Time is Not on our Side

Although the sun had barely risen, the road from Port Harcourt to Calabar, Nigeria was already a pinball machine of Olympic-sized potholes filled with rain, pedestrians dancing their way across the street between cars, child vendors selling chargers draped over the arms, and drivers looking for shortcuts by using the median as a passing lane.

Outside the city, the road smoothed out, though the driver’s countenance remained stern and anticipatory. A federal cabinet member, Senator Sekibo, took the front seat. Raphael Ogar Oko and I sat in the back. Outside, a countryside of swampland and river swollen from the previous day’s monsoon which arrived, like clockwork, about 2:15pm – followed by brilliant sun and stifling humidity.

We had a lot of catching up to do.

Within months after founding Teachers Without Borders, I received a steady stream of emails and letter from Raphael who, having hembraced the vision, had taken matters into his own hands. We had talked how he would alter the newly formed Certificate of Teaching Mastery content to ensure relevance in Nigeria. How TWB must distinguish itself from drive-by professional development efforts conducted by international agencies or rich NGOs. How the world watches Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State in the Niger Delta oil region and therefore the source of enormous wealth.

And here, in Nigeria, those conversations continued. The Senator was explaining how the land was fertile, but that education was fallow and disregarded. How many Nigerians had contradictory feelings toward westerners–resentment mixed with admiration. The implications of upcoming state and federal elections. Igbo and Hausa cultures. Nigerian history and geography. The fascination with information technology and infrastructure. Globalization. The environment.

We did not talk, however, about our destination, Old Calabar, known for three years (1967-1970) as the Republic of Biafra. There, cultural, religious, political, ethnic, and economic tensions led southeastern Nigerian provinces to attempt secession, stimulating coups, counter-coups, blockades, and the Nigerian Civil War, which left a trail of death, malnutrition, and starvation in its wake. Close to 3 million people died there, and the world awakened with horror upon seeing graphic photographs of headless bodies left on trains to send a message and the images of emaciated children with bloated bodies.

A French doctor, Bernard Kouchner, had witnessed the violence while working with the Red Cross, leading him to co-found Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), an organization honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

I dare not raise the issue, but I felt its weight and a palpable sense of responsibility. It is one thing to make a After all,I had formed Teachers Without Borders. Perhaps education could have done something to prevent such tragedy. Do your gut check, I told myself. Watch that manic thinking. Don’t get hypnotized by your own self importance.

Raphael interrupted my reverie with the announcement that we would be stopping at a school for pregnant teens, all of whom had made a vow to get educated. The lead teacher had prepared for our arrival by issuing candles to the students. They rose as Senator Sekibo entered the room. Raphael and the lead teacher took the floor and talked about education as key to women’s health. I was introduced and asked to say a few words. They lit the candles, said a prayer, and shared some sweets. Some shook my hand.

Moments later, we were back in the car, already late for our next appointment, a school where I could meet TWB members. Raphael handed me a fist-sized meat-pie wrapped in wax paper from Mr. Bigg’s.

“Time is not on our side,” he said. The car sloshed through pitted streets, abandoned tires strewn about like chocolate donuts in swimming pools of coffee. Billboards flashed by, alternating between advertisements and a new educational campaign against HIV-AIDS, like old Burma-shave ads each with a line from funny poems, in sequence, on Route 66.

The building was not accessible by car, so we walked up a hill past children in uniforms returning from the first shift, carrying their desks on their backs. They would be using their furniture at home and at school.

A group had already assembled by the time we arrived. Patricia Acquah, a woman who embodied passion, leadership, and respect, joined us. Students and teachers were rapt as she explained that teachers are more than civil servants, but the backbone of society, how teachers around the world were mobilizing to talk with one another and share ideas, how there was hope.

The school was expanding and literacy rates were improving. The principal met with us in a tidy office, firing one question after another. Inspired by Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligence,” she sought to build a school around how children learn, rather than on what they were required to learn. Gardner’s principles, she said, prove that all children can, indeed, learn, and that it was the teacher’s responsibility to find a way to access the forms and the mystery of their innate intelligence. Her walls included copies of Gardner’s books, along with photocopied reprints of 1950s monographs, old UNESCO literacy primers, and Bibles provided by a missionary group from the UK.

