Explaining Teaching in Nigeria to Folks Back Home in Boston

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Explaining Teaching in Nigeria to Folks Back Home in Boston

by Mary-Ann DeVita Palmieri from Nigeria and African travels • 1963-1964

Excerpted from Echoes of Africa: North Quabbin Perspectives on the Second Largest Continent, compiled by Mary-Ann DeVita Palmieri and Marcia Gargliardi (Athol, MA: Haley's, 2013). Available at Amazon or from the publisher at 488 South Main Street, Athol, MA 01331.

When the author went to Kano, Nigeria, as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1962, her father saved all her letters. She was twenty-four years old and ready for an adventure. She says that her stay in Nigeria was certainly that. Following are some excerpts from her letters that span a period of a year and a half. All of the letters start “Dear Mom and Dad” and usually include an apology for being so late in writing.

Image:MAP with other Kano SS Teachers.png Mary-Ann takes a moment for a photo op with fellow teachers at Kano Provincial Secondary School.

Saturday, January 12, 1963

On Friday I came on to my school. You just won’t believe this. The house I live in is just lovely. It’s small but nicely kept: five rooms (two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen—and an excellent bathroom and regular flush toilet). We have running cold water (no hot) and a gas stove and refrigerator and electricity. Except for no hot water and the fact that the tap water has to be boiled before drinking, there are all the comforts of home. Plus we even have air conditioning in the bedrooms so that during the dry season (which is now) we don’t even have to sleep under mosquito netting.

When I arrived, my roommate Marqui (pronounced Markey) Young wasn’t here yet, so I spent last night alone. But the neighbors are just great (I live right on the school grounds—with the other teachers and their families nearby). All the other teachers are married men, and their wives have been great—coming over to welcome me and inviting me over for tea. So far, all I’ve met are English but there is a South African and an Indian on the staff also. Marqui arrived last night about 1:30 am, so I didn’t even have to spend the whole night alone. She seems just great. Everyone told me what a nice person she is, and she really is.

We have a cook steward named Audu (pronounced Owdoo) who does all the cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing. Imagine that. I don’t even iron my own clothes. He is about forty and speaks good English. He lives in the city and comes in about seven in the morning until about nine or so at night. [Mary-Ann notes that at the time it seemed contrary to her egalitarian upbringing to have a servant, but she quickly realized that if she did her own cooking and cleaning, Audu would lose his job and would not be able to support himself, his children, and his three wives.] Image:Cook Audu.png Mary-Ann’s cook Audu, who spoke some English, took care of all household duties while Mary-Ann taught in Kano. He biked to work each day. Image:Audu's Wives.png Audu’s wives line up with their children

I begin teaching on Monday—English and geography (which I know nothing about but which should be fun to teach). I teach about twenty-six hours a week—six days a week with Sunday off and only a half day on Friday (which is the Muslim Sabbath). The hours are from 7:30 to 9:30 in the morning, then an hour off for breakfast, then on until 1:30. So we finish much earlier than at home though we go six days instead of five.

So you see, I really have it great—there’s also a church about three miles away, and we have a Jeep so even that’s no problem. Some of the kids have been sent to really bush stations so I am very lucky to be in such a big city.

Sunday, January 20, 1963

I started teaching last Monday, and so far so good. The students seem like most students, capable of getting noisy and out of hand but I’ve been a real grouch all week, and they’ve been good. The school itself is a very nice one. All the classrooms have windows on two sides so you can have cross ventilation, and it’s very cool. Although now it’s quite cold in the mornings anyway. I’m going to have to buy a blanket. I wake up freezing in the mornings. The rest of the staff here is just great. Our Jeep got a little sick this morning, and about five of the other teachers helped us to push it.

