Saturday, October 02, 2010


A heathen in a strange land

David Byrne’s words popped into my head: “My god, how did I get here?” So there I was, in an evangelical Christian centre resembling a cavernous out-of-town warehouse outlet, first making an impromptu speech to group of eighty teenagers then a hundred primary school children, all impeccably turned out in neatly-pressed crisp school uniforms and totally attentive, if a tad flummoxed as myself.

So how did I get here?

I’m in Nigeria to work with radio stations in two states in the south of the country, Cross River and Kogi. The aim is to equip them with theoretical and practical technical broadcasting skills, aligned with HIV awareness to encourage them better to use radio as a medium for imparting knowledge, promoting behaviour change and challenging mythology and misconceptions about HIV and Aids.

As part of that, my brief is to spend a week or so ‘embedded’ with each station I train (apologies for the military terminology there) to reinforce the training, observe and make suggestions about work on the ground, and offer a bit of moral support in their day-to-day work.

Hence I found myself in Calabar, Cross River state in South South Nigeria, as they like to call it, working with an amiable, if slightly ramshackle, radio station crew. It was great to be on site with one of the teams I’d trained and see them in action, so when Ene Ita invited me to join him as he hosted a youth quiz to mark Nigeria at 50, I happily agreed to join him.

We entered a huge warehouse-style hangar of steel and concrete, belonging to the evangelical Christian church which had sponsored the quiz for secondary school students, and also an essay competition for primary age kids, which were to be filmed for their own televangelising TV station. Only two of the four schools had arrived so Ene Ita suggested we retire for a quick drink (at 1030am!). Even I hummed and harred at that but decided it’d be rude not to, so we retired to the nearby cultural centre and sat in the welcome shade supping Star. After twenty minutes Ene Ita’s phone rang to inform him they were ready to start. “I’ll be with you immediately,” he assured them. I made to gulp down my remaining ¾ of a pint but be gestured to stop. “It’s ok, relax.”

Half an hour later we strolled back to find they weren’t ready at all. “Make a speech,” urged Ene Ita. “Um, me? What about?” “Anything!” So, unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I stood before eighty remarkably polite and patient teenagers, being filmed by some god-bothering TV station, extolling the virtues of education, how you, the youth of Nigeria represent its future leaders, wishing peace, prosperity, health, gra-gra-gra (gra-gra being my favourite phrase, summed up as bullshitty blah-blah) for Nigeria’s next fifty years, and greetings and goodwill from the people of the UK (being the only whitey in town I am of course sole ambassador for four nations).

They clapped in the right places and Ene Ita beamed proudly. “Come with me,” he gestured. We went into the main part of the hall where a hundred primary school children sat, equally neat, patient and quiet. He thrust a piece of paper in my hand. “Introduce this. Go up on the podium.” I scanned the paper. It was an essay competition on “What I would do if I were president of Nigeria”. “Umm, ok…” I took to the podium and extolled the virtues of education, being the future of Nigeria, gra-gra-gra-gra. More polite applause, shiny eager faces turned up to me in bafflement, me looking down on them equally baffled.

Eventually the quiz started, Ene Ita testing their knowledge of how many days a certain president had held power, what was the exact date (“To the day! I don’t just want the year!”) Nigeria adopted the Naira as its currency, who discovered the source of a certain river, in what location was such-and-such a former military leader arrested. To their credit, they did very well and I wondered how many of us would know about such obscure minutiae of UK history (or indeed, why we’d even want to).

The interval was filled with ghastly evangelical music so I hurriedly stepped outside for a welcome breather. The primary schoolkids were also on their break, observing me with curiosity. Then a fierce debate broke out. “It’s a man!” “No, it’s a woman!” I just smiled sweetly and gave them a wave, and unable to stomach the thought of any more fascinating facts about dead military rulers or songs praising the supernatural, strolled into the lunchtime sun, leaving them none the wiser, my work as ambassador done for a day.

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