We toured the facility and lingered in a newly built science lab comprised of tables and chairs, a few beakers, and a poster on the wall:“The Story of the Cockroach. ”

“Could I help with science equipment?”I agreed instinctively, kicking myself in the car afterward for having pledged to myself never to make a promise I couldn’t keep. I took furious notes back in the car. Somehow, I would have to scare up microscopes and slides and find a way to transport them to a school on a hill an hour outside of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

I would end up learning a great deal about the shipping and handling business, a stunning lack of coordination amongst international NGOs. Which countries had corrupt customs offices and which would honestly facilitate the safe transfer of charitable goods that truck drivers would faithfully execute the last mile of the supply chain and which ones would drive off after loading up, never to be seen again.

It took three years for me to fulfill that promise.

As we bounced around toward our next step and more farmland came into view, we could feel the heat against the window, but no one offered to crank one open. I didn’t ask. Senator Sekibo turned on the radio, swishing through static AM stations, landing on a news channel.

And then I heard the announcer mention my name, careful to enunciate it correctly.

At that moment I realized the intricacy and chess game of international development. How every action has a reaction. How there was no getting around that I was white and from the west in a black country in Africa. I may have been able to package my critique of “feed and lead” with the glib rhetoric of “read and seed,” but I could not even pretend to be a fellow passenger and colleague.

I was a celebrity, whether I liked it or not. However irrational and absurd it may seem to me, others would attribute to me extra powers of wisdom, though they may be far more educated than I. I would be perceived as the one with deep pockets, though mine were pretty tattered. I would not be able to tell the difference between deference as a natural component of what one does in the presence of guests, or as the cynicism of sycophants. Though I have tried mightily, I saw the unfairness of it all, the legacy of consistent and steady colonialism. And tragically enough, well after liberation movements capsized foreign rule, indigenous leaders mirroring their oppressors. I could never just “fit in. ”If you’re a founder, I thought, you will always live somewhere else.

Senator Sekibo turned around in his seat and smiled upon hearing my name. “Did you hear that?” Raphael asked. “Teachers Without Borders is on the map?”I returned the smile, blushing.

We soon lost reception when the rains began, pelting the car with a kind of Gene Krupa-like snare-beat at first, then quickly turning into a steady drum roll. These were big drops, bouncing on the road outside, our wipers thwumping and scratching across the muddy windshield.

We had apparently beat the first outburst. Our driver picked up speed.

“Time is not on our side,” Raphael repeated. I agreed.

By the time we reached a teaching hospital in Abia State, a new storm was brewing. We were greeted at the door by a series of doctors who, informed of our visit, had suspended their rounds to meet us. From the trunk of the car, I pulled out a box containing 10 Palm VIIs donated to Teachers Without Borders, after I had convinced them that I could put them to good use in developing countries. Each was preloaded with ePocrates RX, a freeware drug reference program

We were led down a hall to a gated reception area, whereupon a doctor checked the log-book, a steno pad with uneven ruler-drawn lines designating columns for the name of the patient, age, and diagnosis. I watched his hand flip through page after page of those in their 20s and 30s, most of which were given the designation “HIV+” (HIV positive). After a while, he closed the book, turned, and looked at us, saying nothing. <b></b>

Raphael looked at his shoes. I turned away.

“Time is not on their side,” he said.

We toured the hospital. I was taught how to conduct a simple blood-test for HIV, struck by the name, written with a felt-tipped pen on the outside of an oblong white-plastic slide and specimen package. The name was “Fred. ”

We entered the children’s wing, at which point a baby, not more than 3 months old, was placed in my arms. She lay there, peacefully at first, though she seemed to breathe rapidly. She began to seize, shake, and cough and, just as quickly, become limp. A doctor on the tour thrust his hands under mine and whisked her away, returning later to see us off, though he was ashen and tired.

By this time the rains had come and gone. Raphael leaned over to whisper that negotiations were underway to supply computers in order to create a Community Teaching and Learning Center with a particular focus on health information and patient advocacy.

I nodded but I wasn’t listening.

“We need to get to Calabar before sun-down because there are bandits on the road, even though we have a diplomatic license plate. ”

We were now in the heart of the Delta region. “I know,” I said in a clipped tone. “Time is not on our side. ”

We drove past oil and gas refineries, large tubes snaking along and following the contour of the highway, a sharp noisome smell permeating the air. Everywhere I looked, natural gas was flaring from huge stacks like some gigantic birthday cake, each flame lending an eerie mix of a bright light and a dark, noxious cloud. Dangerously close to the road, a fire blazed unabated and unattended. This may be the Niger Delta, I thought to myself. It’s also Dante’s ninth ring of hell.

