Saturday, 26 October 2013

Visiting a Market in Lagos, West Africa

Health and safety would have a field licenses, no cling wrap, no vacuum packing, no sell by dates...visiting an African open air market place.

Full of pulsating colour, fabrics, kerosene, curry and hair products; large personalities, buxom females and colloquial dialogues, I was thrust, as a very English Mrs Teacup into a world that was fascinatingly unintelligible. Tin shacks lined muddy alleyways that wove their way amongst boldly and elaborately dressed Nigerian women manning stalls and shacks selling everything you could possibly need, from cosmetics to fresh tomatoes and hair extensions to the tail of a cow.

No concrete, tarmac or linoleum covered the earths floor, so dodging puddles, ditches and craters, my African companion steered, guided and protected me along the narrow alleys, weaving in and out of black African's who tried their best to touch and stroke, the only white face in a sea of ebony.....and again the whisper of "white woman, white woman" cascaded through the alleyways, shacks and shoppers. These whispers went before me, like a river, I never overtook these words; they went before me. As they flowed and wound their way,  inquisitive black faces peeked out, around corrugated tin walls, to view this unusual mirage that had descended upon this mind-blowing place.

Vibrant and vibrating with chatter, music and richly coloured traditional dress, the market was alive with Africa. This was Nigeria at its best. Fascinating, awesome and truly an experience made in heaven, I loved it. Jaw open, eyes wide, head lurching from side to side, I enjoyed the African-ness of it all as my companion held on to me tightly and guided me to the relevant lean-tos to realise our purchases. We bought fresh fruits and homemade hot freshly made chilli tomato sauce. We watched the animated African mama squish the tomatoes, chop the onions, slice the chillies and add all to a massive antiquated aluminium blender and pour the pureed sauce into a lidded pot we supplied ourselves. No health and safety regulations here.

On we continued to purchase meat.....Oh my.....was this an eye opener and an over powering stench as we entered the meat market. On ancient rickety wooden benches, upon a mud laden floor, were slabs of goat, cow, pig and chickens laying and hanging for as far as the eye could see. There were pig totters, strung up chickens, cow legs and cow tails decorating every part of the corrugated tin roof along with masses of flies and mosquitoes that buzzed irritatingly and persistently around us and the carcasses. I don't know how I didn't vomit; the stench was horrific, the atmosphere like a free for all abattoirs. Machetes lay nonchalantly everywhere and excesses of blood ran under our feet into ditches, gulley’s and puddles, where large fat mossies’ feasted hungrily.

My jaw dropped further open and I knew I had to get out of there. My companion purchased his large slabs of goat, beef and a chicken and feeling sick to my stomach and faint, I was whisked through the mud and puddle ridden alleys back to the flooded, car infested main road where our car awaited and where the "white woman, white woman" whispers now lagged and faded behind me.

I could not stomach cow tail, goat, beans and hot red sauce for dinner; Nigerian porridge and a cuppa tea was my preferred supper.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Stories & Storytelling Around the World

Having had an interesting set of tweets on Twitter yesterday morning, I felt it apt to share my different experiences of storytelling in the places I have lived around the world. Of course this only my view, my perspective in the villages, towns and cities I have been privileged to put down roots in for a while, some of them extremely remote and some of them vastly different to my own culture and upbringing.

I have been extremely lucky to be born into a family where I have had the humble pleasure of knowing my parents, grandparents and great grandparents who have told me stories of living through two world wars, the Somme, prisoner of war camps in Germany, the blitz, rationing, evacuees and the enormous technical and technological changes they witnessed during these very interesting lifetimes. I stayed with my grandparents on many occasions and have wonderful vivid memories of feather beds, copper bed warmers, tin baths, cigarette cards, privies and scrumping for apples to name just a few.

As a small child I was blessed with plenty of story books but I was also blessed with storytelling by members of the family. I also became aware at a very young age that one day I would have these same stories to tell others. I too witnessed an era that also changed rapidly in my lifetime; from dial telephones, black and white tv, gramophones and vinyl’s. I also knew I wanted to remember these stories and situations in order to pass them down the family as one day there would be no one left who had lived them (or been told them); I was a secret family historian in the making in order that the family history and my own culture was not forgotten one day.

