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Novel from Nigeria!

Posted Apr 02 2007 12:00am

I am writing this blog at 7:39 p.m. Nigerian time on Saturday, April 31st. I believe that it is currently 1:39 p.m. Minnesota time. I am sitting on the floor of the Faith Alive guest house, typing my blog on a word document ahead of time. I feel guilty optimizing prime Internet time just typing when my fellow “Oyibus” are waiting. In fact, Nigerians will come to the house to use it as well! This is the home of a missionary family who normally live below us. They are gone on furlough so there are some people caring for their place while they are gone. I can easily type ahead of time and then just copy and paste from a word document. Right now, they have turned the generator on for us so we have a few hours of electricity. That is helpful so that I do not drain the battery on Tara’s computer. There is one portable fan in the house so Tara and JB are reading on the bed while I am sitting across the room, also in reach of the fan. The computer is sitting on a small table and I am sitting on the floor. Putting it on my lap would be horribly hot!

It is hard to believe that we left a week ago tomorrow. The time has flown by. It has not been a simple transition. JB was really struggling with jet lag the first few days and now Kelsey is struggling a bit. Your body wants to sleep when it should be awake and this creates difficulty sleeping and difficulty staying awake. In addition, things like the preacher this morning who came on with loud speaker as soon as the sun came up, make everyone, including the locals, extremely frustrated. Everyone has been dealing with sleep issues except for me – my Ambien has been a Godsend. I start my progesterone tomorrow but have been taking an Ambien each night despite the fact that I am not yet on the progesterone. This probably isn’t advisable, but I would rather deal with insomnia back in the states when I get back than deal with it here. I am also dealing with a cruddy sore in my mouth, most likely a result of my dental work, that has left eating and talking quite a chore. All of us also have some congestion – possibly due to the dust and smog and dry air. However, while I just wrote a whole paragraph discussing our “difficulties”, in fact, we are all adjusting well and completely engulfed in the amazing differences of our surroundings.

Today we attended a Nigerian wedding. Apparently they “stole” many American traditions so the wedding, while different, carried a lot of the similarities as a wedding you would see in the states. The clothes that the sewing school was making us weren’t ready so we did our best to “dress up” with our limited amount of supplies. Tara did the best! She borrowed a piece of fabric our new friend Loretta gave Kelsey. In fear that it might fall off, she wore a pair of JB’s boxers underneath! This gave us all a good laugh. She snagged a pair of Kelsey’s flip-flops, she wore one of my tops, I braided her hair, and wa-laa! An American trying to dress like a Nigerian was instantaneously produced! We have no makeup, one brush, one stick of deodorant, and one razor with some blade changes. When our bags arrive (hopefully on Tuesday), it will feel like Christmas!

After the wedding, we took lunch back at our apartment, and then headed to the reception. I am not able to explain to you the difference in our cultures when it comes to hospitality. I think we have all have had a time where we arrived at a place not knowing anyone and stood on the side, not sure what to do. When we arrived at this Nigerian reception, it had been going on for quite some time. It was outdoors, under tents, and it seemed like every seat had been taken. But as soon as we stepped onto the pavement, a man found us and wound us through the crowd to chairs under a tent. Dr. Chris then found us and led us to the dance floor. Tara and Ajit followed and JB and I managed, amidst the crowd, to slide back to our seats. Dr. Chris had danced for only mere seconds when we realized he had been deserted by the tall “Obiyus” and came to find us. We did our best dancing with all the Nigerians, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed watching the spectacle we made. In the course of the event, so many people stopped to offer us drinks, food, anything. They take such good care of their guests – no matter how long they stay.

In fact, as we talked to a fellow Nigerian who is preparing to come to the US for the first time this summer to get his Masters in Public Health, he asked us: “Is it true that in your culture, you must call before you go to visit someone?” This is completely foreign to them! He was also amazed that we can drink water out of “fountains”. He asked us twice if this was true or if we were just joking with him. We also learned, that it is completely acceptable in Nigerian culture to attend a wedding that you weren’t invited to. In fact, as I understand it, they do not even send invitations. Everyone just comes.

After the wedding, as we loaded the van, Dr. Chris revealed to us that the bride’s father had died yesterday! We sat there in silence. In fact, the entire family minus the bride’s brother and Dr. Chris, thought that he was in intensive care. Dr. Chris and the brother knew that he had passed away, and it was the brother’s decision to proceed with the wedding and not reveal to the bride until afterwards, that her father had, in fact, died.

I am amazed at how readily death surrounds this community. It is such a huge part of life. I think, in America, we have this idea that death is something that only happens on rare occasions, when medicine has tried everything else. Here, people die very often – as was the case with this father – for reasons they do not even know. There are no such things as transplants here or other complex operations. People simply die.

In addition, the silence amongst the community surrounding HIV, especially among the men, is a serious problem. Women are much more likely to be tested and much more likely to share their positive status with their husbands. Men, on the other hand, often live in silence. This results in many more women still alive then men. This was terribly apparent at the wedding today. There are so few men!

Prior to coming to Nigeria, I had never met someone who was HIV positive. Now, I have met dozens and dozens of people. Today, a woman named Esther came by the guest house bringing fabric and purses. She was “living positive” as they call it and had graduated from Faith Alive’s Sewing School. When students graduate, they are given a sewing machine. She asked us if she could make some clothes for us or possibly a purse. We quickly agreed and were measured for skirts for the ladies and shirts for the men. As she walked out the door, she turned to Ajit and said, “Thank you. You have just fed my daughter.” I get the chills as I write this here. I used to think that I grew up lower class. I suppose I did in comparison to other Americans. However my mobile home was a palace in comparison to the life people live here.

