It was as if the Nigerian immigration officer had read my blog. His question to me when I arrived at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport (named after the first president of Nigeria) centered on why I wasn’t presenting my Nigerian passport. I kept trying to respond to him nicely by saying “I don’t have a Nigerian passport” but he was not satisfied with my answer. He then asked to see my passport. By now I was getting a little frustrated because I was trying my best to make it to the front of the line but now I was being delayed by someone who was confused about my nationality. Finally, after glancing at my blue United States of America passport and my resident card he said OK and told me to continue on.  The delay placed me in the middle of the line and if you have ever arrived in Abuja on an international flight you want to be at the front of the line. But this would not be the only experience I would have proving my United States of America citizenship.

I have learned to stay awake on the Lufthansa flights to Abuja. After lunch is served, the flight attendants distribute arrival cards for processing through immigration. Most times I don’t get one before we arrive because I’m usually asleep. The flight attendant just assumes I’m Nigerian because of the color of my skin and proceeds to distribute the cards. So this time I waited until the flight attendant came through with the arrival cards and asked for one. His response to me was “Nigerians don’t need an arrival card.” I said “OK but I’m an American so I need an arrival card.” So he gave me an arrival card and a customs form to fill out.

After dealing with the immigration officer about my citizenship and proceeding to collect my bags, I was now met by the customs officer who wanted to inspect my bags. Now, I have been flying into Abuja for the past four years so I have seen various policies put in place since 2014. And the newest policy is inspecting all bags that arrive at the airport. So when I entered the customs hall I presented my US passport but the officer asked me for my Nigerian passport. I told him, “Unfortunately I don’t have a Nigerian passport.” He said “that’s not possible you look like a Nigerian.” I said “well thank you for the compliment but the only passport I have is my passport issued by the US Government.” So he then responded by asking “were you born in Nigeria or were you born in the United States?” I said “not only was I born in the United States but my parents were born in United States and my grandparents were born in the United States and generations and generations before them were also born in the United States. It’s possible that my family came from Nigeria but they were on slave ships not airplanes.” The custom officer standing next to him chuckled at my statement. The officer who had been questioning me gave me back my passport and wished me on my way.

Despite my desire to exert my American citizenship, it’s nice to live in a place where people harass you about fitting in as opposed to not belonging. With rise of nationalism and protectionism policies around the world, it’s nice to be a global citizen. Now, I just need to figure out where home is…

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I haven’t lived in Alabama since April 2003. In March of that year, with no job or source of steady income, I packed up all my things and headed off to pursue my dreams of working on Capitol Hill. What played out in my head as a picture perfect fantasy turned out to be a roller coaster reality. I struggled to embrace the changing weather patterns, found it difficult to relate to the people who didn’t say Hello when passing and struggling to meet ends meet. It was a tough dose of reality. But I am glad I took the gamble and made the move. Since that faithful move, my work has lead me all over the United States and even the world.

But those experiences have shaped my world view and even changed the way I speak. This has also made it somewhat challenging when I return to Alabama. I have found myself asking people to repeat themselves when ordering food or seeking service. The longer I stay away from Alabama, the more difficult it is for my ear to pick up the accent. I constantly tell my wife that while Americans and British speak English, they are unofficially two different languages. Chips in the US mean potato chips – think Doritos, Lays, Golden Flake – while in the U.K. Chips mean French fries. I was visiting relatives in Alabama recently and they all began to comment that I had not only lost my southern accent but was also losing my American accent. The southern accent has been on the way out since my time in Washington, DC. While living in DC, I became frustrated each time someone asked me to repeat myself…

Another incident involved my wife at the doctor’s office. She was filling out the lengthy medical forms when she asked me what she should write as race. When I looked at the form, she had written African. I looked back at her and she was beaming from ear to ear. I told her that we are in the US, there are only a few races in the US…white, non-Hispanic; black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic, non white and Hispanic, non-black. Occasionally you will see Asian and Pacific Islander but once a black person arrives in the US, we categorize you as Black…when I lived in the US I use to count the number of black people in a room but now, I count the number of white people in a room.

