08 November 2017

A taxi to market

One Saturday, Mom tells Lisa and me that we're going downtown to the market to buy cloth to make us each a Nigerian outfit. We have to put on long skirts and sneakers, she says, because we'll be doing a lot of walking. 

"Are we walking all the way downtown?" I ask, my eyes wide. Mom smiles and shakes her head. 

"No," she says, "Aunt Janne is going to show us how to get a taxi." I have never ridden in a taxi before and start to skip around the house, putting a long skirt on over my shorts and tying on a pair of sneakers. I hate skirts, but I must wear one whenever I leave the compound—except when we go to school. The sneakers are still mostly new, and I wonder if they will need to last me for the next four years until we return to the U.S. 

Aunt Janne knocks on the screen door, and we grab umbrellas and start down the dirt road toward the compound gate. Aunt Janne isn't my aunt; she is our Australian neighbour, Shelley's mum. But here, the children call all adults except teachers "aunt" and "uncle." Shelley and Kimmie are going downtown with us, too. It's a 10-minute walk to the gate, skirting potholes and puddles, and I am hot by the time we greet the guards in Hausa and move onto the road that passes by the hospital compound where we live.  

We turn left, and my senses are assailed from all sides. Horns honk from passing cars and trucks. Reggae music blares from a shop across the street. (The electricity must have come back on since we left our house.) Exhaust clouds around us as we walk along the muddy shoulder toward the roundabout where our road meets the road that runs south into town. Cars here don't have to do emissions tests, apparently, and I cough on the fumes. There is colour everywhere: grass greener than I ever saw in California, brilliant azure sky, and vivideven garishpatterns in women's clothing.We veer left at the roundabout, and I see a gaggle of green cars parked in a grassy area, each with a wide yellow stripe painted horizontally all the way around the car below the door handle. I'm reminded of making a similar stripe while dyeing Easter eggs by putting a rubber band around the egg before dipping it. Aunt Janne tells us that taxis from different states have different colour patterns. Taxis from Kano, for example, are blue with a white stripe. 

Aunt Janne walks up to a parked taxi, an old Peugeot 504 station wagon, and negotiates with the driver. I hear her say, "Terminus" but am not sure if that's a place or a price. The taxi looks a lot like the station wagon we used to own in California, except it's more beat-up. The paint is scratched in numerous places, and I see dents along the passenger side. The back bumper is twisted and rusty. Aunt Janne gives the driver a few notes of currency—naira—and we clamber in. There is a row of seats behind the bench seat that I would normally call "the back seat." One of the back seats pushes forward with the lifting of a little handle, and Shelley and I climb in the way back. Aunt Janne sits in the front seat, and Mom, Lisa, and Kimmie sit in the middle seat. Aunt Janne explains that normally the taxi driver would stop along the way to pick up more clients, but she has paid up-front for a direct ride to the centre of town, Terminus. 

The taxi looks older on the inside than it does on the outside. The seat cushions beneath us are torn in several places, and I can see the springs inside. The windows are cracked—the windshield looks almost shattered over in the lower right corner. The doors are missing panels to cover their innards, leaving metal rods and gears exposed. The driver's side back door has no handle on the inside at all. The upholstery smells odd. Kimmie scrunches up her nose and tells me it's a goat smell. Aunt Janne shushes her as the driver shifts gears and we leave the car park. 

It isn't a long ride, but I have never been this direction in town before. Most of the women we pass—even the young girls my age or smaller—wear a head-covering that covers all but the face. In other parts of town where I've been, the women cover their hair with an elaborately tied piece of colourful cloth. Here, however, the women's heads and shoulders are completely covered by a single draped solid-colour cloth—grey or white. It reminds me of pictures I've seen of girls in Saudi Arabia, except the girls' faces are visible. I wonder about this but am too shy to ask. We pass a man pushing a wheelbarrow that is full to nearly overflowing with huge white sacks. Another man pulls a two-wheeled cart filled with 10-gallon plastic water jugs. At an intersection we are passed by a motorcycle carrying a man and two children—one in front of him and one behind. None of them are wearing helmets. I can't believe how many people are on the streets. I'm sure there are more people on foot than there are in cars. 

And then we are at the roundabout they call Terminus. It's jam-packed with vehicles—taxis like ours, vans big and small, bicycles, big trucks, motorcycles, and private vehicles. The driver pulls over, blocking two other cars, and Aunt Janne gets out and opens the back door. We clamber out, and she hands the driver another note.  

