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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
There is an episode of the Cosby show where Vanessa Huxtable blames her parents for being rich after being harassed at school for being a rich girl. It’s a funny episode because Clare and Cliff tell Vanessa that if anyone is rich, it’s them and not her. This episode recently flashed through my mind as I was in a government building in Nigeria looking for a toilet.
“Oh to be an American living in Nigeria!” I sometimes feel that my upbringing in the United States has left me disadvantaged living in Nigeria as an American. My expectations for basic things are exceptionally high which often leads to frustration and disappointment when I’m trying to get simple things done. But the lack of toilets, especially in a government building with hundreds of employees is downright disappointing (and disgusting). I had to ask 5 security officers before finding a toilet. It made me think, where do people go to the toilet?
I recently had the strangest conversation with my driver. The topic was public urination and the conversation started because I read an article on BBC.com that the city of San Francisco, in an effort to address the issue of public urination around night clubs and bars, is planning to use a special paint that redirects urine back onto the person. This, the city hopes, will stop public urination. The idea came from a city in Germany which has been using the paint for a few years to combat public urination around bars.
Nigeria has a significant problem with public urination and public defecation. Water and sanitation is a problem that is being addressed by numerous NGOs and other health related organizations. Most foreign nationals in Nigeria are surprised by the lack of facilities and the overwhelming number of people “relieving” themselves on the side of the road or along walled compounds. You often see signs that read, “No urination here.” And the most significant problem (to me) is that when people do “relieve” themselves, there is no desire to seek cover. People visiting Nigeria from all over the world, including parts of the world where public urination is common are surprised how out in the open it is in Nigeria. It truly catches you off guard. Recently, Sheila and I were out walking through the neighborhood when a car pulled over and two men exited the car. At first, we didn’t think much about them. They were walking along chatting toward us. Eventually they stopped, began to unzip their trousers and allowed nature to do its course. Now, before I go on, I have no problem with a man (or woman for that matter) seeking the cover of trees, walls or whatever to “make themselves comfortable.” But to stop on the edge of the sidewalk, remove your “junk” and let the water flow in front of my wife, then I have a problem.
According to WaterAid, an international NGO working to improve water and sanitation in Africa’s largest country, many areas throughout the country, don’t have access to proper sewer systems. The organization estimates that over 130 million people don’t have access to proper sewer systems. Just imagine, the entire Southern region of the U.S. without proper sanitation (many of my “Northern” friends already think that is the case). That is what the situation looks like here in Nigeria. Which explains why people relieve themselves on the side of the road. But you never get comfortable watching men and women “conduct their business” on the side of the road and in broad daylight. Again, I am not trying to judge but it’s difficult removing these American lenses that I see the world through…its just who I am…
For the past three years, I have been searching for why Nigeria is the way it is. And honestly, despite the fact that all Nigerians say they know what’s wrong with Nigeria, it’s hard to put your finger on it. But one issue in particular that has given me numerous headaches is the issue of trust. Trust is nonexistent in Nigeria. The people don’t trust the government, employers don’t trust employees, business people don’t trust customers and so on. For a person that comes from a country built on trust, it’s difficult at times getting anything done.
I experience this lack of trust virtually everywhere. Among my staff, in retail stores and shops and even in church. Which is why a Nigerian friend once told me that “We don’t even trust God in this country!” Which is a crazy statement based on the fact that Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world, evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Churches clog roads on Sundays and the Mosques basically shuts down Abuja at 1:00pm on Fridays.
When I arrived in Nigeria I attended a mega church that had a very complex parking situation. The parking situation is made even more difficult because most drivers didn’t follow the instructions of the parking attendant. They often ignored the parking attendant and made their own parking space. When I would inquire why the driver was not following the instructions of the parking attendant, I was told that “the parking attendant didn’t know what he was doing.”
For an American, our society is based on trust. Most Americans don’t live in gated compounds and many of us have access to instant loans when we are in the supermarket or any retail store – credit cards. We buy homes with 30 year mortgages and purchase cars with low interest car loans. If you don’t finish paying off your loans, the financial institution has a way of recovering the money.
Trust in government and institutions are key for the future success of any country, including Nigeria. Extending credit is essential to helping citizens buy homes, cars and other important items. But this also requires governments to develop schemes and programs for minimizing uncertainty during difficult economic times.
Because Nigeria lacks the programs to keep citizens above water during times of hardship, Nigeria is always teetering on the brink. Former US Ambassador described it as “Dancing on the Brink.” Sadly, 90 percent of Nigerian citizens are always dancing on the brink of disaster. They are always one step away from a financial disaster that will wipe out savings and redirect their future. It’s unfortunate but this is the country that they inherited from their forefathers. I only wish that government leaders in Nigeria would work on building trust among its citizens and putting mechanisms in place to protect them from corruption.
I’m sure you know the rest. But I’m not sure how taking off all my clothes will make the situation better in Nigeria. It will probably provide some relief from the heat but make me more susceptible to Malaria and other mosquito borne diseases.