You don’t realize how over the top Americans are when it comes to customer service until you live in a place where the customer is never right. Welcome to Africa where people tell you that the bad food you are eating is nice and you’ll like it and the hot, sweltering room is actually cold! I’ve never forget my first experience in a restaurant in South Sudan. When I walked through the door, the people stared at me. After a minute or so, I asked, do you serve food. The woman mumbled and pointed to a table in the middle of the room. When she approached my table, she stood waiting for me to order but hadn’t given me a menu. I was thinking, this customer service sucks. What I didn’t know was, while this was really bad service, it didn’t get much better than this. To experience an overzealous waiter or waitress with an menu eight pages long and 12 ways to drink a fountain drink, it’s a tab bit overwhelming. Excuse me if I look like a dear in headlights when ordering a meal.

The global citizen life is not an easy one. You never fully fit in in the country you are living and never feel as comfortable at home as you use too. You live somewhere in between and you have to be careful not to offend your neighbors in your resident country and your home country when analyzing life. It’s not easy oooh…but we try oooh (as my Nigerian neighbor say).

2017: A Year in Review…

2017 has been an exciting year with new experiences and new locations. We are ringing in the New Year in the United States where we have been spending our Holiday Break. It hasn’t been a restful of a break as we would have liked, but we are delighted to be spending some time in the United States. This is the longest period of time that I have spent in the U.S. since the three months I spent in Washington, D.C. after the South Sudan crisis. We are truly thankful to God for another year and grateful for the many memories we will carry into 2018. While there were some challenges in 2017, we look forward to new opportunities (and the challenges) in 2018.

So here are the highlights from 2017:

We marked our one year anniversary on June 4, 2017

Cambodia

On June 4, we celebrated 365 days as husband and wife. Now it should not be a surprise that we survived the first year as a married couple, but it is quite the accomplishment when you think about the past few years in your life. I was just reading my Christmas update from 2013 and there was no mentioned of Sheila, a girlfriend or an impending marriage. It’s amazing how life changes…To celebrate our one year anniversary, we took a “second” honeymoon to Southeast Asia. We spent a few nights in Bangkok, visited the Angkor Archaeological Park, played in the sand in Phuket, Thailand and experienced the ultra-clean and organized city of Singapore. The highlight of that vacation was swimming in the infinity pool high above the Marina Sands Hotel.

Anniversary Photo

Welcome to the family Miss Sarah Grace

Sarah Grace

In August, our family grew by one. My brother and his wife had their first child in August. Sheila and I could only watch from a distance using Skype and Whatsapp to meet our new niece. However, when we arrived in Alabama to celebrate Christmas, we finally got to meet Sarah Grace. She loves to sleep, eat, and drink milk. In addition, she loves to watch other people talk. She may have an early case of FOMO (fear of missing out). We are so excited to welcome her into the family and look forward to spoiling her as her Uncle and Auntie.

Sheila becomes a Student

This year we made a really tough decision. Despite only being married (and living together) for one year and four months, we decided that we would live on separate continents for one year. Sheila applied and was accepted into a Psychology program at Coventry University. Sheila had talked for nearly a year about getting a Master Degree. While we were hoping that she could land employment in Abuja, we finally made the decision to seek out schools that she could attend. While we are really sad to be in different locations, we are thankful that God has open doors for Sheila to live and attend school in Coventry. For one, she has friends who live there who can check in on her and has helped her settle in. In addition, there is a large Rwanda population in Coventry (large is relative) so she has found other Aunties to serve as her “UK mum.”  She is expected to finish her program in October of 2018. So we will be commuting between Nigeria and the UK for the next ten months. Which for those who know and understand Nigerians, is a normal commute!

