First Time In Nigeria

“First time in Nigeria?” The question comes not from the seat next to me, nor from the one in front of me, but rather from the one behind me. My eagerness and anxiety are apparently clear in my craned neck as I peer out the airplane’s window while we land in Murtala Muhammad International Airport. The man and I have not spoken the entire flight, but moved by the thrill he himself must be feeling at arriving home he has broken the silence and is offering me, the visitor, a welcome of sorts.

“Yes,” I answer, “How can you tell?”

“I can tell,” he says simply, grinning ear to ear.

As a citizen of Ghana, Nigeria is one of very few countries in the world I can visit without a visa. I am not amused, therefore, when the immigration officer flips through my passport and asks, “Where is your visa?” For a moment, my great vision for filming a documentary in Naija hangs in the balance.

“I’m Ghanaian.” Citizen of the Economic Community Of West African States? ECOWAS? Hello?

Her business face breaks into laughter. “I was testing you.” She stamps my passport, and off I go to an eternal wait to reclaim my baggage. I swap some dollars for naira at a rate of 1 to 157. The lady at the forex bureau generously throws in a call to my welcome party from her cellphone. I step out of the airport into a mix of creeping traffic, police officers, porters, luggage, money changers, taxi drivers and travelers waiting for their rides. Before long two familiar faces from MIT– Obi and Faith– pull up in a car. Faith graduated from MIT this June and is here on vacation and to work on a recycling project. Obi is a current  MIT student. He is from Nigeria and is one of the founders of Exposure Robotics League (XRL), the program I have come to document.

XRL is a five week camp for secondary school students (high schoolers) in Nigeria where they will undertake robotics, computer programming and SAT prep. This is the premier run of the program. It is such a novel idea for secondary school education in West Africa that when I learned Philip, one of the Nigerian MIT students I am filming for One Day I Too Go Fly, was selected as an instructor, I dug into my savings and took all my vacation to embed with the program for its final 10 days.

Before long I am at the Grange School hostel in GRA Ikeja in Lagos. GRA means Government Reserved Area, I find out later. It is the place where government officials settled when Lagos was the capital of Nigeria. A wealthy community, it is walled off from the cacophony of Lagos proper. Ever-smiling Philip welcomes me. He catches me up on his summer so far.

He surprised his family in Northern Nigeria with a visit before XRL began. His mother was beside herself with joy at seeing him after his yearlong absence. Everything seems smaller now, even the house his family lives in. It’s strange, he muses. It’s been great to be back home, he tells me. XRL has been running for 4 weeks now since the students arrived. The most challenging part has been introducing programming to some of the kids who have never had computers before. The most surprising part is that in a month, they program and talk about programming like they’ve been doing it their entire 16-year old lives. I am ready to be impressed in the morning.

August 10, 2012

-Arthur Musah

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