Senator Sekibo seemed agitated and kept giving the driver the same instructions. Satisfied that we were going in the right direction down a small road following a tributary of the river Niger, he talked about the insult and injury of environmental degradation, the increase of toxic-related illnesses and violence since oil companies (mostly Nigerian, he clarified) have been raping the area. Tributaries carrying chemical runoff and waste. “Right there,” he barked, poking his fingernails against the passenger window. Amidst a lush landscape, I made out a stream glistening with scattered light and psychedelic colors from a thin layer of sludge. This was his personal cause, he said. “So much wealth here, yet the people do not have enough money to buy uniforms so that their children can go to school. You used to be able to throw a cassava seed in the ground and it would grow, but the people have no work. ”

He was furious. “Foreign oil companies have caused so many problems, but they give 40% back to the country and have really tightened their standards. What do these corrupt leaders do with the money?Does it get returned to the people in the form of schools and hospitals?Not a chance. And the Nigerian oil companies…far worse. It’s a shame. ”

We got out of the car. He slammed his door. Adjusting his tie and wiping sweat from his brow from his handkerchief, Senator Sekibo marched toward a group of women who immediately recognized him, greeting him warmly. Lots of animated conversation.

We talked with a few villagers. Some children in trees waved to us. Senator Sekibo returned to us and described an emerging women’s movement to force public attention, globally, on the issue. Women were taking action nearby, he said, and he wanted to stir the pot.

“Good,” he said. “Let’s go. ”

We made it out to the main road and the endless fields of gas-powered Roman candles. “Film-makers are arriving here soon,” he smiled. Powerful agit-prop films like “Poison Fire” and “Sweet Crude” eventually followed, highlighting the issues made apparent in seconds.

We arrived at a small motel in Calabar to drop off our overnight bags and delivered Senator Sekibo to a government office. A new driver appeared in a white van with a graduate student from the local university doing field research. We headed out again for the last visit of the day, one in which my own actions contradicted everything I believed in or pontificated about.

We drove to an abandoned commercial office donated to the Calabar municipality in order to accommodate a displaced persons’ camp providing refuge for 3,600 people caught up in ethnic violence after one village burned down the other.

Patricia’s husband worked here, coordinating relief services and working with a National Youth Federation of volunteers committed to providing a sense of normalcy and restoring services. The camp itself mobilized its own expertise of teachers and medical professionals, but there was no school. Two-story buildings without an entire wall were danger zones for children who might climb the internal stairs and play on the open platforms.

Patricia scampered out of the car and met her husband, who – in hushed tones – informed her that most of the village was at the far end of the complex. She told us to wait and whispered something into Raphael’s ear.

“They had just buried a child,” he mumbled. “They’re returning to the buildings. They want to meet you. No speeches necessary. ”

It was getting dark, though I could see a mass approaching. While some drifted off, we were soon surrounded. We were all introduced. Once again, a baby was placed in my arms, this one an albino-black child. I rocked the baby back and forth, but once she took a look at me, started to scream. This time, the child was whisked away and coddled by her mother. The crowd seemed to enjoy the ironic spectacle.

A village elder, a city official, Patricia, her husband, and I talked about the site and what they need. The children needed a school. Here I was, once again, the white, rich, charitable donor. I had seen so many make grandiose commitments and promises to return, yet rarely do.

But I couldn’t help myself. “I want to help you build that school. I’ll do what I can. ”

Together with youth volunteers, a school was eventually established. Teachers Without Borders collected school supplies from Girl Scout organizations around the country, and DHL shipped the supplies to Port Harcourt for delivery to Calabar. A training program was established to give youth volunteers the opportunity to teach and we raised a small amount of cash to start a micro-credit program so that seamstresses could rent the foot-powered sewing machines and, eventually, make money.

After a couple of years, the displaced persons’ camp was shut down and the people dispersed. I am still not certain where they went. Was it an eyesore? Were the people repatriated somewhere? I chastised myself for knowing that this effort would evaporate. TWB was about the long-term and professional development, not simply bricks and mortar. Of course I should have seen it coming. Sustainability and local ownership is essential. Teach ’em how to fish, Fred! All true. All very International Development 101. I had fallen into the compassion gap designed to make oneself feel better, rather than to advance any tangible change.

