Sunday, September 16, 2007

Back Again

Although it has been over a month since I have been home, and I have been at college for almost a month (!), I never stop thinking about my trip. My roommate, katerina, never stops hearing about it and I look at my pictures at least once a day. I feel like the energy and love i felt in both Ghana and Nigeria have given me a new strength and happiness that are with me all the time.
When I came home I presented on my experiences at my church. In the presentation I explained what is happening in the Niger Delta Region more thoroughly. Here it is:

Welcome and thank you all for being here this evening. I am very happy to have this opportunity to share my experiences and lessons from my trip to Ghana and Nigeria with all of you.
I traveled with 5 other tripmates from high schools in the Sacramento area. For our team name we chose Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a concept in African Philosophy. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities. Given the vast racial, cultural, religious, educational, and socio-economic differences apparent not just in different African societies but the world over currently, the concept of Ubuntu is really rather relevant. It is far too easy to go into the 'us and them' mode. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of judging a different people by our standards or by sticking to certain established stereotypical notions. If you instead regard someone as a fellow human being, all individual quirks and differences taken into account, there is perhaps a greater chance of achieving understanding.
With the goal of understanding in mind I want to give an overview of both Ghana and Nigeria and share special moments I had in both countries.
-Nigeria is the most populous country in all of Africa with an estimated 110 million people. It was a British colony and earned independence in 1960. Since that time various governments, some military, some dictatorial, and most just corrupt have ruled the country. There are three main regions: Ibo, Hausa, and Yoruba and over 250 ethnic groups all totaled. The ibo people are almost exclusively Catholic, the Hausa almost exclusively Muslim and the Yoruba a mixture of Christianity, Islam and traditional religious beliefs.
-Abuja is the Capital and located in the center of the country so as to prevent one ethnicity or religion from gaining more power than the others. It is a developing city containing freeway overpasses overlooking lush green jungles and new skyscrapers, symbols of African modernization. Abuja was the first city that I visited. Before the trip, my uninformed opinion of Nigeria was that there was no diversity, because unlike the united states, the same people have been living there for hundreds of years. Soon after my arrival in Abuja I noticed Muslim students learning side-by-side with Christian students as well as many different tribal scars indicating different ethnic groups. Although there have been ethnic conflicts in the past, several times I was told that they all share being black and this makes them all brothers and sisters.
-The Nigerian government has money from oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its revenue.
The problem is that this money does not reach the people. In Nigeria, despite its vast resources, 70 million people still live on less than a dollar a day. There is wealth in the country, but it is concentrated to an elite few, most of who are involved in the government. I heard one lawyer say that the only way to get rich in Nigeria is to get into politics. Corruption affects the every child and the entire nation. Despite these problems, Nigeria is rated the happiest country in the world. When I sat down with the Minister of Education of the Imo State and asked her what the largest problem facing the education system is today, she told me that the problem is not that there aren’t enough teachers, in fact they have teachers that are still unemployed, rather the problem is that the government won’t allocate the funds to education to pay for the teachers and school supplies that the schools need. As a result most classrooms have 50-1 student to teacher ratios. I visited Garki government secondary school in Abuja, the school had 1500 students and 14 teachers. When I left the school I wasn’t left with the view that it was a pathetic school at all. If you look only at the disheartening facts of a country, you can’t get a full idea of what life is like there. What stuck with me was my interactions with some students from the student government that accompanied us on our tour. They were the nicest people I had ever met. I talked with several girls and guys my age and we communicated about family(they had large families too), hobbies, school, plans for the future, our lives etc. there was something so powerful about us connecting in that way- it was as though all of humanity was strengthened by our communication, connection and love. Merchandise
-After 6 days we left Abuja and drove 8 hours to the Capital of the Imo State- Owerri. Owerri was like many other Nigerian cities I saw- overcrowded and dirty. Globalization has caused this all around the world. Countries whose main industries were largely subsistence farming have seen mass exoduses of people moving from rural areas to urban areas in the hopes of finding different forms of work. The problem in Nigeria is that the cities simply do not have the established infrastructure to support the newly populated cities. The highlight of our stay in Owerri was a Children’s Cultural Carnival being held at the local stadium. When we arrived our van was completely surrounded by loads of children waving and smiling and excited to see us Anochas, or white people. For about 30 minutes I got to interact with a group of about 20 kids. They were beautiful. They asked me questions about my life and about the United States. I got a huge group hug at one point and I just wanted to melt from happiness and love. They were so full of hope and optimism. They sang me their national anthem and said their pledge of allegiance. It was beautiful to hear such pride and love of their lives. I asked them if they were happy and they all shouted back a thunderous YES. It really made me have a different take on everything that I was seeing. I realized that the people here are so much more than the infrastructure they live in. I felt privileged to be the one to give the children a moment of joy and excitement. I felt that that moment made my life worth it. The event was children from all over the state competing with performances of traditional dance and drumming. Inside the stadium, before the competition started we watch for 20 minutes hundreds of kids playing on the field of this stadium. They were so happy playing soccer, doing gymnastic tricks, walking hand in hand with their friends. Inside that stadium all the struggles for survival, problems their families face were gone and they were simply able to have childhoods and be 100% carefree. The performances were vibrant and inspired hope into my heart.