So in travelling the world, one of my roles, became not only how to teach but also how to tell and write stories about life and the world around us. I was privileged to work with many children in some very remote parts of the Middle East and Africa. In my class of 30 children in Arabia most had never had a bedtime story; these small little people actually did not know what I meant by a “bedtime story.” Children raised by nannies and governesses from India and the Philippines, who first language was not Arabic or English could not read to these children and so story books were not on the families agenda. I was amazed how this culture had risen from Bedouin camel train to Mercedes, Jaguar and Range Rover, iPhone and Blackberry in such a short space of time but their children struggled to read, write and communicate at four years old. As teachers we set up story time after school clubs and parenting courses and were inundated with the response. I am sure stories still unfold today around the dinner table in many Arabic homes, but the massive and rapid changes in cultural development in the UAE have meant priorities have changed. Development means that women do not spend as much time in the home or in harems and stories and education are carried out by other cultures. Sharing books and stories and writing classroom stories was an enviable pleasure.

In Africa I experienced similar prized chattels, everyone carried a cell phone, drove a car, had a flat screen television but the children at seven years old were illiterate. No one knew phonics; the elders never experienced schooling as we know it; English was their first language taught in all establishments but the elder’s only spoke tribal languages therefore were unable to teach, assist or support the children with their studies. The African children I worked with struggled to write, read and use the English language. They were not taught grammar or sentence structure in school, unless you could afford to attend a private school and then learning was limited and not to the standards we know. The children I worked with found reading “hard work” and read extremely slowly (if at all) as they had never been given the tools to enable positive learning skills to develop. The children were so enthusiastic to learn and participate and would flock around me and sap up all information offered and were enthralled and engaged in listening to a story from a book or imagination. It was such a pleasure to tell a story to these children; it was an honour to be their teacher, I loved every minute.

I also lived and taught in the Arizonian desert and had the humble privilege of colleagues and friends from a variety of American Indian tribes. What beauty and variety span these cultures and what great story tellers these people are and have always been? The elders still pass on their stories and are most happy if you will sit and listen. It is important to these tribes that tradition, old wives tales and culture is continued to be passed on. There is a traditional image of an elder seated with a large number of children clambering all over her listening to the “story.” Nevertheless, storytelling is dwindling due to careers and people moving to the cities for a different way of life. Younger generations do not realise the loss of these stories and in years to come no one will be able to pass on the stories to the next generations.

Stories and storytelling teach us so much in so many different ways and I don’t mean just from a book. By telling or hearing a story we learn about history and cultures, families past and present; traditions and beliefs. We learn how to listen, concentrate and take turns. We mature our personal, social and emotional skills and extend language and learn how to communicate with one another. We build trusting relationships and bonds; hugs for at least twenty seconds release oxytocin which helps us to build trusting relationships. Cuddling up together with a book or a family story creates bonds, encourages conversations, poses questions and answers and deepens our connections with our children. Touching and connecting build love and care and this we all need to develop positively. Children, who are not touched, stroked and shown love falter, do not develop and can become depressed. Books and storytelling help nurture and nourish our hearts and minds.

Seeing the written word in many forms supports and develops our understanding of marks and symbols around us and is the first stages to reading and writing and builds confidence and self-esteem. Reading helps us to make sense of the world; letters, numbers and symbols are all around us wherever we are in the world and if we cannot make sense of the world it can be very detrimental to our well-being and a scary place to be. Children get great pleasure from books, pictures and stories and they obviously extend our knowledge base. A child without a book is like a sky with no sun.

So we must encourage storytelling, stories and books for every child everywhere in the world; we should never take for granted that everyone has what we have. We must not take for granted everyone has the opportunity we have. An African boy once said to me, “you were lucky to be born where you were born; I am just a poor African boy trying to learn what you know without the tools.” There are still children today who have no books, no library and no one to read to them. There are still places in the world where girls and women are not educated because it is not seen as important. Educate a girl and you educate a family and a generation.

I hope I have left a small legacy behind in the places I been a teacher.  I hope I have shared some knowledge, a story or two, some mark making skills, a phonics lesson or two, some good books, some pens, pencils and paper and how to make a good cup of tea.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Arabian Royal Wedding continued

And still no bride…or groom…yet!

