Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Phnom Penh

After leaving Siem Reap, we drove the 5 or 6 hours to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. We’ll be spending the rest of the program here, and the first three weeks will be with a homestay family, and the group will move back to a guesthouse together for the last two weeks of the program.

I, however, am having a bit of a different situation. Advocates for Youth, an awesome organization I work with in DC is sending me to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately, the conference overlaps with my time in Cambodia, so I have to withdraw from the program and leave Cambodia after four weeks (three weeks early). Though it’s a bummer to have to leave Cambodia and my friends here early, I’m really excited about going to this conference. I get to do a presentation at the Youth Pre-Conference, and participate in a young leaders summit with UNAIDS director, Michel Sidibe, among other things. So, I guess it’s really sort of bittersweet in that I’m sad I have to leave Cambodia, but also excited to go to this conference.

Well, as per usual, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even blogged about Phnom Penh and I’m already telling you about my impending departure. So, let’s get to it, shall we? Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, we were all sent to our homestays. I’m staying with a girl named Asa, who is also a student at PUC (the university I’m studying at), and another girl from my program, Nita, is staying with Asa’s cousin, Sin, who lives in the same house. So, we’re all staying together, and it’s been alright. We haven’t really met the family at all, and we pretty much just spend time with both of the girls in our room (which is below the main house, which we don’t go into, apparently). They are both really nice, but pretty quiet, so it’s sometimes a bit awkward, and we have a lot of trouble communicating with one another.

Phnom Penh, itself, is like most other large cities. It’s hot, crowded, and the traffic is bad. The driving here is a lot better than Nigeria, but it’s still kind of free for all, and the cars, motos, tuk-tuks, and bikes all share the same space, and traffic lights are only obeyed if the driver is in the mood. Moto seems to be the best way to get around here, since they can zoom around things better than cars or tuk-tuks, and sometimes they just drive on the sidewalk if the roads are too crowded. My homestay is more or less at the opposite end of the city from school, so it can be a long commute, and a hot one, but there’s AC waiting for us on the school end of the commute. There’s a lot of different kinds of food here, from Khmer, to Vietnamese, to Indian, to Western, which is nice, since even though I really like Khmer food, sometimes you just need to take a break and eat a salad and some cheese. Unfortunately, I seem to come to places that do not believe in consuming dairy. Like Nigeria, there are a lot of cow herders here, but they still don’t eat milk, yogurt, or cheese, which is like 50% of my diet at home, so that’s kind of killing me (I plan to eat a LOT of cheese in Vienna).

We’ve done some exploring here, including field trips to the National Museum, as well as to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison. The National Museum is a beautiful red building that looks kind of like a palace, and it’s full of artifacts from various Khmer civilizations, including Angkor. These are mostly statues from Buddhist and Hindu mythology and icons, but there are also demon statues, iron works, woodcarvings, weapons, gold, and more. It was really interesting, but after three days at Angkor, it was kind of hard to get excited about more statues, which weren’t even attached to impressive temples.

As part of the Nation Building class, we went to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison, which were hands-down the most depressing and horrifying things I have ever seen. The Killing Fields, for those of you who may not know, is a location near the Choeung Ek village where the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered thousands of people and buried them in mass graves. The site itself has been cleaned up/ done up a lot in recent years, so it’s actually a really strange to be in this place that looks like beautiful green fields and trees and blue skies and then think about how much blood in that ground and what a horrific history that small natural space has. This realization comes crashing down on you when you walk into the Memorial Stupa, which houses all the skulls and bones of the people murdered by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields. To me, what was even eerier and more disturbing than all those bones in that building is the fact that there are still many bodies that have not been dug up, so when you walk along the paths that lead past the excavated mass graves, you can see bones and clothes of victims that are starting to surface. Seeing a tattered men’s striped collared shirt poking out of the dirt as I walked along the trail was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. After the Killing Fields, we went to the Toul Sleng prison, which is probably the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge prisons. Thousands of people were held at Toul Sleng and tortured there for perceived betrayals of the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary cause. The place has actually been fixed up quite a lot, but it still looks mostly like it did during the days it was being used. The floors and ceilings still bear the bloodstains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge who passed through Toul Sleng (almost everyone who died at the Killing Fields was sent there from Toul Sleng). Perhaps even more terrifying than the bloodstains and torture instruments that remain in the Toul Sleng cells, are the thousands of photographs housed in Building B of the complex. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about taking photographs of all their prisoners, and all these headshots are arranged along the entire length of the rooms. It’s harrowing to look into the faces of the Toul Sleng prisoners, many, if not most, of whom did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime. The tragic irony of the place is that it was originally an elementary school with a beautiful courtyard full of grass and plants and palm trees, and the Khmer Rouge just took it over and converted that place of learning into a literal house of horrors. What’s more, is that my professor for Nation Building went to kindergarten there the year before it became a prison.