Equipping leaders and volunteers at the Abuja Ark International Church

In May, I was nominated and elected to serve on the Leadership Team (LT) of my church in Abuja. My church in Abuja is a bit unique. We don’t have a pastor as most churches do. What we have is a LT that runs the day to day operations of the church. This LT also serves as the group responsible for the welfare of the church. Sermons, and other aspects of the church is done by volunteers. Each Sunday a volunteer from the church (approved by the LT) delivers a message or a sermon. Worship, ushering, setup/take down, service coordination are all done by volunteers. This means that being a member of the LT is a “second” full time job. We meet every other week to respond to comments from the church and make necessary decisions. I learned during my time at McLean Bible Church that leading God’s people is hard…this new role has only cemented that fact. But I am thankful that God has given me a background seat to the inter-workings of his Church and his people.

Auburn Strikes Again in Epic Fashion

Auburn Game

Picture it…Juba, South Sudan…2013…It was a difficult year as I had lost my job, spent three months wandering in the desert looking for a job and found myself living in the world’s newest country. However, Auburn’s surprising run to the National Championship game made the year even more exciting. The Prayer in Jordan Hare and the Kick Six were epic wins over our two sport rivals. 2017 ended in similar fashion (minus the appearance at the National Championship game). Epics wins against Georgia and Alabama made the end of the year seem so sweet.

Visit to Windsor Castle – the royal residence of the Queen Elizabeth II

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For Thanksgiving, I went to the U.K. to visit Sheila. It was my first visit to Coventry since Sheila’s departure for school. She had been studying all hours of the day and night so when I arrived, I suggested that she take a little time off of studying and relax. Our study break included a trip to Windsor Castle, the royal residence of Queen Elizabeth II. The castle has served as a royal residence since 1100, when Henry I came to power. Since that time, it has been the home of British Monarchs from Henry VIII to Charles I (who was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell) to the current monarch who became Queen in 1952. In 1917, King George V changed the name from the German sounding Saxe-Coburg and Gotha surname to the House of Windsor to distance the British monarch from the Germany, who at the time, was at war with the UK and other countries. Over the past decade, I have become interested in the history of the British Monarchy reading the biographies of Henry VIII, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, King James II, King George V and his wife Queen Mary of Teck.

My third great grandfather Harford Tait (Tate), Sr.

I have been researching my family history since 1997. It has become a passion of mine during my leisure time. When I am bored in the evenings or on the weekends, I find myself lost on Ancestry.com looking up various members of my family. In the past twenty years, I have discovered numerous ancestors and connected our family to numerous families in and around Mobile County, Alabama. In November, I was watching one of Henry Louis Gates “Finding your Roots” episodes. He was helping famous Americans research their family roots. As I was watching the show, I decided to start searching random family ancestors in Google. My search led me to Senator Charles Tait. Senator Tait was born in Virginia but moved to Georgia with his family in 1783. In 1809, he was elected in a special election to fill the term of Senator John Milledge. He was reelected in 1813, serving until 1819. Before his senate term had expired, he and his son moved to Alabama to grab land in the newly opening Alabama Territory. He was appointed to a judgeship in 1820 for the District of Alabama. It turns out that one of Senator Tait slaves, Harford, was one of my direct descendant (on my mom side). From what I found by just searching Harford’s name is that he was a well-educated slave responsible for updating his master on what was happening on the plantation. In 1826, when Senator Tait was traveling to Philadelphia, it was Harford that wrote him a letter informing him “eighty bales (of cotton) had been packed, and they think they will have eighty more…” Harford went on to announce that “I have another son named after myself…” This son, named after Harford is my second great grandfather who was born in 1826 and died in 1897. I was also shocked to find that there is a book, “Life and Labor in the Old South” that mentions the letter that Harford wrote to his master. In addition, in his will, Senator Tait gave instructions that Harford should be freed after his death (or to be sent to live with Senator Tait’s son in Wilcox County). While I don’t know if Harford was freed after the death of Senator Tait in 1835, his Harford eventually settled in Monroe County where Senator Tait lived. It was an amazing find for the legacy of our family and where we come from.

