More or less: thoughts on the spread of education in Nigeria

Here are a collection of my observations and insights gleaned from friends and colleagues Nigerian and foreign, regarding the history and the result of the spread of education in Nigeria.

It is frequently observed that there is greater access to education than ever before in Nigeria. Sometimes people claim then that Nigerians are better educated than ever before. Somewhat optimistically and logically then, I and others have concluded that the immense task of developing Nigeria’s languages and translating the Bible should be more achievable now and faster than ever it could have been in the past.

I am starting to think that this is sadly naïve. The true situation is more puzzling and more complicated than the simple narrative of ‘Nigeria is better educated than ever before’. Continue reading

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The inevitable magnetism of intersemiotic vacuousities (or why people love nonsense)

Every discipline attracts jargon. Why?

Cynically we might say it’s because they want to make themselves look important and keep outsiders from understanding what they’re saying. Sometimes that is the case or becomes true, but less cynically it seems to be a natural byproduct of spending a lot of time thinking and talking and writing about one particular subject or area.

Focus on one area for enough and spend time with others doing the same and you often want precise or particular ways of separating or grouping things. We find that general words don’t give us the tools we need – they’re either too specific or too general or they don’t express things the way we want. So we reach for other tools. Frequently in the English-speaking world we dip into Greek or Latin, occasionally making sorties into French and undergoing formación in Spanish to find just the right words to say what we want to say. Either we find another language has a more precise/general word for what we want to describe or we cheerfully portmanteau or build new meanings on these linguistic green-field sites. What is fantastically seductive about such new territory is that the terms are completely empty of meaning to most people. Using pristine new expressions, unsullied by confusing connotations or associations we can fill the word up with our very own definition and have it mean exactly what we want it to mean: no more, no less.

In other words, we are just a sliver away from Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

There is the slight problem that no-one understands what you mean unless you tell them, but that is the price we may judge is worth paying for clarity and precision. But what if other people start using your term and twist and adapt it for other purposes? What if people understand things differently? What if the cognitive effects achieved by the implicature are contrary to your intent? Well, then it’s back to the Greek and the Latin to find a new, pure, empty term to fight another day.

Is there another way to communicate without losing people? Can we communicate using common-or-garden words and phrases? Yes, I believe we can, and I believe it is worthwhile. Running after some security in an empty and pure term may well just lead to confusion rather than clarity. Sometimes I have a suspicion that we end up finding far too much security in jargon and can even deceive ourselves that we understand more than we really do. Being forced to use ordinary language or even simple language to explain or describe or talk about something is a challenge. But perhaps it’s not hard for the reasons we often think.

Perhaps it’s actually hard because explaining something clearly and simply means we have to understand it very, very well. Regurgitating jargon is something anyone can do.

Any fool can make something simple seem complicated. What takes genius is making something complicated look simple. So, whither inter-semiotics?

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Renewing Car Particulars (in Jos)

Notes on the process made by David Rowbory August 2014, (VW Golf 3)

Summary:

  • Cost: ₦8835 Time: 2 hours, much to-ing and fro-ing between desks

  • Where: Plateau Board of Internal Revenue, Ahmadu Bello Way, Jos

  • What’s required: Current particulars (maybe TIN), A mobile phone.

  • What would have made it faster:

    • knowing where to go.

    • having a MasterCard card to pay at their POS system.

  • What you leave with:

    • Vehicle Licence sticker

    • Roadworthiness receipt

    • Roadworthiness certificate

    • Certificate of Insurance (Third Party Only)

    • Revenue Receipts: Motor Vehicle License, RoadWorthyness cert, SMS alert, Insurance Premium

In detail:

  • Take Old Particulars to left-most window on front of the building and say you want to renew them.

    • You should receive 2 printed papers (invoices) detailing the costs for Vehicle License, Road-worthiness, Insurance.

  • Take these invoices to the POS window (rightmost) and pay the amount specified ideally via MasterCard.

    • You’ll give your phone number and will collect a confirmation by SMS.

    • For me it was slower because I paid cash to someone who then deposited it in a bank and someone else used their card. Having a MasterCard (not Visa, as Aug2014) would have saved about 30-45 mins.

    • You will collect a payment receipt.

