Why We Do This

In December, I’m reminded this expat lifestyle comes with some sacrifices.  When I was young, the only more special night than Christmas Eve during the Holiday season was the night we decorated the house, a day chosen with purpose by my mother.  She would carefully set aside the year-round knickknacks and replace them with Holiday decorations, and my father would fight and cuss for a couple hours at the tangled tree lights.  My sister and I were in charge of decorating the Christmas tree with baubles passed through generations and dilapidated ornaments made in our elementary school classes, as my parents enjoyed a glass of cognac and watched in the glow of the Christmas tree.  A draft of cold, clean air would gust into the house when another log was retrieved for the fire, and old carols played from the stereo.  They were magical evenings, rituals honoring hearth and home that held a domestic comfort of glow and warmth despite the stinging chill outside.

Oh, Tannenbaum

Oh, Tannenbaum

I’ll be honest- our attempts to recreate this here in Nigeria have been only marginally successful.  To make the morning special, Cian and Áine switched between helping Sarah make Holiday French toast and decorating the tree.  The multicolored tree lights only flash, and the ornaments are cheap, plastic facsimiles of traditional decorations.  Sarah found a collection of carols, but they were renditions we thankfully didn’t recognize.  The whole thing was over in a half hour, and afterwards I put on shorts and went for my tennis lesson and the kids went swimming to stave off the African heat.  Perhaps it is only self-induced disappointment that my children are not getting an experience similar to the memory I treasure.  After all, this is what they know, the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and Áine is very proud of the tree she decorated (but then, eventually so was Charlie Brown).  There just seems to be a loss of tradition, a lack of that magic.  It’s fleeting, but for a moment I felt a tinge of nostalgia for chopping wood, drinking warm apple cider and watching the fire wafting in the wood stove on a cold winter’s night.

A shipwreck along the shore

A shipwreck along the shore.  Photo by Megan Bagdonas

Like my Jewish friends in the States who order Chinese food and hit the movie theater on Christmas Day, the Id Holidays back in September or the one coming up next weekend sends us nonMuslim expats to the ocean.  Earlier this year, a group of us were invited to the US Consulate beach hut, a 30 minute boat ride down the lagoon and out of Lagos.  Despite the thick line of rubbish marking the high tide line and the dangerous surf that makes swimming prohibited, the kids were still able to get ridiculously sandy, and we enjoyed a day out of the city among the palm trees and ocean air.  With coolers of beer and trays of potluck food to accompany the barbecue, we lazed under the thatched pavilion and watched the waves crash onto shore.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Every once in awhile, as we move through this crazy international life that we’ve created, there are moments that remind me how truly extraordinary it all is.  They are heart stopping moments, when goosebumps ride up my arms, and they are moments of clarity, when the everyday washes away and I step out of the routine box and realize what we are truly experiencing.  At one point on the beach back in September, Cian and his friend Matteo went missing.  With riptides strong enough to drown adults, it was a moment of panic.  Adrian and I raced onto the beach scouring the horizon for the boys.  In the distance were a group of Nigerians chanting, pulling on a thick rope from the sea.  There in the middle of the African cluster were Cian and Matteo, their white skin in sharp contrast to their new friends as they tried to help drag in an enormous fishing net.  After the wave of relief and anger for going astray without permission, I had one of those moments.  As the fishermen tugged on the nets to the beat of their chants, Cian and his friends, trying to help, were pulled along the rope’s length, falling in the sand on a random beach in western Africa, laughing and being helped up by the Nigerians.  It is these moments, when we may not be experiencing anything grand, but participating in our adopted culture and people, I’m reminded why we do this.  We may not have chestnuts or Jack Frost, but what we do have is also something special.

 

Nigerian Culture Day II: Celebrating the South South

NigeriaPerhaps as a backlash to the reactions when outsiders hear we live in Nigeria, perhaps because of occasional life obstacles we face, our international community is defiantly proud to call Nigeria our home.  Therefore, students count down to our Nigerian Culture Day in the same manner as Christmas.  It is a whole school, all day event, and our PTO, teachers and community pull all the stops.  Stalls of Nigerian food fill the basketball annex, a traditional crafts market covers the tennis courts, and throughout the school, there are workshop sessions, cultural lessons and a variety of entertainment.  Our Nigerian faculty and staff relish the day as well; even the housekeepers from our campus apartments come out to witness the school’s transformation into a celebration of all that is Nigeria.  I saw Joy no less than three different times rummaging just through the food stands.  Despite our host country’s dangerous reputation and plummeting economy, this expatriate tribute glimmers with hope, and the Nigerians of our community rightfully swell with pride.

At the assembly

At the assembly

While last year we celebrated the Fulani and Hausa people of northern Nigeria, this year’s focus was the southern region, known in Nigeria as South South.  The predominant tribe is Igbo (pronounced ee-bo), who have a culture, dress and language distinct from the Yoruba, the tribe native to the western region of Nigeria, including Lagos.  During the late ’60’s, parts of the South South attempted to secede, creating the state of Biafra.  After a three year civil war and an import blockade that killed hundreds of thousands to millions from starvation, Biafran forces surrendered and the region was reabsorbed into Nigeria. That independent strength of the Igbo people, however, is still present.  The South South is also home to the Niger River delta, one of the largest wetlands in the world and the source of Nigerian oil,  which comes with a host of environmental and political issues.  The once verdant delta is too polluted to support its wildlife, and many residents consider the oil business a form of modern colonialism.  As a result, regions of the delta are now more dangerous than the northern districts infested with Boko Haram, and we regularly hear of sabotage and kidnappings in the South South.