A House full of Visitors

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This year, we had a house full of visitors. Our first official guest to Abuja was Sheila’s friend and former colleague Pauline. Pauline was in Lagos and decided to venture up to Abuja to spend the weekend with us. We entertained Pauline by taking her to the Bwari Pottery Village. My colleague Jacob came to visit the following week. Following Jacob was Sheila’s brother Bob. Bob had been looking forward to visiting Nigeria since Sheila arrived last June (2016). I think he finds Nigerians flamboyant, colorful, over-the-top and comedic. Another colleague from my DC office came for a few days in July and Sheila’s cousin Nicholas and Fiona traveled to Abuja from Kampala, Uganda to visit. We were blessed to have friends and family travel all the way to Abuja to spend time with us.

30 Days in the United Republic of Tanzania

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In October, I was assigned to temporary duty (TDY) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was a needed break from the heat and chaos of Nigeria. Dar es Salaam is an old chaotic city with some amazing views of the Indian Ocean. What the city lacks in its old world ruggedness, it makes up with its proximity to the Indian Ocean and easy access to Zanzibar. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dar. I made a trip to the neighboring beach island of Bongoyo and made a weekend trip to Zanzibar. The TDY came at the right time as I needed a break from Nigeria. I hope there are more TDYs in the coming year. It provides a breather when you are living outside your comfort zone.

Got to Get a Little Mud on the Tires…

clean-muddy

We spent the 2016/17 New Year’s holiday in North Cyprus.  We found Cyprus to be an amazing place! I wanted to visit the Karpas National Park and the Cape, which marked the end of the island. So on Monday, January 2, we embarked on what we thought would be a two-hour car ride. The trip was progressing smoothly until our google navigator lost connection with the satellite and we missed an important turn. At first she recalculated and told us we would arrive 15 minutes after our original time. However, we found ourselves deep in a rural Cypriot town. At one point, we found ourselves driving down a road in the middle of an olive grove. It should have been at that point that we reassessed the situation and found a new way out. However, we continued along the highlighted route. We came to a cemetery in the town of Sazlikoy. Once past the cemetery, the paved road turned into a muddy, pothole ridden farm path. When we approached the road, I initially told myself to find an alternative route because I have watched too many movies where small cars are bogged down in mud. I kept thinking, the last thing I want to do is get stuck in a random Cypriot town where probably no one speaks English.

The mud should have been our indication to turn back and find an alternative route. To give ourselves credit, we discussed the situation for several minutes. There was a back and forth of what to do and whether to turn back. Sadly, we convinced ourselves to power forward in the smallest car in the world. And into the mud we went. My last words were… “Ah, Sheila, I really don’t want to get stuck.”

And just as expected, the car leaped into the mud and we were stuck. I was so furious that I thought this tiny little car could barrel its way through the mud with no problem. At one point I had to calm myself because I was starting to “overheat.” I knew that the only way we were going to get out of this muddy predicament was to get out and push. I wasn’t initially gun ho about this idea but Sheila kept chiming in that we should get out. Now it’s important to note that while the day was sunny and mild, it was still winter and putting my foot in muddy water was not how I saw the day playing out. I decided to get out and push with Sheila manning the driver’s seat. The whole ordeal took us about 15 minutes and only a few splashes of mud on my clothes. However, my feet were caked in mud. It was an awful ordeal as it was not how I wanted to spend our day in the Cyprus country side but it has given us a hilarious detour on our vacation…one that brings us to laugh each time we think about it and watch the video. Our marriage has been full of these what seem like a stressful situation that turns out to be laughable moments. Whenever we get bent out shape we always think back to getting stuck in the mud. It was an early moment into our 2017 year.

Lord, You make all things new, you bring hope alive in our hearts and cause our Spirits to be born again. Thank you for this new year for all the potential it holds.
Come and kindle in us a mighty flame so that in our time, many will see the wonders of God and live forever to praise Your glorious name.

