Last Saturday I was supposed to hand out fliers for my university to students taking their JAMB tests.
This is the Nigerian equivalent of SATs, and you have to take it to get into college. Four million Nigerians took it last weekend, and that works out at around 4,000 students per examination centre. Given that there’s almost enough centres in Abuja alone to fill up the number of actually available university places across the entire country, the level of demand should be huge. In fact we should be shooting fish in a barrel.
I was never particularly happy about the idea.
Firstly, we were only given 2 days notice, and no adequate reason as to why it had to be university staff doing it. As someone pointed out (unfortunately not at the actual meeting), we could have got people to do the job at N2,000 (about £8) a pop, and they’d have thought that was a good deal. Given that they were giving us an allowance of N7,000 there didn’t seem to be a lot of sense involved. There was literally no need for knowledge, we weren’t expected to sell the idea or butter any one up, just give them a leaflet.
Secondly, we didn’t have permission to do any of this. Understandably, JAMB (ie. the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board themselves) weren’t supposed to even let us know where the centres were, because they don’t want shitloads of people there trying to sell the kids stuff (private university education included). We bought the addresses with what I believe is called “a bribe”.
All this was doubly problematic in my case, because I was supposed to be flyering at Turkish Nile University, which is not only a competitor, but also happens to be about 200 yards down the road. Because I would get in trouble if I went on to their actual land I was told to hang around outside the gates. When I expressed some concern at this tactic I was told “just try and grab the parents when they’re waiting for the gate to open”.
So far, so reassuring. I also got a call just at the beginning of my Friday night out telling me that we needed to be there at 7am. Fortunately, I evaded this horrendous start to a Saturday by the simple expedient of not leaving the club til 5.30am, and not waking up until 1pm.
This wasn’t actually planned (on a conscious level at least) but it was pretty embarrassing. I wasn’t worried about being told off, per se, just about having to have the conversation at all. I seem to have completely got away with it however, although as I increasingly feel like I work for a supremely passive-aggressive organisation it may still come back to haunt me.
One manifestation of this passive-aggressive behaviour came with someone leaving a fag butt in the middle of my desk when I was at lunch a couple of months ago. This was clearly a message related to where I was leaving my smoking litter, but delivered, I felt, in a less than helpful way. The sort of reaction this inspires in me is the desire to collect every cigarette end I can find, hoard them for weeks and then fill the culprit’s desk drawers with them when they’re not looking. If you’re going to go for it, you might as well do it in style.
Of course, I just found out that it was Val and asked her why she didn’t just come and talk to me. She didn’t even seem to understand the question.
There was a bombing in Abuja last week, at the police headquarters. I’ve already written something about it, so I won’t repeat myself here. But it was notable that no one really seemed to bat an eyelid, except the ex-pats, and even there the reaction was just one of interest rather than fear or horror.
I’m not making any judgement here, I just thought it was interesting. My reaction was exactly the same – it became the instant topic of small talk, but I wasn’t actually worried. However, I am aware that my instant responses to any sort of unpleasant events can be a bit odd (by which I just mean passive), so I thought maybe other folk would be different. Mind you, the Nigerians are used to it, and most of the expats I know are diplomats, so maybe it’s not interesting at all. Just desensitised, or perhaps simply pragmatic.
There’s a very sweet little girl that lives in my building. Her name is Damilola, which is a bit unfortunate, because it just makes me think of Peckham and knife crime, and also slightly confused because I could have sworn it was a boy’s name. The first time she came down having been sent by her parents to offer a piece of her birthday cake to all of the neighbours. I felt sorry for her because that’s exactly the sort of thing that I would have hated having to do as a child (not that my parents would ever have made me do it, mind you).
The second time she knocked on the door to say she was just “going round greeting” all the neighbours, which I just assumed meant she was bored and looking for someone to talk to. The last time was the most amusing, as I was outside having a smoke and she spent ten minutes telling me how she’s going to start a girl band (with rapping) to try and make it in the music business. When I asked her if that’s what she wanted to be when she grows up, she said “no, now. I can do it.” She’s 11, I think, but you’ve got to admire the belief. She says her sister is going to take her to Europe to “make two episodes”, which I couldn’t really get to the bottom of, and she didn’t seem to know which countries either – just “Europe”. “My sister is old – like, 16 – she knows everything”.
Two things struck me about this situation. The first is that I feel that you can’t either experience, or write about something like the above (in the UK) without at least part of your brain going “warning, possible hint of paedophile”. Which is horrendous really, and absurd, but it’s definitely true. You can’t watch a Werther’s Original advert in the same way these days can you? I’m no good at talking to children anyway, but this definitely adds another level of awkwardness. I hope it’s something we can change, culturally speaking, but I think it might take a complete reorganisation of the tabloid media to do it. To quote, “thou shalt not think that any man over the age of 30 that plays with a child that his not his own is a paedophile. Some people are just nice.”
And I never played with her anyway. It was just talking.
