Sunday 25 March 2012

Friday evening travel wahala (problem)

My journey to work my flat mate informed me should be no more than 300N. I paid that the first day, the second morning I got it for 250N and was feeling quite pleased with myself as that would enable me to stay within my travel allowance of 17600N per month. You can hear the BUT coming can’t you? So then on Friday it is chaos, one of the political parties , the PDP,  is conducting their equivalent of a US primary in Abuja, roads get closed, diversion signs go up, no parking  signs are everywhere. My office in opposite the Ministry of Finance Building and its pandemonium at 5PM. I manage to “hiss” down one of Abuja’s green and white taxis – yep you don’t hail a cab, you hiss at it! 700N the driver says, no 250NI say, thinking Ok its Friday, everyone wants home for the weekend, I know there is something going on but 700N is ridiculous. He reduces the fare to 600N. I tell him the fare is 250N and off he goes telling me it is because of the convention. By the 4th or 5th taxi, the best I  have managed was 400N. I chat with a local Nigeria lady who is also having trouble but she is going in a different direction so even a taxi share is no possible.

Time is moving on and it is getting late. Not dark yet but I really want to be home before 6PM . It is only a 15 minutes trip but that’s looking unlikely as now there are no empty taxis at all. I am just about to think I should go back to see if anyone is still in the office when a man and woman who were also hissing a taxi walk back up the road towards me. They too are going elsewhere, but she offers to help me get a taxi. Great! But still no empty ones! She says that if all else fails I will be a Nigerian and pay 50 N and take the bus with her help. She will come with me on a bus and make sure I get off somewhere else with a better chance of getting a taxi or really close to where I want to be. Visions of being squashed in a collectivos during the Friday evening rush spin round my head.

I am gearing myself up for the collective experience of the Nigerian buses when finally she gets one driver on the other side of the road to turn round and come back. Again we cannot get him lower than 400N. I decide it is the better part of frugality to cough up the money and get home. Let’s hope there are not too many political conventions on this year in Abuja!

Travelling home I have noticed a great many Toyotas on the roads here,  and some very new ones. A lovely brand spanking new bright blue Solara convertible, very nice. Then today in the Guardian an article on the Nigeria rich and their love of fast cars! How the other half lives :)

Saturday 24 March 2012

Na zo! (I have arrived!)

Nigeria at last!

Day 1 - The first few days and weeks of a placement are always a strange time, and since of the original reasons for writing this blog was to aide other prospective future volunteers I try and write up the first few days in some detail.

The flight from London to Abuja went off without hitch. Leaving at 22:15 for arrival at 05:30 with a + 1 hour time difference I had hardly expected drink service, dinner, trolley goods for sale service, and breakfast but that’s what BA dished up, making it a busy shift for its staff and making it almost impossible to get any sleep with so much going on. I think I might have managed 2 hrs on the flight.

I was met at the airport by the local VSO Logistics officer and since there was only me coming in there was no need to hang about waiting on anyone else clearing immigration. The drive into the city is about 40kms along a good tarmac road, currently being widened. It is going to be 2 roads in each direction, without lane markers I judged each road is about 3-4 cars in width. Gulleys exist between the roads, presumably for water run off in the rainy season.

Collections of green taxi cabs and collectivos dot the road at regular intervals the only  markers to the fact that houses exist somewhere off to the side. Some of these “villages” look better than others, the inevitable shacks but also some quite reasonable dormitory suburb type homes, albeit looking all the same.  There’s no sign of buses and one regularly sees people standing aside the road trying to hail a lift from a passing car.

The sky was overcast, very hazy so visibility was not that great but as we approached the city I began to recognise buildings and landmarks from pictures seen on the internet  - the grand mosque, the main church

At the hotel I had to wait on my room being prepared only because the hotel had been filled with VSO people, most of whom were leaving that morning. This included 4 other new volunteers who had arrived from Canada and Kenya early in the week, a study tour group from VSO Ethiopia and some existing volunteers and people from their partner organisation who had been attending a workshop. All the VSO meetings are held in this hotel. It’s clean, functional, dilapidated, but the staff seem very friendly and welcoming. Loads of introductions many of whom I will not remember the next time they are in town because I was by this time getting very tired.

I decided to listen to my body and even though I should not have had any jet lag I slept through from 08:30 until noon.   Shower, minimal unpacking as I don’t actually know how long I shall be here nor what the plan is for the coming week except that my programme manager is supposed to stop by over the weekend to see me  and someone will collect me sometime on Monday to go to the office. Otherwise I was told just to chill for the Sat & Sun so that’s what I did.  I watched some TV films, had lunch and something to eat later but the pace seemed deserted although I could hear TVs on in a number of  the rooms. Early night.