Remember…the scene was amazing and spellbinding and we two very English teachers had been enjoying every single minute of this bridal event. As the concealed male voice and gong resonated to call us all to our tables for our elaborate dinner, all hell was let loose, as female...yes, all female...waitresses entered the marquee, in unison, from all corners, in exotic traditional dress, carrying huge silver platters covered in a huge domed silver food covering balanced on their right hand way above their heads in a well-rehearsed regimented march.

Each platter was placed in the centre of each elaborately decorated table and the traditionally dressed female waitresses turned and marched in time with each other back to the kitchens and returned minutes later with obscene numbers of side dishes that were delicately and precisely placed around the large silver platter centre stage.

As guests we sat patiently and waited watching this parade and spectacle take place until it was indicated by the concealed male voice that we could begin to help ourselves to dinner. One of the elder matriarchal Arabic women at our table stood and lifted the dome from the silver platter to reveal a whole roasted goat...head and all...ordaining the platter in the middle of our table. There was head, legs, tail, and you can now visualise how big this platter was. This large roasted goat slept in the middle of our table lovingly festooned with local herbs and leaves, it was a true work of art.

The waitresses parade continued collecting and removing the silver domes from each table and then immediately each of the Arabic woman lurched into the goat dissecting every limb and fighting over who was going to get the pleasure of the head. My English friend and I just sat mesmerized watching this ungainly debacle. It is one of the only times I faked vegetarianism, much to the chagrin of the Arabic womenfolk sharing our table. Everything about that meal was difficult; nothing was to my taste, strange flavours, textures and mixes but to refuse was considered rude, disrespectful and extremely bad manners in this culture. Boy, did I find eating that meal at that table grim; swallowing became awkward and at times impossible. I have to confess I did spit the most unpalatable mouthfuls into my napkin on several occasions.

The most delicious part of this meal was the traditional desserts, especially Arabic rice pudding, absolutely delicious, traditionally accompanied by the standard weak Arabic sweet syrupy tea (which I had now become accustomed to) served in the traditionally beautiful miniature glass mugs delivered to our tables by the “parade” of the female waitresses once more. Every little glass mug had been intricately engraved with the interwoven initials of the bride and groom and the royal family crest.

As we enjoyed the sweet tea and admired the glass tea mugs, Arabic music cascaded and wafted into the very pink decorated tent and swamped the guests. Whispers, rustles and hushed chatter enveloped the entire space and.....then, as we waited in anticipation....from the far end of the mile long cat walk under a pink flower laden arch and from behind a voile curtain appeared the most serene apparition.....the bride.....innocent, shy and composed, dressed in the most beautiful white very “poufy” dress with an enormous train flowing behind her, she began to walk incredibly slowly and gently down her bridal mile, making her way towards a two seater “pink” sofa in a shrine type setting at the far end. She stopped and twirled occasionally in order that no one missed a single ruffle, frill, pearl or diamond on that poufy dress. Everyone watched and gazed in awe for at least an hour, as this young woman, paraded relentlessly, until she reached the flower adorned sofa where her family assisted with her dress and train in order that she could sit, and sit comfortably, and wait for her groom to join her.

At this point I suddenly noticed that now we were being secured and guarded by an armed, all female security attaché that mingled between the guests for the remainder of the evening tapping feet in time to the music, hollering and dancing with the guests from time to time with pistols slung on their hips. What a strange and contradictory sight. After several hours of dancing, hollering and warbling and young girls provocatively snaking their hips in the middle of the round dining tables where earlier we had been devouring our goats, suddenly the atmosphere changed. A steady hum radiated through the women and around the tent like a Mexican wave followed by a rapid rustle of abayas, scarfs and veils which swept across the room within minutes; once again the room was clad in black rather than coloured satins, voiles and diamonds. It looked more like a funeral than a wedding. Not a single lock of hair was visible other than the blonde locks of us two English teachers who were unclad and showing our wears. To a fanfare of local musicians and male dancers at the flower enveloped arch, the groom finally appeared in traditional royal white and gold robes and with eyes only for his bride he proceeded to take his own parade along the mile long catwalk, stopping occasionally to the seductive hollering and warbling of the women and girls until he reached his bride.