"Mun gode," she says, nodding her head, and we move back from the taxi. 

"That's Main Market over there," Aunt Janne tells us, gesturing with her chin towards a huge multi-story building to our left. "Stay together." We start walking in that direction, Shelley, Kimmie, and I linking arms as we follow our moms and Lisa through the crowds. There are just so many people—men, women, children, old people, young people, all shifting and cutting each other off. I've lived in Los Angeles, but I've never been downtown, and this is new to me.  

We walk a short way and then turn to cross the intersection diagonally, first to the roundabout and then to the market building corner. There is no traffic light, no crosswalk, no policeman to direct traffic. It is a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself fight against traffic. Fortunately, Aunt Janne is a pro and makes sure we all cross safely amid the tide of people and push of cars. The traffic is actually an advantage, as it's easier to pick our way between cars going only 5 miles an hour than dashing between speeding cars. Still, I'm relieved when we reach the opposite corner without injury.  

This is where the fun really begins. 

03 November 2017

Dear Jenny - September 28, 1991

September 28, 1991

Dear Jenny,

How are you? Did you get my last letter? We haven't gotten any mail yet, but Mom says it may be weeks before we get letters. I hope one is from you!

Ruth, Shelley, and Jessica took me exploring around the compound today. Our houses are all pretty close together. There isn't a street like in the States. It's just a dirt road all the way from the front gate back into where the houses are. Right now the road is awful because of the rainy season making potholes, but Jessica says it's not so bad in the dry season.

So first they took me around all the houses, which we've done before. But, like, I never knew the Truxtons had a little pool! It's like a cement wading pool. I wonder if the kids used to play in it when they were little. They're all too big now. Ryan is the youngest, and he's in 6th grade. They have a lot of pine trees in their yard, which is huge. We've played hide-and-seek in there a couple times. But we have to make sure not to trample the flowers. All the other houses have yards, too, but no one has fences. There's a wall around the whole compound, but that's it. That wall is weird because it has broken glass on the top of it--I guess to keep people from jumping over. But the girls showed me where there's no glass. They said sometime when there's a polo game, maybe we can climb up and watch. (I don't know what polo is, but one wall of our compound is up against the polo field.) There's a mango tree on this side and another one on the other side, and they said sometimes they climb over that way.

Some of the neighbors have chickens. We didn't get close, but I could hear them clucking. The girls told me that the other people who live in our row of apartments are Nigerian doctors or other medical people who work at the hospital. I'm sure I've met them but don't remember any of their names except someone named Mary.

You have to cross a tennis court (or go around it) to get to our new house from the others' houses. It's a duplex like our last apartment in L.A., but the houses are side-by-side instead of one on top of the other. Our neighbors are the Yohannas, and they're Nigerian. The dad is a doctor, and the mom is a nurse. Their little boy is a nightmare. He's a bit younger than us girls and teases us all the time. I don't know many of the other neighbors. Their kids don't play with us, and they don't go to Hillcrest. One of them has a dog named Bingo, like in the song. His ears are always bloody and chewed up, and there's flies around him all the time.

There's a big field away from all the houses, and on the other side is where the wrecked car is. It was a white VW bug, and it's all squashed up in the front. It's just sitting there, and weeds are growing around it and stuff. Shelley says the lady driving it was killed, and she was pregnant, and they have her baby in a jar in the lab in the hospital. Yuck. She said she'll take me to see it sometime, but I don't think I want to see it.

Near the wrecked car are a couple buildings that are like ghost buildings. There isn't any roof, just walls and empty windows. There's broken bits of wall and stuff on the ground, no furniture or anything. But it's quiet. And there's plants growing inside the buildings. It was super creepy.

Then we walked down to the hospital, but we didn't go into any buildings. It smells funny down there anyway.

We had to run home because it started to rain while we were at the hospital. Man, the rain here is really hard! One time it even hailed! There were little balls of ice on the grass, and the pounding on the roof was even louder than usual. I'd never seen hail before!

Mom is calling me to go set the table. Write back soon!


P.S. Dad says I can't go play in the field anymore or go down to the abandoned building. He says there could be snakes. The grass in the field is really tall, like past my knees. I don't want to get bitten by a snake, that's for sure.

