Farewell to Nigeria

Well, my friends, here you have it. So Much World, So Little Time has landed back in the US of A. If I can do some early-morning lounging in a comfy bed in my good friends’ George & Pierre’s beachside bungalow in Venice, enjoying streaming KRNN on the headphones and uploading photos to the blog via WiFi, then it seems to suggest I’m no longer in one of the developing-world towns I’ve lately been calling home. You’ll note, in the non-italic text below, that I wrote it about three weeks ago while sitting in Hong Kong en route to China; as you can guess, all this travelling I’ve done in the month (wow! yes – it was EXACTLY one month ago that I left PH, the 9th of May…) has left me quite exhausted and rather mentally whiplashed, coming as it did after a fulfilling and hard-working eight+ months in Port Harcourt. (I hit four continents in less than four weeks and averaged about two hours per day airborne – not counting terminal time and gate-but-not-yet-airborne time — over that period…) I know the sequence of these shots may seem off to some people – after all, I went to China after I left PH. But it simply does not seem right to let these wonderful shots that bring the PH & Nigeria era of this blog to an end, come after the photos of China, which though impressive and important represent only a couple weeks of my life, rather than the investment of time and mental energy I made, and was well rewarded for in experience and enjoyment, in Nigeria. So…herewith, SMW, SLT presents some final shots and thoughts from Nigeria…and Paris….and China. J Don’t expect to see much more on here for quite some time to come. I’ll be helping Mom with this house-reconstruction project, so am unlikely to have many experiences that merit the SMW, SLT treatment. (Though life often surprises me.) Take care…and though I’ve said it before I shall say it again: you all – and you KNOW who you are – are the most wonderful group of friends and family and supporters that anyone doing what I do could ever dream of having, in fact far more wonderful than I or anyone has any right to even dream of.

It feels well-nigh trite to say of Nigeria that it’s the people that make it great, and a wonderful place to spend some time working. Photos of African children looking happy are standard fare in tour books and tourists’ photo albums the world over, so it’s truly with some trepidation that I present these portraits for your enjoyment. But it’s all altogether too true. Relaxing (what the Nigerians would call vacating, cognate of ‘vacation’) at my desk in Los Angeles last summer, I read with some trepidation the stories of violence, crime and near-anarchy in Port Harcourt, Lagos and other parts of Nigeria. While excellent books like This House Has Fallen present very good portraits of Nigeria, they are by nature geared toward the dramatic. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that most of the time life somehow manages to go on in most places, in usually rather undramatic and mundane ways.

In point of fact, Nigeria rocks and its people rock even more. Sure, it’s messed up and full of corruption, and no Nigerian will deny it. Heck, even the politicians admit it; they’ll just say it’s all the other politicians who’re corrupt and not them! 🙂 I find this in many ways more palatable than the US, where so far as I can see everything about our foreign and domestic policy since the ascension of Shrub George II has been all about how best to enrich the companies in whose shares his friends have invested…while the folks in Kansas and Texas still seem to think he’s trying to keep Americans safe. Yeah, whatever. And this has involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and around the world, while all Nigeria’s troubles have done so far is mess up Nigeria…oh yeah, and raise the price of oil even higher, which is the only time the developed world (and especially Americans) ever seems to notice Nigeria. But don’t misunderstand me to be suggesting that you head off on vacation to Nigeria any time soon – one colleague says, of Senegal (one of the more tourist-friendly countries in West Africa, one is given to understand), that ‘it’ll be a while before tourism here is really enjoyable for the tourists.’ This is even more true of Nigeria: if you get to work there, it’s great. I wouldn’t go there as a tourist any time soon.

