Monday, 27 October 2008

Greetings from Nigeria – a welcoming and wonderful country...

Nigeria. A country with a bursting and colourful personality and a completely unwarranted reputation.

I arrived in Abuja just over a week ago and have spent the last eight days becoming accustomed to life in West Africa and the joys of joining a community of over 60 VSO volunteers in Nigeria. Everyone in Nigeria is so friendly and absolutely everyone says Hello, or 'Sannu' (Hello in Hausa - the language in the central and northern part of the country). It makes a huge change from London!

Abuja became the federal capital of Nigeria in 1991; chosen because of its central position, good climate and because its people did not have a particular religious or ethnic allegiance. It's a purpose built capital and it has an ever-increasing population of about 1.5 million. It's relatively calm, well-organised and - apparently - nothing at all like Lagos which has a population of about 17 million and is absolute chaos! We're staying in a modest hotel, Crystal Palace, which has running water and electricity, so I'm feeling pretty well looked after so far! After meeting all the Nigeria programme staff and filling in endless forms, my head started to spin slightly with training on language, security, health and well-being, risk assessments, cross-cultural working, practical orientation (i.e. learning how to cook on a kerosene stove and filter water), child protection, finances, political and social context, organisational development, national volunteering, HIV/AIDS, education, secure livelihoods and which beers to drink... and there is still more to come tomorrow. By the time I leave for Lagos at 5.30am on Wednesday, I will feel well and truly inducted and ready for a long sleep on the ten hour bus journey!

The most inspiring part of the training so far has been the placement visit to Kafanchan and patch meeting in Jos at the end of last week and this weekend. I travelled to Kagoro with Janet and Heather, two other Youth for Development volunteers, to stay with a Canadian volunteer, Glenn, and a Ugandan volunteer, John, both working at the Fantsuam Foundation. Kafanchan is about two hours east of Abuja in Kaduna state, and by Nigerian standards is classified as a town, with a population of about 100,000. We stayed in the 'Pink House' in a village just outside of Kafanchan in Kagoro with Glenn and John. The house is situated in the heart of the village, with the Jos plateau picturesquely situated behind the house. The house has no running water and little electricity, but we adapted easily and wore our head torches as the electricity went off during dinner and didn't come back on for the rest of our stay.

Poverty in Nigeria affects about 45% of the population. The Fantsuam Foundation is a fantastic NGO supported by Save the Children UK and VSO. There are a number of development challenges faced by Southern Kaduna State and the Fantsuam Foundation extends its activities and vision beyond Kafanchan across the whole of Southern Kaduna. The lack of jobs and income infrastructure, including safe housing, has contributed to extremely poor health in the area and many residents lack access to affordable and good health care facilities and services. The Fantsuam Foundation was founded in 1996 with the aim to empower the rural community, particularly women, to find means of employment and income and meet their own development needs. All of the members of Fantsuam Foundation, from surrounding chiefdoms and covering 500,000 member groups, are rural and over 90% are poor, with a high proportion illiterate. The Fantsuam Foundation has established an integrated rural development programme in health, micro-finance, ICT and eduction to combat poverty and disadvantage. The sustainable livelihoods programme generates opportunities through micro-finance, vocational skills training and access to computers. Internet access is not available in rural Nigeria because it is expensive and there is a high level of illiteracy. However, the Fantsuam Foundation has developed a wireless internet service to provide affordable internet access to a rural population of 150,000 and to enhance youth employability through ICT skills training. The resource centre provides internet access for the community.

Kafanchan has been identified as one of the hotspots for HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. A railway junction town, with a mobile population of traders, farmers and miners, Kafanchan has very low awareness of HIV/AIDS. HIV tests, counselling and treatment are not readily accessible to those who require them. An increasing number of adults dying of AIDS are leaving behind orphans without parental care and many deprived of rights to shelter, food, health and education. The Fantsuam Foundation Health Centre provides treatment of diseases, family planning services, antenatal and post-natal care, HIV/AIDS counselling and home-based care. The Fantsuam Foundation also runs a successful national volunteer programme to assist all activities and volunteers now make up at least ten per cent of the workforce. The fish farm, run by local volunteers, is non-profit making, with all fish going to people living with HIV/AIDS as part of a healthy and nutritious diet. This model of volunteering is one which I hope to use when I arrive on my national volunteering placement in Lagos!

Following this trip we travelled to Jos, the capital of Plateau State, located north east of Abuja on about 1,250 metres above sea level. We stayed in a nice hotel – and with the added luxury of a swimming pool! – and met over 30 other volunteers from across the North West and North East patches of Nigeria to share our experiences and learn from each other. And drink quite a lot of beer and dance to old-school r&b tunes...