The second is how upset people get about what kids say they want to be when they grow up these days. “They all just say they want to be famous. They think it will solve all their problems. As if fame was some sort of panacea! It wasn’t like that when I was a kid…” But this is dumb. The cliche from my childhood was that you either wanted to be an astronaut, a footballer or a fireman. Or possibly a doctor, a policeman or a wizard. Are these aims really any more likely, or laudable? Ah, but a doctor and a fireman save people and so forth, and the others (even the magic) at least require some sort of talent and excellence. Well, that’s true, but I doubt it’s why many children said they wanted to be any of those things. Astronauts are cool, they get to go to space and stuff, doctors are good, but you don’t actually know why when you’re young, you just know you get a white coat and your parents would be proud of you, and fireman have good uniforms, everyone thinks they’re great and you get to slide down a pole (the last point being the most important). And the chances of your average child becoming any one of them is miniscule at best.
My point is that I don’t believe that children from any age in history have said “I want to be a bureaucratic wage slave in order to fund my life of narcotic hedonism”, or “I want to graduate to senior chimney sweep because I believe it is a challenging yet attainable economic goal that will improve my social standing”, or “I am afraid I am too intellectually immature at the moment to have any idea of which career I would like to pursue and feel that it is better to wait until I have some meaningful life experience”. If I was a kid today I would probably want to be the main character in Red Dead Redemption so that I could whistle and have a horse appear any time I wanted. And this would have as much relevance to the rest of my life as my stated career ambition.
But no, kids say they want to be Cheryl Cole and people tut and say that X Factor is taking the world to hell in a handbasket. It’s all instant gratification these days! They think they can just push a button and… I often wonder if people know that they sound like their grandparents complaining about the miniskirt or rock’n’roll when they say things like this, but probably not.
Not, I would like to make clear, that I’m saying that Cheryl Cole or X Factor are of similar cultural significance to rock’n’roll or the miniskirt. In fact, I think Cheryl would probably be outwitted by the miniskirt, and Britain’s Got Talent is just Opportunity Knocks for the 21st Century – and when you stop to think about it, Simon Cowell is probably no more sinister than Bob Monkhouse.
There are plenty of rubbish things in our culture, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean we have to appeal to some point in the past when things were better in order to not like them. There was no golden age. Just say it’s crap and turn over.
Teaching here is making me much better at discipline. By which I mean actually telling kids off, and doing it instinctively rather than requiring a bit of a run up and possibly a written plan.
In the UK, I never really had to worry about it too much. Despite what people I work with here say about how much more polite Nigerian children are than their British counterparts, all the students I’ve taught have by and large been great. And really, there’s always been someone else there to pick up the bollockings, which meant I never had to. If they don’t turn up, student services takes care of it, if they don’t hand in work then they fail. Simple. All I had to do was make them talk in class and try and get them interested, and that’s always come fairly easily.
But not here. I’ve increasingly realised that not only are the students here young (95% around 18), they are all also very young for their age (by British standards, anyway). This is partly because the system of education that they’ve been through so far has made no effort to make them think for themselves, or take any responsibility. The same is true of their families, by and large, because these kids are all well off.
I’ve also realised that I understand these students much less than I do the ones I would teach in the UK. Whilst I am now, depressingly, getting towards twice the age of many first year undergraduates, I still have a pretty good idea of where they’re coming from in Britain, what sort of things they do and don’t know and have at least a rough grasp on how they view the world.
Very much not the case here. I’m getting there, and it’s really interesting to have seminars with them, precisely because it gives me a chance to see how they look at things. I was discussing equal rights for women this week, and the response was fascinating. They all believe in it, but it clearly comes into massive conflict with cultural, religious and familial factors and they don’t really know how to reconcile the divides. They are all keen to talk, and interested though, and that I find encouraging, especially as, after I asked Elizabeth to observe that session she said she was impressed at how well I got all the girls in the room talking. Normally, she said, they are incredibly quiet, because that is how they have been raised – to never speak, to defer to men and to basically be nice and demure and so on. But a lot of them clearly like having the opportunity to speak their minds, even if some of them remain incredibly shy.
I’m not going to try and get them to burn the hijab or anything, but it is nice to have a chance to introduce these ideas to them, and to discuss these things with students that have never thought about them before is a very different experience. In Britain, by the time we get to university, even if we haven’t actually stopped to properly think about issues, we will at the very least know what we are supposed to say or believe. Working from a base that either doesn’t have those assumptions, or has a completely different set of assumptions makes you look at your own views in a different way, and realise how many things we believe are just picked up by cultural osmosis and never properly challenged or explored.
I think it’s making me less cynical, which is no bad thing, even if idealism does still sit very uneasily. Whatever it means, it will certainly change the way I teach in future, no matter what country that’s in, and that can only be a good thing.
I still hate having to give out bollockings though. It doesn’t come naturally and I’d much rather just be nice. Unfortunately that’s not an option here, so I guess I’d better just grow a pair and get on with it.