Monday, July 21, 2008

Day 12

Interestingly, I take on a Biology class today. My teacher and I are covering for an absent Biology teacher. Not that we quite know what to do, but fortunately the real teacher has made adequate advance preparations. Our job is just to hand out learning materials to the students and supervise them as they work. In a way, I'm glad for the reprieve I'm getting from Maths classes and grateful for the chance to do something different. If only I knew.

As I step into the Biology lab, I know I must be in the wrong place. I double-check with the teacher, asking if he's sure this is where we're supposed to be. He assures me it is. Three boys are having a row in a corner, whilst the rest of the students talk animatedly amongst themselves. Our entrance makes absolutely no impact on the class. It takes all of ten minutes to break the fight and get the students to begin work.

"Work" consists of each student copying out a diagram of the respiratory system from a textbook - line for line, word for word. I think this is odd; I clearly remember having to learn all my Biology diagrams by heart and reproducing them from memory when answering exam questions. My worst was the complicated ear diagram - I never quite understood it.

I tell the teacher what I'm thinking, and he assures me this is the only way anyone can get the students to learn anything. They don't listen when the Biology teacher tries to teach them, so the poor man has resorted to the copy-and-paste method: perhaps, just perhaps, by copying down what is in the textbook, they might recognise and retain some of the information.

I see the point: half the class is not even bothering to copy the diagram. One of the three boys fighting earlier turns on his music player and we're all treated to a loud blast of hip hop lyrics. No one dares tell him to turn it down. Two girls flirt with some boys in the far corner, obviously having the time of their lives. Some students just sit and stare, waiting patiently for an hour to roll by without doing anything. Now this is a bunch of fourteen year-olds. The world has gone crazy, or is it me?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Day 11

There's nothing much to report today. Or maybe there is, but I've grown quite used to the things I used to find shocking when I first started here. Strange how quickly abnormal can become normal given enough time. This reminds me that I need to be careful about the things I expose myself to in life.

Back to today. The only memorable event is a conversation between me and the teacher about one of our students. This girl was caught shoplifting at a major supermarket a few days ago, and has been banned from stepping foot on the premises for God knows how long. Perhaps worse than the attempt she made to steal is the fact that she has shown absolutely no remorse over what she did. In fact, she seems delighted at the attention - never mind that it's negative - that her escapade has earned her.

For starters, she'd reported herself to the teacher of her own free will; if she hadn't told him what happened with her he'd have had no inkling about it. It was more of a brag than a report really, the way she went about it. She was all giggles and excitement, either too far gone in her deviance or too dumb to realise the implications of what she'd done. The teacher is obviously more worried for her than she is for herself. He tells me he's made up his mind to do what he can to mentor her; maybe, just maybe, he can yet make a difference in her life.

The situation is worrying, really, to say the least. This happens to be the same fourteen-year old girl who came to class the other day with a fake pregnancy ball tucked under her blouse, the same one who broke the monitor of a desktop computer in the computer lab yesterday... the same one who'll most likely be wreaking havoc over the next few years that I'll not be around to witness. God have mercy.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 10

I've missed two days of school because of a 2-day teacher training session which I'm not qualified to attend. Not that I mind though. At least I've got more time for my books.

The departmental secretary gives me and another colleague a few snippets of what transpired during the training. She expresses frustration at the fact that the school managers don't back up their words with actions. She thinks their inconsistency is largely responsible for the kids' complacent attitude. They set rules but don't give teachers power to enforce them.

The discussion rapidly snowballs in the manner that most discussions do, and soon we're talking about the role of parents in enforcing discipline. The secretary believes the parents are completely out of touch with what is going on with the kids, leaving people like her in schools to take care of the mess. In her own words, "The parents haven't got a finger on the pulse. If they did, half my job won't be necessary".

Someone whizzes in with the latest news: some twenty teachers are leaving the school at the end of term; some to better jobs, some to nothing. The secretary says she doesn't blame the teachers for running away. Someone reminds her she's supposed to be projecting the school in a positive light, to which she replies, "It's got so bad now I can't".

My afternoon Maths class holds another English classroom, different from the usual venue. All over the walls are posters bearing snippets of information about various literature texts. I'm surprised to learn that the title of the book "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub. Nor did I know that the book is essentially a metaphor representing the spiritual battle between good and evil in the world. So what did I learn in the one term it took to study the book in my secondary school English Literature class?

The icing on today's cake of irreverent behaviour is served towards the end of the afternoon class. The students are working independently, only calling out for help when they need it. That leaves me and the teacher some free time to chat. At one point, engrossed in our discussion, the teacher leans over to explain something to me while gesticulating animatedly . A girl who hasn't done any work since the beginning of the lesson points at us from her perch and shouts, "Sir, you're married, remember?". The teacher, bewildered, turns to her and asks, "Why do you say that?" "Because you're flirting", she answers. Now, that's a new one on me, even by the standards of this school!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day 9

As has become usual these past few days, today starts with a staff room discussion. One of the teachers starts off complaining about the students' attitude to learning. What irritates him most is the waste of resources - the big school library stocked with £80,000 worth of books is hardly ever used by the students. Even he uses the library far more than the students do. He knows that because more often than not the books he borrows have never been previously used by anyone else.

I tell them we had a tiny library the size of a single room when I was in primary school. Most afternoons while waiting for my grandmum to pick me up from school, I'd lock myself up in the rather stuffy room (I can picture it even now) and read my heart out. My secondary school library was much bigger in size but didn't have that many books. I guess I'm even lucky to have attended a primary school in Africa that had any size of collection of books. I doubt that most other people of my generation can say the same thing.

As the unofficial staff room chatter draws to an end, another teacher (not the one I'm officially attached to) asks me to consider helping out in his afternoon class. I concede mainly because I like the idea of observing a different teacher at work. Quite surprisingly, I realise I'm actually going to miss the kids in my regular class.

I find my 'new' class to be quite interesting. There are three teachers for twenty four students. Including me takes the number up to four. That's one teacher to six students. I'm impressed; England must be the only place where you can get this kind of teacher-student ratio.

We spend the first fifteen minutes of the lesson watching projected musical videos on YouTube. It takes a while for me to realise that it's a tactic employed by the lead teacher to get the students interested in the topic of the day: addition and subtraction of money. The video session features a selection of popular hip hop artistes singing about money (of course, these artistes never intended for their music to be connected to mathematics in any way!). Sure enough, there isn't anyone in the class - myself included - who is not watching intently. I can't help but admire the creativity and resourcefulness of these teachers who literally pull out all the stops trying to get the children to learn, that they might by all means save some.

The gimmick seems to work, as the students easily settle down to work and are quite quick to grasp the basic concept of addition and subtraction. I would never have believed it if someone had told me this was on a secondary school maths curriculum. My bewilderment is compounded when I realise that all the students have to do is add and subtract little sums of money - all under £10 - with calculators! My, there's no mental activity taking place here. I think there is really no point to this until I happen upon a student who's coming up with completely wrong answers - even with a calculator! Well.

Day 8

There's no class to teach in the first two periods, so I sit in the staff room again with the teachers. The topic of discussion this time is the handful of students in the school who are actually eager to learn, do extremely well and get excellent results. I've come across quite a few of them myself. I can tell you, they're like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise choked environment.

Mid-morning, I go with my teacher to the first class of the day. There are no more than five students in attendance, most of whom are girls. One of them starts talking animatedly to the teacher about a boy she just met who happens to be the very epitome of glamour: young, clever, handsome, rich, all that. In short, she thinks she's found her future. Meanwhile she has problems solving fractions and ratios because she does not know her times tables. Oh, never mind that!

This girl's excitement is contagious, and soon another girl is telling the class about her life-long dream to marry Amir Khan (British lightweight boxing champion). Fifteen minutes into the lesson, she's done nothing but primp herself in front of a small mirror she carries about in her bag.

After about thirty minutes, the class finally settles down to work. Amir Khan's crushee sits at her desk in a corner with her knees drawn up to her chest and her back against the wall. I notice she's been watching me with obvious interest for the past five minutes or so. I carry on as if I haven't noticed. Finally, she blurts out to me: "Miss, how long have you been in university?". (Well, that's a question I've not even asked myself because the answer is quite scary!).

We start a conversation in which she tells me she wants to be a lawyer but she doesn't think she can can do it because she can't understand mathematics. I tell her there's nothing to be feared in Mathematics, and that she can be a lawyer with or without Mathematics, if she would just put her mind to it. I proceed to help her with her equations, and pretty soon she picks it up and even starts enjoying it.