Settling in has been quite easy because my roommate has been here a year so most of the stuff is here—dishes, etc. Some windows still didn’t have curtains, though, so yesterday I bought some material in the market place and made some curtains for the dining room and kitchen. Buying in the market place is really fun. You have to bargain for everything. When I bought the material, the man first asked for two pounds (about $5.60) for six yards but we got him down to one pound, eight shillings (about $3.76). So buying takes quite a long time. There are hundreds of little stalls where people bargain like this, and if you don’t know what a good price is, you can really be cheated. I’ll have to take pictures of the market so you can see. It’s quite unbelievable. Last week Marqui and I visited a Hausa woman she knows. She is really sweet and although she speaks only a little English, she has a little cousin who translates for her. Last Sunday, we went to her house in the old city. All the buildings there are built of hard-packed mud—but they have electricity. It is really odd to see! She has promised to make me a Hausa-style dress, which should be interesting for me to take home. Friday night we had her here to teach her how to make banana fritters. She is Muslim and cannot go out in the daytime, so she came here after dark; and she is not supposed to be seen by any men other than her husband, so when one of the Peace Corps boys dropped over, we had to tell him to come back later. It’s a very strange country but very interesting and, so far, a great deal of fun.

January 27, 1963

Right now we’ve started the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During this month, my students fast all day (can’t eat or drink) and eat only when the sun goes down. Since this means they eat late and again very early in the morning, we get out of school at 12:30 instead of 1:30. They also have extra prayers to say, so we can’t give them homework. Ramadan started last night when the emir (the local religious leader) saw the new moon, at which time there’s a big celebration and we get a few days off.

This morning I had to drive the Jeep through the old city to pick up Mary Smith for church. I am dying for you to see my slides (which I haven’t taken but will soon) of the old city. It’s really hard for me to describe—mud brick buildings packed close together along narrow dirt roads with open sewer ditches running along the sides and goats and donkeys running along the road. I’m getting to be expert at maneuvering the Jeep around stubborn donkeys who refuse to get out of the way. Image:MAP with Jeep.png Dressed in a Hausa-style dress made for her by one of the Hausa women she met, Mary-Ann stands in front of the Jeep she shared with other volunteers.

Teaching is still fine. Having some geography classes cuts work considerably—that many fewer compositions to correct. Last week in a geography class, I was talking about the North Pole and how cold it was there. One boy in horror wanted to know how people lived up there and when I told him that they adapted themselves, he said, “But they’re uncivilized!” Little does he realize that some people might say the same about him and others who live in the hot zones around the equator. It’s really strange how when people don’t know or understand something different from what they’re used to, they immediately label it “uncivilized.” If people could just visit around a little more, they’d see just how civilized most people are even though they go about being civilized in different ways.

February 3, 1963

On Friday we visited the Hausa woman again (the one whose picture I sent you) and also three other Hausa women whom Marqui knows. These three women are all married to the same man and, surprisingly, get along quite well with each other. They live in the old city, and the man has his one room to himself while each of the women has her own bedroom and sitting room which together comprise her domain. All the children just sort of romp around together. It’s hard to imagine, I know, but all quite pleasant, and they seem really happy—like three sisters rather than three wives of the same husband.

The emir of Kano, Nigeria, leads a procession that signals the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. We had Friday off (it was Northern Region Self-Government Day or something), so Marqui and I took off for the city. In the middle of the old city, there are some dye pits, deep, narrow holes in the ground filled with a solution of blue dye, and old men sit there all day dipping in cloth till it comes out a beautiful bright blue. Well, Marqui had a white shirt that was turning sort of yellowish, and I had that green dress that had a red stain on it, so we brought them to the pits to be dyed. One old guy was very pleasant and dyed them for us for a dash (Nigerian word for tip) of six shillings. Marqui’s shirt came really nice, but my green dress with the red stain is now a blue dress with a maroon stain! In the same area, they take the dyed cloth and instead of ironing it, they beat it with big heavy blocks until it is pressed and shiny. Before they do this, they wet it by a rather unusual method. A guy takes a mouthful of water and then sprays it out of his mouth onto the cloth. It was really effective. The cloth got dampened nice and evenly and over a wide area. I don’t know how sanitary it was, but it worked. Image:Kano Dye Pits.png A worker dips cloth into a dye pit in Kano.

June 21, 1963

Remember I said I would be spending a few days in a very small village with a friend of mine? Well, I’m here. And it is really bush (which means really country)—no bathrooms, running water, electricity, or anything. We’re in a mud building though we sleep in two rooms at the school because there’s not enough room here. But it’s really fun. My friend has a steward here so the getting of the water out of a well, like in Castelcivita, Dad [Mary-Ann’s father’s home town in Italy], and the boiling of the water, cooking, etc. is taken care of.