Day 3 Monday was spent form filling in the VSO office meeting the VSO Nigeria staff. General Administration. Met up with a current Abuja based volunteer whose blog I had following for my first Nigerian Star beer. At 300Niara a bottle these will be real treats. (The current exchange rate is 250N to 1GBP)

I received my first half months allowance (36,000N per month) and what is termed your setting up allowance (13,600N) meant to help purchase necessary household items.  My NGO will be funding 100% of  my placement allowance, plus a travel allowance of 17600N per month because Abuja is so expensive. Sadly I Iearn that whilst VSO pays quarterly in advance, my NGO pays monthly in arrears. Oh dear! April will be very tough! So I decided I had to blow the budget on week 1 and exchange half the cash I brought with me, especially as I had to buy an internet dongle and internet access which was 12,000N and 6500N for 1 month or 50 hours whichever comes first, but a girl needs to be connected, so get Skyping ! Ping me first to fix a time :)

Day 5 Wednesday  - more form filling, this time at the bank, VSO now have to send the bank a letter and then fingers crossed it doesn’t take too long for them to set up my account. In the past it has been proving an extremely long affair for non-African nationals.

Then moved out of the hotel and into my new home I am sharing with another volunteer – enjoy the video tour :)

Day 4, 6, 7 Tuesday, Thursday, Friday was spent at my partner organisation. More bureaucracy and help from colleagues to get SIM cards and internet dongle all sorted out. I now am a typical Nigeria with 3 phones!!! Sadly my UK number does not work at all, even though Orange PAYG is supposed to work here I cannot get a signal. Nigerian telecommunications companies are notoriously unpredictable and so folks have different phones with different SIMs for different networks. This means everyone has at least 2 if not 3 or 4 mobile numbers. I’m only giving folks one back home so lets see how that goes. If you have problems let me know.

Other vols are quite envious of how my placement has started. A 3 days orientation agenda had been prepared! Schedules were adapted because I moved house and because the chief functionary of the NGO had to fly south at short notice. By the end of the week I have a mountain of paperwork, briefing notes, strategic plans, business plans, review papers to wade through!

Also , 2 of my colleagues are heading of to Niger state on Monday for 3 days training as part of one of the capacity building consultancies my NGO is doing for another community based organisation. My In country training (ICT) is supposed to start late next week, but I got dispensation to go with them. So Monday we shall be travelling for I think 6 hours if the traffic conditions are good to Kontagoro in Niger State, to the north west of Abuja.

View My Saved Places in a larger map

Not only did I have to get permission because of missing the start of ICT but also because of the security issues here in Nigeria. But I am pleased to say that my Programmer Officer gave permission and I am really looking forward to seeing my colleagues in action as they conduct their workshop. I’ve been asked to review the tools they use, make suggestions on improvements and additional tools they could utilise. So it would seem like I am starting off this placement at top speed!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Re-entry styles – home thoughts from home

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A VSO colleague of mine posted recently about his return to the US and contemplated the issue of re-entry styles. He wrote

“If you accept that re-entry is a period of transition that is accompanied by stress, there is typically one of three approaches driving your transition. Your re-entry style will dictate the level of ease with which you will move through the re-entry transition period. Your style or approach to re-entry will also determine your stress level.

i) Alienation

  • Negative feelings about North America and North American
    Rejects the North America lifestyle; unable to adapt, feels stuck
    May try to escape by taking further contracts overseas
    Stress Level: High

ii) Reversion

  • Reverts to prior North America lifestyle without dealing with personal changes (particularly attitudinal or value-based changes) that occurred abroad
    Stress Level: Initially low, but with potential to increase

iii) Integration

  • Uses the stress of re-entry to learn more about self
    Integrates the changes that have occurred abroad to develop a new identity and lifestyle in accordance with changed self
    Stress Level: Moderate”

I think this categorisation is too simple: I suspect a lot of folks experience elements of all the 3 aspects  - Alienation, Reversion and Integration  - as a real mix. My problem with delineating them is that it ignores, perhaps amongst other things, the impact of one’s original reasoning for volunteering and concurrent changes to your own country during your period of volunteering. I’m not saying that some folks won’t experience one or other of these aspects and adopt the strategies outlined and  experience the stress levels indicated, just that this scale is a gross simplification.

For example, if one’s volunteer experience was the first time living and working in another country then it will have a different impact than if this has done this before, even if that was not as a volunteer.  Some people volunteer knowing they will go back into exactly the same life they left, same house, same friends, same job on their return. Others volunteer as part of a more extended time “seeing the world”. To me these re-entry styles sort of assumes the first and ignores the second. If one volunteered consciously as part of a broader approach to “seeing the world” then going off somewhere else is not “escaping” the alienation of one’s own country and culture but rather part of a planned continued experience. 

Whenever one returns home, one experiences missed things – both positive and negative. Volunteers often write about coping with “too many choices” when they return home, mainly as regards food, but also other things. I recall after my first extended trip back to The Sahara, walking through GDC airport in Paris and suffering a sensory bombardment, not only the lights, the shops, the amount of glass in windows, tables etc,, of noise and people rushing about, but also a nasal onslaught of smells I would not previously have even noticed such as the floor cleaner, the window polish etc.  Now when I return I am no longer surprised by these, although I do still experience the novelty of the changes in smells.,  but there is always something new which gives rise to what I term a “ooh” moment. For lots of volunteers it is when they retaste cheese, for me it happened with black pudding, but it can happen in the strangest of places, with the weirdest of sensations – my most recent was the delight of using ultra soft, quilted toilet paper – not something I had ever even consciously missed in India. These “ooh” moments are very fleeting, but also very intense.

