Saturday, August 20, 2011

Back on African soil!

For those of you who don't know, I'm currently on an adventure in Africa to tie up loose ends of my soap making project, to see what else can be done, and to travel to some countries I didn't quite get the chance to see last year. I have a travel companion, Rachael Estess, whom I met on my first trip to Kenya as an Intern with ThinkImpact. She and I will be in Kayafungo together, her working on a poultry project in which the women will raise chickens as an income generating component, and myself to see how Grace is doing, as well as how the Muungano Soap Business is going. We will be splitting our time between Kayafungo, and Mombasa, the beach town I lived in last year. We are staying with my friend Bryan in his new three bedroom house!

Currently, Rachael and I are in Lagos, Nigeria. We had a very uneventful flight to get here. But what has happened since we landed was far from that. The minute the plane touched down in Africa, the cabin was filled with cheers. Neither of us could quite figure out why until, we looked to the right and saw two broken and charred planes that had run off the tarmac. Needless to say we joined in the celebration. The planes had been there for what looked like years, but nonetheless we were grateful for our safe and breezy landing. During our wait in line for customs, we met two Scottish men who were drunk from their flight. They caused quite a less than entertaining show, between making crude and racist jokes, and scaring me about not having my yellow fever vaccination card (just another thing that was in my wallet!) Rach and I were quite ready to get out of line, which we did eventually to only meet our next lovely experience.

Cynthia, the woman who we are staying with, and whom Rachael met at a leadership conference in Florida, met us just by baggage claim. We got a trolley and started to look for our bags, two of which were in a roped off area being manned by an airport personnel agent. We went to grab our bags and they of course wanted to see our baggage claim slips. We promptly pulled them out, and the man began to tell us that since it was a flight based from the US that we had to leave the bags with them overnight in the office, as they are cargo. Well Cynthia lost it. She was livid. She started to cause a scene, and got other officials involved in the situation. Eventually it got sorted out and we left with our personal effects. They basically wanted it because we are American and wanted to pillage through our belongings to see if we had anything good- all items were accounted for- nothing was missing.

So we go outside and try to meet up with the car which was typical African style, organized chaos. We eventually get in the car and merge into the bobbing and weaving traffic, which I feel comfortable in even though its like a death trap- how easily we fall back into the familiar. The driver takes us to Cynthia’s office and we see her new storefront for her chicken business and pick her bags, as she has a speech to make in Rwanda this week. We get back in the car, meet Cynthia’s godfather, then continue driving to go to the Island. The Island is where we are to be staying and where Cynthia’s foster Dad and family lives.

The lsand is more and less than Rachael and I expected. The Island is not a sandy beach style resort, but a cosmopolitan, metropolis of Lagos. It is referred to as the Island, as people refer to Manhattan in the States. So needless to say I am not staying at the beach, however, where we are staying is extremely nice. Cynthia’s Papa, Emeka, works for Exon Mobile, and owns a house in a gated community. It is like falling into suburbia here in Nigeria. Its unbelievable from the vaulted ceilings, carpet, refrigerator, espresso machine, piano to the heated water, and the huge HD plasma TV, that we’ve been watching episodes of True Blood on. It’s unbelievable. The house next door belongs to Cynthia’s uncle Dayo, who is a pilot for Exon Mobile and is full of great stories, and good advice- such as how to survive a plane crash or make it out of a hotel alive. He’s corky and hilarious. Now mind you, this is not how the typical Nigerian lives.

During our tour of the Island, we went to the Bar beach- which no did not have bars on it, nor did it have a lot of sand or sunbathers- it was more a concrete board walk- that the government put in to modernize the city. What really happened was that it created a different tide current, effecting wildlife and pulling the sand away from the beach. Now the government has to dump sand at the beach to build it back up. We saw people drinking hooch, selling fried smoked fish (think fish jerky), shell bracelets and many homeless living on the beach. This is a quick dose of how different the class level is here, and how tangible how large the wealth divide is. After the beach we went and got gelato from Royal Chocolate, a dessert place with about 40 flavors of gelato, tons of cakes, and sweets. It was extremely refreshing after the hot sun. We drove around Victoria Island with is one of the many islands that makes up Lagos. Then ventured to Banana Island where the elite and extremely wealthy live. We saw the house of the Nigerian tyrant and drug deal, Abach, who is known for being extremely frugal but lavishly spends on himself. He even had gold reindeer in front of his house coming out of a fountain. The next stop was back home to have dinner.

