Volunteering in Nigeria: Burning Food and the Complexities of Saying ‘Hello’

River in Ebonyi. photo by Jason Gaskell.

Around a straw roof in the centre of a village, people gather excitedly. Women skilfully weave palm tree leaves as they listen, a weathered old man nibbles on some fried plantain; and children begin to grow restless in the midday sun.

They are all waiting for a speech from four foreigners who have come to their village with new ideas, innovations that might help a school with few resources and too many students.

When in Rome

“Jockwa,” I say as I stand up to address the meeting. I had learned this word for “hello” in the nearby village of Unwana. But now we’re in Nwofe and something is wrong. I can see confusion in their eyes; a quiet bewilderment has spread throughout the crowd. The village elders and PTA whom I’d greeted are looking at each other, shaking their heads and muttering something.

Then suddenly I have an untimely flashback to the orienteering session, a lecture that I evidently should have paid more attention to; ‘…and there are over five-hundred languages spoken in Nigeria ’. Of course they’re confused; I had used the wrong dialect! I begin to wonder what I’m doing here.

After graduating from university and working in a bank for a year, I felt that it was time to do something completely different. I had come to Ebonyi with HiPact, an international volunteer agency who are helping to implement a state-wise student-tutoring scheme. It is the responsibility of HiPact volunteers like myself to a) train students to be tutors and b) to set up a workable administrative framework at their allocated school. My team of four has been assigned to a project in Nwofe village, a small rural area in northern Ebonyi. The PTA and village elders gave us permission to begin the project, and two days later, we went to the school to have our first meeting with the would-be tutors.

Map of Nigeria showing the many different regions and languages.First Contact

“So what do you think are the benefits of student tutoring?” I ask. There are several students who raise their hand. I choose a boy at the back of the class who is struggling to be seen. He is delighted at the choice and stands up to speak.

“To make cool,” the boy says enthusiastically. I almost laugh. It is not a response we are expecting.

I’m ecstatic that so many students have turned up, as this is the middle of the school break. I have already explained the aims of the project – that we’ll be training a small group of students to give tutorials on their strongest subject. Once we’ve gone they’ll be acting as after-school teachers to their juniors. The boy is still standing there and looking pleased with himself. I probe his enigmatic statement further.

Student tutors in the Nigerian village. photos by the author.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

The student goes on; “our classes usually have between 50 and 150 students. It gets hot and we can’t breathe well.” The other students all nod in agreement. Indeed the dusty, poorly ventilated classrooms don’t seem to be most conducive to learning. A valid point well made. During the tutoring sessions, students will be able to sit outside on the grass in small groups. I congratulate him and he sits back down, smiling at his contribution.

Succumbing to Popular Demand

A few days later, training is progressing and students are enthusiastic and diligent in their work. They are already beginning to show initiative and have started to create their own lesson plans by collating useful material from their old notebooks. However, the students are beginning to want more from their foreign helpers. Russell, one of the volunteers in Nwofe explains that,

“Kids are constantly asking us to teach them stuff, especially science because they haven’t had a science teacher working at the school for a few years”

We decide to oblige the request and give the students their first ever science practical. There are no apparatus at the school so we decide to conduct a food burning experiment by using some scissors, various foods, and our watches as timers. The aim of the experiment is to find out which foods contain the most energy.

Unexpected Results

“It’s still burning!” says one student in surprise.

I have been holding a burning peanut between some scissors for several minutes now. I too am amazed at the amount of energy there is in a peanut. We begin making some graphs to demonstrate our results taken from several foods. The students are enjoying the hands-on experience. Usually it’s all theory for them; in fact, they tell me that they’ve studied music for several years without ever laying their hands on an instrument. Tomorrow I will bring my guitar and lead a music class.

The music class is so much fun that we ask the students to prepare something for a talent show. On our last day, the talent show hosts a magic show, singing, stories and dramas. Some of the girls even create a farewell song to sing to us. The students shed a few tears as we say our goodbyes; some of the volunteers do too…

Volunteer Companies

There are several reputable companies who arrange volunteer programmes to Nigeria. These include ATLA, SYTO Nigeria, Volunteer abroad, and finally HiPact (via London ), with whom I chose to volunteer. Nigerian people are extremely warm and welcoming and the food is spicy and fresh. If you are brave enough and want a heart-warming experience that you will never forget, Nigeria is certainly a place to put on your volunteering ‘A-list’.

To find out more about becoming a volunteer

Browse GoNOMAD’s Volunteering Directory

HiPact (hipact.sentral.co.uk): HiPact’s official Web Site gives information about volunteering in Nigeria, past and present projects, volunteer accounts, and contact information.

Volunteer Abroad (volunteerabroad.com): A popular portal for various volunteer excursions, including Nigeria.

 Jason Gaskell
is the editor of Oriental Tales. He is a writer and editor, currently working for a Korean publishing company in Seoul. You can see more of his writing at Jason-Gaskell.Info.Read more stories by Jason Gaskell:

Indonesia: Bali After the Bombings

A Celebration in Luxor: A Little Humor Goes a Long Way

Teaching English in South Korea


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