Happy New Year! 2018

 

In April, Sheila and I traveled to the United States for Easter. We were on a mission! Our first goal was to visit the most magical place on earth…and after some close flights, we arrived in Orlando where we had a personal visit with the top mouse himself, Mickey. (Our connections were tight because the U.S. Customs & Border protection agents had some additional questions for my wife. I thought I was smart by patiently waiting for my wife in the long queue. I have Global entry which allows me express entry into the U.S. My thinking was that if they connected us, they would allow her through quickly. However, that was not the case and we were briefly detained. The agent said as we were being directed into the cold, sterile room, “it’s the cost of being married…) However, we eventually made it to our one-on-one visit with Mickey and after being overwhelmed with his ability to bring a smile to even the most sad faces, we were off to experience the Magic Kingdom. It was Sheila’s first time to Walt Disney World, so it was an extra special visit.

We had a second mission for our trip to Alabama…we were attempting to bring our frozen wedding cake back to Nigeria. In the United States, it’s customary to freeze the top tier of your wedding cake to consume on your first wedding anniversary. After our US reception, we had a professional cake “preserver” (my mom) freeze our cake. My brother and sister-in-law had given my mom amazing reviews. They raved how their cake tasted as if it was their wedding day.

To bring a frozen cake back from the US was quite the orchestrated process. Especially that we were traveling over 8,000 miles with a cake. The 8,000-mile voyage included a 400-mile road trip between Mount Vernon, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia, a short domestic flight between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. at 5:00am in the morning and a 15-hour flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The journey ended with the four and a half flight across the continent to Abuja.

To make sure the cake survived the transatlantic flight to Abuja, we needed a trusted cooler to help transport the cake. My parents gave Sheila and I a Yeti to ensure the cake made it back to Abuja in one piece. If you have never heard of a Yeti, let this be your public service announcement. It’s an amazing cooler that keeps items cold for long periods of time. Our Yeti was not only able to keep our cake frozen but the dry ice that we purchased last almost 36 hours. We still had a piece of dry ice when we arrived in Abuja. We purchased the dry ice at a Publix Grocery Store in Montgomery, Alabama, the midway point between Mount Vernon and Atlanta. I read on the airline’s websites that 5 pounds of dry ice was allowed as part of your checked bag. I was hoping the dry ice would keep the cake frozen until we arrived in Abuja.

When we arrived at the Atlanta airport, I quickly told the ticket representative that we were traveling with dry ice to ensure everything was ok. The friendly flight attendant asked what we were transporting…when I told her we were carrying our wedding cake back to Abuja, Nigeria, she laughed and told us that we should be tracking the cakes travel on social media. When we arrived in Washington, D.C. we checked to ensure that the cake was still frozen before checking it in for the final time for the trip to Abuja. During the entire 22 hours of travel, the cake was on my mind. I just wanted to make sure that the cake survived the long journey to Nigeria. However, we were pleasantly surprised that the cake was still frozen when we arrived at our apartment in Abuja. We filmed the removal of the cake from the Yeti and quickly put it in our freezer. Our plan was to eat it after our Anniversary vacation.

Because we were not in Abuja to celebrate our anniversary, we decided to invite over a few friends to celebrate our cake escapade. In addition, Sheila’s brother Bob also happened to be in town to help consume our year old cake. While a few of our guest were hesitant about eating the year old cake, the cake was moist and delicious. It was worth the wait and a great way for us to celebrate our one year anniversary. Maybe we should start a tradition of freezing a cake for a year and celebrating as if it’s our one year anniversary.

 

I have lived in Abuja for over three years and I can tell you that there is not much to do in terms of tourist attractions. If you google Abuja, you will run across the Nigerian National Mosque and the Nigerian National Christian Centre or maybe even see a photo of the famous rocks in Abuja, Aso Rock and Zuma Rock. The National Mosque was built in 1984 and the Christians in Nigeria could be outdone and petitioned for the building of a National Christian Centre. But in terms of museums, cultural centers and historical landmarks, Abuja is lacking.

So when we have people visit us in Abuja, we are always pondering the question, “What do we do?” Throughout the summer, Sheila and I played host to friends, colleagues and relatives. Our first official guest to Abuja was Sheila’s friend and former colleague Pauline. Pauline was in Lagos and decided to venture up to Abuja to spend the weekend with us. We entertained Pauline by taking her to the Bwari Pottery Village. The pottery village is buried deep inside one of the villages that surround Abuja. The road is chaotic as you try to navigate people, goats, cars, moto-taxis and potholes. A small sign alerts you that you have arrived at the pottery village.  The center gained celebrity status in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton visited during one of his presidential visits. While the celebrity status of the pottery village has dim, the center is still producing creative pots, vases and other pottery items. It’s a nice place to visit when looking for a tourist attraction. Sheila and I have made two trips out to the village since she joined me in Abuja.