Nigerians follow a typical African diet, one of which vegetables and meat is put with a staple in some sort of way. The staples include yams, plantains, rice, beans and corn. This is great news for me as it is naturally gluten free. The only time this is a problem is during breakfast, as Nigeria was colonized by the British who like cakes, bread and tea for breakfast—hello gluten. So after a bit of explanation, we’ve had eggs, yogurt and sausage for breakfast. Our first dinner was a spicier than hell chicken rice and vegetable dish. Very good, but left my lips on fire the rest of the night. Our second nights dinner was a very traditional Nigerian dish--- blended okra with fish, prawns, crab and meat, which created this slimly green soup- that looks like alega and smelled like open sewer. It was served with yams that were pounded into flour and made into a paste with a similar consistency to mashed potatoes that had congealed—I think the Nigerian version of Ugali. All of course that had a peppery bite to it that made your mouth water, eyes explode and nose run with a power Tylenol cold could do nothing for. Obviously, I loved it and it was delicious (*insert sarcasm). Rach and I went to bed a bit hungry that night. Our lunch on day three was amazing and totally made up for the previous night’s sludge. It was a vegetable salad and soup that were both spicy but amazing. We each had seconds. Dinner tonight was shepard’s pie- which is a layer of mashed potatoes then vegetables and meat (lamb tonight) piled on top of it then covered with a layer of mashed potatoes and cheese then baked. SO GOOD! Nigerians use peppers for everything, so tonight was spicy but heavenly. I’m stuffed to the brim.

Things have been slow moving and relaxing as the jetlag has really taken me into its clutches, and because Cynthia is speaking at the Rwandan’s first lady’s leadership summit this week. She will be home on Saturday morning and we will begin our research and purpose for being here. She has a lot planned for us. So for now it is episodes of True Blood on the HD TV that runs on the generator when the electricity goes out- a common problem here in Nigeria --- and hello all of Africa, going to the Black Diamond Hotel, which puts up the Exon Mobile employees, one of the newest hotels and well basically just resting until the weekend comes.

Last night we went to a Jazz and Barbeque night at this nicer restaurant in Lagos. Uncle Dayo knew the woman who owns the restaurant, so Teme, Cynthia’s cousin- who is 16 and provides such an insight into teenage life in other countries, Rach and I went to dinner. When we walked in I could swear we were seated at Bravo outside. It was surreal. The chicken and chips (French fries) were delectable, but of course spicy! The BBQ pit was outside, kind of like a charcoal grill made out of a huge barrel cut in half and on a stand. Good times, excellent music, and nice conversation. Uncle Dayo and Teme are so fun to listen too!

It has been mentally and emotionally rich living with a Nigerian family, even if we aren’t doing anything in particular. It is interesting to get to know another culture, especially without the language barrier that is such a challenge in Kenya. They speak a mixture of British English, American English and pidgin, which for the nerdy English major in me is a fun side linguistic project all on its own. I’m really enjoying myself. I can picture having a home in this neighborhood. I get how people can live in Africa and have a Westernized life- yet at the same time I realize that this is not a cheap token. To have a life like this, you have to have a high paying job. Better start looking for a job that pays! Lately, Rachael, Emeka and I been discussing a variety of topics, including politics, development work, movies, university, family and books- we literally talked for a half hour about the series Game of Thrones. I’m shocked and pleasantly surprised that I’m halfway around the world and having the same conversations that I’d be having at home with people. This transition to Africa has been smooth, euphoric in some ways!