Wednesday, 22 June 2011

"Mam, why are there so many races in the World and why are we all different colours?”

To which my mother replied, "We are all flowers in God's Garden and he makes them all colours"

From a young age I was fascinated with Africa and anything African. Strange then really that it took so long for me to meet someone of African descent.

My Uncle John first fired the imagination. Talking about the lands that he had travelled to whilst in the Merchant Navy. I used to listen intently imagining all the trees, colour and different sights and sounds...and Oranges. I said I wanted to go to Africa where the Oranges grew!

Little did I realise at the time that my Uncle was, in fact, talking about Nigeria as he worked for many years on the Palm Lines out of Lagos, moving commodities including Palm Oil on the West Coast of Africa for many years and his first boat was Katsina Palm.

Being an avid reader as a child with a high reading age I soaked up all I could on Africa, I knew as much as one could from living in England. Who spoke what language and the different beliefs of all the African tribes. I read biographies of people who visited Africa, missionaries and other intrepid explorers and longed to follow in their footsteps.

At the age of 10 I announced to my mother that we should all up sticks and move to Kenya. Of course, she flatly refused. What on earth do you want to move there for? she asked. So I can own an elephant and stop them becoming extinct and I want to live with the people. My mother dug her heels in and said you can go when you're old enough.

I watched and read all about the Biafran War, the Ethiopian famine, Apartheid, Idi Amin and anything that affected Africa. South Africa was a favourite for a while but I decided I had to boycote Apartheid as it was totally wrong. I questioned why all the time, why where they fighting, why were they starving, why where they being segregated, what is wrong with whites and blacks mixing? I was worried about what was happening to the people and the children and I used to Pray for them every night. I used to ask Jesus to protect them and let them go free and help them. "Mum, why is God allowing this to happen in Africa?" came the inevitable question. My mother exasperated with my questions tried her best to give me the answers I wanted...but it just led to more questions as it all seemed so straight forward to me. She helped me with the sponsored walks and saving milk bottle tops or whatever the latest thing was to raise money for Biafra or some such. Although the day I gave my best beads to Oxfam flummoxed her somewhat. When she questioned me as to what I thought the Biafrans were going to do with beads, I replied indignantly, to make things and sell them. To me as a child it was straight forward, these people didn't need charity they needed help to get back on their feet and support themselves as I saw it and by making things to sell to tourists would allow them to be independent, earn a living and feed their families. Such is the nievity of a young child. Sensing that it wasn't that easy, I later decided to sell all my clothes, toys and belongings at a jumble sale. Mother wasn't impressed at that either but I did raise £7 which I duly sent off for Biafra.

My uncle was home from his trip at some point and when I asked if he was going to Africa where the Oranges grew he said yes. I was an obedient child and usually never pestered for things when told no. However, this was different, he was going to where the Oranges grew. I wanted to go. We went to Immingham Docks to see him off, as he came through the lock gates I shouted up 'can I come to Africa'. I was about 8 at the time. His Captain asked what I had said and he was telling him when the Captain kicked the rope ladder down the side of the ship and said if you can climb that you can come. I was up that rope ladder like a rat up a drainpipe. My mother, distracted by talking to someone turned and just caught hold of my ankle to stop me making the full ascent. I never ever got cross at my mum, it wasn't the done thing, but I was 'damn well cross' with her that day and let her know it. She chastised my uncle for encouraging me and saying you know how much she wants to go. I can't ever recall sulking but I did over that for weeks. In the end my mum said I could go when I was old enough. The same response 'when you are old enough', sigh.

At age 15 I had the opportunity to learn Swahili at school from the Headmaster, who had spent a bit of time in Kenya. There was no question I had to learn it! Kenya and an African language! So I signed up and Mr Robinson taught us Swahili. My party piece was to sing 'one man went to mow' in Swahili.