02 November 2017


It's the middle of the afternoon, but I sit in a darkness that has moved in, creeping like a spider in the shadows. The brilliant sunlight from earlier has dissipated, dimmed, diminished, and the darkness is here. I sit as still as possible, holding my breath. The teacher lectures on, writing on the chalkboard, explaining the lesson, but we are all still, waiting. An all-too-familiar aroma wafts in through the open windows and door. It is the aroma of expectation, of hope. The teacher pauses, breathes it in, and smiles. He walks to the open door and peers out. In two more steps, he is at the edge of the cement veranda. I cannot see his face, but I expect it looks a great deal like mine, like all of our faces.

The sheer curtains start to dance, feather-light, to the exotic melody we can only hear with our eyes. Goosebumps rise on my arms. A pile of quizzes on the teacher's desk begin to flutter at the edges. He steps back inside and moves a book on top of the pile just as the top quiz begins to blow across the desk. He returns to the black board and places the chalk back in the board gutter. As he begins speaking again, we hear the subtle difference in his voice: a hesitancy, a faltering. A waiting.

Then we hear the single tap over our heads. Just one tap. Then another and another, slowly at first, then tapping a rhythm above us. The teacher stops talking, and his smile becomes more pronounced. We are not listening to him anymore. Some of us look out the windows and door; others just look up. I let out my breath and intake a fresh, deep breath. 

"Go on then," the teacher says. We leave our seats in a jumble, crashing into each other and spilling out of the open door. Some stand tentatively on the edge of the veranda, holding their hands out to where the roof edge overhangs several inches. Their eyes light up as their hands become splashed with random drops. I jump off the veranda onto the grass and raise my face to the sky. I remove my splattered glasses and open my mouth, stick out my tongue. One drop, two, three. I close my mouth, satisfied. 

From the doorway, our teacher calls us back inside. The tap-tap on the roof is becoming louder as we file back in, laughing and chatting. Within seconds of our taking our seats, the teacher can barely be heard over the pounding on the roof. He turns on the overhead lights and loudly asks us to read an assignment in our textbooks.

Ten minutes later, the pounding has ceased. There is no longer even a steady tap-tap. As the bell rings, we gather our belongings and file outside. Small puddles have formed on the sidewalks, and the grass is wet and sparkles in the breaking sunlight. But the parched soil still remains parched, waiting to receive its libation in coming months. 

It could be days or even weeks before another rain, and probably two months or so before daily thunderstorms. But we smile and inhale deeply, as though a curse has been lifted. The first rain signals soccer season, the last quarter of the school year, and upcoming summer vacation. But it also signals a season of green and growing things, mangoes and roasted corn, new life. And we all feel just a bit more alive today.

31 October 2017

Dear Jenny - August 30, 1991

August 30, 1991 

Dear Jenny, 

Sorry, I meant to write earlier, but I just forgot. It's Friday, and I've been in Nigeria a whole week now! We're not in our new house yet, but it still feels like home here. Right now we're staying for a few weeks in an apartment-kind-of-place that's at the end of a low row of houses. It even has a back door, which is really cool. Shelley calls it "Auntie Lenora's house" because another lady missionary named Lenora used to live here. Shelley said that one day a man came in the back door and stole Auntie Lenora's hot iron. She said Auntie Lenora ran after the guy but couldn't catch him, that he jumped over the wall. But the next day someone came in to the hospital with a burn on his hand from an iron!  

We had chapel at school today. Chapel is when all the kids in the elementary school go to the auditorium—which is shaped like a church, and they call it the chapel—for a Bible lesson. There's a man who's kind of like the pastor except they call him the chaplain. His name is Chaplain Smart (seriously), and his son Jeffrey is in the other 4th grade class. Anyway, we sang some songs, and Chaplain Smart gave a little Bible lesson. The singing was fun, but the lesson was kind of boring. I guess we do it every Friday, but Shelley says sometimes they do something different, like a skit, so it's not always boring. 

Oh, and we also have Bible class at school. Isn't that weird? We have to memorize Bible verses and have to know all the books of the Bible in the right order and everything. It's like Sunday school except during the week, and you get graded on the work! Mom says it's because it's a Christian school. She says we have to actually pay to go to school, not like in California. She says only the rich Nigerians can send their kids to our school (which is called Hillcrest, by the way), which is why there aren't as many Nigerian kids as other kids. We do have a bunch of Nigerian kids, but none of our neighbors from our compound go to Hillcrest. It's funny because we're not rich, but I guess compared to a lot of people here, we seem rich. 