By the time the lesson ends an hour later, she's definitely not the same girl who walked into the class that morning. True, she's not yet where she needs to be, but she's a step closer to there, all because I took sixty minutes of my time to deposit some knowledge and confidence into her. That makes my heart glad. If I have not achieved anything else on this placement, this singular experience would've made it worth it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Day 7

Final year exams are holding this morning. That leaves us teachers with nothing much to do - except sit in the staffroom and chat.

Today is the funeral of the 14-year old boy who killed himself two weeks ago. School carries on as normal, but a handful of students wearing R.I.P. shirts leave mid-morning to attend the funeral service. It's truly heartbreaking.

I start off this blog post (on paper) so I can free up time to study when I get home. Have you ever tried combining full-time work and full-time study? Don't!

I've been hearing some talk of something called PODs around here since last week, so I ask my teacher what it's all about. Unknown to me, it's a hot topic and in a matter of minutes there's a fierce debate going on about it in the staff room.

It turns out it's all about a revolutionary learning system 'imported' from Australia, in which secondary school students are not taught by subject (English, Mathematics, Biology, etc.) but by theme. So, for instance, a class will have a theme of 'The Environment' for a term. The idea is for the students to find various ways in which the environment can be explained in terms of every possible subject, from English to Biology to Maths to Geography. The argument in the staff room is about whether or not the method is effective in imparting knowledge to students. Quite naturally, people's opinions are varied. I personally think the system is quite murky, and results are not guaranteed. Well, time will tell.

It's soon time for the mid-morning break. I relax in the staff room eating jam doughnuts and sipping coffee. Hmmn, maybe a teacher's life is not so bad afterall...

The topic for my afternoon lesson is fractions. Many of the students struggle to understand it, so I walk around to give assistance. A few of the kids are genuinely making an effort to understand, but the rest of them just loaf around. A boy pratts about the class, swearing by the dozen and showing off his six-pack for the girls to see.

I do a couple of sums with a lad who thankfully finally understands. Seeing this, I prompt him to finish up the sums, but he can't be bothered to. He prefers to just sit there and idle the time away. I realise kids like him are simply not interested in learning, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. How can you possibly help someone who doesn't want to be helped?

Day 6

It's the last lesson for this class before exams. The results of the mock test they wrote last week are not very encouraging, so the teacher decides to review the questions with the class again.

I watch as the teacher works through the question paper on his laptop. As he writes on the screen with a laptop pen, it's boldly projected onto the white board - in his handwriting. My, my. The wonders of technology!

The students still don't get the hang of equations and algebra. The teacher can't understand why or how; he's spent the better part of the last few months trying to hammer it into their heads. Short of actually opening their brains and stuffing them with books, there's nothing else he can do to help them.

After class, I chat with the teacher about the dismal performance of the students. I ask if there are Open Days when parents can come in and see what their kids are doing. He says yes, but the trend is that it's parents of well-behaved kids who usually show up. Those the teachers actually want to see - parents of not-so-well-behaved kids - do not show up. These are kids whose parents are typically lower class, live on benefits, use dope and are addicted to alcohol. They're so ignorant they don't know enough to encourage their children to study. Those who do encourage their kids don't make much of an impact because children are more influenced by what they see than what they hear. The result is a vicious cycle, the very cycle that government is trying hard to break by keeping the children in school by all means possible.

I think it's odd though; at home I know loads of poor illiterate parents who would sell everything just to make sure their children don't end up like them. It seems to be the case that education in most parts of the world is most valued by those who do not have it. Benefits or no, illiteracy/ignorance robs people of their independence and compels them to live from hand to mouth. This may sound morbid, but I'm beginning to think that lack of access to government benefits does have its advantages. We in Africa know we don't have too many options, so we strive to make the most out of life for ourselves. Much of the time we succeed. Now that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 5

The day starts with yet another revision class. Seems that's all we're going to be doing till end of term.

The teacher goes over a whole range of topics - fractions, equations, ratios - but the students can't seem to remember any of it. Exasperated, the teacher reminds them he's spent all term teaching them all that stuff and therefore they should remember. A disinterested student asks the teacher for the minimum mark they need to get for a C or a D - just to scale through! I can't believe my ears - I thought going to school was all about aiming for what is maximally possible in life. Strange.

After revision it's time for a 30-minute mock test on past question papers. There's a question about expressing a number as the product of its prime factors. Someone asks the teacher what 'product' means. I have to double-check with the teacher that these students are in the penultimate year of secondary school.

After the test the teacher proceeds to mark the scripts. He beckons to me a while later and shows me a script he's just finished marking. The student has all the answers wrong, despite the fact that the questions are based on the topics the teacher has just revised with them and had been teaching them all term. The teacher tells me it's hopeless; he believes he can teach that particular kid the same thing over and over for the next fifteen years and he still won't get it. I ask him what he thinks the problem is; he tells me the kid is just lazy and stupid. Concerned, I ask the teacher what kind of future the little lad can hope to have, to which he responds, "Oh, he'll just live off benefits!".

I do like the stimulating learning environment of this school; it reminds me of why I love learning. It's really refreshing for me - almost like being back in secondary school. Some of the things that are taught I remember; others I think might be recent additions to the curriculum, or maybe I have just forgotten being taught. Whatever the case, I am glad for the opportunity to re-learn old things. I've come to this amazing realisation now that no matter how old or experienced we become, no knowledge is beneath us...

The class we're using for our math revision lesson is actually an English classroom. Pasted all over the walls are reminders of grammar elements - nouns, verbs, prepositions, alliterations, suffixes - I find that I'd actually forgotten what some of those terms mean. Maybe I need this school experience more than I thought I did :).

There are posters displaying interesting information on all subjects along the school corridors. I didn't know for instance that George Orwell is not the author's real name. Nor that Rene Descartes got the idea that developed into the Cartesian coordinates in a dream. Or that the words of the popular South African song "Nkosi sikele Africa" mean "God bless Africa". The more I learn these things, the more I want to learn. I'm no longer sure if I'm a teacher or student here.

There's also a fresh quote on the school's internet portal everyday. I agree with today's by J.P. O'Rourke: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys". True.

The afternoon class is - you guessed it - a revision class as well. This is the last revision session for the class before the exam next week. You would think the students would sit up and at least try to make one final push for it. Wrong. The teacher, apparently reaching the end of his rope, declares to them, "Some of you are lazy, just lazy, and you will fail. However, I have done my best; I can't write the exam for you. If you can't be bothered to make an effort, so be it". Poor man. He really means well for these kids.

The performance of the class in the 30-minute mock test is as usual not encouraging. On seeing his marked script, a student remarks, "I need a C. Why do I get an E?". The teacher turns and gives him the obvious answer: "Because that's what you worked for". The student continues to stare at the teacher like he doesn't get it. The teacher turns away, exasperated. I think to myself: You just have to love this job to do it. Anything less than pure love and you'll go crazy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day 4

I get a rude early-morning reminder of just how new I am to this place. On my way to the staff room, I walk down a corridor lined with students who apparently have nothing to do but loaf around. Reaching a dead end, I realise I should've turned off the corridor somewhere along the way. I guess I don't know my way around as well as I think. I try to retrace my steps - and end up trying to nudge open a window I thought was a door. Instantly I hear sniggers from all along the corridor - the silly kids are making jest of me! As I correct myself and approach the right exit one of them shouts to me - "Miss, no, it's this way" - pointing to the solid, doorless wall on the other side of the corridor. In my country you get spanked for doing that to your teacher.

My first class begins. It's a revision lesson for final year exams next week. Amazingly, the students settle down to work on their class exercises. I didn't know a class could actually be quiet in this school!

A student strolls into the class at least fifteen minutes late, only to announce that he forgot his pen at home. The teacher promptly fishes out one for him from his generous supply of stationery. In this place they provide students with everything - pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, compasses, protractors, note books... My mind is cast back to the six maths sets my mum bought for every one of the six years I spent in secondary school. They kept getting pinched each year, probably by those whose mothers couldn't afford to buy maths sets for them.

This class is really quiet. With the exception of the occasional student asking for the answer to a ridiculous question like 9x7, it actually almost feels like the type of school environment I'm accustomed to. That's better!

At lunch I engage in a discussion with three teachers in which we lament the state of indiscipline in schools throughout the country. Education laws are designed to indulge children rather than correct them. No member of staff, not even the school principal, has any real authority over these children. Someone says he does not know how government expects teachers to do their job without giving them the power they need to do it. Good point.

I have another class after lunch. The teacher does most of the teaching; I mostly watch how he handles the students. Three years in the profession have made him an expert in this business. He knows how to put these children in their place. There's the case of a boy who alleges that I'm gossiping with the teacher about him. The teacher's response: "What could we possibly have to say about you? That you're clever? I don't think so. Now shut it and get on with your work!" Another boy threatens to beat a fellow student as well as the teacher. The teacher looks at him pointedly and declares matter-of-factly: "Well, I can assure you, you won't live to tell the story". I just look on, truly fascinated by all the drama.

