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Tuesday, 01 November 2011

Living and Volunteering in Nigeria

Written by Pascal de Kruyff
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Pascal spent 7 weeks volunteering with JDPC, a micro-credit organization in Nigeria on an AIESEC exchange, the following is a couple days worth of observations and experiences living in Nigeria.

Pict9271I have been swinging back and forth in my opinion of this place and my travels so far, ranging from “this is the greatest thing I have ever done“ to “what kind of half-thought-out, silly situation did I get myself into this time.” Is it one of the most uncomfortable and difficult things I have ever done? Yes. Is it one of the most rewarding? Definitely. Has it been worth it? I think so. Time will tell.

I took a 14-hour long bus ride to Calabar for the AIESEC Global Village event, which was scheduled to last 2 days. The trip there was long and surprisingly comfortable compared to what was waiting for me on the trip back. I was given the nicest (and deadliest) seat on the minibus, right next to the driver. Sadly, this prevented me from getting any sleep, since the driver consistently avoided oncoming catastrophes by no more than 10 centimeters each time. Unlike the people in the back, I didn’t have a 16-person cushion in front of me to absorb the impact. I had a giant, carve-me-into-pieces-when-shattered windshield in front of me. 

What struck me most about the Nigerian roads were the police; every 2 kilometers or so there was an improvised roadblock, with cops checking every few cars. The roadblocks were designed to funnel cars through a narrow passage on the road. The cops ranged in degree of susceptibility to bribery. For one officer, our bribe of 50 Naira (25 cents) apparently was not enough to convince him to let us pass. He unloaded all of us and checked our baggage one by one. Needless to say, I was scared shitless; his comrades were carrying oversized guns ranging from Uzis to AK-47s, flare pistols and grenade launchers and none of them seemed to care about anything but their own supplementary income.

Thankfully, I carried all my cash in my pockets, and I was glad they at least seemed to pretend to need a reason to demand cash from us. This happened a few times during the trip; at one point, I stopped caring too much, until one asked me for my papers, which I was told to leave back in Ibadan because “I wouldn’t need them.” Fortunately, the officer let the issue go.

Cimg4772I find that making friends comes very easily to me here. For every unpleasant individual there are many others trying to help you wherever possible, as was the case with a particularly nasty officer; there were three people standing between us, telling the police officer there was absolutely no reason for him to demand I show my documents. People seem prepared to walk through fire just to help another person out, which is something rarely seen back home. I am genuinely impressed by their kindness and helpfulness—without which, I have no doubt that I would have had a whole lot more trouble than I have been in so far.

Because of all the delays, I arrived in Calabar at 10 PM (I left at 5 AM). I wasn’t too happy with this, as I have been advised by everyone not to travel at night. Luckily, the guy from AIESEC Calabar came to pick me up right after I was dropped off. Here, I saw the first Caucasians (and Asians, for that matter) in 5 days. Somehow it made things a little more familiar. Some of the guys worked also in a micro-finance institution in Jos, which is currently THE place to avoid in Nigeria because of frequent extremist bombings.

According to the residents, however, bombers seem to leave foreigners alone because they recognize them as not being part of the conflict between Muslims and Christians. Still, I take precautions.

Here was my experience in Calabar: I saw some part of the Cross River National Park (not as much as I hoped); met an American who spent 20 years there saving monkeys from poaching; swam in a large resort where I caught the worst cold I’ve had in a decade; and went to a Chinese restaurant with my Mexican roommate and some Chinese people. We drank Baijo. It tasted like home.

The day after was the Global Village event, at the University of Calabar. We were expected to present our country; I had a clue that we were supposed to speak, but I had no idea I was to give a full-blown presentation without the PowerPoint that was so kindly given to me by AIESEC Tilburg.

Pict8940I improvised, and apparently did a very good job according to the people there. I quite enjoy public speaking. The people there taught me how to dance what I thought was Nigerian style  - though it turns out I’ve just learned the global AIESEC dance - I still need to learn the local dances. There comes a point where you really just abandon all dignity and pride, and go with it—this was such a point. For anyone traveling here, I give the following advice: don’t be passive and don’t try to avoid making mistakes; rather, be yourself, make mistakes, and make them passionately; you will catch on soon enough, and then you won’t give people the misconception that you’re not enjoying your stay.

At night, the Europeans and I went for some dog meat. Since I decided to live like an African (and that oftentimes includes eating everything that has legs), I refused to let myself be disgusted by the idea. Some vegetarians went with us, and I still do not entirely understand why. We heard less-than-happy dog whines some 15 minutes before we were served; it wasn’t the most pleasant sound to me as a carnivore, and I wonder how the vegetarians must have taken it. The meat tasted somewhat like a cross between beef and mutton. It was all right, if not for the fact that it was so chewy and spicy.

Pict9069After that experience, we went back home for a final party. This was one of the most enjoyable parts of the two days. In all, I made great friends there and it was a truly enjoyable experience. I was supposed to start work in two days. The trip home proved long and uneventful, with a short interruption when the bus engine died halfway.

When the bus left initially, I noticed people were pushing the thing before the engine started. At the time, I wondered what they would do if the engine accidentally shut off halfway. Apparently, they would abandon the vehicle and leave us to take a taxi to the next bus station. Lesson learned.

Fast-forwarding to today, my second workday.

Africa’s (or, at least, Nigeria’s) problems are like any other’s. People, in general, are fine with the way things are as long as they have something to eat. Any type of long-term planning is a rarity only found at the universities. The country has a wealth of natural resources, beautiful environments, and a very large work force, yet it is one of the poorest in the world. The work ethic in the office is (to me) unbelievable; people oftentimes do not show up simply because they would have nothing of immediate importance to do. This is a widely accepted cultural phenomenon, and common; I can imagine I would be able to take a week off if I wanted to. Sadly, this also means that there has not been too much work around for me to do. Hopefully tomorrow will be better; otherwise I will simply start walking about asking people if I can help them with anything. I came here to work, and I fully expect to gain a further insight into the micro finance world. I can sit around and do nothing at home—this is not the time for that.

©Pascal de Kruyff

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012