I suppose it’s also interesting to note that the Killing Fields memorial is actually operated by a Japanese company, which I find troubling, to be honest with you. I don’t really think it’s appropriate for another country to be controlling a site that means so much for Khmer history. The Japanese didn’t live through it, so I guess I just have trouble believing that they have the personal and cultural connection to this place that I think is necessary for whoever is running the memorial at the Killing Fields.

After a week in Phnom Penh, two girls from my program, Nita and Angela, and I decided to escape the city and head to beach! More on that next time…..

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Angkor Photo Explosion

Here is a smattering of the hundreds of photos I took at Angkor during the three days (and one very early morning's sunrise) we spent there. They hardly do the place justice, but, unfortunately for you, I can't bring home Angkor Wat or Bayon Temple, so they'll just have to do. They are in the same order as I saw them, but I'll have to go back caption them later when I have better internet and can actually see the photos I'm writing about rather than trying to guess which ones are which from the web coding.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Siem Reap: Or How I Puked At a UN World Heritage Site

Alright, well, I am clearly failing as a travel blogger these days. A lot has happened since my first (and only) post almost 2 weeks ago. In an attempt to keep this post from becoming a novel, I’ll split it up into a couple different posts.

So, the day after allowing “Dr. Fish” to eat all the dead skin off my feet, I did some more weird stuff, though primarily in a culinary manner. I ate a Cambodian delicacy called Duck Fetus, which is….. a duck fetus. Still in the egg. I could only manage one bite before the visual was just too much for me, but it didn’t actually taste too bad. Then, because that wasn’t enough, I decided to eat a cricket. It was dead and roasted, so the actual eating wasn’t challenging, but I forgot to bite the legs off, so I had to pull them out one by one, which was pretty gross. The cricket itself, though I hate to say it, did kind of taste like chicken.

The day after the duck fetus and cricket feast, I went with three other students from my program to visit a school out in the forest outside of Siem Reap. We ended up riding on the back of motos (small motorcycles, like the Nigerian achabas) for about an hour there, and got caught in a rainstorm about halfway. Since it’s the rainy season here, that’s not uncommon, though due to global climate change, the rains are coming when they are supposed to, which means bad and scary things for a country where 70-80% of the population are subsistence rice farmers. Anyway, the school was an open air cement building, and about 70 people come to the school for various 2 hour sessions throughout the day. The kids are learning English, and they are really cute. Like Nigeria, though, it was heartbreaking to see 13-year-olds who look like 8-year-olds because of lifelong malnutrition. But the school is going to do good things for the villages its serves, and the man who runs it is dedicated to expanding it to provide housing for orphans and services for more people who want to learn. Plus, the moto ride was really fun.

We also started our classes during our 10 days in Siem Reap. I’m taking Cambodian History and Culture, and Nation Building After the Khmer Rouge, which should both be interesting, though the latter hasn’t started yet. I also took a three-day crash course in Khmer language, which was both helpful and really hard. I’ve learned the basic survival language, but that’s about it. The history course is being taught by an archaeologist who is in charge of the Angkor Preservation Project (I think that’s the title?), and he does a lot of mapping and analyzing of the Angkor region and temples.