  • Take the invoices + payment receipt to the receipt office (inside centre door, past VIO, then left just before the big desk, then along to the end on the left)

    • Give the invoices/receipts and you’ll get official receipts printed for you.

  • Go to VIO (through front door on the left, or at the window to left of the central door)

    • Collect the roadworthiness receipt/certificate, doing whatever they ask you to do!

  • Take all papers to the large hall (past the big desk) where you buy 3rd-party insurance.

    • Give the bundle of receipts to someone who will ask again for a phone number and enter details.

  • Take the insurance paper and go again to pay (₦500) at the POS (rightmost window, on outside of building)

  • Take POS receipt to the 2nd Left window

    • They’ll ask for a phone number and you’ll get an SMS confirmation that all is done.

  • Shi ke nan! That’s all.

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Corpses or Dead People

The Gworog Bible translation team have been doing some community testing on Luke 22-24. It seemed to be a fruitful exercise though not always making things easier. In particular there’s a tricky issue about corpses and dead people.

What’s the difference between the two? Luke 24 has two ‘men’ asking the women why they are looking for the living [person] among the dead [people]. With one way of translating that into Gworog, people are somewhat puzzled because it sounds like they are rifling through a pile of corpses (but there was only Jesus’ body there). However, the other option sounds like the women are surrounded by ghosts or in a place inhabited by the ‘living dead’ or the ancestors, in traditional religion. Using the words for ‘people’ and ‘dead’ together normally means ghost/ancestor, and at least traditionally evokes all sorts of issues which are a big distraction from what Luke 24 is saying.

I have a feeling there will be a way we can resolve this, but it’s not immediately obvious to me at the moment. I’m glad though that the team had the opportunity to see the value of testing in letting issues and misunderstandings arise and be addressed before the text is issued for wider use.

IMG 0830
(Gratuitous picture of passing Fulani migration on the way to Gworog land.)

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BA’s worryingly unreliable baggage allowances for children [UPDATED]

Update 23 June 2014

After posting this to Twitter and Facebook last week I was contacted and told that an agent would get in touch. Eventually that happened and they have told me that they’ve sent £140 by cheque, but without admitting explicitly that anything was wrong, nor giving any clearer assurance about what we should do in the future.

Executive summary and why all families should be worried about travelling with BA: British Airways do not always honour the extra children’s car seat / stroller allowances that they quote on their website; sometimes you may be charged for every car seat as excess piece of luggage and other times not. Do not believe their website; their customer service refuse to honour it.

Disclaimer: I don’t like having to write this post, but it seems important for others that it be written so that they can be warned.

Our experience:

We flew from Belfast City Airport to Abuja, Nigeria, via London Heathrow on Sunday 19 January 2014.

My wife and I were travelling with 2 children and an infant. The infant was allowed one extra hold bag in addition to the standard 3 bags paid for on our charity fare booked by Key Travel. So our total allowance of checked bags was to be 13.

baggage grid showing child allowances

We had 2 booster child seats for the children (age 3 and 5, so required by law to travel to the airport in those seats) which are allowed as extra items, and a car seat for the infant and a push-chair. BA policy published on their website allows the car seats and push chair to be taken as extra hold items (without charge). However when we were about to arrange this at the checkin desk, the staff member told us that we would have to pay separately for all the 3 car seats. The staff member said that she was unable to check the car seats through without paying extra. I asked for a supervisor and she was unwilling or unable to contact one, since she didn’t actually work for BA but for another company.

Car seats wrapped up so we didn't have to pay £140 for each of the 3, just one £140 charge.

Car seats had to be wrapped up in a rather expensive £140 plastic bag.

Understandably we were unhappy about this, but no option was presented to us except putting the car seats in a bag and paying £140 for it as an extra case, and taking part of one car seat as carry-on hand baggage. The agents (“Siobhan” and another colleague) were unwilling even to write a note explaining what they had insisted and the reasoning behind the withdrawal of the child seat allowance. This at the time seemed suspicious to me, but there seemed no way to force their hand.

Our ‘Manage my booking’ details and the BA economy allowances policy available online makes it clear that child and infant tickets include an allowance for taking a car seat/booster seat and a stroller for each child/infant. The staff were unwilling to listen to reason and purported to have their hands tied.