In my grade there are people from all over the world. It's so cool! Shelley is from Australia. Louisa is from Denmark. Debbie is from Ireland. Sophia is from, I think, Lebanon. (Mom says that's in the Middle East, where they speak Arabic.) Sunipa is from India. Laura B. is from Canada. (There is another Laura, and she is from America. There is also another Sara—can you believe it? Without an H! She's half-Canadian and half-American.) Shelley says sometimes they have a food fair later in the year, when they have people bring food from their countries. It sounds gross, but she says people dress up in clothes from their countries, too, which is really pretty. 

Another weird thing I found out this week is that some of the kids in my class don't live with their parents. I mean, that happened in L.A., too, but here I mean some kids live in hostels. Ruth says they're like college dorms, except for kids. They call it boarding. Have you heard of that before? So their parents live hours and hours away, and the kids only see their parents on vacation and for special occasions and then for the summer. Can you believe it? I can't imagine not living at home. Becky is a new girl in my class who lives in a hostel with her brother and sister, who are in 6th grade and 8th grade. Her hostel is called Mountain View, and the people who take care of her and the other kids are called houseparents. She says it's not so bad. But I don't think I would like it. There are lots of hostels, I guess. One of them is here on the compound, but all the others are somewhere else in town, and they're run by different missions. Our mission doesn't really have one, I don't think. Meaghan lives in a building that used to be a hostel, but her family is the only one there right now. It's called Niger Creek. 

Oh, I forgot to tell you last time that Lisa, Jon, and I all go to the same school! It's one big school for everyone, 1st grade to 12th grade. We're in different buildings, but it's all one school. Isn't that funny? So when you drive on the compound, there's a big parking lot on the left. The chapel is way up the hill on the left. The basketball courts and the playground are kind of in the middle. There's a swingset and see-saws by the music building, and that's by the 1st- and 2nd-grade building. Our building's on the other side of the playground. Then the 5th grade building is way off on the left. They have their own four-square and tetherball and a volleyball net—oh and a little soccer field or something. Behind our building is the middle school building, which is two stories tall. That's where Jon goes to school. The high school building is all the way on the other side of the basketball courts. I haven't been over there yet. And there's a gym, which is on your right when you drive onto the compound. And a big track. Ruth and Shelley say we have to run a mile for P.E. every semester. Can you believe it? A mile?! 

Do you know what a compound is? I didn't until this week! A compound is a group of buildings all surrounded by like a fence or a wall. We live on the hospital compound, which is really big and has the whole hospital and a bunch of houses for the doctors and other people who work there. There's one main gate where we go in and out. There's another gate, too, closer to the houses, but it's locked all the time. Jessica says it used to be open sometimes, but it isn't anymore. The girls are going to take me exploring this weekend. They told me about an old car wreck where a lady died a long time ago. Sounds spooky. 

My hand is getting tired. The pencils here aren't very good. They keep breaking. Oh, and Mom says letters I mail may take a month to reach you. So when you get this one, don't worry if the next one takes a long time. I've written my address on the back of this paper. I don't know what PMB stands for, but I guess it's like a P.O. box. Your letters may take forever to get here, too. I won't worry, but please write! 


30 October 2017

Dear Jenny - August 26, 1991

August 26, 1991 

Dear Jenny, 

I wanted to write to you as soon as I got home from school. I started 4th grade today. School started a couple weeks ago, so I'm a little behind. My teacher is Miss Greenshields. She is super tall and is from Scotland! I don't think I've ever met anyone from Scotland before. She seems okay – kind of strict but nice. My class is bigger than Mrs. Ferrin's last year, but I don't know how many of us there are. Maybe 20? The desks are wood, and they open up just like the ones you see in movies of those one-room school-houses! People have scratched names and initials in the desk top. There's no one at the desk next to mine. Ruth said that there's a boy supposed to be coming back from furlough soon. His name is Micah, and he's going to sit there. She says I’m lucky because he's cute.  

We had corn flakes for breakfast, but they tasted different from American corn flakes. The milk is the same, though; it's the powdered stuff Mom sometimes made at home. They don't have a lot of cereals here, Ruth said, so I don't know what we're going to eat for breakfast. Oh, and someone gave us some oranges to eat for breakfast, and they were green, not orange – and sour! Ugh. I miss oranges. 