(l to r) Sheila and Pauline, Sentell and Jacob talking with a political party leader and Jacob, Sentell and members of the IRI Nigeria office.

My colleague Jacob came to visit the following week. Since he was here on a work trip, there wasn’t so much pressure to entertain him but I tried to introduce him to as many nice restaurants in Abuja as possible. We did find a Chinese restaurant in Kaduna (about 100 miles north of Abuja) that did more harm than good but a lesson was learned.

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Bob at the City Gate of Abuja

Following Jacob was Sheila’s brother Bob. Bob had been looking forward to visiting Nigeria since Sheila arrived last June (2016). I think he finds Nigerians flamboyant, colorful, over-the-top and comedic (and sometimes I do too). During one of Sheila’s trips to visit me before we were married, he requested a typical Nigerian outfit (similar to the ones that I wear). Bob’s plan was to be with us for a week and a half which made it difficult when trying to plan a schedule for his visit to Abuja. Now, Nigeria is a very dynamic place but sadly, Abuja is the least dynamic area in the country. Up until the late 1980s, Lagos was the capital of Nigeria. To unify the country, the government moved the capital to Abuja, a new city created in the heart of the country. Sadly, none of the culture or entertainment moved to Abuja…only the boring “suits” of the government. However, because we were trying to find things for Bob to do in Abuja, we discovered a lot of things that actually make Abuja interesting.

Thanks to some church friends, we discovered that Abuja has a botanical garden (who knew). Its buried deep in the same neighborhood as my office. It is a bit unfinished but a beautiful, quiet location in a noisy city. We also made a trip to Guarara Falls where Sheila and I tried to recreate a photo we took in 2015 during one of her trips to Abuja, watched the sunset from the top of the Barcelona Hotel (an untapped resource) and took a photo safari around town. Bob really forced us out of our apartment to see Abuja in a different light.

(Left – 2015 at Guarara Falls/Right – 2017 at Guarara Falls) We tried to make sure we were dressed the same to recreate the photo.

And the visits didn’t stop there. Another colleague from my DC office came for a few days in July and Sheila’s cousin Nicholas and Fiona traveled to Abuja from Kampala, Uganda to visit. Once again, our minds were racing with what to do with them when they arrived. While most of their visit was spent buying Ankara fabrics that are really expensive in East Africa, we were able to take them to a traditional Nigerian wedding. Just before their arrival, I had been invited to a wedding of a government official’s son. I knew that the wedding would be a sight for our East African visitors. And the wedding lived up to every over the top expectation that they had. A former Vice President of Nigeria was the Chairman of the occasion and the food was nonstop. Nigerian weddings are known for giving gifts to guest as they depart the wedding. There was a rumor that at the wedding of the daughter of President Goodluck Jonthan, guest received iPhone as gifts from the bride and groom. There was a small part of me hoping that at this wedding, we to would also receive iPhones. While we didn’t receive iPhones, we did receive Avon lotion and bath products. Not a bad haul for spending four hours at a wedding reception.

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Nicholas, Fiona, Sheila and Sentell in Abuja

When compared to Lagos, Abuja is a slow, boring, culture-less city . But as residents, the city requires effort to appreciate its uniqueness and stuffy culture. So thanks to all our guest over the past four months, we now have a new appreciation of Abuja and looking forward to host new guest in Abuja. Y’all come see us you hear!

Hassan is my building’s trusted “know-it-all.” Probably best defined as the property manager of my compound, he is the go to person with all our problems. And last night, I had to go and find him at 2:29am.