While other people are trying to work on their class exercises, a girl takes out her music phone, plugs in her earphones and starts swaying to music. A boy causes disturbance on his table and the teacher asks him to move to another table or get out of the class. He chooses to get out of the class. The girl with the music phone turns up the volume so that we can all hear what she's listening to. The teacher tells her to turn it down.

The day gradually draws to a close. The class disperses and as usual I help the teacher clear up. Commenting on the his handling of the children, he says to me: "We don't teach students here; we play mind games with them. You make them do what you want them to do while making them think they're doing it of their own free will". Interesting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Day 3

I arrive at the right place at the right time. New placements are not so bad once you know your way around.

I'm assisting in yet another revision class this morning. I make my way to the classroom and stop just short of the door. Pasted on it is a quote I find interesting: "Better to be three hours too soon than a minute too late". Some folks need to hear that!

The lesson kicks off. There are two teachers to a class of about seven people (three teachers if you count me). Granted, the term-time class strength is about fifty, but two teachers to fifty students is still luxury! I can't cease to be amazed by the high tech facilities in the school - great teachers, laptops and projectors in every classroom, Wi-Fi internet connection everywhere, the works. If the secondary school I attended had even half of these facilities I'd be a genius by now.

The curriculum organisation is equally impressive. All teachers work with standardised PowerPoint lesson notes designed by some central education authority. Teaching is also graduated, i.e., students in the same class are not necessarily taught at the same level. Topics are divided into modules and each student is allowed to go through the modules at their own pace. As much as I applaud the initiative, I also think it tends to encourage laziness in some students. I believe that many of the students can do a lot better than they're currently doing if they're pushed.

After the lesson, my teacher explains a few things to me about the school. It's an "inner-city school", which means that it's dominated by street-wise kids who come to school by day and do drugs by night. For these kids, the alternative to school is crime. The government and their parents see school as a way of keeping them out of trouble, hence government's willingness to spend millions on schools for them. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere down the line, they might decide to make something worthwhile of their lives. I am now beginning to get the full picture...

After lunch, we take on a class of 14-year olds...

One of them thinks it's cool to be pregnant and comes to class with a ball protruding from under her hoodie. She does not obey the teacher's instruction to take off the hoodie - it would result in her losing the 'pregnancy'. After the lesson she mimics a woman in labour, claiming her water just broke. The teacher beckons to her and asks her what the display is all about (of course, he can't reprimand her!). She gives him a quick summary, and as if to buttress her point, pulls out from her pocket a certain type of rubber that a 14-year old is not supposed to be privy to. The Zimbabwean-born teacher is truly shocked at the sight, and tells me as much after the class has dispersed. Myself, I am speechless!

Another girl abandons her chair and takes to the floor by the door, where she sits throughout the lesson. From her perch, she hardly listens to the teacher. She's too busy taking pictures with her mobile phone to be bothered with solving inequalities and drawing numberlines.

The teacher stumbles over something and a girl makes fun of him. "Sir, you're clumsy. What's wrong with you?" The teacher tells her his grey hairs are responsible for his clumsiness.

All through the lesson the kids do not keep still. Rather than listen, they chat away and hurl verbal insults at each other. One girl tells the teacher she desn't know how to copy a table. Another says she doesn't feel like doing the class exercise assigned to them. Two boys start a mock fight. The teacher sends them out of the room for a few minutes. When they get back in, they pick another fight. A girl plays catch in class with her exercise book.

I come to a singular conclusion: What we have on our hands here is a control problem. In the midst of all this, they don't seem to be learning very much. That much is evident when a secondary school student tells you that the square of 5 is 10!

Day 2

I arrive promptly at 8.15am and head straight for the staff room. I fully expect to find my teacher there: we ned to go over the day's plans for an 8.30am start.

My teacher is not in the staff room. I sit waiting with another colleague for about ten minutes. No one else is in sight.

It's 8.30am. My colleague starts to fidget; maybe we're waiting for the teachers in the wrong place. Problem is we don't know where the right place would be.

We decide to go off in search of information about our teachers' whereabouts. After many misdirections, we finally find someone who knows what they're talking about. It turns out that the teachers we're looking for are based at a different campus, fifteen minutes' walk away.

I've missed the first lesson period getting lost, but thankfully I arrive on time for the second period. The class is not large; just about five students undergoing revision in preparation for a maths exam next week.

The teacher has the clas pretty much under control. There's not much for me to do by way of assistance, so I have quite a lot of time to scan through the Shakespeare and George Orwell excerpts posted all over the walls of the room. Someone has been doing a good job encouraging the students to read.

About five minutes into the lesson, a non-member of the class saunters into the room, initiates a loud conversation with a class member who is obviously her friend, effectively disrupting the class. The teacher patiently waits for her to finish her business and leave.

A couple of minutes later, the noisemaker leaves and the class is back to normal. I overhear a student asking her friend a mathematics-related question. Her friend does not seem to have an answer. I walk over and ask if I can be of help. The student matter-of-factly shakes her head no. Well, I've done my best.

I walk over to another girl who's been shouting questions at the teacher across the room. She looks past me and makes it clear that she needs the teacher's help, not mine. I am too self-confident to feel slighted. I feel like pointing out to her that she's the one losing out, not me... but I don't.

I spot a boy in the corner staring blankly at his question paper. Sensing his incomprehension, I walk over to offer some help. He lets me.

Encouraged, I go over to another boy calling for help from the far end of the room. Working with him, I realise he does not need as much help as he thinks he does. He only needs to believe in himself a bit more.

For that matter, none of these kids need as much help as they think they do. They just need to put their hearts into it. Their minds will follow.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Day 1

I sit waiting in the reception area for about one and a half hours with ten other people.

I'm impressed with the stately architecture - steel and glass building, light, airy and well-appointed interior. My wonder is increased when I learn that it's a government school providing completely free secondary education. Nothing like my government schools back home.

I watch the kids loitering about the school compound and scampering down the hallways at 8am in the morning.

Some of them are wearing black T-shirts inscribed with a farewell message - a fourteen year old schoolmate killed himself last week.

Teachers walk hurriedly past reception without bothering to stop and ask what eleven new faces are doing sat around on their haunches early in the morning.

Finally, at about 8.45am, the bustle quiets down considerably - it seems the school day has finally started.

I continue chatting with my ten colleagues about the odd fact that we have been kept waiting for so long without having anyone attend to us.

Finally, the teachers begin to surface in trickles to collect us one by one. Most of them had forgotten that they were supposed to be expecting us.

I'm briefed on the way the school operates and allocated to a teacher for the day.

I sit in on my first class. My main duty is to assist the teacher in explaining to students on a one-to-one basis any concepts they may be struggling to understand. It turns out nearly the whole class is struggling. I am happy to help, but the students are not as happy to learn.

The kids are working on computers, an approach which is meant to enhance their learning experience. Unfortunately most of them do not get the point. They're more interested in computer games than in computer math lesons.

The teacher moves round the room to check on what the students are doing, but they've perfected the art of switching swiftly between windows as soon as they see him approaching. I also move around, but they can't be bothered to waste their skills on me, a mere teaching assistant.

A boy playing computer games shouts profanities across the room to another boy. The teacher in charge tells him to calm down but does not reprimand him for being inappropriate.

The kid I'm working with decides he's had enough of my ranting and moves off without warning to sit with another group. I doubt that he wrote down another word throughout the rest of the lesson.

I move off to work with another kid who touched my heart. His willigness to learn far surpassed his ability.

I expend considerable energy going over mathematical concepts with the new kid. By the end of the lesson, I am famished and desperate for a break. Thank God it's lunch time.

I have a break-time discussion with one of my colleagues who is with another teacher. Her experiences were not much different from mine. She's grateful her daughter does not attend this school.

End of break. Time for another class. This time it's a revision session for next week's math test.

It takes the class of forty about ten minutes to settle down. The teacher patiently waits for them to get quiet before starting the lesson. He hands out past question booklets to the whole class and gives them thirty minutes to attempt the seven questions in silence.

I study the test paper. I must have been taught most of the topics covered before I ever dreamed of going to secondary school.

The class never stays silent for more than five minutes at a stretch. The kids generally ignore the mock test and spend the time poking fun at each other. The teacher orders the class to keep quiet at least five times during the thirty-minute test period.

The test is over. I move round to have a peek into what the students have written. Most of them have not gotten beyond Question 3.

