Nigeria, Day 2: Trust and Travel

My last post stirred up concern and sympathy among friends and family, which felt reassuring on the one hand and a bit embarrassing on the other. If you’re in a position where you can have a bad experience, then immediately find sympathetic ears from worried friends and colleagues both on the ground and over the Internet, then you’re really not in a bad place. I pulled out my camera last night at dinner, and Fatima, who works with Judith Walker at dRPC and who’s been taking care of us, teased, “You can take as many pictures as you want here, and we won’t take your camera away!”    (N09)

The truth of the matter is, my travel experiences — both now and in Ethiopia and India — have been mightily skewed by the fact that (a) I’ve had trusted locals in each place who have embraced and taken care of me; and (b) I’ve stayed in the equivalent of luxury hotels everywhere I’ve gone. When I returned from India and Ethiopia, I told people that if I had to go back a second time, I’d be completely useless because my hosts took such great care of me, I didn’t have to do anything. Even when I’ve spent time with villagers in extremely rural conditions, I’ve always returned to a hotel with running water and, in several cases, Internet. High-bandwidth Internet is a huge, huge luxury in many of the countries I’ve been working in, particularly Nigeria, and I’ve had good enough access here to Twitter regularly. Roughing it I am not.    (N0A)

There are two levels of challenges when visiting a developing country. The first has to do with base-level needs. If you’re intimidated by poor plumbing and strange foods, you’re not going to have a good time. I’m staying at the Tahir Hotel here in Kano, which is where Madeline Albright stayed when she visited. (Magdalena Lopez is staying in the room Albright stayed in, her prize for having arrived first.) While the service and security here has been first class, the quality of the lodgings has been about equivalent to a decent, but not great hotel in a developed country. The water pressure is very low, the hot water doesn’t work, the toilets don’t take toilet paper, and the power goes out often. These are all functions of the infrastructural challenges of the location and don’t reflect on the hotel itself. We still have it a million times better than most people here in Kano.    (N0B)

If you can deal with the rougher living conditions, then the main challenge in developing countries is finding people you can trust. You can see this right when you exit the airport, when you are bombarded with people offering to help you, the vast majority of whom are looking to scam you. How are you supposed to filter through all of these offers and find someone trustworthy? There are plenty of scam artists in most large cities, but in the States, you can be fairly certain that cabbies aren’t going to rip you off (too badly) or that security isn’t going to solicit a bribe by stealing your camera.    (N0C)

In Nigeria, people in the know don’t exchange their currency at banks. Thieves hang out there, looking to rob newly weighed down patrons, not to mention the thieves inside the bank who rip you off with poor exchange rates. People in the know have a “guy.” (We met ours in front of a Chinese restaurant on the streets of Kano, negotiated a great rate, did our business, and moved on without ever leaving our car.) There are, of course, no directories of trusted “guys,” at least none that I’m aware of. Choose badly, and you could end up with a handful of counterfeit money. Or worse.    (N0D)

https://i0.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3127/2605947618_4e9b44a087_m.jpg?w=700    (N0O)

Haddis Mulugeta told me that, up until about ten years ago, people took it for granted that they would need to include a bribe inside their passport in order to gain entry into Nigeria. Stuff like this is what makes travel hard in these countries. You have to build trust to operate; you can’t trust the formal institutions. In developed countries, trust is institutionalized.    (N0E)

What’s sad and bad is that these challenges have a way of coloring one’s attitude about the people, which is totally wrong. Internationally, Nigerians have a reputation for scams and running drugs. However, letting this affect your judgement of the people as a whole is like saying that all Arabs are terrorists or that all Americans are ignorant and arrogant. I’ve heard nasty stories about muggings and shootings, especially near the Niger Delta. Well, I grew up in a safe neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles, and the guy living across the street from us got shot in his own home. It happens. I’ve spent time in cities all over the world, but I’ve only been mugged once in my life, and that was at the Newark Airport. Based on my experiences, I might argue that New Jersey is the scariest place on Earth. That happens to be true, but in most cases, generalizing like this is really stupid.    (N0F)

I had a rough start to my trip, but I had a great first day here, and I’m starting to get excited. I got to see a bit of Kano, and I learned a few words in Hausa. More importantly, I’m around amazing people.    (N0G)

Of course, the one thing that is guaranteed to get me excited is the food. At lunch today, Cheryl Francisconi told Judith Walker, our host, that I want nothing less than the authentic, local experience. Judith turned to me and asked with some surprise and delight, “Are you okay with cow tails?” Uh, yeah. If you’ve never had my Mom’s ox tail soup, then you haven’t lived. It turns out that Kamyla Marvi is also an adventurous eater, and Cheryl is no slouch herself, so this is going to be fun. I don’t know exactly what Judith and Fatima have in store for us, but I heard the words “goat’s head” and “brain” bandied about, so they’re not fooling around.    (N0H)

