An odd smell greeted my nostrils when I entered my host home in Kwali for the first time. It wasn’t gas or drains or toilets or unwashed people. It was unfamiliar but not unpleasant. I wondered what things would be like, staying with strangers in an unknown country, puzzled by unidentifiable sights and smells. I was looking forward to learning about Nigeria, and about what it feels like to be an ICS (International Citizenship Service) volunteer in Africa with VSO. I was tired after the journey here and having met so many new faces.
Deep and meaningful conversations weren’t going to happen though as the TV went on within minutes of my arrival and is seldom switched off. Sometimes I yearned for a power cut to silence it and neighbours’ radios.
Over the days though I learned a little about my hostess Mariam and Sabina, her little sister. Mariam’s husband weekly commutes to work three hours away and her two daughters are away with grandparents for the school holidays. The girls like staying with the grandparents as the electricity is on most of the time, unlike in the small town of Kwali.
I asked about the intravenous giving set connected to 500ml of dextrose solution that was hanging from the curtain-rail in the house. Mariam explained it was for her daughter ‘for when she gets ill.’
Apparently IV sets are readily available and cheap in Kwali market, if you fancy buying one.
‘Does she get ill a lot?’ I asked.
‘No, not at all, but when she does then there’s vomit – vomit everywhere.’
Fortunately that wasn’t the source of the odd odour. I think mostly it was the scent that comes with tropical humidity and warmth with a touch of spice. There was also sometimes a waft of dried fish: ‘stock-fish’ are ground up – bones, scales and all – to form a broth or base for pretty much all Nigeria cookery.
The family had a widescreen TV and three refrigerators but the electricity supply was so intermittent that our drinking water was never cool. The house was solidly built out of breeze-blocks with a corrugated iron roof but water came from a well outside. When I want to flush the loo or bathe I need to take a bucket to the well and fill it. The family are fortunate as the well is only a few paces from the house and it doesn’t dry out in the hot rainless season. Even so I wonder why they don’t pump water into a tank on the roof. I asked one of the local volunteers why a relatively well-off family wouldn’t go for that convenience and he said, ‘The villagers are used to bringing water from the well. It is normal for them. TV is new and exciting. Why wouldn’t they prioritise that if money is limited?’