Anyway, Ruth came this morning to get me to come wait for the bus. It sure wasn't like the bus Jon and I rode to school last year! It was just a big van, and it looked like it was falling apart. But I thought it was super cool! Shelley says sometimes the big kids ride to school earlier, but today we all rode together. There was Jenny, Martha, Ryan, Jessica, Seth, Claire, Simon, Jodi, Shelley, Ruth, Ellen, Lisa, Jon, and me, so it was pretty full. Simon gets to sit in front because he's the oldest boy and pretty tall. (He's in 9th grade and has long hair. It's really pretty, but he's a boy, so it's kind of weird. Oh, and he has an Australian flag painted on a whole wall in his room. It's so cool!) There are no seatbelts in the bus, just rows of seats. And something called a jump seat that collapses and is pushed up so people can climb in the back. And Claire sat facing the back of the bus, right behind the driver's seat. I think she's in first grade, and she is just like the Energizer bunny – bouncing and talking all the time. She's really cheerful. I like her. 

It takes about 15 minutes to get to school. (Jon timed it on his new watch.) First we have to drive down to the hospital gate, where Claire says she waves at the guards every time. (There's a metal pole the guards can pull down or let go up to open so cars can go in and out.) She says they don't really speak much English. Oh, and when we were all in the bus, one of the big kids told the driver "let's go" in Hausa. It sounded like "moo tah fee." I guess the driver doesn't speak much English either. 

There are no sidewalks on the way to school, so it would be hard to walk. But there are people walking anyway, just in the mud. I guess it rains a lot here because there are puddles everywhere, and it's rained every day since we came. I feel bad for the people walking in the mud and getting splashed by cars. I wonder why there are no sidewalks. There's only two traffic lights between home and school, but I don't think they work. Or maybe there was no electricity. Shelley says there's no electricity a lot. She says sometimes there's a policeman who stands in the intersection and directs traffic, but there was no one there today. Just a lot of cars. 

Anyway, maybe tomorrow I'll tell you more about that drive. I wasn't really paying attention today. I was too excited to go to school. 

There are two 4th grade classes, and they're right next to each other in a building with the 3rd grade class. It's so weird being at this new school compared to last year! You know how 74th Street was just one big building and a blacktop playground, all surrounded by a fence? My new school is so different!! There are all sorts of little buildings spread out over a big area, with lots of grass and trees. There's a big playground and basketball courts, and even a cement ping pong table with a little roof over it! In my building the 4th grades are on the left, and the 3rd grade is on the right, and there's a computer room. The other 4th grade teacher is Miss Lewan, and she's from Canada. The bathrooms aren't gross like at home – no spit wads and no graffiti. And there's an actual towel to dry your hands on instead of paper towels! 

I don't know most of the kids in my class still, but they seem nice. There's a girl in the other 4th grade who is also in our mission, and Shelley and Ruth introduced me today. Her name is Meaghan. She used to live in Liberia but had to leave because there was a war. Do you know where Liberia is? I didn't, so I had to ask my mom. It's also in Africa, not too far away. Anyway, Meaghan is the youngest in her family like me, and she's from Ohio.  

There isn't a cafeteria at my new school. I found out at lunch. There are some picnic tables and stuff, kinda spread out, but most of the kids just eat on the steps or the sidewalk. There's a little wall thing near the 4th grade building where we ate lunch before we played on the playground. I guess everyone has to bring their own lunch because the school doesn't sell lunches like at home. Shelley gave me a candy to try called a Buttermint. It's really yummy, not like anything in America. I had peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and a banana. I guess bananas grow here, but they're smaller than American bananas. Taste just as good. 

Let's see, what else? Oh, we have P.E.! Last year I think we maybe had P.E. once all year with Mrs. Ferrin. We just went outside and played dodgeball or something. But this year we have an actual P.E. teacher, Mrs. Seabourne, and you have to wear different clothes on P.E. days. I didn't know that, so I was just in my regular clothes. You're supposed to wear a white shirt and red shorts. Shelley says those are the school colors. And we have to actually do sports and stuff. I'm already dreading our next P.E. day. I hate sports. 

There was a big storm after lunch, with lightning and thunder and everything. Miss Greenshields had to be really loud for us to hear her because the roof is tin, and the rain makes a huge banging noise. And the windows aren't like windows in America, so some rain gets in. They're rectangle pieces of glass that overlap a little bit and can be opened or closed. Mom calls them "louvered," but I don't know what that means. Anyway, even when they're closed all the way, they're not really closed, so the rain can come in when the wind blows.  

Anyway, I've got to do my spelling homework before Mom will let me go out and play. Bye for now. 