-After owerri we went to Ehime, a small rural village 45 minutes outside of Owerri. During my stay here I got to teach a junior high class and teach them activities and games. We had two homestays which were also very amazing and I got to attend a 3 hour Catholic mass all in Ibo. It was really neat that even though it was in a different language I could always tell what part of the mass it was. Several times in Ehime I got time just to play with kids and it truly was beautiful seeing how eager and enthusiastic they were to be with me.
-After Owerri we drove to the most dangerous part of Nigeria- Port Harcourt. My 18th birthday ended up being the hardest day on the trip in terms of seeing living tragedies. We visited the NGO Movement for the Survival of the Oguni People to discuss what’s happening in Port Harcourt. What’s happening is Shell Oil Company and other European and American Oil companies pay a small fee to the Nigerian government to take millions of barrels of oil from the land without owning it. The oil companies bribe the politicians so that there are absolutely no environmental regulations on the process of taking and refining the oil. IN my first night in Port Harcourt I saw the horizon still bright long after the sun had gone down. What I was seeing were the Shell gas flares. Gas Flares are vertical stacks or chimnies found on oil wells or oil rigs, and in refineries, used for burning off unusable waste gas or flammable gas and liquids released by pressure relief valves during unplanned over-pressuring of plant equipment.. At the NGO they told us how the Oguni people, with a population of less than 1 million, have had their means of subsistence- farming and fishing- pretty much completely destroyed because of the horrible environmental damage that Shell has done. In Nigeria most people collect water in huge containers with large holes on stilts that collect rainwater. From these plastic tubs are pipes that go down to ground level with faucets. Everyone in the community goes to the faucet everyday and gets water for drinking, bathing, dishes and everything else. A lot of people have died because the environmental impact and destruction has caused acid rain contaminating the water used for all purposes. Because the environment has been so thoroughly trashed, respiratory problems and birth defects are plaguing the people as well. What’s most disturbing is how Shell takes advantage of Nigeria and acts in a completely different way than it does in the other countries that it drills oil in simply because the politicians are bribe-able. Peaceful attempts were made to call attention to the atrocities Shell is committing, including a non-violent protest with a quarter of a million people, but no responses were issued. This has prompted several rebel groups to use violence and kidnappings in order to call global attention to what is happening. This has caused the area to be very unstable and dangerous. The government fights against the rebels defending the oil companies and just this week killed 70 men fighting for Shell to acknowledge what they are doing to the Nigerian people. After talking to the NGO we drove about an hour to see the communities affected. What we saw was sickening. We saw huge fields of crops swimming in oil because of unfixed pipe leaks, as well as roads covered in oil. The worst part was a field full of oil because of a spill completely on fire. The smoke/pollution was billowing off like a volcano into a huge tower above the entire community. There were several of these fires. The smoke was as black and concentrated as the hearts of those who let this happen. We were able to walk right next to one of the fires. The air quality was so bad I couldn’t even stand it for the five minutes I was exposed to it. The hardest thing was that there was a house not even 20 feet away from the fire. There was a small toddler girl standing in front of the house. I struggle to grasp how humans can subject each other to that for money. Every human deserves the same rights. I ask every person here not to buy Shell or Mobil Oil ever again. The inconvenience it may cause you to drive to another gas station is nothing compared to the possible extinction of the people who live on the land that is being raped by Shell to provide us with the oil we are so addicted to. Being among those living the nightmare made me realize and consider how behind every tragedy heard on the news are the people who live it everyday. Right now, even though I am comfortably back in the U.S., this is still going on.
After leaving the fires my faith in humanity wasn’t faring well. But once again the love and spirit of the Nigerian people showed itself. After a somber drive we went to a secondary school to talk with the students about their lives. We were welcomed with a large reception including 100 or so students coming just to be with us even though they had already started summer holiday. At the reception there were welcome songs and dances performed by the students. Then they brought out a birthday cake for me and sang happy birthday. I was overwhelmed with the effort made for me by all the students of this school. The love and kindness showed to me at that school was the best birthday gift I could have asked for. At the end of the day I knew that the heart of life is good.
The next day we left for Ghana, on the way to the airport I smiled at a little girl standing on the side of the freeway. It was not surprising to see her because vendors walk down all the lanes of busy streets selling plantain chips, sods, boiled peanuts, rat poison, fabric and many other random things. As soon as I smiled at the little girl, she and her brother glued themselves to my window, put out their hands and asked for money. I really didn’t know what to do- I could rationalize either choice. I decided to give them the remainder of my naira (the Nigerian currency). I only had about 50 cents an when I gave it to them they were so ridiculously happy. They went skipping and running towards their parents with their arms, victorious in the ari. I thought of the Tolstoy quote, “ I shall not eat my own piece of bread until everyone has a piece of their own.” It seemed to sum up what I have to do with my life. Our culture has taught us that begging is wrong and unnecessary but seeing the smiles of the hungry children told me that nothing else matters but helping strengthen humanity through all the compassion and love possible.
Upon leaving Nigeria my overall impression was that it is a work in progress and I have northing but hope for the future.