But I had not completely finished contradicting myself. I took it a step further.

As the van pulled out of the camp onto a paved road, I blurted: “Stop the car!”The driver looked at Raphael in his rear-view window for instructions. Raphael asked the driver to pull over.

The words tumbled out of my mouth. “Give me your money. ”

“Fred,” Raphael protested, having never asked for a dime. “I do not understand. ”

“Just turn the van around.  We’re going back. ”Looking at everyone directly, I said, “Give me your money. ” I emptied my own wallet as an example and gathered a fistful of Naira from the willing passengers. The driver leaned back with his own crumbled bills. I closed his hand around his wad and pushed it back at him.

We rumbled back to the DP camp. I handed the cash to the village elder who, in turn, handed it to Patricia Acquah’s husband. It came back to Raphael who refused it as well, everyone seeking to avoid any inference of impropriety, just in case. In the end, Raphael pressed close to $140 into Patricia’s hands to move our plans forward.

Though I believe that charity applied to developing countries has been one of the most destructive, incapacitating, dependency-building, capacity-destroying, corruption-building, and demeaning practices there is, I can understand that compassion impulse that transcends theory. I had committed the sin of the handout rather than the hand up, I know. I helped to feed them for a day, rather than teach them how to fish.

I regret having done this, having failed the test of logic and my newly minted advanced degree. But I can also see how the pain of witness must drive decent human beings to respond.

Raphael never pursued the subject with me. His actions spoke much louder. Our work had to sustain itself, he insisted, and at one point raised $7,000 in U.S. currency that he sent to me from Port Harcourt to the U.S. so that I could pay for a shipping container full of computers. Yes, you heard that right – a Nigerian sending money to an American. There goes the stereotype of Nigerians as scam artists.

Another quick flash-forward. Months later, when Raphael’s projects started accelerating and grant funding started to materialize, I would fill out the requisite Moneygram forms at a local supermarket. Each time, she would call for the manager who, with a look of suspicion or incredulous pity launched into the interrogation:“You’re sending money to Nigeria?” she would ask. “Are you sure?”“Do you know this person?”

We found a restaurant near the hotel. Raphael began to discuss upcoming events. He mapped out a strategy for attracting universities to the Certificate of Teaching Mastery program and state endorsements in order to ensure official accreditation. We would be meeting officials in the next several days, he explained, along with Yoruba elders, peace activists, HIV-AIDS educators, self-organized women’s organizations. I would be interviewed by television and print reporters, he added, and should emphasize the voice of teachers. My final day would coincide with the formal launch of Teachers Without Borders at a large conference hall.

I longed to watch TV, preferably a mindless situation comedy, any distraction whatsoever. I was flooded with images and smells I could not process. Unable to complete a coherent thought, I must have finally drifted off to sleep, still in my street clothes, moths fluttering against a light I forgot to turn off.

All along, Raphael understood that my having showed up in Nigeria represented an endorsement of his work. This was never about the great white hope, but about friendship. I was leverage, in his skillful hands, for the greater good.

And his work on behalf of teachers has continued, unabated. On his way to meet his colleagues and conduct seminars, he has been beaten up by thugs twice, yet has remained undeterred. He has been betrayed by those who cast aspersions on his leadership in order to promote themselves or rogue volunteers or corrupt politicians, yet has remained steadfast. When a shipping container of computers was held up in customs for a year), he remained patient – a still calmness a midst the chaos, called to a duty beyond self, even beyond his generation.

The “Voice of Teachers” interview led to a “Voice of Teachers” radio show in which certain lessons from the Certificate of Teaching Mastery would be broadcast to hundreds of thousands of listeners without access to computers. The “Voice of Teachers” journal encouraged academic submissions on global UN objectives and regional educational issues. The Certificate of Teaching Mastery itself would grow, sustained by universities in dozens of Nigerian states, and morph into a dizzying array of seminars on HIV-AIDS, problem-solving, community organizing, hygiene, and information technology, early-childhood development, gender equity, hunger, intercultural and inter generational relations, mental health, mentorship, micro-finance, sustainable development, sports, and volunteerism.

He retrofitted a van and in order to create a mobile literacy program held in rented chairs under a rented canopy in the car-jammed sprawl of Jabi Motor Park. He gathered volunteers to paint the van with the TWB logo and design T-shirts that served as class uniforms. He packed it with donated literacy primers, notebooks, writing utensils, a dry erase board, and a projector and screen.