26 October 2017


I wish I could go back and tell my nine-year-old self to drink it all in 

"Sara," I would say, "believe it or not, years from now, people will want to know what you saw, what you felt, what you thought about the smells, the sights, the sounds. Open your eyes. Etch these moments, these images, into your brain for the rest of your life, so that until your dying breath, you can remember the first time you came home." 

But I can't. And those memories are gone.  

I started out trying to write this in the same format as my earlier post, a narrative in chronological order. But I honestly remember so little of those first couple days in Nigeria. My memories are mostly snapshots of very specific details rather than a Bigger Picture. know I should remember in vivid detail my thoughts and impressions from the moment I stepped off the plane, the moment we drove into our new town, the moment I first saw the house I would call home for the next 15 years, the moment I met the girl who would become my best friend. They were such life-changing moments, and yet I have no distinct memories of themI can't tell you my first impressions or what hit me the most because I just don't remember.  

Thinking back now, I realize how significant this is. I was nine years old, but I was still young enough that the differences between my young childhood home of southern California and my new home were not stark. I'm sure that at the time, things seemed foreign, and I consciously thought about those differences. But they must have been subtle enough to not get filed away into my long-term memory. The important things - my family, going to school, and playing - were consistent enough to simplify the transition. On one hand, I guess it's a testimony to the resilience of children, and I hope that my children are as resilient in the face of all of the life changes they have undergone and will continue to face in their lives. But on the other hand, I grieve the loss of those first impressions. While I can describe for you the experience of returning to Nigeria – with more and more detail depending on my age upon return  and while I can give you details about the road from Kano to Jos, about our new town and compound, I can't go back to the first time. That fills me with sadness. 

So let me give you the snapshots I do remember and try to fill in the gaps as necessary later with descriptions from 35-year-old me. 

*snap* It was hot when we got off the plane in Kano. There was no gangway to the airport terminal; we stepped off onto the tarmac itself and walked to the terminal – not a long walk by any means. We had lots and lots of boxes – 40? 50? I'm not exaggerating. It was a lot. An American missionary who lived in Kano, Terry, came to help us through customs. He was tall and made us laugh. 

*snap* That night at the guest housewe were served pancakes for dinner, and for the first time in two days, I ate. I was just so relieved that our first meal in Nigeria was a familiar food. We drank the water in the dining hall, but my dad had drilled into us kids that we would not be able to drink the tap water in Nigeria, ever. Our minds had been filled with fear of cholera, hepatitis, yellow fever, meningitis, dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and hookworm, all of which came from tap water for all I knew.  

["Guest house" was a new phrase to me, and I learned that it referred to a sort of hotel with blocks of rooms or suites and a central dining hall or meeting area. This guest house was run by our mission in collaboration with the church that the mission had established years and years ago, ECWA (the Evangelical Church of West Africa).] 

*snap* The following day, Saturday, wsquished into a large van with as many of our boxes as could fit. There were a few other missionaries riding down with us, an at-least-five-hour drive to cover roughly 200 miles. (In the rainy season, driving times usually increase with the number and severity of potholes.)  

*snap* We stopped and got soda ("minerals") in glass bottles. I discovered Fanta Orange for the first time. (It's not "orange Fanta," peeps; it's "Fanta orange." Come on now.) We also got little plastic baggies of roasted peanuts ("groundnuts"). Yum!  

*snap* We ate at a neighbor's house that night. We had pizza, which tasted different to me because the base was tomato paste instead of tomato sauce, and I feel like we had Kool-Aid, which was a special treat for our hosts, since it had to be brought from the U.S. (I'd never had Kool-Aid before, as I'd grown up on diet soda and Crystal Light.) Our hosts were Australian, a general practitioner and his wife and four kids. Their third child, Shelley, was my age and would be in my class at school. I don't know that I'd ever met an Australian before, and while Shelley didn't have an accent because she'd been born and raised in Nigeria, I loved listening to her parents talk. I've no idea what they said, as I'm sure I wasn't paying a bit of attention; I just liked hearing them. Oh, and they had Chinese-lantern-type lights in their living room, so it was dim but lovely. 

*snap* We ate lunch the next day at another neighbor's house. This family was from Ohio, both parents were doctors, and they had three daughters. Their eldest, Ruth, was my age and would be in my class at school. At some point yet another neighbor family came over to meet us – a general practitioner and his wife and three kids from Georgia. Their eldest, Jessica, was a year ahead of me in school. After we ate, the girls took me rambling through the backyards of our little neighborhood. It was lightly raining, and I remember feeling as though I were trekking through a jungle, pushing aside leaves of banana trees in the pitter-patter of a rain forest. It was surreal. 