These are difficult times in Nigeria!…The President of Nigeria was recently out of the country recuperating from illness in London (he returned to Nigeria over the weekend but will need to travel back to London in three weeks), the death throes of the dry season have driven the daytime temps to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the Abuja International Airport closed last Wednesday for a six-week rehabilitation. Not to mention that the country is in one of the worst recessions it has ever faced and the inflation rate is near 20%. People in Nigeria are suffering, which makes it really difficult for me to complain about the heat and the airport closure.
To the international community, the airport closure is big deal. To the average Nigerian, the inconvenience is daily life. For months, we have been in security meetings, donor discussions and all out panic that one of the most important lifelines to Nigeria was closing for repairs. The Abuja Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport is the second busiest airport in the country behind Lagos and from the tiny Capital city airport, you can escape to other parts of Africa and Europe. For Sheila and I, the closure feels like a forced stay-cation because we have no desire to trek down to Lagos to catch an international flight. We did that a few weeks ago when we went to Dubai and discovered that the trip adds a lot of undue stress on your body (and your heart).
Why is the airport closed? You might ask…The Nigerian government closed the international airport because the runway has fallen into disrepair and international carriers like British Airways and Lufthansa had threatened to leave if the runway was not repaired. Reports have stated that the runway, designed to last for 20 years has been in use for 34 years…14 years passed its expiration. The government closed the airport in 2014 on a few Sundays in July to make necessary repairs to the runway. The closure forced me to travel nearly 8 hours by road to Abuja after an event in Southwest Nigeria. This time, the closure will force me to remain in Nigeria for six weeks with very few options of taking an Easter Break.
Abuja flights are being re-routed through Kaduna, a city about 200 kilometers north of Abuja. The Kaduna expressway that takes travelers from Kaduna to Abuja is full of potholes and sporadic violence. A few weeks ago, two German archeologists were kidnapped along the Kaduna expressway as they were conducting excavations of a local culture. No one was injured and the Germans were eventually released a few days later. However, situations like this have contributed to the hysteria that has surrounded the airport closure. Sadly, now that the airport is closed, all we can do is wait and see what happens and how Nigeria will respond to another unnecessary crisis. As Nigerians say, “It is well-ooooh.”
Now, I feel bad complaining about the current heat wave in Nigeria. It makes me sound like a spoilt American or a one percenter…but I’m sorry, the heat that has blanketed Abuja has been down right difficult to embrace. I realized as I was complaining about the heat and how the power supply has been up and down that I blogged about this very issue last year. The weeks leading to the start of the raining season are usually the hottest on record. And this year is no different. This is my third dry season in Nigeria and I still struggle to cope with the heat. But I have found some relief to the heat…the swimming pool on my compound. Did I say one percenter?…
As usual, I have another story of traveling in Nigeria. It started with a delayed flight from Abuja (from 12:10pm to 1:40pm), a race between the domestic terminal and the international terminal in Lagos to catch our next flight and a small “tip” (that’s what I’m calling it) to ensure we caught our Emirates flight on time. All in all, it was probably one of the most stressful departures I have experienced in Nigeria (even both Christmas departures) …and it happen in the third degree of hell…better known as Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos.
But that is not what this blog is about. This blog is about Jacob Mach. If you are an avid reader of my blog, then you might remember a blog I wrote in 2014 about Jacob Mach. Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day…it was built in two
In January, 2014, I ran across a video on the New York Times website that profiled the trials of Jacob Mach. Jacob was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, a group of boys who were displaced during the Sudanese civil war. Thousands of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” were settled across the United States. In 2013, Mach was interviewed by the NY Times for a profile about the lost boys. At that time, he was putting all of his energy into becoming an Atlanta Police Officer. Sadly, he did pass the basic training required to be a police officer. However, because of his determination and good nature, he was hired by the Atlanta City government to enforce housing codes. And earlier this year, he got his wish as he passed the police academy basic training and recently started as an Atlanta Police Officer.
His story is such a moving testament to his strength and persistence. He never gave up on his dream and was able to overcome so many challenges from his childhood. Jacob is the face of how the American dream and experience can work to change someone’s life. He once found himself fighting wild animals to stay alive and now he is protecting and serving a community that gave him a new life and new opportunities. Sadly, there are very few positive stories coming out of South Sudan. For months, international organizations have warned that certain areas in the newest country in the world were on the brink of famine. Last week, the United Nations declared a famine in South Sudan. The conflict that started when I living there in 2013 has disrupted farming and food production and forced people to flee the country. Nearly two million people have been displaced because of the conflict and tens of thousands killed. The stories that I hear and read coming out of South Sudan are so bad that most times, I am able to get to the end of the article without shedding a few tears.
Jacob’s story (and the stories of other “Lost Boys”) is a testament to the overcoming nature of the human spirit. However, the carnage at home is a reminder that South Sudan faces a long tough journey to stability and prosperity.
*Picture was taken from WABE 90.1 (http://news.wabe.org/post/refugees-story-lost-boy-sudan-apd-officer)