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Transformation & Volunteering Abroad

Nigeria, the cost of transformation

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Paulo Friere

March 2006 - I was invited by two non-profit Nigerian NGO’s, Youth for Technology and Teen World, to work on media literacy projects with children and teens in several urban and rural schools in Nigeria.  Of all the locations I have visited overseas, Nigeria has had the most lasting impact.  My experience in the most populated and poverty stricken country in Africa left me wondering how I understand what we in the West recognize as a school and teaching.  I do not believe that my colleagues back home would recognize the environments I worked in as a school understand schooling in Nigeria, it is important to have a sense of the larger setting in which the schools are situated.

Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa.  It is also one of the poorest.  Most people live on less than $2 a day. I visited at least half a dozen schools, some in large cities such as Lagos and others in small villages like Owerri.  Driving from one location to another, sometimes on the same day, took hours through streets that were either paved and pot holed or hardened red mud.  Vehicles of all sorts, from large trucks to whole families seated on one scooter, clogged the streets.  Obedience to traffic regulations are for the most part ignored. 

On one eight-hour drive to a school traffic was not the most exasperating but rather what occurred along the way.  We were stopped numerous times by several policemen in black uniforms, each carrying a large baton and an AK-47 weapon.  While I had similar experiences in Palestine the image of the policeman and the crude roadblocks, which was really nothing more than scrap metal and wood arranged like a small maze, made for a more ominous experience.  Being in a hurry to get to the next school before dark, which we did not accomplish, my traveling companions decided that they would not stop at each roadblock but rather merely slow down, wave their identity cards at the policeman and step on the accelerator.  Of course I had no such card.  At each roadblock policeman yelled at us to stop, often raising their batons and sometimes their AK-47’s.  Sitting in the back seat I looked back to see on more than one occasion watching the police raise their weapons, though luckily I assume it was more of intended to frighten than actually fire.  Regardless, I was frightened.  But somehow we made it to the next school without any real incidents.   I was later told that I probably was the reason they thought better about actually firing since fatal incidents with ‘internationals’ such as myself would require a lot of explanation on their part with the Nigerian authorities.  Truth is police in Nigeria as in other parts of Africa I have visited stop cars and buses in order to receive bribes

The school I was taken to was really not much more than large rough stone blocks covered by tin roofs.  Literally hundreds of children sat huddled three to a desk, made in most cases from scrap wooden boards. Few of the children had paper or pencils.  For the most part the only light came from the glassless openings in the wall, which served as ‘windows’. Dust poured in through the windows. Instruction was nothing more that ‘chalk and talk’, repetition and rote learning, what Freire (2005) called “banking education” (p. 72) in which the teachers is the depositor and the students are the depositories (p. 72). 

Formal discussions with Nigerian teachers and other educators demonstrated their dedication and their belief in the value of youth and education.  But I could not help that they also expressed feelings of being overwhelmed.  Perhaps I am being too harsh but I cannot help but think of Nigerian schools as places of struggle.  

Nigeria for a month, a rather short period of time that seemed much longer.  By the end of my stay in Nigeria I found myself both emotionally and physically exhausted and felt a sense of relief when I boarded the plane home.  In fact, during my first week home I declined to describe or speak of my experiences in Nigeria, even to family. I learned a lot about myself in Nigeria. I learned that I was naive. I was naïve in that I felt my previous experiences in Palestine and other parts of the Middle East had prepared me for what I would encounter in Nigeria. I had yet to learn that I was not as experienced as I assumed. Nigeria taught me that not only was I naïve, but also that I if I am to continue working in places of extreme poverty and despair, I will have to find ways of controlling the emotional impact such scenes have upon me.

I learned in Nigeria that my personal transformation personally and professionally comes at a cost, which if I am to continue volunteering in settings dominated by inequality and despair, will require that I find the currency within myself.  On the one hand Nigeria made me conscious of the fact that my volunteerism is exciting and at the same time can be exhausting.