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.

 

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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.

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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

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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…

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Sheila and I set off for an anniversary trip to Southeast Asia. Our trip included three days in Bangkok, two nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia, three nights in Phuket, Thailand and an overnight in Singapore. We were trying to see as much of Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula as possible. There are a few places we didn’t make it to, such as Myanmar and Malaysia – we will hit them on the next trip.   We wanted to share photos from our trip.

Photos from the market we visited on Saturday, May 27

We arrived in Bangkok at the start of the rainy season. On Saturday afternoon, there was so much rain that the street we were staying on was completely washed out. We were unable to walk on the sidewalks because of the level of water. 

The shopping malls in Bangkok were amazing. They were organized, clean and not very crowded. In addition, the mall had crazy amenities like a beach of bubbles and lounges for the movie theaters. 

We didn’t visit many temples in Bangkok. We were wrestling with how to fit it with our faith. So the only temple we visited was Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha. We said prayer and I had a quick walk through of the temple. 

My favorite activities in Bangkok – having clothes made (my fancy dinner jacket) and getting a massage. We had two of the most relaxing massages while we were in Thailand. This massage spa was across the street from where we were staying in Bangkok.

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On our last day in Bangkok, we had lunch with the IRI-Thailand Country Director and his lovely wife. It was great catching up with him and trading IRI stories. 

One of the benefits of living in Southeast Asia is the ridiculous number of discount airlines. We were able to get a cheap ticket to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. So on Monday, we said our goodbyes to the Goods and headed off to Cambodia. I think I was most looking forward to Cambodia because of the country’s mystic and horrific past under the Khmer Rouge.  Off we went on Air Asia Thailand.

Sheila and I recently returned to Nigeria after visiting our eight (Thailand), ninth (Cambodia) and tenth (Singapore) countries as a married couple. It has been a busy year for us, between work trips and a few excursions out of Nigeria, we have racked up the frequent flyer miles. To celebrate our anniversary, we visited the Goods (Andrew, Jessica, Asher and recent addition, Vivienne) in Bangkok, Thailand, visited the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, became beach bums in Phuket, Thailand and relaxed in the infinity pool at the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore. It was an epic end to our one year of marriage. I am not sure how we will top our second anniversary. Maybe I should start planning…

There were a few things that caught our attention while traveling through Southeast Asia.

There is a new loud tourist on the scene and it’s not the rude American!

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There is a new tourist on the scene…A growing middle class mixed with currency depreciation around the world is making vacation travel suddenly affordable to Chinese travelers. We saw this everywhere we went. Our driver in Cambodia said that he now sees more Chinese travelers than any other nationality. He also said that they are easy to spot because they can be quite loud and boisterous. Hotels, restaurants, and tour excursions were all geared towards the growing influx of Chinese tourist that is flooding Southeast Asia.

Have you never seen a black person before?

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We had a few run-ins with some of these Chinese tourists in their desire to take pictures with us everywhere we went. Honestly, it was mostly Sheila that they wanted to photograph. Sometimes they would politely ask but other times they would find ways of getting the photo. Sheila and I quickly became aware of their schemes and would point our phones and cameras at them to take a photo. They would then get the hint and stop. But it happened in Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore. Honestly, it was never the locals but always the tourists. With the locals, we normally received a lot of stares…and that was mostly from the children.

Backpacking through Southeast Asia

To get to the airplane in Bangkok, we had to get on a bus to be transferred to the aircraft. As Sheila and I were looking around, we were completely taken aback by the number of young white men and women on the bus. It turns out that many of them were Canadians who had just finished medical school and were traveling before their medical residency started. The Canadians would be spending three weeks in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand before heading back to Canada.

Cambodians are some of the friendliest people you will meet!

Granted, we were only in Cambodia for about 36 hours but I found the people of Cambodia to be very friendly. We really enjoyed our Tuk Tuk driver Mr. Thoeun. He was a young guy that always had a smile on his face. He told us that if he took us to some of the shops, he would get a commission. And if we told them that we were Americans, he would get an additional bonus. Now, I have been on tours where drivers have pushed me into stores without telling me why I was making an unnecessary stop. Thoeun was pretty clear from the beginning and we thought, “why not! He is honest with us so we can play along.” He was also pretty flexible with our ever changing plans. We really appreciated his friendly demeanor and would recommend him to future travelers. We have his number and have reached out to him since on WhatsApp.

A Sleep Over at the Movie Theaters

Bangkok has taken the movie theater experience to a new level. During our time in Bangkok, we had date night with the Goods. So we had a traditional Thai meal and then we were off to the theaters. Unlike traditional theaters in the U.S. and even Nigeria, many of Bangkok theaters don’t have lobbies to wait on your movie. They have lounges…! These lounges are designed like modern nightclubs with low lighting, floor to ceiling curtains and low music. Your ticket to the theater also comes with a 20-minute head/shoulder or foot massage, a beverage and a snack. When you order popcorn and drink, it is delivered to your seat. The seats in the theater are similar to business class seats on Emirates Airline. The seats even turned into lay flat seats. On top of that they provide you with a pillow and comforter/blanket to get cozy and watch the movie. It was an epic experience. It’s probably not the smartest idea…if you think about it, they feed you, massage you, give you a bed, blanket and pillow and then put you in a dark, cool room…next stop – sleep!

Singapore, the most expensive city in the world!

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According to CNBC, for the fourth year in a row, Singapore is the most expensive city in the world. And I would completely agree with them. While hotels were priced similar to other large metropolitan areas, food prices in Singapore were outrageous. However, we really enjoyed our time in Singapore. It was a cleaner, more organized version of the United States. For our anniversary, we stayed at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, a hotel famous for its rooftop infinity pool. It was an amazing way to celebrate our anniversary and not sure how we will top it next year.

Sheila at the Pool

June 4, 2017 was the date of our first wedding anniversary. It is hard to believe that it’s been a year. It feels like just yesterday we were arriving in Abuja settling into our new life as husband and wife. But 365 days later and ten countries visited during our first year of marriage, we are moving into year two of #Shentell. We wanted to share our wedding video to celebrate our first anniversary and to thank all our family and friends that in some way contributed to our wedding. No matter how small your contribution, we are forever grateful for your love and kindness that was showered on us last year. We were also moved by all the family and friends that traveled across oceans, continents and between countries to join us for our wedding. People traveled from the US, the UK, Serbia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Thailand (hopefully we didn’t forget a country…we ask for grace if we did!) and from many parts of Rwanda.

Wedding Map

In addition, we wanted to thank family and friends who have encouraged us over the past year. We have received countless messages and gifts, hosted in numerous homes for dinner (and sometimes for sleep overs) and received numerous runs to and from the airport. We thank each and every one of you and thank God for bringing you into our lives.