A visit to Nigeria teaches a lesson in abundance
After seeing the need in her mother's homeland, a teenager broadens her ambitions to include humanitarian goals.
VISTA, CALIF. — When my 17-year-old daughter, Cassandra, got her driver's license a year ago, she wanted to know when she was "going to get my own car?" I was surprised and demanded to know where it was written that "you get a car when you get a driver's license."
She was genuinely disappointed. After all, the senior parking lot at our suburban San Diego high school brims with luxury cars - belonging to the students.
When my American husband left us, my father sold a piece of land back in our Nigerian village, and sent me a check with this note: "Single parent or not, if you bungle raising those children, nothing else you do will have mattered...."
I took those words advisedly and determined to raise courteous, confident, and contented kids, just as I had been raised in Africa. Not self-indulgent, self-absorbed young adults like those you see on TV or the ones hanging out in malls across America.
Although I shopped at thrift stores when my kids were little, I made sure they had everything they needed and sometimes more. I kept the family finances private, except to let them know we were struggling just like the next family. And in order to ensure that my kids appreciate what we have, I occasionally took them to volunteer at homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
And yet, to hear "When am I getting my own car?" made it seem as if I was raising the stereotypical, overindulged American teenagers who have developed an inordinate sense of entitlement.
Of course, it wasn't just the car. Many of Cassandra's classmates spent spring break this year in Puerto Vallarta, and her best friend got a $1,200 Louis Vuitton handbag for her birthday.
So because Cassandra is a very high-achieving child - an early high school graduate with a 4.7 GPA, a star track athlete, and the president, vice president, and secretary of a few of her high school clubs - I thought I'd up the stakes.
Rather than using timeworn clichés about money not growing on trees, rights versus privileges, or the "When I was growing up in Africa" line, I decided to take the children home for Christmas.
The way that news hit, you'd have thought I'd just grounded my 12-year-old, Blake, for two weeks: What did I do? Africa, the Dark Continent; the jungle. I don't wanna catch AIDS, sleep in mud huts with goats and hens. "No way!" he replied. Blake would rather have had a new skateboard for Christmas. Cassandra was at once apprehensive and excited.
This bottom-of-the-world view of Africa came as much from the media as it did from me. All our old clothes were saved up for the "naked children in Africa." All the leftover food could "feed 10 slowly starving children in Africa." Didn't do the dishes, eh? Off with you to Grandma in the village where you'd have to wake up, walk two miles to the stream to do the dishes, fetch water, walk back - all before the cock crows - and then work in the farms until roosting time. There was, of course, a bit of truth in those mock threats - and seeing it firsthand would change their lives.
We began to prepare for our trip. Cassandra packed half a dozen bottles of water; Blake bequeathed his favorite skateboard to his best friend "in case I don't come back"; I packed seven suitcases of clothes, cookies, and candies to give away at Christmas.
In the customs line at Abuja, the Nigerian capital, a shadowy pitch-black customs officer appeared from nowhere, cleared his throat, and said: "Madam, we hungry-o. Government never pay us for fife months now." What I understood him to really be saying was: "Madam, we don't care what you have or don't have inside those suitcases. Pay up or else we'll delay you for as long as it takes."
So I placed a $10 bill on his palm and we "cleared" customs.
My sister, Kate, picked us up in her Suburban and we drove into the darkness, only to be stopped at a police checkpoint. Two policemen with machine guns drawn, approached us. Blake, who'd just seen the movie "Hotel Rwanda," held my hands. Kate rolled down her window and the taller policeman peered into the van, cleared his throat and said: "Madam, we hungry-o."
Kate placed a few crumpled bills on his outstretched hand and they let us go.
Our car slowed down as we wound through the city streets and Kate dutifully showed us the $5 million Grand Square, the five-star Sheraton and Hilton Hotels, the world-class presidential palace, the Central Bank of Nigeria, and other government buildings that lined the streets on both sides. We stopped at a traffic light, and Blake and Cassandra watched numerous Mercedes Benzes and SUVs - new and monstrous - stream past. "A Hummer?!" Blake's mouth was agape. "And a Rolls Royce!" Cassandra exclaimed.
At Kate's two-story stucco house, behind security gates and massive mahogany doors, we entered a large living room with marble floors and Turkish rugs. My niece and nephew, dressed in FUBU jeans and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, welcomed us. In the middle of the greetings, Blake chortled and darted across the room to the 42-inch plasma screen EDTV sitting atop the ivory-topped end table. A gliding servant soon appeared in the dining room, laying out fine china, place mats, and matching cloth napkins.