As a part of that class, we did a three day field visit to Angkor. It was, in a word, incredible. The temples were beautiful, and we got to see a lot of different ones from different periods in Angkor civilization, and it was really cool to see how they evolved from smaller, brick temples, into the massive sandstone ones (like the famous Angkor Wat or Bayon). It was hot, humid, sweaty, and dirty, but it was also a lot of fun, and kind of mind-boggling to think about how these temples were erected a thousand years ago with none of the modern technology we think of necessary for building. They think that maybe a million people lived in Angkor during the height of its power, which was, of course, during the same time that Europe was stuck in the dark ages.

Anyway, on Saturday (which was our last day in Siem Reap), my friend Angela and I decided to get up at 4am and go watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. I was feeling a little queasy when I got up, but I just assumed I was tired. However, after about 30 minutes in a Tuk-Tuk (the best description I can give would be a rickshaw, which with a motorcycle instead of a bike), I was feeling real uncomfortable. But, I wanted to see the sunrise, so we walked down the long stone walkway that leads to Angkor Wat, and then went down a set of stairs that leads to one of the moat-like ponds in front of the Temple itself, which was where we planned to watch the sunrise. And then I threw up. All over the grass at Angkor Wat. A UN World Heritage Site. Which I actually think makes a pretty good story. I felt a lot better after I threw up, so I stayed and watched the sun rise, but then I promptly got sick again, and spent the rest of the day sleeping and hydrating. Whatever it was, food poisoning, virus, bacteria, or something else, it was more or less over within 24 hours, so I said farewell to Siem Reap and hopped on the bus to Phnom Pehn the next day.

Pictures to follow when I get good internet.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How you feeling? Hot, Hot, Hot.

So, as you may be able guess since I am writing this, I have arrived in Cambodia safe and sound. It involved 25 hours of travel time (22 of those hours on airplanes), and numerous near-missed connections, but I made it. For those of you who don't know, I am doing a 7 week program in Cambodia to learn about Cambodian history, culture, language, and post-Khmer Rouge development.

My trip is starting with 10 days in Siem Reap, in the northern part of the country, which is also where the famous Angkor Wat temples are. After that, we move to Phnom Pehn for the last 5 weeks. The first 3 will be a homestay and the last 2 we'll all be back together in a guesthouse.

Anyway, I don't have much time, since I have to leave in about 20 minutes for my first class, but I am loving Cambodia. It's hotter than hell on Triscuit here, but it's worth the sweat. In fact, I think it's worse than Nigeria. It's probably about 10 degrees cooler, but it's also about 100% humidity, so it feels worse, and your sweat just pools on your body (that was clearly information you needed...) In the last three days, we've explored the town pretty well, going to both the tourist-y Old Market and some of the less-visited markets and streets. A lot of what we've done is orientation stuff which is probably not too interesting for you (since it wasn't for me either...), but we've had some really good Khmer meals, and met some awesome Cambodian students. Perhaps the highlight so far was going to the "Dr. Fish massage" last night at the night market, which basically involves sticking your bare feet into a little pool full of small fish who then come and eat off all the dead skin on your tootsies, leaving them fresh and clean. It was hands-down the weirdest thing I think I have ever done. The best way I can describe it that it sort of feels like that "pins and needles" feeling when your foot is falling asleep. But not in bad way, just in a sort of tickle-y way. There was a lot of laughter involved, and the one we went to gave you a free beer with massage, which was nice, and, to be honest, kind of necessary for experience.

Today's my first day of class, so I'll let you know how that goes, and the current plan for tonight is to go to a Mexican restaurant (in Cambodia) and watch their big screen World Cup game (I believe it is the North Korea game we're going to), so that should be an interesting experience....

Let me know how all of you are doing!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Well, this blog has lain dormant for sometime. Actually, it was almost one year ago exactly that I left Nigeria, and it's been quite a year. Without going into that too much, suffice it to say that my wanderlust is back, and I'm itching to see the world again. As a cure for this persistent malady, I have signed myself up for a 7 week study program in Cambodia.