The teacher decides to spend the remaining hour of the lesson working out the test answers with the class. It takes forever to get them to quiet down enough to listen. I lose count of the number of times the teacher calmly orders them to keep quiet. He cannot shout on them talk less of beat them. It's against the law.

I walk round trying to help while the teacher is explaining. Only one kid is interested enough to ask for my help. Not that the others don't need any help; they just can't be bothered.

The teacher finally tires of telling the kids to keep quiet and tells them as much. He announces that he is fed up with trying to teach a bunch of people who don't want to learn. He tells the kids he will only continue teaching them out of respect for their parents and out of the responsibility he carries as their teacher.

The kids simply cannot stop making a din. Not to lose his head, the teacher finally gives up talking and takes to just writing step-by-step solutions on the high-tech projector board for the students to copy. The students do not write after him. They keep talking amongst themselves.

Time finally runs out. The school day's over. The teacher frees everyone to go home with the exception of about seven students. He asks them if they know why they're waiting. Most of them have an idea: noisemaking and class disruption charges.

The teacher desperately begs them to behave and listen in class so they can get their grades up and pass their exams. This time they keep quiet and seem to listen. The teacher lets them off a couple of minutes later.

I help the teacher with tidying up the room. He lets out his frustration with his job to me, saying his job description fits that of a policeman rather than a teacher. He's thankful that he's on a temporary two-year placement; he can't wait to quit and move on to something else.

Before he even says a word of all that to me, I have made up my mind: I cannot be a teacher in this country.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Yes, You Can!

We all know now that's a winning line :). Over the past year and a half, the phrase has been sounded by a single man as a message of change, of hope rising... Last Tuesday we saw that hope begin to take on the semblance of reality, as Senator Barack Obama became the first African-American in history to lead a U.S. major-party ticket when he claimed the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. I'm happy for America. But this is entirely about Nigeria.

If you're a Nigerian like me, how many times have you wished there was something you could do to change your country? Most of us are eager for change, but all too often that enthusiasm is quickly dampened by a feeling of helplessness over not being able to make a difference from where we are. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) is a non-profit organisation that has refused to be bound by the limits and, as the name suggests, has consistently worked to create a new paradigm among Nigerians. Realising that the promise of Nigeria is in her people, PIN works with government, civil society, private institutions and international organisations to connect Nigerian youth with brighter futures via Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). For thousands of Nigerians, PIN's work makes the difference between mediocrity and significance, between poverty and sufficiency, between destitution and hope. PIN's objective is to change the future of Nigeria, one person at a time.

Since its days as an online network in 2001, PIN has successfully executed several projects, details of which can be found at More recently, PIN began a revolutionary project called (see, a relay training programme in which young people from Ajegunle (yes, Ajegunle!) are empowered with ICT and entrepreneurial skills that will enable them break the cycle of poverty in which they're enmeshed. has received tremendous media coverage and has been presented in various fora across the world (Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, United Kingdom and Switzerland) as a case study on how ICTs can be used to aid development in under-served communities. For more insight into the success story of, please visit to watch a brief descriptive documentary courtesy of Nigeria International.

You can support the awesome work PIN is doing by making a financial contribution via debit or credit card at With the click of a button, you can begin to change Nigeria one life at a time. You can also make donations by cheque, if that's a more convenient means for you. Please make all cheques payable to Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, and send to any one of the addresses below:

Attn: 'Gbenga Sesan
Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
18 Akinbola Street
Ilupeju 100252

Friends of PIN UK
c/o Temilade Agbaje
Institute for Science and Society
Law and Social Sciences Building
University of Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom.

If you prefer to pay by cash, please send an email stating your intention to, and payment details will be sent to you.

As a Friend of PIN, I have witnessed first-hand lives being transformed for good through initiatives like Working as a volunteer with the first set of Ajegunle youth in August 2007, I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of those young Nigerians. Speaking with them, I discovered they all had lofty ambitions buried deep within them; ambitions their circumstances had erstwhile forbidden them to pursue. The coming of re-ignited their buried dreams, causing them to dare to hope again, to believe that they can be whatever they want to be. A certain young man on the programme told me that he saw in me what he's always wanted to be, and to this day I have the honour of being a mentor to him.

The experience made me realise that change in Nigeria against all odds is indeed possible. It made me realise that change in Nigeria against all odds depends on me. Can you be part of this change? Yes, you can. Will you be?

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [5]

[...continued from last post]

Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

No solution seems in sight for the Niger Delta. The oil companies are keeping their heads down, desperate to safeguard their employees and the flow of oil. The military, ordered to meet force with force, have stepped up patrols in cities and on waterways. The militants are intensifying a deadly guerrilla offensive, hoping that rising casualties and oil prices will force the government to negotiate. National elections in April could exacerbate the violence, especially if politicians resort to the practice of hiring youth gangs to deliver votes at gunpoint.

Optimism is as scarce as blue sky in the sodden delta. "Everyone was sure they would be blessed with the coming of the black gold and live as well as people in other parts of the world," said Patrick Amaopusanibo, a retired businessman who now farms near the village of Oloama. He had to speak loudly to compete with the "black noise," the hissing and roaring of a gas flare near his cassava field. "But we have nothing. I feel cheated."

In some parts of the Niger Delta, oil still looks like a miracle. In the run-down fishing village of Oweikorogba on the Nun River, where families of ten sleep in a single room under leaky thatch roofs, hope materialized a year ago in the form of Chinese prospectors. They left without finding oil, but the people of Oweikorogba want them back, confident that they'll find a pot of gold. And if a stranger warns these villagers that oil is a curse in Nigeria, they will look at him and say: "We want oil here. It will make everything better."

[The end]

I read the above article with mixed emotions. Anger, fear, sorrow, pity, even guilt. How can my own people in the South-South of Nigeria suffer so much, yet I, living in my comfy corner of the South-West, am hardly touched by it? The injustice meted out to these people is staggering in its proportions. Truth is, I have heard various versions of this Niger Delta story time and again, but probably because everyone involved (government, oil companies, indigenes) tries to tell it to their own advantage, I never quite got the full picture. And I suspect that I still haven't. And for that I am scared.

I am reminded of the years of the Nigerian Civil War, when people in the North and West carried on with life as usual while their countrymen in the East perished by the day. Trouble is brewing in the Niger Delta, and it is not to be ignored. Whether we admit it or not, the problem is as much non-Niger Delta indigenes' as it is Niger Delta indigenes'. It is not a Niger Delta problem; it's a Nigerian problem. The earlier we realise this and take appropriate action, the better for us. Arise, o compatriots!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [4]

[...continued from last post]

"I think the loss of one acre is too much. You're wiping out the means for people to sustain themselves."

Oil companies operated in the delta for years with little environmental oversight. There was no federal environmental protection agency until 1988, and environmental impact assessments weren't mandated until 1992. What pressure the government exerts now is directed mostly at halting gas flares. Delta oil fields contain large amounts of natural gas that companies have traditionally elected to burn off rather than store or reinject into the ground, more costly measures. Hundreds of flares have burned nonstop for decades, releasing greenhouse gases and causing acid rain. Communities complain of corroded roofs, crop failures, and respiratory diseases. After first ordering companies to eliminate flaring by 1984, the government keeps pushing back the deadline. Shell, the main offender, recently announced that despite making considerable progress, it could not meet the latest target date of 2008.

On land, there are oil spills, polluting groundwater and ruining cropland. The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher. Old, improperly maintained equipment causes many of the leaks, but oil operators blame sabotage and theft, speculating that disaffected community members deliberately cause oil spills to collect compensation money.

Well 13 in Shell's Yorla field had been leaking for five days when I got there. Members of the nearby Ogoni village of Kpean had assembled around a five-foot-high (1.5 meters) wellhead that stood in the midst of high grass. Puffs of smoke drifted from the iron structure. Oil dripped from its sides into a spreading lake.

"We're expecting Shell, but no one has come yet," a villager said. "Soon the oil will leak into the creek over there and spoil our drinking water."

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria's first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland—though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa's popular support, Nigeria's military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa's son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, "things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered."

To this day, safety concerns and lengthy, often hostile negotiations with community leaders over access fees and compensation payments hamper Shell's response to spills. When I heard that the leak at Well 13 had become a fire, I returned to Kpean. Black smoke was flooding the sky above the palm trees. This time I couldn't get close to the well—a group of angry Ogoni youths blocked my vehicle.

"Get out, white man! You work for Shell!" one yelled.

"You want to see it? Give us 100,000 naira," another shouted. He was demanding $800.

