their education. None of them have their own computers. They can sometimes use school computers, but most use internet cafes that are quite expensive for them. One student studying computer programming only has access to a school computer for one hour a week! The club would love to provide used computers to help these students have an easier time in school -- we decided to put that on our club's "wish list" that goes out to club members.

We discussed the scholarship process and requirements and the need for all the verifications. The scholarship committee chairman said she felt she had to require the school to sign and stamp the verification of enrollment form, but she wished she didn't have to require it because it was often an occasion for abuse by school administrators. She said they see the form and realize this student will be getting a scholarship that is likely more than their salary and they often make it very difficult for the student to get the completed form. She said that often students have to go back repeatedly to the office, one even camped outside the administrator's office for the entire day waiting to get the needed signature and stamp. The staffer knew what she wanted and why she was there, but wanted to make her wait for it before he grudgingly signed it before he left for the day. Sometimes students are asked to make payments for completion of the form. It made my blood boil when she said that in the past a young woman informed her that the adminstrator required her to sleep with him before he would sign and stamp the form. Yes, the corruption in Nigeria is NOT a good thing, but it is a good thing that all these students expressed sincere gratitude for the assistance the club was giving them that allowed them to continue their education. One young man said before he received the scholarship he was having to spend much of his time looking for ways to earn money to survive, but now he was able to focus on his schoolwork and was doing much better as a result. One student said that before the scholarship he lived in a very awful and crowded place, but now he was able to stay in a place with his own room where he was able to have a quiet place to study. An advanced education is a good thing for Nigeria and I'm glad the American Women's Club can help some young people make it happen in their lives.