If people could not come to a program, he would bring the program to them. Even more, he would build a network form the spare parts of teachers’ already consuming days. He relied on their innate sense of reciprocity to customize orientation manuals in order to meet national standards. He scooped up everything of value: lessons, volunteers, multimedia, evaluation rubrics.

In the mobile parks, he focused on literacy, driving safety, customer advocacy. Everyone pitched in wherever the van set down its temporary anchor. He dug latrines one moment, taught communication technology literacy the next, all along the way sharing his wisdom so that others could grow this program.

He talked about the program on the radio any chance he got, almost always lighting up the switchboard long after the had signed off.

He found donors, gathered sponsorships, and charged small fees so that the program could cover the costs of regular fueling and van maintenance, internet access, a small stipend here and there. Once the program took root, he took his wall-less classroom on the road. And like most programs in which he has had a hand, it also jumped borders.

Raphael sees and acts upon the need to connect his TWB projects to large networks, not to raise his or TWB’s own flag, but to find common ground amongst them so that he could avoid the pitfalls of NGO isolation and hoarding.

“Time is not on our side,” he continues to say, “But I’ll use the time I’ve got. ”

Determined to show how his work dovetailed with Nigerian goals, along with goals set by international agencies for the African continent, his voice has gotten stronger every year. As his audience and support continue to expand, his head never does. He is convinced that it is all inextricably bound up with peace and human rights, along with need for each person, worldwide, to do what s/he can to get closer to the impossibly ambitious United Nations Millennium Development Goals set around the time Teachers Without Borders.

The world took notice. In 2010, Raphael Ogar Oko, a humble teacher from Port Harcourt, Nigeria was awarded the Champion of African Education award and a $5,000 gift, based upon an open voting system devised by Ashoka–a global network of changemakers and social entrepreneurs, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Raphael ignored my request to keep the funds for himself and to sustain his family. He listened carefully to my protestations, ignored me, and funded “The Voice of Teachers” radio show for another year.

Two weeks after this first trip, I found myself on stage as a panelist at a futurist conference in Washington, D. C.  It was typical of the time: rhapsodic technology evangelism, combined with narcissistic predictions of a world characterized by equal access to information, the expansion of business opportunities in a global marketplace, ubiquitous free education:  a vision of the future that would look very much like an idealized version of the United States.

I was the second-to-last speaker and a representative of the NGO world.  I reached for my index cards.  My sound bytes suddenly seemed so hollow, blending in with the white tablecloth. I put them aside. A colleague said my face was flushed, a “Y” vein pulsing from my forehead.

No longer interested in being appropriate or clever, I blurted:  “Do you really believe that the future will look like that? Maybe.  I can’t tell right now.  And it sounds great, I guess, but life does not necessarily ride on those rails for millions of people and none of this is going to happen in our lifetimes. For countless numbers of people,  life is one big emergency. It’s a cesspool of corruption, disregard, and deprivation.”

Audience members shifted in their seats.

“How many of you have children or are aunts and uncles?” Most hands went up. “So am I,” I said. “You know that feeling of weight and warmth of holding a baby, right? I do, too. Last week in Nigeria, a beautiful warm baby died in my arms and began to get cold. I don’t know if her illness could have been avoided, but it is likely, and some mother and father, aunt or uncle cannot feel that weight and warmth. The future, you say?  C’mon. I am not talking putting off our innovations, but applying them to human welfare today. For these folks, there is no future, just one, long, protracted, miserable now. ”

After a pause, I said: “Time is not on our side!”

Arrogant, apoplectic, aggressive, my soapbox speech lasted less than a minute. I know I should not have berated a group of people not evenly remotely complicit in this baby’s death. I should not have subjected them to my indignant personal catharsis. Certainly not part of the problem, these could very likely be key players in part of the solution.

I have rarely been that obnoxious or sanctimonious in public since, but it seemed to pay off. When the last panelist (immediately following me) had completed his presentation (sticking closely to prepared remarks), the convener summarized the session (providing equal sound-bytes for each panelist, mine being particularly anemic), a line started to form at my station. People began to hand me their cards. I must have hit a responsive chord.

Perhaps they realized then, as I do every day, that time, indeed, is not on our side.

 

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