Nervous in Nigeria

My project with the LDM program for reproductive health leaders in developing countries took me to India and Ethiopia in March, and today, it has taken me to Kano, Nigeria. I arrived here safe-and-sound, although I had a somewhat traumatizing run-in with security at the airport in Abuja. More on this in a sec.    (MYX)

I’m here to meet with the in-country managers of the project’s participating countries. I’ll get to see Cheryl Francisconi, Sanjay Pandey, and Haddis Mulugeta again, and I’ll be meeting Judith Ann Walker, Kamyla Marvi, and Magdalena Lopez in the flesh for the first time. I came here with Adam Thompson from GIIP, who’s been working on the technology side of the project, and Scott Reed, who’s also with GIIP.    (MYY)

Strangely enough, I’m more nervous about this trip than I was about my previous one. You would think that my previous experiences, which were overwhelmingly positive, would have made me a hardened, confident traveler. But the vibe leading up to this trip has been much different.    (MYZ)

One of my best and oldest friends, Gbenga Ajilore, is Nigerian. So is one of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Ade Mabogunje. I spoke with both of them before the trip, and they were excited about me coming here. The reaction from other friends and colleagues was quite the opposite. Most of the non-Nigerian Africans I spoke to do not think highly of Nigerians for reasons that I don’t quite understand. Several of my well-traveled friends had horror stories to share, although none of them had actually visited here. Cheryl is the most fearless and experienced traveler I know, and even she had some scary stories.    (MZ0)

On the plane ride over, I read a report written by Adam’s boss at GIIP, Paul Lubeck, who has researched this country for 30 years. It’s about how the U.S. has a strong interest in West Africa and particularly Nigeria because of the oil there. Nigeria provides 10-12 percent of U.S. oil imports, and that number is expected to grow significantly. The bad news is that Nigeria is a volatile country as it is, and the demand for oil is only making it worse. Corruption is rampant, and violence is widespread. Predictably, U.S. policy over the past seven years has only worsened the situation.    (MZ1)

You can see why I was nervous. But on the plane today, I was mostly just tired. We arrived safely in Abuja on a stopover to Kano, and they asked us to deplane. While in the waiting area, I decided to snap a picture of Adam and Scott.    (MZ2)

Out of nowhere, a stocky man dressed in a white dashiki grabbed my camera in my hand, and exclaimed, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Come with me!” I thought this guy was nuts. “What are you doing?” I responded, increasing my hold on my camera and looking around for help. As far as I could tell, everyone was doing an excellent job of pretending nothing was happening.    (MZ3)

My reaction just agitated the man, who kept insisting that I come with him and who said that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I kept my cool, but I also kept my grip, and I insisted a number of times that he tell me who he was and show me some identification. “I don’t have to show you anything!” he barked. “Come with me!”    (MZ4)

He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck, which was obscured by his arms. I wasn’t making the situation better, so I decided to go with him. Both of us continued to hold onto the camera. Every time I saw someone in uniform, I explained to them what this strange man had done. Enough people said that I needed to follow this guy that I continued to cooperate, but I was not going to let go of my camera, and I wasn’t going to shut up.    (MZ5)

Eventually, we ran into two official looking men who asked me why I was taking pictures. “I was just taking pictures of my friends,” I explained to them, showing them the pictures.    (MZ6)

“Why would anyone take pictures in an airport? What were you doing?”    (MZ7)

I explained to them that I had no idea this was not allowed, and that I took pictures in airports all the time. The security guy then claimed I tried to fight him, which infuriated me. Still, I kept my cool. “Why were you harassing this man?” they asked me.    (MZ8)

“I wasn’t harassing anyone. What would you do if a strange man came out of nowhere and just grabbed your camera?”    (MZ9)

“Why didn’t you ask for ID?”    (MZA)

“I asked several times, and he wouldn’t show me.”    (MZB)

The security guy then responded, “He never asked me for ID.”    (MZC)

I looked at him disgustedly, but I was surprisingly resigned. So this was how it was going to be. “I have a number of witnesses who can verify that I asked for his ID.”    (MZD)

I then explained, “Look, I’m not trying to cause any trouble. All I want to do is get back on my plane. I didn’t know this was a policy, and I was taken aback by how this man reacted. I will happily erase the pictures.”    (MZE)

The men agreed to that and told the security guy to take me back. I breathed a sigh of relief.    (MZF)

As we walked back to the room, the security guy turned to me and asked, “Why are you so arrogant?”    (MZG)

I couldn’t believe what he had just said, but again, I kept my cool. “I wasn’t being arrogant. I didn’t know the policy, and I had no idea you were anyone official. How would you have reacted if someone had come out of the blue and grabbed your camera? In any case, I’m sorry for any trouble that I caused.”    (MZH)

Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy him, and when we got back to the room, he held out his hand. I shook it, and that was that.    (MZI)

Scott and Adam looked relieved when I returned, and Scott observed that he would have just let the guy take the camera. If the circumstances had been different, I would have also, but we were surrounded by people, and he did have that badge (even though he wouldn’t show it to me). It happened to turn out for the best, but it was a good kick in the pants for me to stay on my toes while I’m here.    (MZJ)

A Brief Travel Update

I arrived in Addis Ababa this morning and am camped out at Sidama Lodge, a spacious and comfortable residential apartment just a few blocks from the IIE offices. I’ve got a few hours reprieve before meeting with the IIE staff here in Addis, then will hit the road once again for a few days to meet with the fellows here in Ethiopia.    (MX8)

I’ve showered and shaved, and as Philip Marlowe would say, I’m feeling almost human again. Actually, Marlowe would have had two cups of coffee before saying that. I haven’t had any coffee yet, even though it was offered, and Ethiopia is the coffee capital of the world. I’m not a coffee drinker, but coffee is an important part of the culture here, and I plan on imbibing frequently.    (MX9)

Internet access in the hotel is very good, which I find delightful, all the more because it irks Cheryl Francisconi, who has been waiting for months for me to experience the pain that is Internet connectivity here in Ethiopia. She has threatened to force me to spend a day using the Internet at her house, and I’m quite certain she means to follow through.    (MXA)

My net access has been poor to none this past week, which partially explains the lack of updates here. Although I’ve been taking copious notes and have several posts outlined, the reality is that even if Internet access had been good, I wouldn’t have posted much.    (MXB)

The experience so far has been incredible and overwhelming. I spent five intense days meeting with reproductive health leadership fellows, learning about their work and challenges and getting to know them as people. This alone would have been enough to put me out of commission for a week. Add to that the packed schedule, the long travel, and the many, many new experiences, and you can why I’m not quite up-to-date with my blog posts.    (MXC)

It will take me weeks to process everything I’ve experienced thus far. Some things are starting to hit me, though. While taking a long, hot shower this morning, I started thinking about what happened this past week, and I was overcome with emotion. I’m not going to go into a lot of details now. Maybe people will understand as I start posting the rest of my stories about India. But I’ll leave you with this teaser.    (MXD)

My thesis has always been that we, as a society, have collectively forgotten much of what we once knew about collaboration. We need to remember those things, and then we need to get even better at doing them if we’re to have any chance at grappling with the urgent, complex problems we’re facing today. The remembering process starts on the ground with small, diverse groups spread out across the world. It starts by tapping into their knowledge, identifying the common patterns, and sharing them widely with the rest of the world.    (MXE)

Ultimately, this remembering process is about revisiting what makes us fundamentally human. That experience can be quite jolting, especially for those of us who immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, often neglecting to deal with our overall well-being.    (MXF)

This past week, I was reminded over and over and over again of the things that make us human. It’s left me humble and moved.    (MXG)

My Internet access will be shaky again for the next few days, but I will post about India and my new experiences here in Ethiopia when I can. In the meantime, enjoy my pictures from India, which are almost up-to-date and which tell at least a small part of the story. I’ve also got some video, which I’ll upload when I’m back in the States.    (MXH)

Patna, Day One

I went to sleep exhausted and happy last night, and woke up five hours later. I’m not sure if I’m still jetlagged, or if my adrenaline is running on overdrive. No matter. These early mornings have been wonderful for reflection and resetting.    (MWY)

My original plan was to leave at 6am for the new resource center in Muzzafarpur. Last year, the LDM community here in India decided that having a physical space would really help them keep in touch with each other and share knowledge. They’re in the process of launching three of these, one here in Patna, one in Muzzafarpur, and one in Ranchi, where I’ll be heading later this afternoon. Muzzafarpur is a hub that leads to many places in the state of rural Bihar, which makes it an ideal location. I was going to get a feel for the area and the space itself.    (MWZ)

Muzzafarpur is about a two hour drive from here if traffic is good. Unfortunately, traffic has not been good, thanks to ongoing construction and generally horrible road conditions, and I need to be at the airport by early afternoon, so we decided to change plans. I’ll get a chance to visit the resource center in Ranchi tomorrow. It’s probably a blessing in disguise, because I’ll get to participate in the last day of the Patna workshop, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with the leaders here.    (MX0)

I feel lucky to be spending so much time in Bihar. It’s the poorest state here in India, with high crime rates and low education, a product of bad luck and leadership. 60 percent of the people here in Patna do not have toilets. Yet there’s an unmistakable vibrancy to this city. The poverty here is blatant, but not overwhelming. When I walked around North Philadelphia last year, I felt deflated, like all hope had been squeezed out long ago, and that was in a neighborhood that was supposedly turning around. Here, I feel alive. Maybe it’s because my experience here has been so sheltered, colored by the protective sheath of my guides. Maybe it’s because I’m spending so much time with such inspiring local leaders, people who are out in the field every day trying to make other people’s lives better, people who could have left long ago like so many others in their position, but stayed because this is their home, and they love it. Maybe it’s because there are some small signs of turnaround here in Patna and that a sense of optimism is slowly creeping in. Maybe it’s because the people here simply appreciate what it means to live.    (MX1)