I arrived yesterday and was shown around the town. One of the boys (who can speak English) says I am the first white woman he’s ever heard about being in Ketaure—and perhaps the first one ever. Everywhere I went, a troop of little kids followed after, just looking. The people are really nice and friendly. One man gave me some eggs as a welcome gift. I wish my Hausa were better, so I could talk to people more.

June 22, 1963

Just got up and washed myself out of a bucket of cold water. It really wakes you up. Going to the bathroom is really an experience. It’s just a hole in the ground, but it must be very deep and wide underneath because it’s remarkably clean (and not bad-smelling, at all) with very few flies.

Last night it was just beautiful—clear with thousands of stars and birds and frogs and all kinds of things filling the night with sound. It’s so good to be out in the country after spending six months in Kano, which is really a big city. This is farm country with acres and acres of farmland surrounding the town. We were taken around by one of the boys. I’ve never seen so much farmland at once. Each man farms his own sections and somehow each one knows where his farm begins and ends even though he may farm four different sections.

January 6, 1964

I’m back home in Kano safe and sound. [Mary-Ann took a trip to Liberia and back with a friend.] Did you get my letter from Freetown? From there we had a very exciting trip back home. We took lorries (these are big trucks with benches—very uncomfortable and slow but the best way to see the country and the people) through Sierra Leone into Guinea, a former colony of France now independent. We had a really interesting trip—crossing rivers in dugout canoes and over vine bridges, staying with missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers and one night with an African who was kind enough to give us a place to sleep when we couldn’t get a lorry to the next town. But we definitely miscalculated the time it would take us to get back. We were supposed to be back in Kano on Sunday, January fifth, and on Thursday, January second we were not even one-third of the distance home. So we had to change our plans and reroute our trip through Liberia to Monrovia where we took a plane to Kano. It was an expensive trip but worth it. People everywhere were so nice to us. We stayed with an American Protestant missionary and his family on New Year’s Day. They fed us and gave us a place to bathe (which we really needed after two days on hot, dusty, dirt roads in open trucks) and even gave us sandwiches for our trip the next day. In another place we stayed with some Peace Corps girls who helped us get visas to get into Liberia and were generally very nice to us. And all the people along the way were so pleasant—at least three different times people gave us bananas, which is really generous when you think how poor everyone is.

February 16, 1964

I just had three days off and it was a very good break. This was the Sallah celebration which comes at the end of the fast. It’s a very happy time for the Muslims—like our Easter after Lent. Everyone is very happy and wears new, or at least clean, clothes. There are swings put up all over the city for the little kids to have rides on and push-carts for them to have rides in. I walked into the old city on Friday when the main celebration took place. Everybody was greeting everybody with Barka de Sallah (greetings on this day of prayer). Image:Kano Salleh.png The emir of Kano, Nigeria, leads a procession that signals the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Image:Kano Mosque.png Worshipers outside of the Kano mosque bow toward Mecca during a Friday service.

After the festivities at the mosque, I went to visit the Hausa women in the city and brought them some brownies (it’s customary to exchange food at Sallah). They gave me some rice pancakes which were very good. I asked them if they would come to my house to teach me how to make tuwo da miya, a Hausa dish (they are coming on Wednesday) and so, of course, I had to taste some. Boy was it hot. Their food usually is because they put whole red peppers in. I was crying, it was so hot. I think when I make it, I’ll tone it down a bit.

February 24, 1964

Last Wednesday, I invited two of the Hausa women to come to my house and show me how to make tuwo da miya, a Hausa dish. It was really fun, but I had to keep my dictionary handy since they speak no English and my Hausa is still not very good. They were very at ease in my kitchen considering the fact that they are used to cooking over wood fires. They didn’t seem at all surprised at the gas stove or refrigerator. I am always amazed at how gracious and casual they are when faced by new situations—a really amazing thing when you consider they are in Purdah which means they do not go out at all during the day, and they never shop or visit in places where there are men other than their husbands or close relatives. It must be a terribly dull life but they don’t seem to mind at all.

April 5, 1964

I am safely in Dambatta [Mary-Ann spent two weeks of her vacation teaching in an elementary school in a small village north of Kano] and everything, including my house, is fine. Mud brick walls and a well right in my courtyard. The school children draw my water and empty my trash barrel. I don’t have a steward here, so it’s a nuisance boiling my water but not that much trouble really. I bought a small kerosene burner and kerosene lanterns, so I’ve successfully made up for the lack of electricity.