So when I was 18 first place I headed was Africa! I was 18 in the November and booked to go out on 26th December. I told my mum I'm going on holiday and when I told her where I was going she laughed and said, 'well I guess you are old enough now'. I was in heaven. I couldn't wait. Only it wasn't the Africa I had dreamed of. Two weeks in The Gambia in a hotel being shepherded about by tourist reps wasn't what I had in mind. I broke away from the main group and made my own way linking with the locals etc. It was enough for me to know that I wanted to go back some day, however, studying, work and career got in the way.

After a holiday to the Dominican Republic I had researched my family tree, after a long search I traced my maiden name back to Hispaniola where it appeared that my ancestors were brought over during the Spanish Wars after one landing by the British to Puerta Plata but were eventually fought off but not before they managed to take a few POW's. This would explain my unruly hair in my teens. I am often asked by hairdressers if I have 'black' genes.

It was just before I did my pilgrimage across Spain that I felt the yearning to return and considered my options. I was offered a research project in Botswana and a missionary position to set up HIV/AIDS projects in Kenya but it just wasn't right in someway.

Then out of the blue and through the very same Uncle who had travelled around Nigeria I was introduced to Shane. I never thought much about it but once we met we had so much in common at our first meeting we hardly stopped talking.

Shane was mixed race, his mother was from Hull where he was born and his father from Nigeria. I was born in Grimsby the other side of the River Humber and about the time I moved North to Scotland his father moved the family down to London. Only for us to meet a number of years later in Greenwich, London whilst I was visiting following my other African interest of Egyptian artifacts being displayed at O2.

We became inseparable and spent hours speaking on the call was 10 hours long as we talked throughout the night! We talked about growing up in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Humberside, travelling across Europe and, of course, Africa. Shane being mixed race in Hull found it difficult being one of the 'few' black families in the area. I never fitted in because I just wasn't like other children in that my horizons were set much higher and I knew what I wanted. We never seemed to have any awkward silences. It was as though we had known each other before and just picked up where we left off and both had a tendency to finish off each others sentences. We even had the same sense of humour. Our upbringing was very similar too and we held the same core values and principles. We both wanted the same things and we both had strong faith.

The Igbo's were used in the Atlantic slave trade. The first time I came across Igbo culture was when in the Dominican Republic I heard the saying 'Igbo go hang themselves'. Being of a curious nature I researched such an odd saying and I found that Igbo's rather than being enslaved would rather kill themselves, and many did so they were set free as they didn't make very good slaves. No surprise to me then as they are inherently proud and not subserviant in nature. So in Hispaniola Haiti and Dominician Republic there are still Igbo communities that settled there. I sometimes like to think that perhaps if I traced my ancestry using DNA that there may be a teeny weeny bit of Igbo in there, and that is why I have this burning desire to go 'home'.

My family call my love of Africa an 'obsession'. I read a book called Negrophilia....apparently people suffering from negrophilia have an inordinate affinity for blacks (as opposed to antipathy towards them) so maybe that's nearer the truth...maybe...just maybe I've been a closet negrophiliac all these years. Is there a cure? Well, I sure as hell hope not, because for the first time in my life I feel like I belong. I feel like I am almost home...and perhaps my trip to Naija is part of that...heading home.

Afterall, they say that we all came out of Africa...perhaps it's time for me to return? Perhaps I've always had that calling.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

After my engagement to my husband I started to take a keen interest in Nigeria, in it's history, the language and the people. They are amazing people, if a nation has an abundance of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) it's the Nigerian's. Yet we only hear about the negatives.

Nigeria famous for her huge population of more than 140 million people and with more than 370 ethnic groups, has the highest population in the whole African continent. The country is made up of three major ethnic groups - the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba, and the Igbo - and they represent 70 per cent of the population. Another 10 per cent comprises of several other groups numbering more than 1 million members each, including the Kanuri, Tiv and Ibibio. More than 300 smaller ethnic groups account for the remaining 20 percent of the population.

My husband is from the Igbo Nation so I feel I can talk reasonably knowledgeably about the Igbo and happy to share what I have learnt over the short period of time. Igbo people have a dynamic and fascinating cultural heritage that says a lot about them, with most of the Igbo people being Christians.