That's the end of my distinct memories from those first few days. From this point on, everything just kind of blurs together. My descriptions will be drawn from years of memories rather than specific images. 

Coming up next: Where did you live?

24 October 2017

From the beginning

Many people have asked me if I was born in Africa.  

I was not. 

My life began in San Diego, where my dad was partway through medical school. I'm the youngest of three biological children, and I was three when my dad earned his MD. I have few clear memories from those San Diego days, but one of those is flushing a goldfish down the toilet. I believed that the fish had diarrhea (and wonder now if this idea came from my older brother). 

When I was three we moved to Los Angeles for my dad to complete his residency in pediatrics at UCLA. I have several memories from our first apartment that first year, including our first cat Velvet. After one year we moved to student housing, where we lived for three years until I was seven. I started school while we were in that apartment, and my best friends were Monica Smith, a neighbor who was in my first-grade class and attended the local LDS church, and Shane Stafford, who played ice hockey and showed me Beetlejuice. (I don't remember the film but remember getting in trouble for watching it.) 

Things started changing when I was seven. We moved to another apartment while Dad was getting his Master's in Public Health and working at a county clinic. (Much of this may be not quite accurate, as I was too little at the time to pay attention to these details and may have mixed up my timeline.) My brother and I rode the school bus an hour each way to a magnet school, and we spent the ride listened to Weird Al and played Tetris on Brad Warner's Gameboy. Our bus driver, Ms. Lightner, listened to pop, to which we were never exposed at home, so we learned songs from MC Hammer, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson. Those two years were my favorite of my childhood in the U.S. I adored my teacher; I had friends at school, church, and in the neighborhood; we had an adorable foster baby; and I was a happy kid. 

But that first year, when I was seven, I also learned that my parents wanted to move overseas and be missionaries. (The word "missionary" can mean so many different things, but here it refers to a Christian who goes to a foreign country to improve the lives of the needy and under-served in a practical way, e.g., as a medical doctor.) I don't remember their sitting us down to tell us, but I think they must have. I'm sure they talked about it a lot, maybe even to us, but I have no memory of any related discussions. I gather that they had always planned to go overseas, even from their earliest days as a married couple, as they had met and fallen in love when they were missionaries in a foreign country. It had just taken a bit longer, perhaps, than they had expected – a bachelor's, two master's, and a doctorate degree and three kids later. 

In any case, that year I found out we were going overseas. In October, we flew to North Carolina, where we lived for a month while my parents went through candidate orientation for our mission. I don't know what all they learned (though, looking back, I can imagine), but we kids spent our mornings doing schoolwork we'd brought with us and our afternoons learning about other cultures. Our teacher, Mrs. Gibbs (whose daughter and son-in-law would one day make a huge impact on my life) taught us songs in French and Spanish. We dressed up in outfits from other countries. We learned about different foods and got to taste them. We went on a couple field trips to local places of interest. And at the end of the month, we were told that our host country would be Nigeria. 

I knew nothing about Nigeria but learned bits and pieces as time went on. My parents prepared presentations to give at churches when we went around to raise support. They called it "deputation" at the time, but now I think they call it "friend-raising." My brother and sister and I learned a couple skits to help my dad demonstrate the importance of rural development and the hilarity of language barriers. We traveled often on weekends to various churches in southern California to speak about Nigeria and meet people who would support us monthly while we were overseas. (Most missionaries rely on the financial support of donors in their country of origin in order to work overseas.) As a kid, it was fun going to different places and meeting new people, especially going to other people's homes for meals or eating out. We wore tie-dyed clothes and felt special. I, after all, was not the one who had to drive, sometimes leaving well before dawn to arrive in time for a morning service. To me, it was an adventure. We spent two years raising support, planning, and eventually packing up our lives. 

But then I began to realize the implications of our moving overseas. It would mean leaving behind our church, our schools, our friends, and our family. It would mean potentially not seeing my grampa and my closest cousins for four years at a stretch. It would mean no pepperoni or M&Ms, no magnet school with my amazing combo-class teacher, no youth group houseboat trips or winter camps, no ice-skating rinks or McDonald's. I was blown away by everything I felt I was being asked to give up. And the most gut-wrenching of all was that we would have to leave behind the foster baby we'd had for two years, whom we'd gotten straight from the hospital after his premature birth, whom we adored. 