Ghana and Nigeria are two very different countries. This is one message I want to emphasize. Africa is a massive continent with 53 countries, each with its own unique path and history. Ghana was also a British colong and the first African country to earn its independence. Ghana earned independence under the leadership of its first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah took his power and did many good things for Ghana. But her, like many other African leaders, took advantage of the power and essentially became a relatively benevolent dictator. He was eventually overthrown by a coup d’tat leading Ghana into military rule before eventually becoming the stable democracy it is today. Ghana and South Africa are the two most developed nations in sub-saharan Africa. 94% of people in Ghana still live in rural areas and 80% still work in subsistence and commercial farming. Education is free up until High School and it is estimated that 80% of children attend school. Ghana is also one of the few nations on its way to meeting the millennium development goals established by the U.N.
From these figures you can see the future of Ghana is bright. However, commercial amounts of oil have recently been discovered. All eyes are on Ghana to see if the curse of the Black Gold will plague them as it has Nigeria.
The first city we went to was the very developed city of Accra, the capital. Unlike Nigeria, Ghana is a very tourist friendly country.
One of the highlights of our week and a half in Ghana was a home stay we did in a village outside of Kumasi. When we arrived in the village, about 50 people including adults, children, drummers, singers, dancers as well as all of the chiefs and the local king came to the equivalent of a “city hall” to host an entire ceremony to welcome us. First there was drumming for the entrance of the king. A lot of the chiefs did their own dance in the center of the courtyard. There was a welcome speech an we learned about how the sovreighnty of the chiefs and local government is respected by the federal government. By far the best part of the event was when everyone got up including all of us and danced to a powerful drumming and singing group. The energy surrounding the group was powerful making me feel invigorated and full of life. We danced for 20 minutes with the locals under the raining sky.
There were two other experiences in Ghana that touched me profoundly. The first was a visit to an Orphanage. It was located an hour outside of the medium sized city of Kumasi. The combined school/orphanage consisted of 4 open rooms and a kitchen. The rooms were very small and packed tight with bunk beds. 12 girls slept in a room smaller than mine at home. The kitchen consisted of pot and pans and dishes sitting on the floor in a room. While there I taught a group of boys some games like Simon Says and we played hide and seek and hung out. Once again I asked the kids if they were happy, they said Yes and I could see it in their faces and eyes that it was true. One particular boy- Fatowa- who was eleven years old clung to me the whole time. He was so sweet and he had such a beautiful smile. He had been at the orphanage since he was 5. What touched me the most was how much he needed love. I loved giving it to him and I felt like he was my younger brother. I thought about what it would be like not to have my parents and I couldn’t imagine being as happy and kind as the kids were.
The second experience was visiting a Non-Governmental organization- Assemblies of God, Ghana Relief and Development services- lifeline project. The purpose of the organization is to take women and children off the streets. It takes homeless/struggling girls ages 15-1 and trains them with job skills such as sewing, cooking, hair, nails and tie-dye. These are girls of the slums who can’t afford secondary school. It also provides daycare for the working mothers of a shanty-town nearby. The children would have otherwise been left in the shanty towns all day by themselves. The facility had about 300 toddlers and young children with 6 teachers. Although it was chaos, the kids were still getting pre-school education and two meals a day. Being bombarded with kids wanting to hug me and seeing the joy in their faces really affected me. I was taking pictures and the flash of my camera went off. About 20 kids all started shouting with excitement and I saw the happiest faces I have ever seen, simply because of the flash of my camera. I want nothing more than to work with kids abroad. These children were in the worst place in society- born into poverty, but potentially saved by this NGO. I had an overwhelming happiness at the beautiful souls of the kids.

When I reflect on what I got out of this experience I know that I will never be the same. I am inspired to go back and work with NGOs and work with children. When I think back on Ghana and Nigeria I will think of beautiful life. The faces and people I saw were full of life. While in Nigeria I was talking to a local about suicide. He told me that people here would never commit suicide bcause nothing is more precious or loved than the gift of life. They said suicide rate are almost non-existant. No matter how materially poor and struggling someone is, there is still happiness and joy in their life through their community and family. I do not want their happiness to justify inaction in response to poverty, but as a catalyst. Just because people are happy does not mean they don’t deserve to live lives with the threat of starvation or disease. The people who love life have the right to live just as much as any other human. You do not have to travel the world to make a difference. Just take every moment you can to embrace those around you and treat everyone you meet with the love that every human needs and deserves.