A few days later, I asked Patrick Naagbanton, an Ogoni journalist who had marched with Saro-Wiwa, to convince the village chief to let us in. Naagbanton led the way, shoving through the crowd toward the well. A fireball was erupting from the ground. The flames roared. Within the inferno, the iron Christmas tree was melting like an effigy thrown on a funeral pyre. Letam Nwinek, one of the villagers, pulled us away from the heat. "We're afraid that if the fire enters the pipeline, the whole community could go up," he said. "Shell keeps promising to come, but they say they need more foam and special equipment because the fire has grown so large."

Suddenly, the crowd began scattering. A man dressed for the city in a pink shirt and black beret came up to us.

"You'd better leave. Now!"

Our evictor, Marvin Yobana, was president of the Ogoni Youth Council. As he spoke, five men surrounded us in a threatening stance.

"Yobana is what passes as an Ogoni leader today," Naagbanton said as we retreated. "He's a thug. I believe he's negotiating with Shell to gain a lucrative clean-up contract and doesn't want journalists around." Taking a last look at the fire, Naagbanton said with disgust, "He's just part of the predatory, parasitic struggle to get oil money."

Well 13 would burn for two more months before a Shell team arrived to extinguish it.

"Is anyone listening?" Ken Saro-Wiwa had asked in his final newspaper column. "The delta people must be allowed to join in the lucrative sale of crude oil," he wrote. "Only in this way can the cataclysm that is building up in the delta be avoided."

The cataclysm is upon the delta. As I write this, 70 militants have just attacked a Shell convoy in the Cawthorne Channel, taking 25 oil workers hostage. Rebels have killed nine Nigerian soldiers in a firefight near Brass Island, the site of a large, vulnerable export terminal. Meanwhile, east of Port Harcourt, gunmen have raided an ExxonMobil residential compound and abducted four Scottish oil workers, demanding ten million dollars each for their release.

The number and severity of attacks in the delta have been building, led by youth groups demanding access to the oil wealth in their territories. This surge in militancy is emblematic of a continent-wide frustration among the young, says Michael Watts, of the University of California. "Across Africa you have a huge number of alienated youths, politically footloose, who thought they could achieve something with their countries' moves to independence and democracy. Those hopes have been almost everywhere violently snuffed out. The youth are pissed off and willing to up the ante."

In the Niger Delta, escalating violence has undermined the country's financial stability and its ability to supply crude to the Western world. Shipments from new offshore rigs are making up for some of the oil lost to sabotage, but rebels identified with MEND have threatened to shut down everything. The day the U.S. consulate warned of the possible attack on Bonny Island, a spokesman for MEND boasted to the press: "We will wipe out the Nigerian oil export industry in one swipe."

Late one night in a darkened neighborhood in central Port Harcourt (the city was experiencing one of its regular blackouts), an angry young man, who asked for anonymity, explained his outrage. "Nigeria made its greatest mistake taking the life of that man Ken Saro-Wiwa. It will not be forgiven. When the Nigerian state overreacted like that, the thinking became, We have to carry weapons unless we want to die. Violence begets violence. When someone loses hope, he is devastated, and he will say, 'Either I fight, or I leave this world.'"

This young Nigerian is a university lecturer, who says the time for talking has passed. "When the situation in the delta threatens to turn into another Middle East, then the world will finally intervene."

Another night in Port Harcourt, a prolonged gun battle erupted outside my compound. Volleys from AK-47s, answered by the booms of pump-action shotguns, sent me running to barricade my door. The gunmen abducted four expatriates from Goodfellas, a nightclub nearby. (It was this incident that led the oil companies to cancel their tours.) A Dutch oil worker on contract to Shell, who makes $80,000 a year as a pipeline construction supervisor, told me he has to travel everywhere with an armed escort. "You must keep it in your mind that people out there may kill you," he said.

With every assault by the insurgents, the Nigerian military seems to answer with devastation. One evening, a gang of kidnappers dressed in army camouflage came by boat to a waterside neighborhood called Aker Base on the outskirts of Port Harcourt, stormed into a bar, and snatched an Italian construction worker employed by Saipem, an oil-servicing company. During the grab, the assailants killed a soldier. Within hours, troops swept into the shantytown and burned down every structure except a bank. Days later, stunned residents wandered through the charred ruins like ghosts; some 3,000 had lost their homes.

A woman clutching her melted cell phone moaned, "I have to tell my mother, my brothers and sisters what happened. I don't know where to start and where to end." In front of a collapsed church, the village chief implored a crowd to "Let God fight this case." A lawyer hired by the village provided little comfort when he said that Saipem would meet with the community "maybe in a week" and ask for a list of everything lost.

"I blame the government," said Caroline Mathias, the owner of the bar, staring at a pile of melted bottles and the crumpled metal roof where her business had stood. "The government should help us. I'm begging them. We are not the ones who killed that soldier."

The Italian worker was freed five days after the sack of Aker Base. That month, 18 foreigners were abducted; all were released, reportedly after hefty ransom payments.

No one is sure how many delta people have picked up the gun to fight for their rights. Estimates range from the low hundreds to the low thousands. What is certain is that each time the military reacts with extreme measures, the number rises.

The rebels seem unafraid, as when a hundred or so MEND members and supporters gathered openly at a morgue in the city of Warri for the funeral service of nine militants killed on the water in an ambush by the Nigerian military. Afterward, MEND leaders invited the press to accompany boats taking the caskets to villages for burial. Along the way, men waved guns from jetties, and white flags flew from huts. The men wore conspicuous red-and-white ties knotted around their arms. The ties and flags were symbols of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war. Warriors wear the knots as protection against death, believing that having taken an oath to Egbesu, nothing metal—neither bullet nor machete—can harm them. Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

[To be continued...]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [3]

[... continued from last post]

From the air, it must look as if a patch of skin has been removed from the face of the forest.

Activists with human rights groups are pressuring Shell to learn from past mistakes and treat this high-profile project, which affects 90 villages, as a chance to work better with communities. Michael Watts is advising NGOs on how to educate the local people about their rights. "For Shell to conduct business as usual would be a public relations disaster," Watts says. "Folks say, 'Look, these oil companies are making billions by taking out this black stuff from our territory—they should have some ethical and social responsibilities.'"

A cautionary tale unfolds at Oloibiri, where a wellhead, or "Christmas tree," stands in an overgrown plot. Nothing has flowed from it for years. A weathered sign states the facts: "Oloibiri Well No. 1. Drilled June, 1956. Depth: 12,000 feet (3,700 meters)." Nearby, a plaque dating from 2001 commemorates a presidential visit and the laying of a foundation stone for the Oloibiri Oil and Gas Research Institute, a projected government-funded museum and library. The stone is still there, but nothing else. A few local youths guard the site, not so much to protect it as to demand money from anyone who wants to snap a picture.

In the town of Oloibiri, whose population has dropped from 10,000 to fewer than 1,000 in the past 30 years, a dirt road passes between rough-hewn houses, some roofed with thatch, others with sheets of corroding metal. A small shop offers a few bananas and yams. Inside the only freshly painted structure, a lemon yellow, two-story house, Chief Osobere Inengite of the Ijaw tribe apologizes for the appearance of his town: "Oloibiri is supposed to be compared to Texas," he said. "I ask you, in Texas have the people in 50 years seen one second of darkness? But look here, we have no light, no water, no food, no jobs."

The chief looked prosperous. He was wearing an ornate black-and-purple robe, a chunky coral necklace, and a black derby, his outfit for a neighboring chief's coronation downriver in Nembe later that day. Like most chiefs, Inengite has a business—dredging sand from the river for roadbuilding. He always keeps an eye out for visitors to Nigeria's historic Well No. 1. He wants them to leave Oloibiri with a message for Shell, which owns the local oil fields. "Tell them to help us. Tell them to train 50 boys and girls from here for jobs," the chief pleaded. Then he sighed, "If we had never seen oil, we would have been better off."

Where does all the oil money go? That question is asked in every village, town, and city in the Niger Delta. The blame spreads, moving from the oil companies to a bigger, more elusive, target: the Nigerian government. Ever since it nationalized the oil industry in 1971, the government has controlled the energy purse. In a joint venture arrangement, the state, in the name of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns 55 to 60 percent of multinational oil operations onshore. The windfall in revenues from this arrangement has grown in real dollars from 250 million a year to more than 60 billion in 2005. During that time, even though the government has evolved from a military dictatorship to a democracy (the latest attempt at civil governance began in 1999), what has not changed is what an International Crisis Group report calls a "cancer of corruption." A Western diplomat quoted in the report was even more direct, referring to "the institutionalized looting of national wealth." The money involved is staggering. The head of Nigeria's anticorruption agency estimated that in 2003, 70 percent of oil revenues, more than 14 billion dollars, was stolen or wasted.