And I started to not want to go. It's funny now, looking back, that I was the one who made the most noise about moving. True, as the youngest and the brattiest, I usually made the most noise about everything. But in retrospect, I had the least to lose. My brother and sister were finishing up elementary school and junior high, respectively, and because of the difference in school systems – junior high versus middle school – my 7th grade brother would be starting middle school after all his classmates had been in middle school for a year, and my 10th grade sister would be starting high school after all her classmates had been in high school for a year. They were leaving behind good schools and amazing academic opportunities we would never get in Nigeria. My sister was leaving behind a youth group she loved and many very close friends who were like family.  

But it was I who loudly struggled with the transition. I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me live with my aunt and uncle, to let me stay. I cried. I may have screamed. At nine, I should have been beyond temper tantrums, but I fought the move with all I had in me. 

Ultimately, though, what can a nine-year-old do? 

On the afternoon of August 21, 1991, we boarded a plane at LAX that would take us to Amsterdam, where we would spend a 24-hour layover before heading to Nigeria. It was a long flight to Europe, an overnight flight during which none of us slept well. I refused to eat anything, though at breakfast, just before landing, I was forced to take my anti-malarial medicine with a glass of orange juice. We were exhausted as we deplaned in Amsterdam – not only from the flight but from the weeks of late-night packing and cleaning that led up to our move. I don't remember much from our layover. I remember riding a train through farmland. I remember being responsible for our guitar – feeling like Maria from The Sound of Music. I remember visiting Anne Frank's house (so many stairs!) and passing a man playing the violin in a large, open square, with his open case in front of him to collect money. I remember going for dinner to a corner restaurant near our little hotel called L.A. Bar, which horrified me because I'd always thought bars were essentially evil. (All I had was a glass of water.) That's about all I remember, and the next day we were on the plane to Kano, one of two cities in Nigeria that at the time had an international airport. I had not eaten anything since we'd left Los Angeles, and my dad threatened that if I didn't start eating, he would hook me up with an IV once we got to our new home. I'm pretty sure he was serious. 

Little did I know that stepping off of that plane onto the tarmac in Kano would begin the best days of my life. 

11 October 2017

An open letter to Jane Doe

Dear Jane,

As I write this, you are 12 years old and have already been a witness in criminal court. You reported that you had been touched by a family member in a way that made you uncomfortable. I heard your words, and I saw your face as you took the stand. You are just 12 - on the cusp of womanhood yet still a child. I don't know you personally, and I could not speak to you, but I see that you are full of life, filled with curiosity about the world around you. You are energetic and articulate.

I heard everything you said, and I watched the interviews you had given to the police. I heard your words and some of your heart. I want you to know that I believe you. I believe you were the victim of a crime. I believe you were made to feel uncomfortable. I believe it happened more than once. I believe you.

But we failed you. I don't know why, but the others didn't think your word was good enough. They didn't believe as I do. They had reasonable doubt. I can't explain it; I wasn't there. But I wanted to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry we let you down. You were brave enough to come forward about experiences that must have been awkward and embarrassing. You did the right thing in telling adults you trusted, and then in talking to the police and detectives. You did the right thing, and I'm proud of you.

I'm sorry, Jane. I fear that this experience may have a huge impact on your life. It will change how you and your family relate to each other. It may change how you relate to adults you used to trust. It may change your view of police, of lawyers. It may change your view of men. It may have disillusioned you about the pursuit of truth and justice in our community and our country - as it has disillusioned me. This experience will change you in ways we don't yet know or understand.

My heart goes out to you. I ache for your pain, for your confusion, for your tainted childhood. Your story is familiar, but yours is the first I have heard in person. You are a smart, sweet young lady with a bright future. And I will remember you always. At the same time, you now stand - in my mind - for so many others in similar circumstances. When I hear other stories of children and young adults whose abusers go free, I will see your face.

I am sorry. You have been wronged. While I must accept the lawful acquittal of your abuser, I will remember. Always. And I will cling to the hope that you will grow to be a woman of great strength and wisdom - a woman of honesty and integrity - despite this experience. Remember the words from Moana*:
"I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you,
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
Yon know who you are."
Remember who you are, Jane.

I remain respectfully yours,
The silent juror

*Shurer, O. (Producer), Clements, R., & Musker, J. (Directors). (2016). Moana [Motion picture]. United States of America: Walt Disney Studios.