Why Cambodia, you ask? Well, to be honest, the answer comes back to, well, why not Cambodia? It's a place that I don't know much about. In fact, I don't know much about Asia at all. My high school education was ridiculously Euro-centric, and my college studies have been primarily interested in Africa. I tried to take one class on Asia, and it was pretty much a bust, so I figured, well, why not come to Asia and experience it firsthand.

Some basics, for those of you who aren't familiar with Cambodia (which includes myself):

Here is where Cambodia is situated in the world:

Here is a map of Cambodia:

The first two weeks, I'll be in Siem Reap, which is in the north-western part of the country. It's also where the famous Angkor Temples are located. For the remaining five weeks, I'll be in Phnom Penh, the capital city. For three weeks there, I'll be with a homestay family, and for the last two weeks, we'll all be back at a guesthouse here.

The language spoken in Cambodia is Khmer, which is also the name of the major ethnic group here. Most Cambodians are Khmers, but there are some smaller minority groups.

I'm currently in the process of packing, and I'm packing lots of lightweight clothes, since it seems like the weather is sort of like Nigeria, but more humid. Awesome. Why do I keep going to these tropic climates when I am so ill-equipped to cope with the heat?

Well, I'll (hopefully) keep you all posted on my various adventures and foibles in Southeast Asia. Let me know what's happening with you while I'm gone, too!!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pediatric Eye Camp and Re-Entry

This post is really long overdue. I only just realized that I have been back home for a month now; time has gone really fast, and re-entry to American culture, Minnesota living, and my “normal” routine took a fair amount of adjusting to. I am going to try to add in photos to all of my previous posts in the next day or two so that, assuming you haven’t all given up on me and there is anyone out there who still reads this blog, you can match the descriptions in the posts to the actual photos.

The Pediatric Eye Camp was everything I hoped it would be, plus a little more. Basically, TCF has four eye hospitals in Nigeria. They are in Yola, Owerri, Calabar, and Kebbi. Each of these four locations, plus some kids from Zaria (where Sunseed, one of the corporate sponsors is based) buses their kids from their site to Abuja. For the Yola children it was an approximately 11 hour bus ride over some very bad roads. They do the sites one at a time, so that there aren’t too many children there at once, as they only have a limited amount of space in the wards that they rent out from Garki Hospital.

The Yola kids and their parents getting off the bus in Abuja

The Yola kids arrived the night after me, and I was so excited to see them. Over the previous 6 weeks at the eye hospital, I got to know most of them, and there were a few in particular who I was really happy to see, like Adamu and Garzali, two 10-year-olds who used to follow me around the Yola eye hospital, and the Mohammed family, headed by a fairly detached uncaring father, a mother who was blind herself before having surgery in Yola, and four children, all with cataracts. Two of the kids were going to be operated at the Pediatric Eye Camp, and I was jazzed beyond belief to think about what an improvement that would be in the quality of life those kids have, and it would ease their mother’s burden considerably, too. There was also a littler girl named Alheri, who was the most precocious little girl I met in Nigeria. She was declared unfit to be operated last time she went to Abuja, but she was in good condition for this round, and finally got to have her surgery!

The kids were all so good that it took my breath away. None of the screaming, crying, begging or tears that you might expect from kids hundreds of miles from home and about to have their first-ever surgery. They were all quiet, polite, obedient, and fairly willing to put on a brave-face and do whatever the doctors asked of them. They went into surgery the next morning, and I didn’t see them again until the following day, when they got their bandages taken off. They were all still pretty groggy from the general anesthesia, but, again, their calm and their sort of trusting innocence blew me away. Watching them get their bandages off and having their first pos-op eye exam was an experience I won’t ever forget. It hard not to start tearing up when I think about the little boys and girls who were able to, for the first time ever, tell you how many fingers you were holding up, or when I think of the youngest patient, only 1 year old, who was able to see and then reach out and grab Kelly Jo’s outstretched finger for the first time ever. I’ve never had an experience that could more accurately be described as inspirational than the few days I spent with my Yola kids in Abuja.