On paper, a mechanism does exist for distributing oil revenues somewhat fairly. The federal government retains roughly half and gives out the rest each month, on a sliding scale, to the 36 state governments. The core oil producers—Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom—receive the most. During the month I was in the delta, those four states divided up more than 650 million dollars.

But there is no discernible trickle down.

Newspaper articles and court cases document spectacular misuses of the money by military men and public office holders—such as the now imprisoned former Bayelsa governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha—who stash hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts to buy mansions in the U.S. and send their children to private schools in London. For the delta's 30 million people—most of whom struggle on less than a dollar a day—seeing this kind of money coming into their states with essentially none of it reaching them has created conditions for insurrection.

Nigeria's oil money won't keep coming, of course—perhaps another 40 years, the experts say. Natural gas is a fallback. Nigeria's reserves are estimated at 184 trillion cubic feet (five trillion cubic meters), good for an estimated 240 years of production at current levels. In the meantime, Antony Goldman says, "The government is following a simple plan for oil extraction: We've got to get what we can now, now."

Isaac Osuoka remembers the first time he saw frozen fish. It was the late 1970s, and he was five. A peddler caused a stir as he entered Osuoka's delta town of Oeliabi (now Akinima) with a carton of what he called ice fish. "We never had fish brought in from outside," said Osuoka, who now lives in Port Harcourt. "We had no idea what frozen fish meant. There were rumors that this fish was kept in a mortuary."

Frozen fish was a harbinger of the changes that would traumatize Osuoka's community. "As a boy, I could stroll to the rivers or back swamps with a rod and a net and come back with enough fish to feed my family," he recalled. "There was usually enough left over to sell, providing income for us to go to school." This bounty would not survive the coming of oil. Leaks from pipelines and wells, and the building of roads and canals, have disrupted the wetlands. "The degree and rate of degradation," the UN report warns, "are pushing the delta towards ecological disaster."

In 1996, Osuoka joined Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy group that helps communities defend their resources and learn their legal rights so they can avoid Oeliabi's fate. "We're seeing that environmental damages often happen silently, with their effects not coming out until years later," Osuoka said. "Today, there is not a single person in my community you could describe as a fisherman. We depend almost totally on frozen fish." At market stalls, a piece of frozen croaker or mackerel, most of it imported, goes for almost a dollar, unaffordable for most villagers.

The best environmental studies of the delta were done at least 30 years ago, according to Jimmy Adegoke, a Nigerian-born research scientist at the University of Missouri. To help fill the void, he and a team of researchers conducted fieldwork and a satellite-based study of the delta. They found that between 1986 and 2003, more than 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of mangroves disappeared from the coast, largely because of land clearing and canal dredging for oil and gas exploration. "That is a significant amount given how valuable the mangrove ecosystem is," Adegoke said, referring to the coastal forest's high productivity for fish populations. "I think the loss of one acre is too much. You're wiping out the means for people to sustain themselves."

[to be continued...]

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [2]

[... continued from last post]

"I can say this," Osuoka said firmly. "Nigeria was a much better place without oil."

Such a stark indictment would surely draw reaction from the government and oil companies. But repeated efforts to arrange on-the-record interviews with officialdom—oil company executives, the governor of Rivers state, the commander of the Joint Task Force, which is the military arm responsible for security in the delta—were foiled. Shell and Total, a French company, had offered tours of their facilities, but soon after I arrived in the delta, a spate of kidnappings of foreign oil workers, especially around Port Harcourt, prompted the multinationals to restrict the movements of personnel. Amid the violence, the oil companies have hunkered down in silence.

At the Finima meetinghouse, the men grew restless and, one by one, drifted into the dusk. Before he left, Felix Harry declared that faith in God would reward the community. That belief must be deep on Bonny Island, judging from the barrage of signs for revival meetings and church services along island roads. One church promoted PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens. Christianity has found fertile ground in the delta after Protestant missionaries arrived in force in the mid-1800s, and it is now the dominant faith.

Harry recited Psalm 91, praising God with a flourish: "He is my refuge and my fortress." We walked outside. There, stranded on the shore, were the village fishing boats, several dozen of them. Only a miracle would get them into the water.

Across the delta, people are hoping that someone will pay attention to the region's problems and intervene. The U.S. and western Europe, the major consumers of Nigerian oil, are watching closely. With the U.S. consulate in Lagos warning of a possible rebel attack on Bonny Island, diplomats are urging greater military security. Stockholders of the oil companies are asking why the situation has turned so perilous. Who is to blame? The answers are as complicated and murky as the water trails in the delta.

When the oil curse began with that first great gusher in the creekside village of Oloibiri, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Port Harcourt, Nigeria was still a British colony. At independence in 1960, few observers expected that Nigeria would mature into an oil giant. But in subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms—Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy's Agip, and ExxonMobil and Chevron from the U.S.—transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away.

No one can deny the sheer technological achievement of building an infrastructure to extract oil from a waterlogged equatorial forest. Intense swampy heat, nearly impenetrable mangrove thickets, swarming insects, and torrential downpours bedevil operations to this day. But mastering the physical environment has proved almost simple compared with dealing with the social and cultural landscape. The oil firms entered a region splintered by ethnic rivalries. More than two dozen ethnic groups inhabit the delta, among them the Ijaw, the largest group, and the Igbo, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Isoko, and Urhobo. These groups have a history of fighting over the spoils of the delta, from slaves to palm oil—and now, crude oil. The companies disturbed a fragile landscape that supported fishing and farming. Engineers and project managers constructing pipelines through a mangrove swamp, or laying roads through marshland, could disrupt spawning grounds or change the course of a stream, threatening a village's livelihood.

Recent reports by the United Nations Development Program and the International Crisis Group identify some of the questionable strategies employed by oil companies: paying off village chiefs for drilling rights; building a road or dredging a canal without an adequate environmental impact study; tying up compensation cases—for resource damages or land purchases—for years in court; dispatching security forces to violently break up protests; patching up oil leaks without cleaning up sites. "

After 50 years, the oil companies are still searching for a way to operate successfully with communities," says Antony Goldman, a London-based risk consultant. The delta is littered with failed projects started by oil companies and government agencies—water tanks without operating pumps, clinics with no medicine, schools with no teachers or books, fishponds with no fish.

"The companies didn't consult with villagers," says Michael Watts, director of the African Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. "They basically handed out cash to chiefs. It wasn't effective at all."

Last summer, skittish oil prices hit $78 a barrel, partly because of an attack on a Shell flow station. The high prices more than offset production losses caused by the growing instability, helping earn Shell and the other multinationals record profits in 2006. Meanwhile, more oil fields continue to open, many of them offshore where the infrastructure, though far more expensive than on land, is much safer from sabotage and theft. The deepwater fields are attracting aggressive new investors as well. China, India, and South Korea, all energy-hungry, have begun buying stakes in Nigeria's offshore blocks. "Most Western companies in Nigeria will find it difficult to compete, especially with China," Goldman says. That's because oil purchases by the Chinese come with their commitment to finance large infrastructure projects, such as rehabilitating a railroad line.

The largest new petroleum endeavor on the delta is taking shape along the Nun River, a tributary of the Niger. Operated by Shell, the Gbaran Integrated Oil and Gas Project, scheduled to begin producing in 2008, will encompass 15 new oil and gas fields, more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) of pipeline, and a sizable gas-gathering plant. New roads are already gashing the forest. Mounds of long black pipes await burial. Near a bank of the Nun, Nigerian soldiers crouch behind a ring of sandbags, a .60-caliber machine gun facing the road as they guard the entrance to the construction site of the gas plant. Cranes and bulldozers crawl over a cleared space large enough to fit two shopping malls. From the air, it must look as if a patch of skin has been removed from the face of the forest.

[To be continued...]

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Curse of Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta [1]

I read the following narrative with tears in my eyes. It's an article written by an outsider (Tom O'Neill) in the February 2006 issue of National Geographic. I stumbled on it quite by accident, while gathering data for my research. It's a long, long piece, one that I initially thought to truncate for readers' convenience. I told myself I'd leave in only the most important bits and probably throw in the URL for anyone who was interested in reading the whole piece. As I read on however, I found every word of the article to be at once gripping and heart-wrenching. So I've decided to break it into as many parts as necessary till it's exhausted.

Read on:

The Niger Delta holds some of the world's richest oil deposits, yet Nigerians living there are poorer than ever, violence is rampant, and the land and water are fouled. What went wrong?

Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches—fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.

Nigeria had all the makings of an uplifting tale: poor African nation blessed with enormous sudden wealth. Visions of prosperity rose with the same force as the oil that first gushed from the Niger Delta's marshy ground in 1956. The world market craved delta crude, a "sweet," low-sulfur liquid called Bonny Light, easily refined into gasoline and diesel. By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had joined OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), and the government's budget bulged with petrodollars.

