Tuesday, June 16, 2009

cultural exchange

By Lauren Biggers

i know you have missed me... sorry for the delay. yesterday was a travel day for us, as we moved from benin city to lagos (which is INSANE). morgan is writing about today (friday), as well, so keep reading...

I’ve been playing blog editor all week, organizing who is writing about what and when, and all of a sudden it’s our last day in benin. I have loved getting other people to write a blog (as I take a lot of heat for my pet projects), but I haven’t had the chance to write since we arrived! Sad.

I hope you are enjoying reading about our experiences (adventure! adventure!! adventure!!!... Nigerian advertising using a lot of progressive exclamation points, and well, I like exclamation points), almost as much as we are enjoying experiencing them. We will lose our computer today, so generously loaned by andrew’s friend moses, so I cannot promise that we will be able to write more until our return. Hopefully we can find an internet cafĂ© in lagos, where we travel tonight at 6 p.m. local time. Either way, please keep checking back, as I’m hoping the team will write final thoughts upon our return, and post pictures! (! !! !!!)

I’ve given myself the task of writing about Thursday, which included a visit to a local orphanage and a trade school associated with it, as well as a (HUGE) lunch at pastor ben’s (andrew’s pastor) house. Our day began with the usual wake up call. Despite being in a suite, we receive two individual phone calls, saying ‘moooorning. pro health… time for prayer.’ For the first time on the trip, I am not thinking of killing the person on the other end of the line, and we didn’t immediately crawl back in bed, as I seem to be adjusting to the early waking. I’m highly doubting I will take this habit home.

After prayer and breakfast, we board our bus to visit the orphanage, picking up pastor ben along the way. The orphanage, run by an amazing woman who must be in her 80s, houses 25 children from probably a year old up to 23 years old. The school –aged children are not around, and the babies were sleeping. This is probably for the best for me. I love talking with the people, but there is something about the children that really touches my heart. How much more the orphaned children. i am becoming more Angelina-jolie like by the minute.

We have spent a great deal of the week making sure pastor ben and his church are equipped to handle the shipment of shoes and the distribution when the container is finally released, so it is especially touching to hear him explain the mission of the organization, promising his return with shoes for all of the children. it is a great experience for us to serve the people of Nigeria, but it is even more special for the people of Nigeria to serve the people of Nigeria.

We do have shoes for the orphanage’s volunteers, about 15 of them, so we spend some time finding the perfect pairs for the ladies, replacing their worn out leather flip flops with brand-new tennis shoes. a brand-new pair of tennis shoes transcends all cultural boundaries, and no matter how many feet you wash, there is still something very intimate about the process.

Afterwards we are joined by some of the volunteers and escorted to a trade school associated with the orphanage, where the local people learn all sorts of vocations – welding, sewing, cake decorating, hairdressing. Morgan, molly and I buy necklaces from some of the ladies.

As you can imagine, we cause quite a scene wherever we go, as I think morgan mentioned before. (you wouldn’t believe the camera phones! It’s like Stephen curry goes to Nigeria.) Did she mention that we also travel with a security detail, taking a pair of armed guards with us at all times, keeping us and our shoes safe from harm? At first they were very standoffish, but we have succeeded in friending them. The first day we brought them along was cloudy, deemed by one of our team members ‘perfect for shooting.’ That elicited some sideways stares from our guards, clutching semi-automatics. But today, I was playing with a baby at the orphanage and lost track of time. I heard the typical ‘pssssssh psssssh,’ as I was summoned to the bus by the guard.

After boarding and unboarding the bus (we weighed it down too much to make it out of the driveway without getting stuck… too much chicken and rice), we left the trade school and drove into the palace complex. Morgan and I are natural learners, so this is an interesting thing to see – the people waiting to have the government hear their disputes, mostly about land succession. We are very curious about the culture, to the point where we nearly annoy frank and Andrew on a daily basis.

In the afternoon, we are treated to lunch and a time of fellowship at pastor ben’s house, where we are greeted by andrew’s family and some of the volunteers from the church. This is probably the fourth or fifth occasion we have been able to spend a significant amount of time with them, which makes saying our goodbyes even harder. After we toast to our new friends and eat multiple helpings of traditional Nigerian food (when you put your fork down, your plate is taken and you are given a clean plate and sent back to the kitchen for more. No thanks is not an option), andrew’s brother-in-law teaches us a gospel song in the local dialect. Frank wrote about my struggles with the clapping and singing, and I wish he were exaggerating, but I cannot tell a lie. I cannot conquer the Nigerian rhythm, much to everyone’s amusement. This church family has been more hospitable than they should, packing food for us to take, treating us to cake and ice cream, and giving us bronze-casted gifts, one of the most traditional crafts.

When we arrive back at the hotel, we find they have delivered the Nigerian outfits they measured us for the day we arrived (theme party?!). Moses has arrived, and his girlfriend, I-Y (I cannot spell it, this is how we were instructed phonetically to pronounce it) agrees to the task of tying morgan, molly and my head wraps. Friday is the final day of the project for pro health, and they hold a closing ceremony called ‘first timers night.’ Naturally, our whole team shows up wearing our Nigerian outfits. Naturally, we are a huge hit. if we thought we had taken pictures earlier in the week, we could not have prepared for the amount of picture requests these outfits inspire. Sitting with morgan and Andrew, both dressed in Nigerian clothes, in the dining hall of the hotel, I can’t help but wonder aloud, ‘how did we get here?’

But we did, and we have had a blast. Andrew acts as one of the emcees for the evening, and molly is called on stage to answer the question, ‘what are five things you have learned about Nigeria on this trip?’ her answers include: African time is very different than American time (by about three hours), and the water bottles are extremely full here. Our whole group performs the song that we learned earlier in the day, and I play a part in a drama, after being asked to do so earlier in the week. I think it was my performance of ‘happy birthday’ to a volunteer in front of the group (there is no end to my humiliation it seems) that inspired my invitation into the drama club. If you got it, you got it.

The night finishes with more pictures and more dancing, as we spend one final night of fellowship with our new Nigerian friends. Today is our last day in benin, and we are off to distribute, hopefully, the remainder of our shoes at the hospital where the pro health group is holding its free clinic.

the power just went off again, and I didn’t even blink. breakfast is over, and my suite has been invaded by Andrew and frank (who posted below as well!), again, so I’ve lost my quiet time for reflection. Time for another Nigerian culture lesson. ;)

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