Adamu before his post-op check up. He was one of the boys who followed me around the Yola Eye Hospital (and a favorite).

Me and Dija (yet another of my faves), getting her post-op review

Garzali seeing for the first time post-op. He was the other half of the duo who followed me around the Yola Eye Hospital (and another fave).

I got to see them all one more time before I left on Friday morning. They were all livelier, and their parents were so excited. I really feel like I bonded with these kids and their parents. It was amazing to me how much both child and parent just took the leap of faith and trusted the surgeons who had brought them to Abuja to heal their children’s eyes. They weren’t disappointed, and, again, I have never seen as much pure, unadulterated, trust and gratitude as I saw in the faces of those moms and dads. It makes me so happy to think of the different directions their lives are headed in now. The vast majority of these kids won’t have to rely on others for their well-being. When they grow up, they will be able to farm, herd cattle, get married, cook, clean, and look after their children independently. The TCF surgeons didn’t just give these kids back their eyesight, They also gave them back their bright futures.

Sadly, after their second day pos-op, it was time for me to go back to the US. Leaving Nigeria was harder than I thought it would be. I made such real connections to the people and the place that it was impossibly hard to say goodbye. Leaving the eye clinic, AUN, Abuja, etc. is not the same as the goodbyes I have said before. This isn’t like leaving for college, going home for the summer, or bidding farewell to camp friends. For those goodbyes, there is always the promise, or at least possibility, or reunion, and, at the very least, e mail, facebook, and cell phones make the distance seem more bearable. However, the friends I left in Nigeria will stay there, and though I would love to go back sometime in the nebulous future, maybe even professionally after I graduate, there is nothing concrete. I miss everyone and everything about Nigeria, even the outrageously oppressive heat. It’s always nice to come home, but I definitely left a part of my heart in Yola.

Returning to the US was also not as easy as I thought it was be. I was only away for about two months, but the experience was so starkly different from life here, that is hard to grapple with the transition. I have photos, and this blog, and the stories that I have told people, but thee was no one else there with me. There were no other AU students who had the same summer abroad program with me, so there is no one who I can really reminisce with, so to speak. It feels almost like a strange dream, like it didn’t happen. I know it did, and I have the photos to prove it, but sometimes it feels so surreal, because Yola, Nigeria, and Minnetonka, Minnesota, are so severely different. From the weather, to the greenery, to the languages, to the amount of white people, to the anonymity, Nigeria and Minnesota are sort of polar opposites. I’m glad to be home, where my family is, where I fit in with the locals, and where I don’t have to work so hard to communicate, but there’s a definite part of me that would hop on the next plane back to Abuja in a heartbeat.

Me with some of the Nigerian things I brought back (and a happy Blacky).

This is my last post here for now, but who knows? Maybe I’ll reuse it when I go to Ghana this spring (as is the current plan). At the risk of sounding like an Academy Award winner, I want to thank all of you who read the blog, commented, e mailed, called, sent smoke signals, or communicated with me in any other way while I was abroad. It was so nice to hear from all of you while I was so far away from home. Your support meant a lot to me, and having you all behind me, both with my Nigerian exploits and in my general everyday life, is so important to me. I hope that through my blog I’ve been able to share at least a little of the many—and major—life lessons I learned during my short time in Nigeria. As always, stay in touch. I may be stateside once again, but I still want to hear from all you! I hope you’re having fabulous summers, working enough to stay busy and relaxing enough to unwind, and, most importantly, I hope to see each of you in the near future!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Today has been a day of goodbyes; it was my last day at the eye clinic, and some of my friends and two of my roommates left school today. So, as always, upon saying goodbye to the people and places I’ve gotten to know so well, I’ve been looking back on my time here, and I realized there are some things I haven’t shared with you. So this post will be an amalgamation of all those things I’ve forgotten to tell you before.