Everything looked possible—but everything went wrong.

Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles. Choking black smoke from an open-air slaughterhouse rolls over housetops. Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil hub, capital of Rivers state, smack-dab in the middle of oil reserves bigger than the United States' and Mexico's combined. Port Harcourt should gleam; instead, it rots.

Beyond the city, within the labyrinth of creeks, rivers, and pipeline channels that vein the delta—one of the world's largest wetlands—exists a netherworld. Villages and towns cling to the banks, little more than heaps of mud-walled huts and rusty shacks. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills, acid rain from gas flares, and the stripping away of mangroves for pipelines have killed off fish.

Nigeria has been subverted by the very thing that gave it promise—oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its revenue. In 1960, agricultural products such as palm oil and cacao beans made up nearly all Nigeria's exports; today, they barely register as trade items, and Africa's most populous country, with 130 million people, has gone from being self-sufficient in food to importing more than it produces. Because its refineries are constantly breaking down, oil-rich Nigeria must also import the bulk of its fuel. But even then, gas stations are often closed for want of supply. A recent United Nations report shows that in quality of life, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations, from Libya to Indonesia. Its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts. The World Bank categorizes Nigeria as a "fragile state," beset by risk of armed conflict, epidemic disease, and failed governance.

The sense of relentless crisis has deepened since last year, when a secretive group of armed, hooded rebels operating under the name of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, intensified attacks on oil platforms and pumping stations, most operated by Shell Nigeria. Militants from MEND and other groups have killed soldiers and security guards, kidnapped foreign oil workers, set off car bombs in the delta city of Warri to protest the visit of Chinese oil executives, and, to show off their reach, overrun an oil rig 40 miles (64 kilometers) offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. The attacks have shut down the daily flow of more than 500,000 barrels of oil, leading the country to tap offshore reserves to make up for lost revenue. With each disruption, the daily price of oil on the world market climbed. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, escalating violence in a region teeming with angry, frustrated people is creating a "militant time bomb."

From a potential model nation, Nigeria has become a dangerous country, addicted to oil money, with people increasingly willing to turn to corruption, sabotage, and murder to get a fix of the wealth. The cruelest twist is that half a century of oil extraction in the delta has failed to make the lives of the people better. Instead, they are poorer still, and hopeless.

Every day at Bonny Island, oceangoing tankers line up in Cawthorne Channel like massive parade floats. They're each waiting to fill up with close to a million barrels of the coveted Bonny Light, drawing the oil from a nearby export terminal. Ships have been gathering at this 15-mile-long (24 kilometers) barrier island since the mid-1500s, when slave trading between West Africa and the New World began. Beneath the contemporary cacophony—the yammer of motorcycle taxis, the call of Christian preachers from the market stalls, the throb of drums and guitars from boomboxes inside shacks—strains of anger and sorrow echo the tragedy of exploitation.

"It's not fair," Felix James Harry muttered in a meetinghouse in the village of Finima on the western end of the island, close to the oil and gas complex. "We can hardly catch fish anymore. Surviving is very hard." Harry, a 30-year-old father of two children, should have been in his canoe this afternoon, throwing out nets to snare crayfish and sardines. But he was sitting in an airless concrete-block shelter with half a dozen other fishermen, none of whom had much to do.

Their fishing community once stood on the other side of a small inlet, where fuel storage tanks the size of cathedral domes now loom, and where the superstructure of a liquefied natural gas plant juts higher than any tree in the forest. The relocation of Finima in the early 1990s jarred loose the community's economic moorings. "We can't support our families anymore," Harry said.

Houses in the new village are tightly packed, leaving little room for gardens. Windows look out on walls. In this claustrophobic setting, the men talked about nature. "The forest where the gas plant is protected us from the east wind," Solomon David, the community chairman, said. "Now, the rain and wind ruin our thatched roofs every three months. They lasted more than twice as long before." Another fisherman mentioned how construction and increased ship traffic changed local wave patterns, causing shore erosion and forcing fish into deeper water. "We would need a 55-horsepower engine to get to those places." No one in the room could afford such an engine.

The meetinghouse had no electricity, but a battery-powered wall clock, the only decoration, showed that another day was ebbing away. Forced to give up fishing, the young men of the village put their hope in landing a job with the oil industry. But offers are scarce. "People from the outside get all the jobs," Harry said, alluding to members of Nigeria's majority ethnic groups—the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani—who are the country's political and economic elite. "We have diploma holders, but they have nothing to do."

Grievances crowded the dim room. Bernard Cosmos, a strapping young man in a striped polo shirt, spoke out: "I have a degree in petrochemical engineering from Rivers State University in Port Harcourt. I've applied many times with the oil companies for a good job. It's always no. They tell me that I can work in an oil field as an unskilled laborer but not as an engineer. I have no money to get other training."

Isaac Asume Osuoka, director of Social Action, Nigeria, believes that callousness toward the people of the delta stems from their economic irrelevance. "With all the oil money coming in, the state doesn't need taxes from people. Rather than being a resource for the state, the people are impediments. There is no incentive anymore for the government to build schools or hospitals.

"I can say this," Osuoka said firmly. "Nigeria was a much better place without oil."

[To be continued...]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Quote of the day

"It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well."
- Rene Descartes

I agree.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Deluded about God?

It was this year's Annual Chaplaincy Lecture at the University of Nottingham. The lecture consisted of a single presentation by a Professor of Theology from Oxford University, titled "Deluded about God?: Richard Dawkins and the meaning of life". The presentation was essentially a response to Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion', published in 2006. Richard Dawkins is a British biologist who has obviously acquired too much knowledge for his own good. In his book he argues that the whole idea of God is nonsense. Hear him: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who read it will become atheists when they put it down". Needless to say, he is an atheist himself.

Dawkins' book stresses four major points:

  • Belief in God is irrational
  • Science shows us there is no God
  • Faith in God can be explained away on scientific grounds
  • Faith in God leads to violence

Dawkins tries to prove by his own intrinsically faulted theories that faith in God is infantile, or childish (I personally don't see how that is a problem, as Jesus himself said that whosoever will enter the Kingdom of God must become like a child). The logic of Dawkins' argument goes something like this: There is no God. But lots of people believe in God. This is a delusion. So how can we account for so many people being deluded? Conclusion: Belief in God is a virus of the mind.

There are just a couple of things wrong with this reasoning: One, it is a prime example of what philosophers might call a 'cyclical argument', i.e. it really has no end and no beginning. On what premise did he come to his first conclusive statement that there is no God? Two, even if we were all to accept this warped reasoning pattern, then it would necessarily follow that atheism – which in itself is a form of belief; belief in no God – is also a virus of the mind.

The theologian giving the presentation at the lecture was clearly taking a stance against all of Dawkins' claims, trying to explain to a mixed crowd of over five hundred people that the claims have no substance. His task was not one which I envied; in fact, at some point I started to pity him, because of the sheer magnitude of the opposition – spoken and unspoken – in the room. How exactly do you explain God, especially to people who believe that even if He exists, he is not on their side? Being an intellectual discourse, the professor had to try as much as possible to present the facts without coming across as a preacher. I could see he was struggling. The thrust of his argument was this: Dawkins is wrong in stating categorically that there is no God. While it may not be possible to prove without a shadow of doubt that there is a God, it is also impossible to prove 100% (like Dawkins attempts to do) that there is no God.

It is interesting to note that not all of Dawkins' colleagues are quite as deluded as he is. Many renowned scientists all over the world accept the limitations of science and recognise the place of God in this cosmos. For all of Dawkins' ignorance, at least he did succeed with something. Without meaning to, he's actually done God a favour. "The God Delusion" since its publication has generated so much controversy and elicited countless responses, including this one. The controversy has stirred up a hunger within people to search for the truth. The truth is that everyone – including Richard Dawkins – has a deep-seated need to find God. God is the missing piece in the puzzle of human lives. To further complicate the human quandary, that piece is at the very centre of the puzzle, so that the puzzle is abstract and meaningless without it.

In this part of the world, people have so many questions about God: "What kind of God allows so much pain and suffering?" "If there is a God, why does He allow children to go hungry in Africa?" (Even the hungry children themselves in Africa don't ask God such questions!) "How did everything begin?" "What are we all here for?" "What is the point of living?" The controversy generated in the wake of Dawkins' book has brought these questions again to the fore, and people with answers have a greater opportunity than before to share what they know about God. Hopefully everyone with questions will find the right answer.