Not sure you have been able to decipher from my many blog post that Nigeria has a problem (or wahala) with electricity.  Nigeria’s Minister of Power; Works and Housing blames the problem on “inadequate electricity supply to consumers on lack of sufficient financial investments in the power sector.” That’s a nice way saying Nigeria has not updated its power grid. So as the population boomed, the supply of electricity stayed the same. This is why at 2:29am, I am up talking with Hassan.

It is important to note that unlike the more than 75 percent of this country, I live on a compound that has two generators, so when the power goes out, I can go look for Hassan to solve the problem. The currently problem is the inability of three apartments to receive power when the large generator is on. The solution is to run the small generator until 8am when the problem can be fixed. This is just another day living on the grid in Nigeria. It feels very much like we live off the grid in Africa’s most populous country.

 

 

I was going to post this photo of camels on the beach in Mombasa and just let it sit here…making all of our jealous of our weekend trip to the Indian Ocean. However, I made an unwise decision that I am paying for now…I refused to use sunscreen and now for the first I have an awful case of sunburn. My shoulders are inflamed and the color red. This is just the second time I have been sunburned.

Burn

And both times it happened while I was on or near the equator. In the future, I have to remember that my skin is somewhere between chocolate and caramel which both softens and melts in the sun. So I have learned that I don’t melt in rain but come close to melting in the sun…

Before I begin the blog, I would like to wish my beautiful and loving wife a very Happy Birthday. I am delighted I get to celebrate the start of her New Year and many more birthdays to come.

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A photo from our birthday outing celebrating Sheila’s big day in 2016. She was on the winning team of our first corn-hole tournament.

I love the great outdoors. I love hiking, walking and especially biking. Biking is one of the things that I miss about the United States. When I lived in Washington DC, I would bike as much as 40 miles on the weekends. And there was that time I attempted the nearly 80-mile loop from Washington DC to White Ferry, MD to Leesburg, VA back to Washington DC. While getting to Leesburg was not as difficult as I expected, beside taking me nearly four hours, the trip from Leesburg was awful. From Leesburg, the trail began to climb small hills and wind its way through cookie cutter suburban villages. There were a few times when I was so tired I didn’t know how I would make it back to D.C. Once in Reston, I was able to take a public bus to the Metro and then the subway back to D.C. For two days, my body constantly reminded me of that ride from hell.

Anyway, the point being, I enjoy being outside. Outdoor activities have also helped me remain at a comfortable weight and in some decent shape.

But living in Nigeria has brought an end to all of that…the food is heavy in carbohydrates and riding a bike has its own challenges. Driving too has its own challenges in Nigeria. So I have struggled to stay active (and sadly I have put on a pounds). So in addition to my tennis games throughout the week, Sheila and I recently joined a gym.

 As I said above, I love the outdoors which means I hate gyms. I hate them because they usually are dark, tiny, smelly and void of everything I like about the outdoors. But the positive nature of gyms in Nigeria is that membership comes with sessions with a personal trainer. So at least there is someone to stay on top of you. Today marks our third day with our new trainer Richard. While we are both exhausted we appreciate his efforts and like his friendly nature. I am also posting this so my readers can shame me into continuing my sessions through Christmas. Keep me accountable.

 Proverbs 24:16 says that “a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again…” I just hope that I can keep rising again when this gym membership seems to much…

Photo is from a recent visit to the University of Abuja to talk with political science students about the work IRI is doing in Nigeria.

Let me start with the most important issue of the day, it’s August 16…which means today I’m another year older and wiser! Yes, I am celebrating 38 years of life on this earth. Exactly at 2:09pm Central Standard Time (CST) I entered this crazy world and what a crazy ride it has been. In a new tradition that we started last year, we took a weekend trip to Lagos to celebrate our upcoming birthdays. Last year, we celebrated our birthdays with a trip to Ghana (it was officially a work trip but we turned it into a quick weekend vacation). This past weekend, we had an amazing time in Lagos Nigeria enjoying the few attractions in Lagos and attending a Kirk Franklin Concert at the House of the Rock in Lekki (Lagos). In addition, I have celebrated my birthday in four countries over the past six birthdays (US in 2012, South Sudan in 2013, Nigeria in 2014/2015/2017 and Ghana in 2016).