I think particularly that the eye clinic has been such a huge part of my experience here, and I haven’t shared anything about it with you since those first couple of days. The eye clinic has proven to be one of the very best experiences of my entire life. I have come a long way since that first post about the clinic. I’ve made really good friends there, most especially Hadiza, Sam, Simon, Linus, Funmi, Blessing, Salisu, and Emannuel. The staff there really took me under their collective wing and welcomed me into their fold, and a few other clich├ęs. It was amazing to me how much they just accepted the American girl who showed up one day. They taught me Hausa, and we joked, laughed, teased, and explained our different worlds to each other during the six weeks I was at the clinic. I appreciate all their help, kindness, and generosity, and I have been so impressed by the overall warmth and friendliness of the Nigerian people I have met here.

The staff at the eye hospital who I spent most of my time with.
Left to Right: Emmanuel, Salisu, Linus (bottom), Simon (top), Blessing, Hadiza, Lydia.

At the eye clinic I have done pretty much everything there is to do. I’ve worked on patient flow, bringing them into the exam rooms, and making sure they were in the right place. This was a bit of a challenge, given my very limited Hausa, but I know enough to tell the patients to come (“zo”), go (“tafi”), sit (“zona”), stand (“tashi”), and move down (“massa”). The patients were generally fairly delighted to hear the Bature speaking Hausa, and I was often told “Yau wa!” which means “well done” in Hausa. It’s also my absolute most favorite Hausa word, and I love to say it all the time.

A couple of the patients enjoying my Hausa skills

I have also worked on registration, and giving appointments. I’ve seen the screening for patient fitness before they are operated on. I have also spent a fair amount of time in the stores, taking inventory, receiving shipments, and more. I also spent two days managing the housekeeping department, which was a real challenge as they spoke almost no English. They were also brand new, and I don’t think that anyone had effectively explained their job description to them, so they weren’t happy when I came into the picture and told them to stop napping during their shifts. However, I eventually won them over by buying them doughnuts and letting them teach me Hausa.

I also had three major projects during my time there. The first was a study on the absentees. Every patient who has surgery is supposed to come back for a 15 day review and a 30 day review of the operated eye. However, unsurprisingly, not everyone shows up. So Senthil, the Program Manager, wanted to do a study on who isn’t coming, and how many people have been absent. So I went through their computer records of their absentees and cross-checked them with the actual paper files to make sure everything was right. After doing that, I compiled the data and sorted it by Local Government Area (sort of like American municipalities or counties) to see if there are people from certain LGAs, other states (people come from all over the north to the hospital) aren’t coming in higher proportion than their overall numbers.

Me reviewing the patient files for the absentee study

My second project was doing a survey of the review patients to see how the surgery affected their life. To be honest, this project didn’t work out as well as we had hoped. I think the translation was the major problem. The answers I got from the patients just didn’t make any sense to me, because they would respond to the question “what impact did the surgery have on you and your life-style” by saying “No impact,” which, frankly, I just don’t believe. Anyway, I complied that data into a spreadsheet, too, but I’m not as pleased with this project as I was with the other one.

Me visiting with patients in the men's post-op ward

My last project was the most fun to do. They have these cards with post-operative instructions—Do’s and Don’ts—for the patients. They are written in English, but do to the large number of illiterate people (and people who don’t even speak English, let along read and write), there are illustrations. However, these illustrations are cartoon-like, and they are of white people. They don’t necessarily look like what they are supposed to be depicting, and the people in them are not really something that the Fulani and Hausa men and women of Adamawa can relate to. So they had me take photos of real people, Nigerians who the patients will be able to identify with, doing the things the patients are supposed to do or not do. We arranged them all into the template, and hopefully they’ll print a copy or two to put up in the hospital. I’m hoping to be able to show it to you all in the US, but I was made with CorelDraw software, which I don’t have, and my computer can’t read the file, so I’ll try again on a computer somewhere else.