Joining her on the couch, the family embraced them both and the dancing, hollering and celebrations continued into the small hours. Bride and groom sat on that couch for the remainder of the evening, not touching, and at opposite ends, occasionally looking and speaking to each other until most guests had departed. Luxury cars drove back into the plush pink carpet clad entrance way to collect the celebrated and royal guests and return them to their palaces and homes. My English friend and I took our chauffer driven stretched Mercedes back to our teacher’s quarters with vivid memories of an exceptional evening never to be repeated.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Mrs Teacup in Lagos, West Africa

I will  never forget the first time I travelled to Africa; it is as vivid today as it was then. The only white face on the plane was my first taste of Africa as a white woman. I was stared at, talked about and whispers rustled round the plane as diligent as an African mosquito, for the full five hours of the flight. "Why on earth are you travelling alone to Nigeria?" was the first question I was asked as I settled into my middle Afryka Airlines seat between two very dark full figured extrovertly attired African women? Eyes were on me the whole trip and I was observed from all angles; I felt like a Tracey Emin exhibit in the Tate.

I was travelling to work with African children and was proud of what I was doing. I was very excited but as the plane took off with 500 plus Africans staring at me with huge eyes peering out of black faces my excitement did dwindle slightly. My African companions (either side of me) were kind friendly and good company and they found great comfort in telling me the “whys and wherefores” of what I could expect when I landed at Mohammed Murtala Airport, Lagos. I was grateful to some of the information but I could have done without a lot of it.

Proceeding through the airport in Lagos there was not a white face in sight. I was the most popular passenger in the baggage hall and several young African women travelling with me were concerned for my safety. They surrounded me and ushered me through every turnstile and gave me their cell phone numbers “in case I got into any difficulties”. I was an easy target and harassed constantly by the porter who endeavoured to attempt to insist I pay for a baggage cart or pay him to carry my bags to my driver; this was called a “dash.”  I had been warned about this before even leaving the UK and also on the plane by my two African mentors and as my suitcase was on wheels, I gave no one a “dash.” Waiting for the bags to arrive was like waiting for paint to dry! And as the only white face in the baggage hall I was the talk of the town and extremely easy to spot! Some small children wanted to touch and stoke me! 

The baggage conveyor belt did not work, the air conditioning did not work and nor did the ceiling fans; so…hot and sticky in a 40 degree humid hall, finally our bags were brought out (some two hours later) from a deep dark hole somewhere in the airport, on very squeaky and rickety trolleys and one by one passengers claimed their luggage and began to file out of the airport building; most, kindly shouted “goodbye” to me, the exhibit and not surprisingly there was no ordered queue. Outside was an incredible sight…something I have never envisaged…an even deeper sea of dark faces just staring at me and as I exited, in slow motion the sea parted and my driver just magically appeared out of the crowd and rapidly took charge of my baggage and me and whisked me along to a car waiting for us in the car park. I suppose I was not hard for him to recognise?

We passed dealers of all descriptions who grabbed at me and murmured in hushed voices “white woman, white woman, white woman” and tried to touch and grab at me. They constantly asked “what have you bought for me.” Beggars sat in the gutters, hands held out for money or gifts, some with limbs missing, many of them children; those with limbs missing used skate boards to get around. My driver continued to hurry me on and quickly and forcefully thrust me into the back seat of the awaiting car; within minutes we were on our way out of the airport terminal; I was definitely venturing into the unknown. Already I was in awe of this fascinating culture that broke every rule and boundary.

The road was pitch black, no street lamps, no white lines and no cat’s eyes. There were holes in roads as big as craters; no tarmac… just a deep red coloured earth and dust kicked up all around us.  No one had any lane discipline, everyone was weaving in and out each other at least 70mph and buses careered past us laden with luggage on the roof and hanging over the side; these buses were oversubscribed with passengers and goats, many of them hanging out of the doors and. These sights were unbelievable to me; I had never seen anything like this before and my head jerked from side to side as I watched open mouthed the Nigerian culture unfold before me. Cars were smashed up; trucks falling apart and rusty old yellow buses that should not have been on the road were carrying civilians at high speeds. Who insures these vehicles I wondered?