And today I met my employer, Yomi, from Ipaja Community Link (ICL), who has come to take part in the rest of the training before we travel down to Lagos together on Wednesday. VSO's vision is to fight global poverty and disadvantage. Through ICL, a community-based organisation in Lagos, there is huge potential for what can be done in the community and, as a VSO volunteer, I hope that I can drive the volunteer programme of the organisation forward by mobilising young people in social development and providing opportunities for strengthening and empowering local womens groups. Well, that's the plan anyway...

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Bound for Nigeria with Heather as my inspiration

The time has finally arrived and I depart for Nigeria this evening, Saturday 18 October.

It is with a heavy heart that I leave the UK. My friend Heather, who started work at Christian Aid at the same time as me and has remained a close friend since, was tragically killed in a bus crash whilst on holiday in Laos earlier this week. I will miss Heather dearly. She was such a special person and an amazing friend. So loving, so warm, so intelligent, so full of life. She was an advocate for international development and had achieved so much during her time at Christian Aid. She leaves a huge hole, but I can take comfort that she achieved so much in her 24 years. Heather was, and is, such an inspiration and I know that she will be with me every step of the way and in everything that I do in Nigeria. This week has been one of my hardest, but it is with this knowledge that I make the first steps towards my placement in Lagos.

I am due to arrive in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, in the early hours of tomorrow morning and will embark on ten days of in-country training. I will then make my way down south to Lagos to meet the family that I will be living with and my colleagues. I expect to start my new job at the beginning of November.

So, as I adjust to my new life in Nigeria, I will be thinking of family and friends, of all the support that I have received, and have much relished, over the last few months and days, and of Heather. My close friend and now my inspiration. O se! Thank you! I will be in touch as soon as possible!

Much love, Jen x

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Nigeria: It's all signed and sealed!

It's all actually happening and I just can't wait! This October, I will be travelling to Nigeria as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) on their Youth for Development (YfD) scheme. VSO is an international development charity that works through volunteers. It works with local partners in developing countries to tackle poverty and social exclusion and promote international understanding. For the last twenty two months I have been working for the international development charity Christian Aid in London; therefore, YfD will be an invaluable experience for me to develop my career in overseas development work. It will help increase my knowledge – first-hand – through the promotion of international understanding and by supporting VSO’s development goals.

For 12 months I will be working as a Business Development Facilitator with Ipaja Community Link (ICL) in Lagos. ICL is a community-based organisation involved in providing skills acquisition, business support and HIV/AIDS support programmes to local community groups, working with women and youth groups. I will be primarily using my knowledge from Christian Aid to help strenthen ICL’s youth volunteer programme, assist with the creation of job opportunities for youth in the Ipaja community and increase the awareness of the role and contribution of national volunteers in development. Whilst doing this, I will also be networking with government and other civil society volunteering agencies to share learning and providing support to youth mentors through peer-to-peer education.

Nigeria faces many development challenges. It is Africa’s most populous country with a staggering population of almost 150 million – almost 5% of the world’s entire population – and at the country’s current 2.38% rate of growth, one that could reach 200 million by 2020. Lagos has a population of about 13 – 17 million and is one of the largest cities in Africa with many sprawling and overcrowded shanty towns. Nigeria has one of the lowest levels of modern family planning use in the world and quality health services are hard to find throughout the country, as well as cultural and social pressures also limiting access to family planning. The enormous population stretches the availability of food, services and infrastructure. Almost half the population live below the poverty line of 1$ a day and an estimated 4 million people are currently living with the HIV virus. Nigeria is a country of contrasts. It is Africa's leading oil producer; it should be Africa’s economic giant, but it isn’t.

In order to make my placement in Lagos happen, I have been asked to raise a minimum of £900 and therefore on 16th August, dodging bird poo and grime, I will be aiming to do at least 50 lengths of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London, to help reach this target. Impressive?! Well, the Serpentine is a 28-acre recreational lake and therefore I won’t be swimming 50 lengths of that (!) – I will be swimming in the Lido, which is 107 metres long, and partitioned off from the rest of the lake by a perimeter of buoys. I’m just hoping that the rumours of man-eating eels aren’t true…! In doing this swim, I am hoping to overcome my fears of Hyde Park since I fractured my leg attempting to rollerblade there back in February. Ouch. Hence the swim – I can’t do much else! So, it would be great if you could sponsor me at YfD do not ask me to pay for my placement, but they do ask that I raise a minimum of £900. I have reached this, but I would urge you to keep on donating towards VSO and the amazing work that they do.

Africa is our most misunderstood continent – I realised this when I travelled to West Africa in 2006. It touched my heart and I will be hoping to make a positive and lasting impact in the Ipaja Community in Lagos over the coming months.

As I find out more about my placement and as I prepare to leave, I will keep you updated through this blog!