Sand from the Sahara!

It’s the expression that will forever be associated in my mind to my first field trip in Nigeria. Not because I’ve actually been in the dessert, but because in Kano, when the wind blows, grains of sand get lifted in the air. One can argue that it may not be sand from the Sahara (the famous winds that bring it are supposed to only occur in December), although it’s a nice romantic concept, and I’m sticking with it!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this field trip was to train data collectors in two states. The selected few then go and visit the local health facilities, and collect data that my NGO uses to inform program strategies around sexual and reproductive health (e.g. strengthening supply chain on family planning commodities, improve women’s health by advocating for pregnancy spacing, etc). They then work closely with the local and federal government to influence policy making.

I must say, it was a rather fun, and enlightening experience. Training people with a very different background than my own, not just professionally, but culturally too. For example, it was very interesting to observe that one needs to incorporate praying time in the training schedule. Also, it’s important to be aware of local taboos, and work around them. For instance, talking about family planning for unmarried people is not well see in a lot of states, and so cultural sensitivity is paramount. Possibly both observations should not come as a surprise once one reads about the country, and yet, until I was confronted with it, it still felt like a distant reality.

I had lots of fun with mobile phones too. That’s what the data collectors are using to collect data nowadays. My “geekiness” came to the surface, and I couldn’t resist, I had to take a closer look to the platform used to create mobile-based questionnaires, and ask for a quick crash-course on how to program it!

The other plus side of this trip, was to actually see a bit more of Nigeria. My first impression was how consistently flat, and green the landscape is, with only an occasional rock here and there to break the line of the horizon. Some are rather impressive, like Zuma rock, famous for its geological importance (the largest monolith in Nigeria), and apparently the features of the rock resemble that of a human face. Legend has it that it watches over Abuja, and protects it from evil.


As one keeps driving north, the heat increases slightly, and becomes drier. I’ve only made it as far as Kano this time. And I fell in love with this city. Kano is one of oldest cities in west Africa, and for many centuries was a very important trade centre, a feature that still remains today. Caravans from the Sahara, used to cross this city. And even nowadays one can see camels rooming around. At its heart, lies a very big, diverse old market, full of ally’s, and narrow streets, and colourful stores. With roads and roads of fabric (and yes, I bought some, couldn’t resist). See below for some pictures I managed to take in between work.

Both Kano and Kaduna, also offered me the possibility to expand my knowledge of the Nigerian cuisine. I tried plantain (looks like a fried banana, but it’s not that sweet), pounded yam (it’s like mashed potatoes but better), and moin moin (a bean paste wrapped in banana leaves). But the best so far, was to have been invited to my supervisor’s aunt house, to try a homemade Hausa meal. It was a real privilege! And to discover that one of the soups tasted like an Angolan dish that my mum does a lot (Muambá) was the cherry on top of the cake. The base is okra and palm oil, and I highly recommended it.

Ah, if you would like to hear a very popular song in Kano, look up for “Soco” by Wizkid. It’s catchy, and trust me when I say, everyone in the car, apart from me, knew the lyrics.


But besides getting familiar with the local culture, and bit by bit discovering a little bit more about Nigeria, I’ve also had a chance to reflect on my assignment, and the new reality that surrounds me. It has been over one month now since I arrived, and during the quiet days in the office, it’s easy to sit down, and jolt some thoughts on paper.

My first observation was how corporate and competitive the NGO world can be. In my perfect world, NGOs would work more through a symbiotic relationship, rather than a competitive one. I was probably naïve to assume it otherwise, since funding doesn’t follow the same rules, so even if they thrive to work cooperatively, it’s sometimes very challenging to do so.

My second reflexion is on how document oriented the field of public health seems to be. A lot of time is spend on document writing, and collecting questionnaire based data. The analysis per see of such data, is then rather simple. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges, for example on defining population size and sampling strategies, a lot of assumptions are needed, but there is very little statistical debate on the model to use to model the data, or complex data processing. And one of the end games, surprising for me, is to publish the study results in peer review journals to satisfy donor requirements, similar with academic grants. Again a naïve perception I had, I mean, who in this world does not need to justify the work they do in order to get more funding to continue doing research?

Depending on the program the reward is however immediate. You may save the life of mothers by ensuring there are no stock out days for an essential medicine that prevents women from bleeding to death after delivery. There is also plenty of opportunity to try and think outside the box, to solve access to education on reproductive health for example, when it’s such a taboo depending on the cultural and/or religious constraint of the region where you are.

And to end the topic of reflexions, there’s at least one thing that I’ve seen my NGO doing, which I think would be good to try and bring back with me – do things simpler and faster to start with, see if it works, then think on scaling up and define proper processes. Now, this is very intuited when you think about it, it’s not a Eureka moment by any means, but I do feel that in big corporations is easy to fall in the fallacy of spending a lot of time talking, thinking, designing perfect systems, and taking a long time to initiate something new.

Anyway, final story for today. A yellow lizard (10-15 cm long) paid me a visit the other day. I took my time, but did asked the lady of the house, if I needed to worry about it. She laughed and said they were harmless, and very difficult to prevent from entering into people’s home, such that, people call it the ‘owner of the house’, as no matter what you try (close windows, doors, etc) they always find a way to enter. I saw him again the other day, so I guess I’ve my gotten myself a pet!



  1. Rita,
    thanks so much for sharing! we are so happy to hear of everything you are experiencing. Your ears must have been ringing, as I just searched the site last night to see if I had missed any posts from you 🙂

    Enjoy, learn, impact, and be safe!

  2. You will be the ‘cool kid’ knowing all the hip music we should be listening to 🙂 I’m very much enjoying hearing about life in Nigeria and loving the pics. Hope things are working out well with you and your new pet 😉

  3. Another very good post, Rita. I can smell the food and hear the music… It’s good to hear about the actual work you do in Nigeria and its impact. I’m sure you will bring news ideas back to work. Will you bring your new pet too? 😉

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