After about forty five minutes of talking and answering questions from the mostly antagonistic audience, the Oxford professor finally took his seat. A soft-spoken gentleman was then called upon to give the closing remark. Slowly and calmly he read out the words of Acts 17: 22-23: So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. "It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I'm here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you're dealing with." Considering that this was supposed to be a strictly academic meeting, he could not have made his point in a more subtle way.

Of course, by now, you know my stance. In the course of his argument, the professor expounded a lot of theories to arrive at his conclusion, but of all that he said, one statement remains indelible in my mind: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else".

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Working in Africa"

A friend commented on the piece I wrote about freewriting (see the post "Getting into the habit of writing" of January 2008), asking for all the pieces I implicitly promised to deliver via this blog from that time onwards. Well, my friends, life has been on fast forward for me in the last few weeks; so fast that I've gone for days on end without even remembering that such a thing as blogging exists. Honestly. My circumstances have changed drastically within the last month – admittedly for the better, but the change process has been harrowing. I know everyone of us can come up with excuses for why we renege on our promises and resolutions, so I don't mean for that to constitute an excuse, really. I am guilty.

Now that I'm more settled, I'll give you the gist of something that's been on my mind for the past few days. About two weeks ago, a colleague who's doing postgraduate research in another university informed me about a seminar that was planned to hold in his school, titled 'Working in Africa'. One to be excited at the mere mention of any development-related activity in Africa, I quickly inquired about how to register. Although the seminar was ideally aimed at the university staff and students, I managed to worm my way in on the grounds of the interest I expressed to the organisers. So it was that I sat in on this meeting to listen to presentations of what would hopefully be stimulating ideas on how to make Africa work.

I guess in my mind I must have read the seminar title backwards, because the seminar turned out to be all about what's in Africa for the university. Four out of five presentations discussed ways to make the university more attractive to prospective students from Africa. So it was not that they were discussing how to make a contribution; they were rather interested in strategising to gain more income and global recognition through increased enrolment of African students. The first speaker went over statistics of African students enrolled currently enrolled on various programmes at the university. Of course several African countries were represented, but I didn't get past the first three before the alarms went off in my brain.

Nigeria was top of the list with 64 students registered in that UK university. The next country to Nigeria was Kenya with 19 students, followed by Ghana with 15 students! The presentations that followed the first one carried on in similar business fashion, the overriding aim being to measure the university's success so far in recruiting bright young talents from Africa, and devise means of perfecting the recruitment strategy so that the university's pockets can get even fatter with international fees. I'll let you on to a little secret, in case you didn't know: international students in the UK pay over 4 times – yes, 4 times – what 'home' students pay. The only reason a UK university will chase a Nigerian student desperately is to collect all that cash. Why, a single Nigerian student is financially worth at least four UK students. See?

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving Nigeria to study abroad. The question I've started to ask myself is, why do people really leave? In my opinion, the fact that Nigerians hardly ever return home after studying abroad gives an insight into people's real reasons for leaving in the first place. I've always been aware of this fact, but the huge disparity between Nigerian students and students from other African countries in the example given above has set me thinking again. South Africa, for instance, has only 1 student enrolled at the same university this session. That's a difference of 63 from Nigeria! I know this is only one case, but from what I see and hear around me, it is not likely to be the only case.

I will answer the argument that Nigeria has a higher population than those other countries by saying that migration, especially for educational purposes, is absolute, not relative. There are 140 million people in Nigeria, but I don't know that up to 10 million of those can even dream of showing up at a foreign embassy to apply for student visas. How many of those millions even have proper primary school education? My point: There's nothing to say that the total number of educated 'elites' in Nigeria is 4 times higher (64/15, ratio 4:1) than those in Ghana. Probable, yes; certain, no.

In any case, this is not the time to be making excuses. The point is that we need to wake up. People, Nigeria is NOT the worst country in Africa! So why is it that Nigerians seem to be more desperate to 'check out' of their country than other, poorer, nations? It would be fantastic if all those 64 Nigerian students would return home at the end of their education to contribute to rebuilding the ruins of our nation. That is the only way we as a people can realise net profit from this desperate student–for–money transaction initiated by foreign universities. Otherwise, we will continue to be taken advantage of by people who prey on our weaknesses to make themselves stronger. Talk about 21st century slave trade.

I'm very familiar with the argument often put forth that Nigeria does not have anything worthwhile to offer her returning professionals and intellectuals, so it would be a shameful waste for anyone to go back after studying. What do I have to say to that? Well, that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The height of civilisation

I was on the bus to school a couple of days ago. As the bus approached a stop, I spotted two old ladies waiting, looking expectantly toward the bus as it chugged toward them. That, apparently, was the bus they were waiting to catch. As is the norm here, they patiently waited for those alighting from the bus to do so before attempting to get on. (Anybody familiar with the scene of crowds rushing to enter a still-moving yellow-and-black striped minibus, while half of the passengers inside struggle to get off amidst the mayhem?) Anyway, the ladies must not have been familiar with the route, because they paused to clarify their direction with the driver. It turned out they had the wrong bus, and in a brief exchange that lasted less than sixty seconds, a hundred and one things came into focus for me.

I was sitting somewhere in the middle of the long bus, so I couldn't quite catch every word of the conversation up front. However, I didn't need to hear it to know that it was a pleasant one indeed. A very polite one. The driver patiently, in a normal tone of voice, explained to the ladies that this was not their bus, and gave them detailed directions to where they would catch the correct bus. The ladies obviously appreciated the time and effort he took to help them out, and they were literally smiling their thanks to him. As they got off the bus and went on their way, they turned back to wave more thanks to the driver. Overall, the whole episode made a very positive impression on me.

Instantly I recollected my experiences with danfoe drivers (those with the yellow-and-black striped minibuses) in Lagos, Nigeria. Being an experienced danfoe passenger, I have witnessed all sorts. Shouting matches between driver and passenger; insult-hurling between driver and conductor; fits of argument between conductor and passenger; heated brawling between passenger and passenger; the works. Sitting there on the bus 17 to Nottingham City, my mind reconstructed the incident I had just witnessed between a danfoe driver and any two people looking for the bus to Shangisha under the sweltering Lagos sun. Sweating profusely beneath the merciless heat and tired from wandering aimlessly round the bus park, they would eventually sum up the courage to ask the nearest danfoe driver/conductor for directions - not very politely, I might add. Of course, the reaction from the driver/conductor will vary from person to person, depending on a range of factors. For the purpose of illustration I'm just going to paint pictures of the possible best case and worst case scenarios.

Best case: The driver sizes up the two wanderers, his face void of all expression. Then, deciding that he can spare them some of his precious time and breath, he lazily points the way to them. The two manage a 'thank you' between them; at least they got off relatively easy. Worst case: The conductor reluctantly breaks off the noisy conversation he's been having with the conductor of the next bus to listen to the wanderers' tale. It's not quite clear if he's really paying attention to what they're asking, or if he just wants to dismiss them as quickly as possible so he can carry on his idle conversation. He flippantly, somewhat rudely, tells the wanderers he has no idea where the bus going to Shangisha might be 'loading', and promptly turns away to continue with his very important conversation. The wanderers take the hint and walk off, wondering if asking the groundnut seller hawking her wares between buses might yield better results. Of course, saying thank you to the conductor is not even an option in this case.

My heart has often bled at the way we treat ourselves in Nigeria, our motherlan'. The general unspoken rule seems to be that you don't have to treat with respect people you don't know. I see this rule played out almost everywhere I go: on the danfoe bus; in the cornershop across the road from my house; in the banking hall of 'customer-friendly' banks; everywhere. In my opinion, most of us have little or no regard for the 'human-ness' of others. Respect doesn't start and stop at calling your next-door neighbour 'Aunty Caro' or 'Uncle Joe', just because they're a couple of years older than you are. After all, what's the point in making a statement like, 'Aunty Caro, your head no correct'? You get my point.

Respect transcends age barriers, class, status, job description, family ties, relationships. Respect at its highest level reckons with everybody it comes across, just because people are who they are. When you can treat an absolute stranger with the same level of dignity you accord your best friend, then you have respect. When citizens of a country can break past all barriers to reckon with one another and treat each other politely and respectfully, that country is on the road to deliverance. Naturally, the country I have in mind as I speak is none other than Nigeria.

My submission is this: the sign of a country's civilisation is not in her wealth, her fame, her military might or even the degree of technological advancement she can boast of. In my observation, the true sign of a country's civilisation is the politeness, or mutual respect, shown by one citizen to another. That is what gives meaning and dignity to our fragile human existence. It is the antidote to the apathy that preys on our national consciousness and strips us of our collective identity. It is the ultimate sign of any country's coming of age, the very height of any people's civilisation. It is spelt R-E-S-P-E-C-T.