One of the pictures I took for the post-op photoboard instructions. This was for "get an examination if you feel ill"

I am really sad to be done with the eye clinic. I am going to miss the doctors, staff, and patients a lot. I think I will especially miss the people I worked with. However, the patients, inadvertently, taught me a lot about life and about rural living in the developing world. At the beginning of the summer session, KJ assigned me to define, among other terms, the words “victim,” and “agency.” We talked a lot about whether there really are victims or not, and about how, no matter how little a person has in terms of resources, wealth, food, shelter, and more, they still have agency. They still make choices for themselves, their children, and their families. They can use what little they have in many different ways, and each and every day they make conscious choices about how to do so. I think this assignment and conversation really influenced the way I approached my time at the Eye Hospital, because it was due during the first week, so before I really started there and got into the swing of things. Never once while I was working at the Eye Hospital did I feel sorry for the patients or think of them as victims. I was incredibly impressed by the way that the patients just carried on with their lives and made do with the resources they had after they lost the vision. I don’t think I would have approached the patients and their circumstances in this way had I not been required to think more deeply about the subject through the assignment and the conversations we had about it.

Most of the patients are completely blind (or pretty close to it), but they just keep on going. Not one of them just gives up. Before they came to the Eye Hospital, they were all still out in their villages, just living their lives in a new world of darkness. They still cooked, cleaned, participated in village activities, and generally went about their business. I was so impressed and inspired by the way they approach their lives. I know that it is because no alternative exists for them, but they all just accept the new challenges that come their way and keep on keeping on.

I think that one of the most valuable lessons I learned through this experience was not to view anyone as a victim. Looking at the patients and thinking that they have no agency does them all a real disservice. They may not have many resources, but they all make choices. They all got themselves to the Eye Clinic, and many mothers and fathers took days off from farming, working, earning, cleaning, and cooking to bring their blind children in to see Dr. Tulika. I think that in the West we often fall into the trap of sympathy and paternalism when looking at the lives of Africa’s rural poor. We think things like “oh those poor people” and “they are such victims.” But I think attitudes like that don’t reflect the reality of the lives of these people. The only people sitting around feeling sorry for them are Westerners. I have to admit that I used to see the world this way, but those little old Fulani women, tottering around the hospital, giggling from their toothless mouths, taught me a lot about the reality of life in the developing world. And for that, I will be eternally grateful to them.

Also, while I was at the clinic, I was lucky enough to get to meet Mr. Chanrai. I think I mentioned this in my first post about the eye hospital, but its funded by the Tulsi Chanrai Foundation, which is essentially the charitable organization set up by the Chanrai family, who are Indian businessmen and women. Apparently, they’ve done a lot of business here in Nigeria, and they wanted to give back, so they set up their Mission for Health (which is the Primary Health Project I talked about in my last post), Mission for Vision (which is their eye hospitals), and their clean water project in many different sites here in Nigeria. There are eye hospitals in Yola, Owerri, Calabar, Zaria, and another site that I can’t remember right now, and there are PHP in other states, as well as water projects, too. TCF already has many, many sites in India, and their Nigeria projects are doing a lot of good. Anyway, my time at the eye clinic coincided with Mr. Chanrai’s visit to Yola. He was here to attend graduation at AUN and go to the AUN Board of Trustees meeting (he’s a member). I got to meet him when he came to inspect the hospital, and he is really a remarkable man. You can just see how passionate he is about the work TCF does, and he loves the patients. It warms my heart to see successful capitalists giving back to the communities they work in.

