I’m typing this cornered on my family room couch with six kids running around at top speed through the house. They’re wearing masks and costumes, holding parasols for shields and using an assortment of proddy-type things as swords. The boys have just stolen “The Treasure”, a random African gourd maraca, from the girls, and they are all swashbuckling their way around our pirate ship apartment. Suddenly, there is a hunger emergency, and I find myself making six helpings of the latest food fad, peanut butter with butter sandwiches on toast. One of the girls comes into the kitchen every 2 minutes to ask if I’m done yet while smoke is coming from the toaster and I’ve got peanut butter up to my elbows. I enter with a stack of plates to a huzzah of “Yes!”, there’s about two minutes of quasi-quiet while their mouths are gummed up with peanut butter, then back to buccaneering. A few minutes later one of them yells, “Let’s go to the Big Toy!!” (that’s the school playground), and they all drop their weapons and race out, slamming the door behind them, papers seemingly drifting down from the ceiling in the abrupt silence. Whether after school or the weekend, this is the typical crazy because we all live together.
Before arriving in Nigeria, the idea of staying on school grounds came with a certain sense of claustrophobic trepidation. Our short walk to school in Jakarta provided a convenient commute, yet still allowed us to brush work off our hands at the end of the day. Campus living, not uncommon in international teaching, was something we thought we would avoid. So this next teaching post, of course, put our house right between the school cafeteria and the playing fields. The school is walled in with only two gates to the outside world, passable through armed security and a 8 foot high barred turnstile, operational by scanning our badges. Since the children are trapped inside, the campus becomes free range.
For the teachers’ children, known affectionately (or cynically) as the “Flat Rats”, campus living is like Club Med Jr. The kids flit between the sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, either playground, and each other’s apartments as a shifting pack. It sounds like organized negligence, but we teacher/parents prefer to think of it as an opportunity for learned independence. If a parent is feeling the need to parent or the pleading becomes incessant, we take a group of them to the school pool or the gymnasium. The adults are also somewhat sequestered onto campus, so there is always someone around to bandage boo-boos and help work through disagreements. I grew up on a hilltop neighborhood with only one winding street in and out, and in this seclusion my gang of friends and I raided each other’s houses for food and played in each other’s backyards, knowing we had to be home for dinner when the streetlights went on. Watching my kids and their friends screech by our window on their way to the field gives me a warm feeling of childhood nostalgia. Regardless of the benefit, the relentless presence of the flat rats can be exhausting.
In a previous post, I mentioned AISL’s extensive extracurricular and Saturday activities, both for our “school village” children and the kids of our community. Áine enjoyed gymnastics, progressed unbelievably in swimming, and barely got through tennis. Her new found love is ballet (as long as she can stop admiring herself and her tutu in the mirror and actually dance). Cian has finished units in basketball, fencing, swimming, and golf. He has just started soccer and a Mad Science program while continuing his tennis lessons. He also joined the Cub Scouts of Lagos, and we are tying knots and planting trees in the middle of the city. During one of these den meetings, it dawned on me that my son doesn’t know what the American Pledge of Allegiance is, but can sing the Nigerian National Anthem.
Our family and school “village” experience is enhanced by two local hires. Joy, our housekeeper and nanny originally from nearby Benin, worked for our predecessors and joined us with accolades. She is part of her church choir, and when we come home she is busy cleaning up after us slobs while harmonizing with the gospel music coming from her touchpad cellphone. She makes an amazing chicken pot pie and has the horrific task of keeping Áine preoccupied while we leave for work a couple hours before preschool starts. Transitioning from Iin, our Indonesian nanny who spent many hours tenderly bringing up our kids while we were at work, has been a slow process, particularly for Áine. She is too young to remember living in the States, so for Áine this is her first move, and when she is homesick she asks for Jakarta. A welcome back hug for Joy from Áine this Monday morning is the start of the turn around. Raphael is our driver who brings us around Lagos as needed and takes Joy to the store while we’re working. Lagos is not the easiest city for driving, and if you are oyinbo (white) you will inevitably be pulled over by police looking for money. Better to have a local drive. Raphael is always jolly, always helpful, and always at least 30 minutes late. The kids love Raphael, and I think he secretly enjoys seeing them more than Sarah and I.
One of the lessons learned in Indonesia was that we needed to make our living space more of a home. When one of your biggest wildcards in the expat lifestyle is homesickness, you need a place to ground and center. In Jakarta, our apartment in the end looked much the same as it did when we first walked through the door. Here in Nigeria, we were determined to change that. Family photos, a batik map of Indonesia, and work from some local artists are up, and a Nigerian carpenter designed some beautiful African furniture for us. We even have a pin board above the kids’ newly carved wooden art table for their masterpieces. Grudgingly, I’ll admit the cats have helped us think of our apartment as home, too. Siberians are an interesting breed; quirky, curious, and the largest cat after the Maine Coon. Boris is sharp, loveable, friendly, and his motto is “if it moves, kill it”. Natasha… well, as Sarah says, Natasha is just a pretty face.
This Thanksgiving, our teacher village celebrated together in the school gymnasium’s stage. Each family brought a few favorite Thanksgiving dishes, and soon the buffet tables were laden with an onslaught of food, including the meat from three turkeys and more mashed potatoes than I’ve ever seen in one place. Someone had even managed to scrounge up a few cans of cranberry sauce. Below the stage, the flat rats used the gymnasium to ride their assorted kid vehicles, dance, and shoot some hoops as the adults mingled, picked at the remaining food, and merrily refilled their wine glasses. This is our makeshift community, whether thrown together by strange coincidence or fate, to navigate Nigeria and became a surrogate family, a support network and friends on this international journey.
Each day, however, I try to breach the campus boundary and walk or run the streets of Lagos, even if is it’s just a quick stop to the grocery. Beyond our walls is Africa- uneven, potholed streets, roadside stands with sellers encouraging cars to stop and look at their wares, burning small piles of rubbish, dilapidated assorted vehicles swerving around women balancing various large objects on their head, and so on. I may be grateful for our school village, but wandering outside our fortress makes me smile, for beyond these walls are the reasons I am living abroad.