If one had stayed at home during the same period one’s feelings about one’s own country and culture may have changed anyway. I think this is particularly so now as the current eco-socio-political situation has and is changing attitudes within our society at a fundamental level and there’s more to come I am sure. The UK has seen a dramatic change in government during the past couple of years which has had and is having a deep, far reaching impact on our society. There are changes in attitudes to work, social care, education & training, the continued and increasing commercialisation of all aspects of life, the burgeoning commercialisation of social responsibility, the widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots”.

On my return I have been struck by the number of adverts for payday loans with their exorbitant 4200% APR rates  ( a sure sign of economic stress biting hard when people, disenfranchised from the banking system, have to resort to this grotesque form of legal loan sharks) , by how readily people click the button without thinking to satisfy an unrecognised addiction to buying virtual goods, the latest must-have, never-use-after-the-first-week app, the lack of distinction being made between outsourcing, privatisation and commercialisation of what were once services run by the government for the people, the latest being the police force, and the surprise in the general populace when it is revealed that skimming off and subcontracting of difficult cases has been rife in the management on behalf of the UK government by a4e of workplace experience schemes for the unemployed.

Whilst I am not saying that there weren’t improvements and efficiencies to be made to government operations, running a country, a society that cares and which holds certain core values cannot, in my opinion, be done by a commercial organisation whose aim is to generate wealth for its owners/shareholders being responsible for delivering key services – all that means is people’s taxes are being pushed on through to the pockets of already wealthy city types. All a country’s people should  be a country’s stakeholders. Would I have thought the same about this if I had  never volunteered? Of course I can’t be sure - we are after all more than the sum of all of our experiences - but I believe so.

So at a personal level have I been undergoing Alienation, Reversion and Integration? Yes all 3 but I think the volunteering experience is only one small part of a bigger and planned change in me which started some years ago. I made a conscience decision to see more of the world, to experience more of life, to live it to my fullest and if I could do something constructive along the way, well and good. I’d always hoped and planned to volunteer and to do it in more than one place. My volunteering experience has and will be one of the many facets of that life change, not the only one.

As I now “escape” to my second VSO placement I wonder how differently I am coming to it than I did my first?  Re-entry styles the other way round! Well in terms of due diligence, much the same approach really . I’ve done my homework on the country, chatted with VSO volunteers there, checked up as much as I can on the organisation I shall be with. It shall be interesting to compare programme office approaches. The immediately obvious one is a much shorter in country introduction process in Nigeria compared to the 4 weeks we had in India. After that we shall see.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Travels with my suitcase betwixt India and Nigeria

“It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.

It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.

And I can feel the change in the wind right now. Nothing’s in my way.

And they’re not gonna hold me down no more, no they're not gonna hold me down.”

 Where My Heart Will Take Me, Written by Diane Warren, Sung by Russell Watson, Theme to StarTrek Enterprise

So the plan was simple – fly back to the UK from India in November, get a new Algerian visa, head off for 6-8 weeks in the desert, return to the UK get a Nigerian visa and head off for my new placement in early February. Alas, the reality was not so straight forward.

First, the Algerian government decided to stop issuing tourist visas. After several attempts during December to wangle one, including new invites, supposedly moving my trip to the north of the country, discussions at the Djanet end with tourism officials, we had to accept that time was conspiring against us. I had to hand my passport to VSO for the Nigerian visa in a minimum of 3 weeks before the intended departure date of Feb 12th. By the second week in January, still without  explanation, I finally drew a line through my hope of seeing the Sahara this year. The only upside was that I was able to get the money back on my air ticket – good old Air Algerie! I later found out that the Algerian army had crossed the border into Mali on December 20th, ostensibly to quell problems caused by AQM but elsewhere viewed to be to prop up the Malian authorities as uprisings started in the north of Mali. I can only suppose these plans were underway much earlier and my proposed trip fell victim to the knock on consequences of the Arab Spring in North Africa as its fall out trickles south into the countries of the Sahel and the turmoil being caused by the now 4th Tuareg  Rebellion in northern Mali and Niger and its silently developing humanitarian crisis

Then the proposed Nigerian placement departure date was put back 2 weeks. And then again to March 4. And then once more to March 16th.

In all this meant that I ended up living out of a suitcase for 4 months and necessitating the goodwill of friends to supply food and a bed in various places up and down the country. What it is to have such amazing friends! You know who you are, I love you all. Without your help I would have had to call off doing this placement.

Then yesterday confirmation from VSO that the Nigerian Embassy will issue me with a visa  and my passport will be returned by 15th and I should be aboard the evening flight to Abuja on 16th.

So here we go now, the build up begins …….