This has never been a problem for us before travelling in and out of Glasgow International Airport, Belfast International Airport, London Heathrow and Abuja International Airport where the child seat allowance has always been honoured.

Shaken by this, and more than a little annoyed, we wrote to BA customer service who took over 2 months to reply. Surprisingly, even after some back-and-forth to make sure the situation was correctly understood by all the BA customer services replies asserted:

Firstly, I would like to apologise for the delay in replying to you.  I am sorry to learn that Mr Rowbory and his family had an unpleasant experience at Belfast airport when checking in their baggage. 

I have checked our records and can confirm that the car seats that Mr Rowbory wanted to carry as a free checked baggage was in excess of his maximum allowance.  Mr Rowbory was charged correctly.

Best regards
Soumya Poolerichalil
British Airways Customer Relations

After replying that this disagreed with their website policy, their reply of 14 April was as follows:

As stated in our previous response, Mr David Rowbory and his family had carried 15 pieces of checked luggage including the car seats.  The car seats were in excess of the total checked baggage allowance.  Hence, Mr Rowbory was not allowed to carry the car seats as a free checked luggage.

This means that BA do not consider the children’s and infants’ allowances (3 items) to actually be free. You will note that 13 items were paid for on the tickets and the extra 2 were easily within the total of 3 seats + 3 strollers quoted on the baggage website. I wrote to customer services because I could see that it was important not just for us but for every other family to see whether BA would honour their stated extra allowances for children. Our conclusion is that sometimes a car seat (as with RyanAir) counts against our allowance as an item of hold baggage, but other times it does not (as with most airlines, including EasyJet). With BA you cannot be sure. Part of the problem may come from the way BA has contracted out so much of its operation. It would appear that the Belfast City checkin staff didn’t know anything about BA policy, nor did they care about customer service. The customer service staff seem to know nothing about the website.

Before you travel with BA with a family you should probably write to customer services (maybe 3 months ahead of time, given their response rate) to find out whether or not you can take car seats for free in addition to other baggage allowance. This is the plain reading of their terms and conditions but not the practice this last time (though every other time we travelled it has been that way). Alternatively it may be financially safer to travel with almost any other long-haul carrier.

Please do spread this news so that others are suitably warned. Feel free to contact us if you have any queries or would like more details.

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A Linguist-Geek Riddle

Is “dead metaphor” a dead metaphor? If not, then who killed it?

Background: Reading through a colleague’s excellent paper on the difficulty of handling words for ‘angry’ and ‘sad’ in the NW Nigerian language Huba, one section dealt with metaphors that we live by. A dead metaphor is one that has been used so much that you don’t notice it being figurative language any more and it carries the meaning directly, whilst also not necessarily making you think about the component parts.

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What can we sing about?

In recent conversation with friends we were considering why it seems to us somewhat odd to sing (in church, or I guess anywhere) about “God of concrete, God of steel, \ God of piston and of wheel,” etc. Here’s my working theory:

Romantic ideology or worldview still exerts an influence on what Western people consider things to sing about. That gives us nature, love and war and the full range of emotion turmoil as topics to work with. The church is not immune from cultural influence and so our hymns and songs are likely to be constrained by these limited aspects of life. So “when through the woods and forest glades I wander” fits our expectations of something to sing about rather than the starkly modern “when through the Facebook posts and blogs I browse…” or “when in the office juggling meetings and politics…” Perhaps this also explains our difficulties when it comes to singing some Psalms.

But let me back up a bit:

What and not just how we sing is an interesting part of culture, and it’s very easy to assume (erroneously) that all cultures will sing about the same things, even if their singing style is different. This is one reason why translating books of hymns and songs from one language to another may not be a particularly great basis for a new church’s song-life. The very topics contained in the songs may be awkward, embarrassing, boring or just odd for the target culture. (However, using a few translated songs from another culture may well address our own cultural blind-spots.)

I’ve already said that my guess is that we today inherit a list of singable topics from European 18th Century Romanticism, which just happened to coincide with some significant church growth and mission efforts. What I really should do, is to gather up older hymns and compare with ‘Romantic period’ hymnody and modern songs to try to gauge how well my theory is evidenced in reality.