Still and all, I’d certainly be delighted to work again in Nigeria, with Nigerians. A colleague – pardon me if I’ve mentioned this before in these pages, but I do love the quote – says he describes his experience in Nigeria as ‘a minimum security prison with a work release program.’ He adds that he loved it – one of the most enjoyable and engaging jobs he’s had, at least with MSF. I fully concur. Yet another said that Port Harcourt presented in many ways the most unattractive surroundings in which he’d worked – but that the work and hospital presented the most enjoyable and engaging work he’d done; another statement with which I quite concur. And that’s always it with MSF – it takes me to these crazy places, far from potential dates or even potential bean & cheese burritos, where I run a bit more daily risk than when I’m walking down the streets of San Francisco or London…but where the things I get to learn, the work I get to do and the people I get to meet just hands-down beat anything else I’m likely to have a chance to do at this point in my life.

When I was sent to China more than three years ago on my first MSF assignment, I remembered with some worry all those things I hadn’t loved about China, Taiwan and the Chinese in the 1980s – noisy, nosy, brash, often olfactorily dense (that’s a politically-correct way of saying things and even people often have very strong odors in China, something to which we Americans tend to react very adversely), etc. But I’d forgotten all the things I love about China and the Chinese – fascinating, culturally rich, often open and very friendly, full of surprises. MSF seems to keep sending me to these superlative countries – most populous in the world, most populous in Africa, etc. And of course I grew up in another superlative — biggest economy, most populous outside Asia, most fucked-up of the major economies, etc. Whether from these roots or from some other aspect of my personality, this seems to work for me: I end up loving these big, loud countries. I dream of vacations and retirement in Iceland , Ireland and New Zealand (places I picture as quiet, peaceful, clean, unpolluted, green…), but I seem to thrive when my work takes me their diametric opposite.

…And, below, a bunch of shots of me and the team out and about around PH and the creeks spreading the word about our trauma clinic and services for victims of violence & sexual violence.

Above & below – this is more or less in the heart of PH, in a section that borders the creeks…obviously. Seen from this perspective, kinda hard to conceive that it’s a 3-million inhabitant city that’s by far the largest city in the Niger Delta, which houses the world’s eighth-largest identified reserves of petroleum, huh?

Better late than never may be a good motto in the case of these photos. It’s a gray and somewhat drizzly Wednesday afternoon in Hong Kong as I write this, and Nigeria and my dense and rich experiences there during more than eight months seem a world or maybe a lifetime away already. Two weeks ago I was still in the swing of handing over to my replacement in Port Harcourt; a week ago I innocently expected to be back in NYC the following night after a few days of helpful debriefing in Paris. Right now I was supposed to be in Oberlin, getting ready for the weekend’s 100th anniversary festivities for Shansi (www.oberlin.edu/shansi for the uninitiated) and enjoying a slight break before taking up the home-reconstruction project for my mother. But – well, the earthquake in China happened and it seemed a good idea for someone with my experience of China and knowledge of the language to be available to help the team that’s ascertaining how and whether MSF can do more than we already have (www.msf.org for those stories) to support populations affected by the earthquake in Sichuan. It strikes me that the contrast between China‘s official response to the earthquake – massive, swift, and generally quite thorough – and that of the junta in Myanmar to the destruction in the Iriwaddy Delta could hardly be more stark. Perhaps this means I’ll get to be home sooner rather than later, after all. But I’ve learned, again, that the future is unpredictable and often surprising. May we all experience surprises more pleasant than unpleasant in the coming months.

Empty market stalls on a non-market day in Oil Mill Market, where we frequently went on outreach to spread the word of our free-of-charge services for victims of violence & sexual violence. Below: a tree full of swallows’ nests in a creekside part of PH, and some of our outreach team posing with the local snack-stand manager in Abonnema, who it turns out happens to be the mother of two of our staff members. I remember my American friends all thinking I was crazy to go to Nigeria, and I remember my own worries; indeed, there is violence and there is danger there, as there is almost anywhere, but when we got into some of the smaller towns, again and again we found patients who’d been to us and welcomes our services, and/or friends and relatives of our own colleagues, if not our colleagues themselves on their days off. (On the day of this outreach, we were helped by one guy who happened to be in the market there in Abonnema, and just naturally grabbed some fliers and started helping out even though it was his day off.)

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