The poverty is, in fact, so “normal” that even after a week, it doesn’t even surprise me. Everyone here is, in US standards, poor. Houses are very small. There is often no running water (we have not had any here since we arrived) and electricity comes on only intermittently (probably six hours total since we have been here). They have some chairs in the living room and an area for dining, but there are none of the “superfluous” things you see littering our houses back home. The small condo JB and I inhabit in Minnesota would be considered a palace! Yet, with their small homes, they still are there to share everything they have with you. Even though that everything is next to nothing.

After the wedding we headed to Faith Alive. Dr. Chris gave us small, handmade African plaques with our names on them. This was so precious to me, even more so because I know that they were made by hand and with much thought and love. While the gift was simple compared to other gifts I have received, the thought behind it ranked so much higher than routine gift exchanging I usually take part in. Kelsey had stayed back at the guest house as she wasn’t feeling well, but the three “doctors” and myself spoke with a Nigerian surgeon and another physician who worked with “Doctors Without Borders” and a Christian agency called “Prohealth” traveling to small places to treat patients who would otherwise not be seen. When we were leaving, we were given a bag of our clothes that were now finished! They look wonderful! My skirt is a little snug but I still plan to wear it tomorrow to church. I may ask them to take it out later. It should be quite an adventure.

If I haven’t lost you with the length of this blog … feel free to keep reading.

Where we are staying there is a cook. He is an elderly man, probably in his seventies, and one of his main jobs is simply to cook for us. We call him “Papa”. (I have learned though that in fact, all elderly people are called Papa if they are a man and Mama if they are female.) It is so difficult to watch this delightful man always with a smile on his face, refuse to let us lift a finger to help him. In the bathroom, are two large black “barrels”. Esther goes to the well outside of our house, fills buckets up with water, and then carries them up the house and fills the two large buckets so we have water to shower, wash clothes, and flush the toilet. This takes her many, many trips, and many, many dips into the well. When we offer to help, they will hear nothing of it. However, we have all decided that now where we know where the water comes from, we will try to prevent her from doing this again. We can take turns at the well! We are slightly worried that this may be considered offensive, but we are going to give it a try.

There is so much else I want to say. I feel overwhelmed with how much is in my head and how difficult it is to put it in words on this screen. Some things that have stood out to me include:

  • The leading causes of death are HIV and car accidents. If you saw the driving, this would not surprise you.
  • The average age here is 47 for men and 49 for women.
  • It is extremely warm here. We sleep under mosquito nets with very little on. We have really lost all sense of modesty when we are in our apartment. However, outside of our apartment, both men and women usually cover their legs. What you wear on the top is not of importance. Women openly breastfeed here without any thought.
  • Women carry their children on their back with a piece of material wrapped around them. Everyone carries things on their heads. When it comes to children, the children will often readily come to us and sit with us, seemingly unconcerned as to the absence of their parent. I have held many babies, especially in the van, where there are so many of us stuffed in and child seats are non-existent.
  • 50% of Nigerian children die before the age of 5.
  • It is believed that about 10% of Nigeria has HIV although at Faith Alive it is about 50% and in Jos it is about 8%. The government will make it seem like a lot less. Recently the South African president made a statement that HIV didn’t actually exist! There is frustration that the officials will “talk” a good game but don’t really want to hear from the people. We attended a ceremony at the local Air Force Academy and Faith Alive’s support group made it a point to get up on stage while the officials were still present.
  • Most people speak English but it is very different from our English. They have to concentrate when they are speaking to us to allow us to understand them. If two Nigerians start speaking to each other, I often lose track of what is happening. The other two languages most commonly spoken here are Ibo and Hausa. In this area, and especially at the rural clinic we visited, Hausa is very popular. I have learned a few phrases. “Sannu” is the most popular for me. It means “Greetings”.
  • Because of the importance of children in this society, HIV positive women nearly always make the choice to get pregnant despite the risk to their future child. Doing something like artificial insemination to help get pregnant is not even a possibility. The good news is that with the proper drug treatment, the chances of passing HIV onto your child is only 1-2%. Without drugs it is about 60%! Faith Alive helps by providing formula as these mothers cannot breastfeed their children without a large risk of passing the disease on.
  • Teenage pregnancy or contracting HIV is seen as very socially unacceptable. Parents will often disown their children. Faith Alive helps these people by providing a place to stay and a trade to learn.

    Dr. Chris first came to the US to visit in 1996. He told us that his immediate reaction was “God, you are so unfair.” He was absolutely amazed at the differences between the USA and Nigeria. The only way I can describe it here is to think of the WORST place in Miami or Harlem or some other extremely poor area in a large US city. Then think of EVERYTHING looking like that. I mean … everything. It is difficult to imagine but it is true. Even the home a doctor lives in here is below anything most of you have seen in the US. And quite honestly, those places in the US are still probably better than what you see here. Dr. Chris had never seen this sort of wealth when he came to the US. He said he had never seen that much ice cream in one place! Dessert and treats are a rarity here. It is the basic sustenance that is important. However, since then, Dr. Chris has come to realize that the Lord has a plan for Nigeria and that he is part of that plan. Dr. Chris is well-known and extremely popular for his work with Nigeria’s most needy. I will try to capture a video of this man speaking before I leave so you can this small-statured Nigerian man in action. He is more amazing that words could ever do justice.

    Well, if you read this all the way through, congratulations. I am not sure what day I will actually post this. Most likely you will probably get it a few days from now. But this is the only way I know how to do this. I want to say so much and find myself struggling with exactly how to share properly.

    Blessings, friends!
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