Narendra Gupta and Cheryl Francisconi wanted to check out some Madhubani artwork, a regional specialty that consists of intricate line drawings and colors on canvas and cloth, so Sanjay Pandey took us to the shopping district. While there, I escaped for a bit to explore the area and get a feel for the street life. The roads here are mesmerizing, especially here in Patna where the streets are bumpy and narrow, roundabouts are everywhere, and the traffic consists of a panoply of pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, cars, trucks, dogs, cows, and the occasional monkey.    (MX2)

https://i1.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2340/2301954175_3ca1f0b611_m.jpg?w=700    (MX3)

Afterward, we drove to the Mahatma Ghandi bridge, said to the be the longest river bridge in the world, which spans the Ganga River. It wasn’t far, but it took about an hour to get there, as we navigated horrendous traffic and road conditions and breathed in enough carbon monoxide to kill a small animal. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for the world. Seeing the Ganges first-hand, a river with so much history and cultural significance, was awe-inspiring, even in the dark and fog.    (MX4)

https://i1.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3236/2301958461_2437162b2f_m.jpg?w=700 https://i2.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3291/2302753438_8117fd2525_m.jpg?w=700    (MX5)

Cheryl, Narendra, and I had dinner at the hotel, where we enjoyed good food, my first drop of booze on this trip, and great conversation. Narendra is fascinating, and his stories are adventurous and inspiring. As I get to know him better, it’s becoming more and more apparent that I’ll need to devote an entire blog post just to him.    (MX6)

All of my meals so far have been in hotels, on planes, or catered, and while the food has been excellent, I’m starting to get antsy. Prior to coming here, several of my more worldly friends, who know my adventurous tastes, told me not to worry so much about what or where I eat. I was cautious, however, primarily because I want to be at my best for this whole trip. Caution is starting to lose to curiosity, however. Cheryl is starting to get a sense of how I like to eat, and she’s been tempting me with stories of street food and Ethiopian cuisine. I am having way too much fun.    (MX7)

Jor Bagh

I spent the afternoon working in IIE’s Delhi office, located in Jor Bagh, a charming residential district that contrasted sharply with the Delhi I had seen the night before. On the ride over, Sanjay explained India‘s political situation regarding health care, education, and other infrastructural challenges.    (MWF)

India is a study in contrasts. There is tremendous economic disparity. Over a million people in Delhi (about eight percent of the total population) live beneath the poverty line. The infrastructure is poor, to say the least. The roads are bad, the power unreliable, the water scarce and undrinkable. And yet, India has a burgeoning population of skilled and intelligent Knowledge Workers, especially in technology.    (MWG)

To its credit, the current government is trying to do something about its infrastructural woes. It has committed to tripling its expenditures (percentage of GDP spent) in health and education over the next five years, and similarly increasing its expenditures in other areas, such as potable water.    (MWH)

After enjoying a delicious lunch of samosas, dhokla (which I tried for the first time), and gulabjamun, Cheryl Francisconi rejoined us and introduced me to Ajit Motwani, the new head of IIE India, who regaled us with stories of his eclectic past and who introduced me to lime water, water with lime juice, sugar, and salt, sort of an all-natural Gatorade.    (MWI)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2011/2300756624_db74dc371f_m.jpg?w=700 https://i0.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2071/2300757920_7e6f51b63e_m.jpg?w=700    (MWJ)

https://i2.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3170/2300763014_bacb17543a_m.jpg?w=700    (MWK)

In the afternoon, Cheryl and I took a taxi to the airport, where we experienced an incredibly surreal traffic moment. At one point, we crossed a six lane bridge, with rickshaws and buses pulled over on the sides and middle of the road. No one was paying any attention to the lanes, and no one was slowing down either. It felt like I was playing one of those racing video games, except with quadruple the traffic. And yet, it didn’t feel disorderly either. Somehow, everything just worked.    (MWL)

As we watched similar madness in the terminal later, I observed to Cheryl that Open Space must feel comfortable to folks in India, because they’re so used to ordered chaos. That sparked a long conversation about process and culture that continued well into our flight to Patna.    (MWM)

At the airport, we met up with Sanjay Pandey and Narendra Gupta, who will be a guest participant at the meeting over the next few days. Narendra is from Chittorgarh, a small town in the state of Rajasthan, and his background is fascinating. I’m looking forward to chatting more with him and watching him work tomorrow.    (MWN)