Suddenly we hit a traffic jam and immediately the car came to a halt and was instantly surrounded by children begging. They tapped constantly on the car window and with their hands held out to me called “please, please lady, spare me some coins, anything you have.” They ran alongside the car as we slowly eased our way along begging me to pass money out of the window. “Please white lady, please, some coins, spare some coins.” I took out a few Naira from the ones I had brought from the Bureau de Change in the UK and carefully slipped this through a crack in the window and as the coins fell to ground the children began to fight over this tiny amount of money, it was pitiful. As one child finally took it for herself, she gave me a smile from deep within her soul and ran off. My driver began to laugh and said “you have started something now, best you give nothing as they will never be satisfied and will never leave you alone, especially as you are white.” I logged that sentence and didn’t answer; those words were to haunt me as my trip unfolded. We were also bothered by hawkers selling anything and everything to make a naira or two. Seeing a white blonde western woman in the back seat of a taxi cab meant megabucks to these beggars and hawkers, I had already become a target.

The traffic began to move at a higher speed and we left the children and hawkers behind and continued along in the opaque blackness until we turned into a street alive with loud tribal music, exotic dancing, passionate singing and alight with candles and Kerosene fires on which brightly decorated women were cooking a variety of goat, chicken and beef curries and stews. The street was rocking and buzzing with Africans of all ages; you could feel the vibration in your soul. We slowly wove our way through the crowds, my driver cleverly missing any obstruction…the noise was incredible…it was so loud it hurt my ears and head. What with the women shouting for you to sample their wares, the sound of food frying, the music and singing, the incessant chattering of exuberant African families and the car and bike engines, I had never sampled noise on this level anywhere in the world. Although outrageously out of my comfort zone, I was addicted. The smell was phenomenal too; a bizarre mixture of curry, beer, Kerosene, sweat and engine emissions; I can still smell it vividly today.

As we edged out of the crowd at the end of this long festival, we emerged into the dark shadows again and the celebratory sounds began to fade behind us and we turned into a quiet crater filled road (which ingeniously my driver dodged) and into the hotel entrance closed off by locked six foot overly ornate and heavily decorated gates of copper and aluminium which were very quickly opened by the small childlike gateman, Abdullah, and my driver parked up in front of the so called hotel. Abdullah very quickly relieved us of my suitcase and rushed it into the hotel lobby (hoping for a dash from this white woman, I am sure) while I paid and thanked my driver. On entering I was met by the very young Nigerian male proprietor who kindly “dashed” Abdullah and showed me to my very basic hotel room which included a king size bed (raised about six inches off the floor), a small worn sofa and a rickety chest of drawers on which sat a small TV with a bent indoor aerial. There was one window with torn mosquito screens and no curtains and the ceiling fan was off. My “en-suite” bathroom contained a stained and worn out bath, sink and filthy toilet. No shower, just a bright orange rubber hose pipe fitted to the single tap in the bath. A red plastic “pound shop” bucket stood in the bath with a plastic scoop inside…I learnt very quickly how to bathe in Nigeria; fill the bucket with cold water from the hose pipe (the night before, so it warms up) and scoop the water from the bucket to wash each day. I never did have a hot bath. Clothes washing was carried out the same way, by hand in the bath and hung to dry in my hotel room.

There was an old ugly grey box like air conditioning unit cut into the outside wall next to the window (the plaster work had not been repaired or made good) but I was told by my young Nigerian proprietor that the electricity was only on for one hour in the morning and one in the evening and he could not guarantee that. NEPA, the Nigerian electricity company, “took” power just when they felt like it, so nothing could be guaranteed. And when there was electricity, it was too expensive to have on continuously, proprietor advised me. I thought to myself “I am paying for this?” I giggled inside at the thought of relaying to my family my experience…they were never going to believe my story.

Exhausted (and elated) I was blessed with a chunky china mug of weak black unsweetened tea, compliments of the proprietor as a nightcap (I requested milk to accompany it) and was left to settle down for the night in 40 degree plus humidity with no air conditioning, no fan and no light, alone in a wild part of the world. I safely locked and chained my hotel door and lay in the darkness until sleep took over.