London-based Mike Custance has undertaken five placements for VSO. He recounts his experience of working as a volunteer in Lagos
The waiter said our restaurant bill had already been paid. When I looked surprised, he added that the gentleman at the next table had paid for us. The stranger had not spoken with us, but perhaps had overheard our conversation, with me waxing lyrical about Nigeria. I quickly thanked him for his kindness and he shortly left.
One day, I got off my bus from work and almost ran into a young man sharply dressed in a purple striped suit, with matching shoes and hat. Without thinking, I shook his hand and congratulated him on his appearance. A smile, a laugh… and then we both went our way.
On another occasion, returning by taxi from the airport, the driver tried to charge me more than the fare we had agreed. As we argued, the young girl from the bar I frequented came across the road and asked if the landlady could have the empty bottles back. I was singled out as a known person, with people looking out for me, and the taxi driver left.
These three small incidents in my year working with a small HIV NGO called PATA in Lagos encapsulate the joy of living and working in Nigeria.
Early retirement, a long-held desire to work abroad and a working life in public service saw me through the recruitment and placement processes that VSO uses to best match the volunteer with the organisation they will work with. I had travelled through Nigeria as part of a West African adventure and loved the region, so the placement offer for Lagos could hardly be refused.
VSO takes care to prepare volunteers for their time abroad, with online and residential training before their departure, and a week or so of training on arrival, helping with language, culture, food and the types of issues that may arise, as well as a security briefing. The time with other volunteers and the country office staff also provides a local support network.
PATA had found a flat a few kilometres from their office and thoughtfully asked one of the junior staff (thanks Austin) to stay with me for a couple of weeks, so I could find my way around and work out how the transport worked. In effect, he introduced me to the neighbourhood, and as the only oyibo (yellow person) there, everyone quickly knew who I was and why I was there.
My work drew on my experience of organisations and business process, but also required a steep learning curve in the nature and likely course of the HIV epidemic in Nigeria. It was one of the best years of my working life, with a good group of colleagues led by the founder, the dynamic and charismatic Morolake Odetoyinbo.
Nigeria, like all of the countries where VSO works, faces many challenges, which is why I was there. Yes, there are issues of corruption, interrupted power, civil disturbances etc. However I never felt threatened, if anything the contrary, with help and kindness shown throughout my stay, and a sense of guilt about how badly many Nigerians are treated in England. Things may not work as they do in Europe but somehow things get done, people live their lives, and if you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding – go.
Would I go again? Yes, and have since volunteered for equally interesting work in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.
Seven secret tips:
- Stuff happens, roads flood, the power goes off (my longest outage was 9 days), everything closes for an election, a strike means no fresh food in the shops – so be flexible and adaptable.
- Be seen and known in the neighbourhood. Life is much more open than in Europe and as a foreigner you are public property. You may lose a little privacy but gain a wealth of community support (and indeed protection). Accept invitations. Make friends!
- Things close down early, not much happens after dark (in my part of Lagos, gates were closed across the streets from about 10pm), so have a pastime (I tried, and failed, to play a penny whistle), books to read and radio, music and films.
- Read briefing notes for things such as dress codes at work. You may have to attend some formal occasions (tie for the men and dresses for women).
- Read any contemporary material about the country, I found A Culture of Corruption a very useful insight into the everyday issues faced by many and how they cope.
- My best purchase was a small generator for when the power was out.
- And take a Swiss Army knife (or similar) with you.