The teaching is fun—first graders mostly and some third graders. Right now we’re on “My name is Miss DeVita. What is your name?” and today I played with them during a free period.

On Friday I visited my student’s mother so I could watch her cook. There are two wives to the same husband, and you have never seen a happier group. Children and relatives all over the place—everyone cooking or sewing or winnowing the grain or pounding, and everyone enjoying themselves. I guess because they work together.

Yesterday I visited a Koranic school where the teacher was the sister of another of my students. This is unusual. Most Koranic teachers are men. Her house (which is her school also) was overflowing with little children memorizing the Koran (the Muslim’s Bible) by heart and learning how to write it. They usually don’t learn the meaning. They just memorize the Arabic.

Today is market day here. People from all over come to see and buy. It covers an open area of about one square acre—a very impressive sight.

July 26, 1964

My decision to leave was really a quick one but I was getting really lonely by myself, so when they gave us the choice to leave now or in December, I decided to go now. Getting my things packed has been a chore. I’m still not finished. It will be sad going after a year and a half, but a trip through Europe is exciting enough not to make me feel too badly.

I was glad I decided to go after the boys had left school for vacation. I would have hated to say good-bye to everyone. I did go to Dambatta, though, to say goodbye to everyone there, which I was happy to do.

The present

When I reread my letters, my leaving Nigeria seems rather abrupt, but I had been thinking about it for a while. Because my two-year contract was up in October of 1964 in the middle of a term, the Peace Corps gave me the option of leaving before the term started or extending my contract and staying until the term ended. I had originally planned to stay because two other volunteers and I were negotiating with the Peace Corps and the Nigerian Education Ministry to set up a pilot program. We were proposing that some Peace Corps volunteers would teach in elementary schools similar to the one in Dambatta and train elementary school teachers rather than teach in high schools where we felt that there were many competent Nigerian teachers willing and able to teach. When this was denied by the education ministry, I decided to leave earlier rather than later. Living alone was beginning to wear on me—there were lots of letters where I complained about losing a roommate or being disappointed when the Peace Corps didn’t send me a roommate—and the chance to travel through Europe with a Peace Corps volunteer whose term was up in July proved too big a draw. I was ready to move on with my life.

Nigeria was an exciting hopeful place in 1963-4 when I was there just three years after independence in 1960. Even then, however, the seeds for dissension had been planted. An area of more than two hundred languages with three major tribes and countless smaller groups, Nigeria was fused together into a country by colonial England and has always had trouble functioning as a unified country. In 1967 the Biafran war split the country into violent factions when the Eastern Region, made up mostly of Ibos, tried to secede from the country ruled by the Hausa, the largest group. After three years of bloody war, Biafra was subdued, but the country has never really mended those wounds. Added to the natural rivalry and dissension caused by ethnic and tribal loyalties is the existence of oil in the southern delta area and off shore. Nigeria and Nigerians have been exploited by international corporations and their own government and split into haves and have-nots, rulers and ruled, demoralized by a culture of bribery and governments that have been run by men who were looking out for themselves and not their people.

Sadly I have not kept in touch with any of my students or those lovely Hausa women I met, so it is hard for me to know just what it is like living in Nigeria now. The Peace Corps left Nigeria in 1966 during the start up of the Biafran War. It was briefly reinstated between 1991 and 1995 but is no longer a presence there. The news I get about Nigeria comes through a newsletter put out by the Friends of Nigeria, a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers and others who are interested in the country. And mostly, the news is not good. In 1964 I could travel just about anywhere by hitchhiking or in trains that crisscrossed the country. But in 2008 when a group of the Friends took a trip back to Nigeria, they had to travel in a chartered bus because the trains were no longer running, and armed guards had to protect them because the country was so unsafe. For a few years, the Friends has put together a fund that supports an organization that gives out micro loans. The program was working well until a recent round of ethnic violence short-circuited much of what they were doing.

I decided not to return to Nigeria when the Friends of Nigeria went in 2008. My memories of Nigeria are all good. I guess I wanted them to stay that way.

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