Is there a problem? Romanticism was essentially escapist and a reaction against the urbanising, industrialising forces at work in Europe at the time. Are we in danger of yoking a significant part of church life to an escapist ideology if we limit ourselves to just the Romantic topics? Certainly the gospel can be powerfully expressed within the confines of Romanticism, but we need to be aware of some distorting influences that might slip through unnoticed. If Romanticism had a focus not just on escapism but extreme emotion, then it is quite possible that our singing may end up with a bias in that direction. And then since Romanticism excludes gritty, ordinary, working-class and modern aspects of life, is it possible that in our singing in church we may unwittingly reinforce the notion that the Christian gospel is primarily for the middle-classes? (They have the leisure to muse on higher things.) Might we end up excluding the impact of the gospel on everyday matters from our song-speech together?

Anyway, this is really just observation at the moment and so I’d find insights from others interesting.

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The Rains have Begun!

A week and a day ago rainy season began here in Jos. We had had a couple of rains in earlier April, but a week ago we clearly moved from generally-clear skies to cloudy ones. A slice of bread left out overnight wasn’t turned utterly to crust by the morning as it would normally be in dry season. And a week in there’s green grass sprouting up again. Within 2 days we suddenly had a flower bed brimming with beautiful pink blooms. OK we now need to start worrying about what’s been left out in the garden overnight, and remembering to take an umbrella with us and maybe wear closed shoes, but it’s lovely to see the colour more fully come back to the world around us.

Tonight I think we have our first really heavy rain.

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You’re preaching!

At a consultant training seminar recently I made an observation in passing that may be an intriguing cultural insight or may be not worth considering. I share here with the hope that Nigerian friends may help refine my observation, and for the potential benefit of non-Nigerians.

So here was the situation: we were in the middle of a discussion from the floor about some issue that a presenter had just been teaching when one of the participants started talking at some length and somewhat passionately about something completely irrelevant to the topic in question. I forget exactly what we were supposed to be talking about but I do remember that he had somewhat misunderstood or else he just seemed to have a hobby-horse idea that he wanted to put forth. After a while someone called out “You’re preaching!” and others murmured for him to be quiet. Eventually he did stop.

So here’s the observation: the term ‘preaching’ seems to be associated with talking at length, without wisdom or understanding about some pet topic utterly unrelated to the text or topic in focus. Is that a common understanding about what ‘preaching’ is? So when someone is invited to ‘preach’ are we to expect something resembling that? That seems somewhat removed from the Biblical concept. Are there other terms that we could use? What should ‘preaching’ really look like? What about a passionate devotion to proclaiming the very point of the text in front of us, to say clearly to people the same thing that the original author penned the text for, based on taking some time to understand what it says and how it presents it?

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Full House


Visiting Alanna reading to Creightons and Rowborys
Another nice thing about our new house has been having space to have people stay. Recently we enjoyed having the Creighton family stay with us for a week or so while husband Rick was at a conference in Brazil. They’re the British family we have visited in Kagoro and done joint home-school things with recently. Their 3 children are quite close in age to Rebekah, Elizabeth and Abigail, and they get on very well together. It’s just a blessing that we’ve got a bigger house now so that it is possible to have people stay, and lovely to have the fairly large garden for the children to run around in.

They live in Kagoro, the heart of the Gworog language, just an hour and a half from Jos and where David visits from time to time to work with the translation team. So we all tend to go to Kagoro together and Julie and the girls hang out with mum Alanna and Asha (6), Conor (4) and Jack (2) doing some of the educational things that work better with more children. Taking the kids along seems to be a good way to get through the 4-7 army/police security checkpoints en-route happily and speedily too.

Pile on mummy!And talking of travel I (David) am off soon after the crack of dawn tomorrow to ‘Tal’ where we’re going to have a shot at collecting hundreds if not thousands of words to kickstart a dictionary project. I’ll try to report on that next week. Prayers for smooth travel appreciated. It should be a 2 hour drive I’m told, so I plan to go there and back in the one day, so as to be back in time for commitments back in Jos.

Love from us all, D+J, R, E & A

(In the first pic you’ll not spot Julie, but Alanna reading to 5 of the 6 kids that were enlivening the house that week.)

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