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)

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)

The Game Plan

I met with Cheryl Francisconi, the leader of the LDM project, first thing this morning to go over the game plan. Cheryl is wonderful, a smiling ball of positive energy, and it felt great to see her in person and to give her a hug after many months of remote communication.    (MW9)

Shortly afterwards, Sanjay Pandey, the LDM country manager for India, joined us. Sanjay is coolly competent, and his demeanor belies his passion and vision. It’s clear that the LDM community in India is ahead of the game in terms of building stronger ties and working on projects together, and Sanjay has played a huge role in facilitating this.    (MWA)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2101/2300751236_01838e42a5_m.jpg?w=700    (MWB)

I’m really looking forward to learning from the leaders both here and Ethiopia. That may sound weird, coming from the guy who’s supposed to be the consultant on this project, but the reality is that this community knows far, far more about what it wants and needs and how to get there than I do. I’m here to learn from them, to share what I learn, and to connect people and ideas where I see fit.    (MWC)

My schedule is packed solid, with constant meetings and travel in-between. I will not be doing much sight-seeing. It’s a work trip, after all. Then again, I’m here to learn about the people and the culture, and I expect it to be incredibly enriching. Both Cheryl and Sanjay expressed regret that I would not have more time to explore the country, but I quickly dismissed them. I’m getting a chance to see parts of the country that most people never get to see, places like Patna (where I am right now) and Ranchi, and to spend quality time with amazing people on the ground whom I would never otherwise get to meet.    (MWD)

If I have any regrets, it’s that Sanjay is taking care of me too well. I haven’t had to worry about lodging or food or transportation. My trip has been completely stress free. I will have zero advice to offer future visitors (including myself), because I haven’t done a damn thing myself.    (MWE)

The Biggest Adventure of my Life

Blog silence here tends to mean that I’m busy, busy, busy. Long trips help me break that silence; there’s nothing better than a long plane ride to write blog posts. Well, I recently completed a very long plane ride to kick off the dooziest trip of my life. I’m sitting in a hotel in Delhi, getting ready to embark on a two week adventure across India and Ethiopia.    (MV3)

How the heck did I end up here? For the past few months, I’ve been working with the International Institute of Education (IIE) and their leadership development initiative for mobilizing reproductive health in developing countries (LDM). LDM is one of four Packard Foundation-funded initiatives to train emerging leaders in reproductive health.    (MV4)

The project is simple. Since the Packard Foundation began these programs in 1999, there have been almost 1,000 graduates spread across five countries: Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines. There is massive potential for learning and collaboration to emerge from this diverse, growing network. IIE has been charged to figure out how to kick-start this process. That’s where I come in.    (MV5)

I like projects that are big, challenging, and important. This one fulfills all three requirements and then some. One challenge is that you literally can’t just throw technology at the problem. The infrastructure just doesn’t exist. I’ve long maintained that the Digital Divide is a red herring when it comes to large-scale problems, and this is an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.    (MV6)

The biggest challenge is cultural. We’re dealing with five very different countries. Each country consists of many different microcultures, so simply focusing on intra-country collaboration presents a huge challenge. Finally, you have the microcultures of skills and background among the leaders themselves. And to top it off, I know practically nothing about any of these cultures.    (MV7)

That’s the main reason I’m here. I know a lot about facilitating large-scale collaboration, enough to know that the path towards fulfilling this objective must come from the participants themselves. I know about patterns and creating space and process and tools. I don’t know how much of my knowledge in this space is dependent on the cultural norms with which I’m familiar. I’m looking forward to finding out.    (MV8)

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be exploring Delhi, Patna, and Ranchi in India and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I expect Internet access to be shoddy, but I’ll post my learnings and experiences when I can on this blog, on Flickr, and on Twitter. And if you have experiences in these countries and cultures or other thoughts you’d like to share, please drop me a line.    (MV9)