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What it was like to volunteer at Nigerian Orphanages in West Africa

January 10, 2014, 1:18 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1036

By riazhussain

Orphanages or children’s homes are places which provide care, protection, residence and education to children (or abandoned children) in the absence of their natural parents, grandparents and close relatives. Orphanages are run by government agencies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There are orphans who have lost one parent and there are others who have lost both parents. UNICEF defines an orphan as ‘a child who has lost one or both parents'. By this definition there were over 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. This large figure represents not only children who have lost both parents, but also those who have lost a father but have a surviving mother or the other way around.. Of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents’. Of all the continents, Africa seems to have the largest number of orphans worldwide. It is also called a continent of orphans, so to speak.  This segment of the population is exploding in that part of the world in no small measure due to the rampant epidemic of AIDS. A report of the Economist (Nov 27th 2002), titled ‘A Continent of Orphans’ says, ‘Of the 42m people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, three-quarters live in Africa'.  In addition to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are other diseases which claim the lives of thousands of African parents. In order to write this story, we've talked to Kadra, who has been involved with orphanages in Nigeria, and who therefore has first-hand knowledge on the matter. 

Nigeria is located in West Africa in the neighborhood of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It is rich in oil reserves. Being the most populous country and the second largest African economy, is called the ‘Giant of Africa’. Its capital is Abuja. The official language of this highly multi-ethnic country is English. The country derives its name from the River Niger which meanders through its land. The Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are some of the largest ethnic groups. The country comprises 36 states. Kadra went to the Osun state which is located in south-western Nigeria and derives its name fom the river that runs through it. In the said state, Kadra went to  Ilesha. Its inhabitants are poor individuals who rely for their income on farming. Cassava is the main produce of the town, and the predominant ethnic group is Yuroba. The farming community needs volunteer work in community development and support. Therefore, our interviewee went to this little town.

Kadra was born in Sana, the capital of Yemen. She is 24- year-old and has recently done her graduation in social work. During her academic life, she had opportunities to work in the field of children and family services. She has done considerable amount of volunteering in different parts of the world in early intervention services; supporting children and families staying safe, enjoying her efforts and achievements; encouraging school attendance and participation in education; making a positive contribution; actively participating within these communities and interacting with peers and supporting families in achieving economic well-being. Telling us about her voluntary work in Africa, our altruist said, ‘I have recently returned from a three-month VSO-ICS programme in Nigeria; which was a truly life altering, wonderful experience. I supported an NGO called Methcare'.

At Methcare, she has worked  to support orphans and caregivers affected by HIV/AIDS. In total, she spent three months in Nigeria.

Her work in there started on February 6, 2013 when she and other VSO-ICS program volunteers landed at Lagos in the morning.  The same day, they headed straight to the IITA agricultural center in Ibadan for their in-country training. Then, they were transferred to their host communities. Our volunteer  had to join a host family there. She says, ‘I was placed with a wonderful host family. Kemi (my host mum) was a nurse at the local hospital and my host father (Mr Wole Komalafe) was the secretary for local government. I had two wonderful host brothers (aged 3 and 5yrs) who contributed a lot of enjoyment to my experience. I  quickly  became accustomed with Nigeria. My host family and fellow counterparts were very supportive and kind and instantly made me feel like I belonged'.

They visited Orphanages at Oshogbo (also within the Osun state). There she found children in need of love and care. She loved playing with them. Donating her time and energy at the orphanages was really an unforgettable experience -- a turning point -- for her. 

She has tried to help children develop better and healthy social skills. Her attention was not only focused on the orphaned children but also on disabled children and how the the latter were being taught at schools.

Recounting one of her experiences with regard to the education of the disabled children, she said, ‘The most unpleasant event I witnessed whilst in Nigeria was the types of discipline techniques used against children. Whilst visiting a local school for disabled children; my friend and I witnessed a teacher beating a child (who clearly had learning difficulties) around the face with a slipper. It was the most soul destroying thing to watch a child who probably does not understand the implications of his behavior to be punished like that and not be able to do anything about it.

After the visit; my counterpart and I were so distressed by the event that we went to a nearby café to gather our thoughts and emotions about what had just happened. Sadly this was not an isolated event. Very quickly into our stay; it became clear that the culture implies that to love your child you must correct them and use whatever discipline necessary to do this.I saw it every day and it really hurt me. Often I had to lock myself in my bedroom whenever my host brothers were being punished for misbehaving. Two of my fellow counterparts arranged for a Global Action Day on child abuse and invited a group of caregivers to a presentation on child abuse and its implications.'

She says that the Action Day on Child Abuse 'was a well-received event and it hopefully gave caregivers the knowledge about child development and alternative discipline techniques to support them in making an informed change about their parenting approach. I hope that the Nigerian government take the plight of children more seriously and takes greater measures to ensure that children are not being abused'.

Serving poor children gave Kadra an opportunity to experience and explore the Nigerian culture. She says, 'The people and the culture of Nigeria definitely fascinated me more than the place. First thing I noticed when I arrived in Ilesha was the lack of color. It’s a strange thing to note; but it caused me some disdain and perhaps regret for being there. I understood later that it was the exhaustion of my travels and assimilating with the new surrounding that would make me uneasy but at the time I found the colorless buildings very oppressive. Everything was a cement shade of grey. But I soon found that the people bought life to the place' .

'Nigerians are very warm by culture. I loved the people! They were so welcoming and with a great sense of humor. They show great appreciation when you make an effort to learn the Yuroba language or the culture. They are always up for a debate; whether it's discussing politics or religion, and the lesson learnt early on is ‘he who shouts loudest is heard and therefore wins’. Luckily for me I have a rather loud voice'.

She continued, 'Every morning you leave the house, it’s a must to greet everyone good morning and I loved this custom. It was worlds apart from the cold streets of London where you avoid eye contact or God forbid any form of human interaction with strangers. It was a lovely change. These two words ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ define her views about the Western and Nigerian cultures. Her comparison of the West and Nigeria continued. She said, ‘ This visit to Nigeria was an opportunity to experience and explore culture there.'.  She's found that poor Nigerians are content with what they have. She says, ‘Constantly striving for monetary gain when all your basic needs are met will only create a vacuum of materialistic want that can never be satisfied. In places like Nigeria, where people have very little, I have found that people work hard for the basics and are content with this. In fact this baffled one of my fellow volunteer who found it hard to comprehend how someone can be happy owning a little corner shop and living in a basic home without wanting to move up and earn more. But that’s where we as a western society fail! In our quest to find happiness; we’re wired to feel that possessions and monetary gain are the key to success. We want more and then get caught in the rat race. Then we find ourselves thirty years later -- nothing like the person we wanted to grow up to be, feeling like we haven’t lived, a ghost in our own home; because the long hours of work trying to give our family the best meant that we had to sacrifice our time with them; still living in a home owned by the bank and wondering how this all happened'.

Our volunteer has been to 11 countries. Her thirst for explorations and serving people has still not been exhausted. She ascribes this quest to her nomadic roots. She says, ‘I think it’s my nomadic root that urges me to keep on the move. Being Somali means that we never settle; we always have our mental suitcases packed and are at the ready’. I’ve not found my favorite place in the world yet. Perhaps this is the reason I am always so eager to travel or perhaps it’s not the destinations I have a thirst for but the journey itself.  

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