Igbo people are industrious, friendly and educated people and not surprisingly they played an important role in Nigerian political development. They are proud to be Igbo. Igbo's embrace egalitarianism in a way I have not seen before, with hospitality being their watchword. The Igbo's have their traditional way of welcoming visitors, which is usually offering kola to guest, even before they made their mission known. When united in a common cause they are a force to be reckoned with. They will move mountains to achieve their goal.

The Igbo's have many cultures, which are further divided into many groups, due to dialects and boundaries among the eastern states in particular.

Nigeria has had a bad press over the years, most recall the Biafra War where the Igbo's in particular were victimized and more recently they think of corruption and trouble, but you know I think Nigeria is one of Africa's best kept secrets.

It is built into our genes. Many centuries ago, our ancestors wandered and hunted the African landscape amongst an overwhelming abundance of wild animals. In each of us is a primal urge to experience Africa for ourselves, even if it is from the safety of a Land Rover and the luxury of private, room-sized tents.

Africa's a big place, so just where do you go? Nigeria, of course!

Are we mad?

We must be...we have made the decision to take at least a year out and travel to Nigeria. I have always wanted to go and see Africa. The West Africa I visited many years ago got under my skin and I always planned to return. Now we have the perfect opportunity and a prolonged visit.

Some of our family and friends were quite concerned when we announced our plans to drive, however, we did our homework and joined an expedition travelling around the West Coast of Africa.

A few years ago hubby and I were idly discussing driving across Africa and both said what a road trip. For me it would be the ultimate trip....driving across a diverse continent and seeing the cultures....a few times we've joked about driving there and a few have warded us off. I spent some time mapping it out for my own curiosity and decided that it was too risky for two travellers alone...then the very next day I heard about a company that arranged Trans Africa expedition from UK to Accra in Ghana just over the border, taking the same route I had already mapped out. No way - this was worth investigating!

I searched their site and immediately emailed them for more information. I then noticed they did a larger trek down to South Africa which went via Abuja, Nigeria. I followed up the email with another asking if it was possible for us to do the Accra to Abuja leg too.

I phoned hubby and within minutes he was, 'Let's do it'! No hesitation. I explained it will be hard, sleeping out under canvas, living out of a rucksack and in an expedition bus, sand, rain, heat, exhaustion, days on the road etc but somehow it didn't restrain us any! It would take approximately 12 weeks! It seemed to be for us and being able to finish in Nigeria was the ultimate destination. We felt justified in using some savings and moving the dates forward to November!

So the decision was made and we started to plan in earnest....mad we may be but my explorer instinct has kicked in...I was born to do this!

Friday, 10 June 2011

A little mid-life crisis can be a great thing! It makes you think about your life, the past, the present and the future. It makes you aware of the scarcity and preciousness of time. Reflections like these have led me to look at my life and made me think, what is it really that I want to do with the rest of my life?

Many people around me are at an age now where they are starting to question their position in life. Some of these individuals are stuck in unrewarding jobs, leading a hectic, overworked and unfulfilled life. Moments like these are just the perfect time to stand back and look at the future and think about what we want to do when we grow up.

Well, I have done quite a bit of reflecting over the last few years and I have come to the realization that TRAVEL is my passion. Travel means so many things: beautiful landscapes, interesting architecture, history, exotic food, art and music. For me it also means connecting with foreign cultures, learning about different traditions, festivities, societies and customs. Travel is an opportunity to open our minds.

So, I have decided to pursue my passion, which means I am going to spend more time travelling.

A midlife crisis can last anywhere between two to five years (for a woman) and is a period that can be very difficult for anyone. Travelling according to the experts, is a good remedy for a midlife crisis.

You explore the world. Forget about money and see what you can do physically, mentally and spiritually. No, these trips do not include a day on a white sandy beach. Midlifers take trips that have a special mix of learning, adventure, goodwill, danger or physicality.

I am grateful for my midlife crisis. It has let me change my life before I got too stuck.