Despite this, Igboland is still rich with culture and tradition.  White shirts are traditional, with distinctive black hats, wrap, and walking stick for men and beads with ornate head scarves for women.  Our students wore them with flair.  As I wandered around campus chaperoning my students, I would get an occasional glimpse of my own kids, also decked out in Nigerian garb with their schoolmates, whose nationalities span over fifty countries.  It was a profound reminder of how influential and extraordinary living abroad has been for our family.  At the American International School of Lagos, diversity is the standard, yet on Nigerian Culture Day, for just a few moments, we celebrate the adopted Nigerian spirit in all of us.

 

Loose Ends

On the beach in Cape Town

On the beach in Cape Town

I gave my last final this past Friday  and a suitcase in the corner of our bedroom has started to collect things to go home for the summer.  Suddenly, our first school year in Nigeria is finished.  Living abroad, my feelings of heading home for a couple months have always been bittersweet- while many of my fellow teachers have been counting down the days (as I used to when teaching in the States), I find myself more content.  Don’t get me wrong; a couple months visiting family and friends at home, having a break from my rowdy and rambunctious seventh graders, and enjoying more than one bagel sandwich and coffee from Dunkin Donuts will be glorious.  What’s gone is that feeling of desperation for a break.  I enjoy living this adventure.  Lagos may be a dump, but it’s my dump.

We’re off for a return trip to France and another canalboat this weekend, then to the Connecticut shore in a house rental for the remainder of the summer.  There will be some excitement and surprises these next couple months, so stay tuned!  In the meantime, here’s some picture odds and ends from the year.  As always, thanks for reading, folks!

For the full lesson, be sure to watch the whole video:

Nigeria

Along the Fjord: A School Trip to Norway

Norway

Leaving School

Growing up, the one thing I knew I would never be was a teacher. Watching my mother grade until one in the morning, volunteer evenings for endless nonsense celebrating mediocrity and take phone calls in the middle of the night when a student was killed in a car accident was not my idea of a blooming career.  After working in Malawi and returning home penniless, however, I substituted at my mother’s school system to get my life back in order and before I could stop it, I was blindsided by a teaching certificate and now I’m on my 15th teaching year.  One of my biggest motivators for going into education was to bring students abroad- I can’t describe what it’s like watching a student experience a new part of the world for the first time.  It’s pure magic and a reminder of the wonders of travelling.  After leading four trips from the States to Costa Rica, an adventure with students in Sumatra and a journey to Lombok, I feel like I have my chaperone feet well in the sand.  Taking privileged, Western students from a modern country to the developing world is a no-brainer, but where do you bring kids when you live in Nigeria? Continue reading

Winter’s Glamour

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

“I can see my breath!  It’s white!” Cian said excitedly after he walked out of Logan Airport a few weeks ago and, purposefully puffing, entered the New England Winter.  Our last Christmas in the States was in 2012, Áine was almost two and Cian was just entering the Age of Santa.  That year was a brutal winter, brutal enough to ensure our move to tropical Indonesia.  In fact, we couldn’t attend the international teaching job fair in Cambridge, MA that February because of an impenetrable three foot snowstorm, leading to our sudden and exuberant acceptance of the jobs in North Jakarta via Skype.  A stoic Nutmegger, I used to brave the four seasons with a certain gusto.  I vehemently refused the hydraulic log splitter and snow blower, because dammit, I could split wood with an axe and shovel snow like my ancestors with a shovel.  Now, with my return to New England just at the Solstice, when the days are gray and brief, my faux smile was put on for the kids and my feigned excitement for bitter, stinging, cold weather was a thin, pale veil of my current dread of winter.  It fucking sucks. Continue reading

The School Village: Life on Campus

A moment of peace

A moment of peace

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. Continue reading

Nigerian Cultural Day

Our middle school assistant, Mrs. Agnes

Mrs. Agnes

We’ve been living in Lagos for almost three months, and although we definitely feel like we’re in Africa, we haven’t really connected with the spirit of Nigeria.  Like any other large city in a developing country, Lagos’ desperation to become modern, especially here on Victoria Island, superimposes on its culture, particularly those practices that appear “uncivilized”.  Like we witnessed in Jakarta, the result is a city of people who are disconnected and shun their society’s traditions and beliefs in an effort to appear more Western.  For example, you will notice scar lines on the cheeks of many Nigerians.  Part of a rite of passage, individuals are marked with distinctive patterns to designate their tribe, an important identity throughout subSaharan Africa.  In terms of body modification, it’s not much different than putting holes in your ears for earrings or getting a tattoo.  Nigerians from Lagos, however, are discontinuing the practice, severing some of their tribal obligations.  It’s an unfortunate and inevitable loss in the blind race towards development.  Ironically, there are now individuals in more developed countries straw-grasping to retrieve or preserve the cultural practices of their ancestry lost through moderization.

My advisory

My advisory dressed for Nigerian Cultural Day

We had a taste of our host country’s vast cultural diversity last week during Nigerian Cultural Day, sponsored by our PTO.  Nigeria is home to over 500 ethnic groups, with an equivalent number of languages. The focus at our school this year was Northern Nigeria, inhabited by the Hausa and Fulani tribes.  Predominantly Sahel in environment, the peoples of the north are intrinsic in their dress, traditions and beliefs.  It is a fascinating area of the world mostly unvisitable due to the capricious violence of Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations sequestered in the region.  Although we knew Nigerian Cultural Day was approaching, we were unprepared for its extravagance.  Students arrived in brilliant traditional dress.  The morning assembly included processions, native dancing, and performances by Nigerian singers and the attendance of other famous Nigerians from the north.  We were able to taste and learn about northern foods, shop in a makeshift marketplace, watch horse racing, and break into small group sessions to make drums, raffia hats, get Henna tattoos, and try our hand at a host of other traditional customs.  It was inspiring to see our students from around the world take such pride in their host country, as well as to see our Nigerian students and staff being honored by our school.