Mr. Chanrai visiting with post-op patients during his visit to Yola

As I mentioned, he was here for graduation, which was on May 31. It was AUN’s first ever graduation, and it was a HUGE deal. The former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, who is immensely popular in Adamawa, and who is the founder of the university was in attendance. He founded the university so that there could be a world-class American-style university in Nigeria, and he provided pretty much all the money for it, too. He received an honorary degree. As did the Emir of the Adamawa Emirate. He’s about 90 years old, and I will add a picture when I get back to the US, because traditional Emir attire is, to be honest, kind of funny looking. If you can, try to google him. I don’t know if they have photos, but if they do, its worth looking at. The last person to get an honorary degree was none other than Desmond Tutu. Whom I love all the way into the depths of my heart. He also gave a speech, and I really liked it. He called on Africans to help each other, and he reminded westerners of our not-so-awesome history. He is all about peace, love, acceptance, and moving on. Plus, he is probably the cutest little old man I have ever seen in my life. His voice is incredible. If you haven’t ever heard it, you should YouTube a video of him speaking. There may even be a video of his AUN commencement speech; I wouldn’t know because YouTube, as well as pretty much any website besides Basic HTML Gmail, doesn’t work here. It was really fun to see everyone decked out in the finest outfits, especially because fine Nigerian outfits are so colorful, bright, shiny, and beautiful.

Peace and Me ready to head off to the graduation ceremony

Some of the excited graduates

Let me see, what else have I neglected to tell you thus far? Ah, yes, my class. In addition to working at the eye clinic, which was also part of a class, I took Intro to African Literature. To be perfectly honest, it was fairly disappointing. We read some good books, but there was no discussion in the class, and the professor required no critical thought from us. In fact, the only quiz in which I disagreed with the professor’s assessment of the book, he gave me a B on. On the other ones, I experimented by simply regurgitating exactly what he said in class, and he loved those ones. To me, that’s not a real lit class. Literature is supposed to make you think, challenge ideas, and have heated discussions with your classmates in which you discover more about each other and yourself. However, none of that happened in my class. He didn’t want to know what we thought. He wanted to tell us what to think. On the bright side, though, I did enjoy the books, though I thought the coursework was quite light. We read Things Fall Apart, Mission to Kala, Weep Not Child, The Beggars’ Strike, The Trials of Brother Jero, and Behind the Clouds. I think one of the things that most surprised me about the class, though, was reading the other students’ writing. I am honestly shocked at the poor quality of their writing. No one proof reads, no one spell checks, and no one knows how to form a sentence. I know that sounds really harsh, but the thing is that it isn’t their fault. Being the children of the wealthy and the elite, they had access to the best private schools in the country. However, even there, the quality of the education leaves a lot to be desired. Someone told me that there is no history class in secondary school. These students don’t even know their own past, and they are often more obsessed with getting good grades than with actually learning the material and being prepared upon graduation. It really makes me worry about what those kids who go to the public schools learn.

Being here in Yola has been a truly amazing experience. I’ve been lucky enough to see both sides of Nigeria. The elite, wealthy students who parents are almost all politicians and businessmen (many are in oil) who live completely differently from their counterparts here in Yola. The people of Yola, though kind, warm, and generous, have to watch their money, they work as farmers, laborers, salesman, and housewives. The difference in lifestyles, social strata, and resources at their disposal has been really remarkable to witness. I think that this exemplifies Nigeria well. It’s a place of contrasts, extremes, and stratification. But its also a place where some of the kindest people I have ever been fortunate enough to meet live, and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to come here. I don’t know if anyone who isn’t related to me reads this blog, but if there are any American students out there reading this, I would highly recommend studying abroad here. It’s an experience that I really could not have gotten elsewhere, and there is no way to learn from a book or a class or another person the things that you’ll discover about the world, Nigeria, and yourself here in Yola.

As I mentioned earlier, I am leaving Yola to go to Abuja on Monday morning. I’ll be working at the pediatric eye camp while I am there, and I am so excited to see the kids I met at the clinic get their sight back. I don’t know what my internet access will be like while I am in Abuja, but if I get a chance, I will update my blog about the eye camp while I am there. If not, I will do it when I get back to the US. I fly from Abuja to London to DC on Friday, and then I will be in DC Friday night because my flight gets in too late for me to catch one to Minnesota. I’ll stay at an airport hotel for the night and leave first thing in the morning for Minneapolis. I should be back in the Land of Lakes by midday on Saturday. Where will you be, and when will I be seeing you?!