But let’s get back to the “case of the 419.” If you are a Nigerian, then you understand what I mean when I say “case of the 419” but let me take a moment to explain a 419.

A 419 is a scam where the sender requests help in facilitating the transfer of money. These requests are usually made by email and many of us remember receiving these request from a Nigerian prince who needs an advance to access a large sum of money from his father, uncle, etc. These scams have become quite the joke and famously called 419s by Nigerians.

The section of the Nigerian criminal code that address this type of fraud is 419, which is why Nigerians refer to these scams as 419. While Nigerian princes made this scam popular (and comedic), this is an international scam perpetrated by criminals around the world. I received an email from my parent’s account explaining that they were having issues accessing cash in the Philippines. Now, I had just talked with my mom the night before and they were surely in Alabama. AND, the last time my parents traveled internationally, it was a big deal! There was no way my parents would jump up and fly to the Philippines of all places.

FB Phil MAR 31

FB Phil Apr 1

FB PHIL April 1 reponse

My situation is not a 419 by definition, it can be described as a case of old fashion fraud. Someone, somewhere stole my debit card information and was trying to withdraw money and make purchases in New York City. Thankfully, my financial institution thought these transactions were irregular and didn’t fit my spending pattern and declined the transaction. The thieves tried to make purchases of $3,500 on my debit card. CRAZY! However, my financial institution saved the day and alerted me of the transactions. Sadly, I had to close the account and destroy the card which means at the moment, I don’t have access to my cash. Will be a difficult few weeks in Abuja but Sheila and I will find a way to survive.

At least today is my birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have been struggling to admit this publicly but sadly I am getting old. While I like to say that I am in my “thirties” the reality is, I am closer being in my forties. My body doesn’t heal the way it used to. I have been to the hospital three times in Nigeria and two of those times were because I overextended myself either at the gym or playing tennis (the first time was because of malaria). The most recent “health scare” was after a strenuous game of tennis on Sunday evening. Since Sheila has been out of town, I thought it would be good to spend a few nights playing tennis. My tennis coach and I were having a very exciting game when we were rudely interrupted by the rain. We decided to reschedule our game for the next night (Monday). I went home, talked to my wife, finished up a few work related items and eventually went to bed around 1:30am.

The next day I was up at 7:00am and in a work event at 8:00am. Later that morning I made a presentation at a workshop on strengthening political party communication. By noon that day, I was having trouble breathing. As a typical southern, my first though was I had gas trapped near my lungs. I started searching the web for my symptoms so I could diagnosis myself. By 2:00pm, I was unable to walk more than a few steps without struggling to breathe. I had to have my staff help me to the car. I told my driver to take me directly to the hospital. I don’t enjoy going to the hospital in Nigeria. Mostly because it chaotic and confusing. There are numerous buildings with little to no signage about where to go. Surprisingly, my time at the hospital was very short and I was able to see a consultant very quickly. I told her I was having trouble breathing and could only walk a few steps before taking a break to catch my breath. She conducted a few checks and asked me a few questions.

Consultant: “Is there pain when you breathe?”
Me: “No”
Consultant: “How would you describe it?”
Me: “It’s more like a discomfort. I thought I was having a heart attack”
Consultant: “Well you are not having a heart attack. It sounds like the muscles between your ribs are enflamed and you are experiencing muscle spasms. That is why if feels like you can’t breathe. Did you do anything recently to enflame your muscles?”
Me: “Well, I played tennis for the first time in a month. But you know, I play tennis a few times a month usually.”
Consultant: “That was probably what contribute to your condition. You just need rest. And you probably want to warm up before playing tennis. However, I will give you some muscle relaxers to help you rest.”

It was in that moment that I realized that I was no longer a young man. Yes, mentally, I still think of myself as a youth but the body reflects the current age. The singer, Aaliyah once said in one of her songs that “Age ain’t nothing but a number…” while that might be true, sadly my body knows what that age is…

And Sheila and I haven’t even started to have children…