It certainly wasn't the starving Africa my children had expected. Cassandra asked questions. Kate chuckled and cleared her throat, "There are two breeds in Nigeria: the few have-a-lots and the many have-nots." Suddenly the lights went off and the whole city plunged into darkness. It was more than an hour before the houseboy turned on the private generator.
On our second day, we visited Wuse market: an immersion in color and chaos. Natives wearing fabrics of intoxicating designs, stores bright with fruits and vegetables, traders rushing out, with their wares - batik fabrics, Swiss voile lace, and Dutch wax - toward any potential customer. Music blared. We were butted by goats and rams and knocked sideways by passing wheelbarrows.
And then we saw a demure group of beggars, some with missing limbs, others with no limbs at all, sitting on their bare buttocks on the sandy ground. We saw a crippled, blind old man being led by a youth whose ankles were twisted. All had their hands outstretched, chanting greetings to any potential benefactor. One told us that his wrist had been sawed off for stealing a bean cake. Blake looked away. Cassandra, with her arms folded across her chest, stared in horror.
We left in silence. And then suddenly Cassandra shook her head. "Aunt Kate, isn't there a soup kitchen or homeless shelter where they can go and get help?" Kate shook her head no. "We don't have welfare here, it's survival of the fittest."
"But isn't Nigeria an oil-rich country?" Cassandra asked.
Kate stopped in front of the SUV. "Oil boom can be a curse, not a blessing, you know, especially when the leaders are corrupt," she began, holding her fingers cupped as she usually did when arguing a case in court. "The world energy crisis and high oil prices in the late 1970s had flooded the country with petrodollars for construction projects like modern schools, housing developments for the masses, highways, and the new federal capital. But because there is no Honest Earnest in Nigeria from top to bottom, most of that money was embezzled by corrupt politicians. Therefore, despite its large oil production, Nigeria is the second-poorest country in the world."
We came back to the market square on Christmas Day with our bags of clothes. A line quickly formed - at the very end, a young girl of 5 or 6 with a very large head and a distended stomach sat, naked, on the ground. Suddenly she began to crawl desperately toward us on her hands and knees. When she reached me, she sat down and slowly raised her head. Breathing hard, sweat glistening on her forehead, cheeks puffed like a squirrel's, she stared at me, at Cassandra to my right, at Blake to my left. Blake looked back at her, his face an expressionless moon. Her eyes lingered on Cassandra, and then she gestured in imitation of eating and opened her outstretched hands in the air.
I smiled: "He-llo-o."
She waited. My sister explained that the youth was a deaf mute cripple whose father had been beheaded for bank robbery.
I placed some crumpled bills on the little girl's palms. Quietly she received the gift and then smiled broadly, revealing a set of even, pearly teeth between which she clenched her money. She crawled back to where a wrinkled old woman with fuzzy gray hair waited. Excitedly she handed the money to the woman, who then embraced the girl. Very deliberately, the crone counted the money and carefully divided it into three parts. She placed the gift into the eager hands of two other women sitting beside her. And then, she tied the remainder in the loose end of her wrap.
Cassandra selected a dress, a pair of panties, and some cookies from our bags and walked to the young girl and handed them to her. The girl smiled. Cassandra's eyes filmed with misty tears; she waved goodbye. With a tear-choked voice, Blake said, "Let's get out of here, Mom."
Although my kids had always known about the poor and downtrodden before traveling to my homeland for the first time, they'd never experienced being in such a mass of needy people. Cassandra, now a freshman at University of California, Berkeley, as a pre-med student, would still like to own a car, but it's a more informed desire, tempered by wisdom. Even without a car, she knows she's still better off than most people in this world.
"Now I know what Oprah means when she says that 'If you're a woman and born in America, you're lucky.' "
Maybe most important, Cassandra has learned that she can be of service to others. She said that after the visit to the square that Christmas Day, the image of the little girl's smile as she handed her the clothes will forever be etched in her memory. She plans to return to Africa as a member of Doctors Without Borders, she says, "So I can donate my vacation time operating on the poor and those in need of medical care."
When I heard her say that, I knew I had not bungled.
• May Akabogu-Collins teaches economics and is a freelance writer.