Category Archives: Sociology

Sickness and Immigration, Revenge and Xenophobia

Based on 2 real people I have had contact with, but with names changed. Have a read and a think. Comment if you like below.


Back to Sender - Version 2Joseph was suffering from some leg pain without any particularly obvious cause. Clearly someone with a grudge against him or envious of him in some way must have caused that pain. Getting medical help won’t deal with the underlying problem, and he’s understandably not very confident that the clinic will do anything much for him. The only real way to deal with it is to visit the traditional healer who can help suggest who might be to blame, and then try to do whatever it takes to send the sickness ‘back to sender’. Surely that’s quite understandable? Continue reading Sickness and Immigration, Revenge and Xenophobia

“Are you OK?” — Sudden Suffering at Christmas

Sometimes the words “We’re OK” are a little unsettling, in particular when the message comes out of the blue and you didn’t realise anything was wrong or that your loved ones might not have been OK. We sometimes end up sending such messages but a few days ago were on the receiving end.

Having had a twin bomb attack in our city (Jos) a couple of weeks ago, and having fielded  kind enquiries from friends as to our safety, it was a strange reversal to end up hearing “We’re OK” from family in Glasgow after the George Square bin lorry accident. However, from here in Nigeria, the drama of the aftermath seems a little surprising. Perhaps it’s because we drive past horrific traffic accidents pretty frequently and regularly hear of Islamic violence affecting our communities and friends somewhere in Nigeria. And perhaps Glasgow is a much more tranquil place with less suffering.

Inevitably Facebook and Twitter, and the comment sections of news feeds, light up in such times with instant reaction. Leaving aside the ‘shock jocks’ who use tragedy to exhibit their immaturity, it seems you get something of an insight into a society’s religious outlook and their attitude to suffering.

Why – aside from the busier streets – is it particularly bad that this happens at Christmas? Continue reading “Are you OK?” — Sudden Suffering at Christmas

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

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?

Talking signs & Written assistants

Travelling around you always notice some differences markedly.

“How do you know where to go without any signs on the road?” my friend Richard asked our driver on the way to Abuja airport. The answer was that he’s lived around Abuja and travelled the road a lot so he’s seen it change and has been able to always find someone who could tell him where to go. At the airport in Abuja you notice lots and lots of staff helping you through 6 different security checks, immigration control etc. How did we know what to do and where to go? Someone would ask us what we were doing and would tell us where to go. In Frankfurt there were comparatively fewer staff around; instead there are just lots of signs everywhere.

In some ways this is symbolic of the different cultural expectations. In writing-focussed societies we expect to find a sign telling us where to go, but in most of Africa you get people doing that job as part of the conversation. (Around airports you’ll also find lots of people who absolutely insist on helping you and then being reimbursed for it even if you really don’t need any help, thank you!)

Where there is no Desktop

Is the Desktop metaphor dead? The linked article suggests that touchy-feely tablets and phones are starting to sweep the desktop metaphor away. That’s certainly happening in part, but my own perspective is that in some parts of the world it’s never really been alive or helpful.

The point of the desktop metaphor, popularised by Apple and (to some extent) Microsoft was that it made something new seem familiar. Or to put it another way, it gave you new tools to do the same kind of things that you might want to do.

Rewind now to about 12 years ago when I was in a reasonably remote part of northern Nigeria trying to teach basic computer skills to Bible translation team members. It gradually dawned on me that we were up against a major difficulty; the ‘desktop’ metaphor that had made computers accessible to ordinary people in the Western world was actually making it harder for my Nigerian colleagues.

Zuru 2001: basic computer skills in the language development and translation office
Zuru 2001: basic computer skills in the language development and translation office

The problem was that none of them had encountered ‘files’ or ‘folders’, ‘directories’. One or two had come across a typewriter before. They knew nothing of (written) reports. Their houses didn’t even generally have windows! They very rarely used buttons of any kind. Mice were familiar, but were for chasing away from the granary, not for moving around a table. They squeaked, didn’t click. Arrows were for hunting, not pointing. Not even fingers really were for pointing (chins were for pointing). They did know all about saving. Being ‘saved’ was certainly important in church and nothing to do with storing something important.

At the time, even as I struggled to explain first what a window was and why we use that term on a computer, I thought what we really need is to rethink the whole concept of Human Computer Interaction for different environments. But I was too busy working on a dictionary and other things to make any serious headway, except to note that on traditional Lelna compounds, there is a degree of organisation that might transfer to a computer system. And existing social differentiators and hierarchies too might prove helpful concepts.

TCNN 2012: basic computers for linguistics
TCNN 2012: basic computers for linguistics

Roll on 10 years and I find myself again teaching computers to people who have only just encountered them. Now a whole load more people are using computers and laptops are much more common across Nigeria. Mobile phones too are quite ubiquitous. But just as most of Africa has somehow skipped the landline age and leapt straight for mobile telecommunications, I have an inkling that the ‘desktop’ age may be blithely bypassed by many. Perhaps many Africans encountering technology for the first time will join the IT highway several junctions along from where I joined it.

So Apple’s had a GUI regime change – out with the old ‘tacky’ skeuomorphism, and in with flat solid shapes. If indeed that is where we are now – and Microsoft certainly think so with Windows 8 – then perhaps we won’t need to wrestle for much longer with an ill-fitting metaphor.

However, that’s not the full story. The fact is that user interfaces rely on some degree of familiarity. If skeuomorphic designs are being edged out now it doesn’t necessarily imply that they were a bad idea all along. How much do the new mobile-inspired UI designs rely on familiarity with older idioms, that is features of the desktop metaphor? Even when bold new strides are made, there must be some continuity for existing users to make the transition successfully, and some connection to the rest of their life for new users to be able to grasp a way of relating to computers.

Perhaps now we have a unique opportunity now to rethink user interface in culturally appropriate ways. As we have seen, new approaches to user interface design are being thrashed through right now. At the same time Africans are becoming familiar with various bits of mobile technology. (I say this based on living for much of the last 6 years in East and now West Africa.) In African cities and towns we see an interesting mishmash of ‘western’ and ‘traditional’ concepts and life. Not everyone lives in an agricultural world any more though still the majority of the Nigerian populace are linked to farming in some way. Perhaps the concepts I had considered before of ‘granaries’ for storing bags of grain as a metaphor for data storage will not work, or perhaps they will. We certainly need to abandon ridiculous archaisms such as a floppy disk icon representing ‘saving’.

This is not the end of the road but perhaps only the beginning. What I would love to see would be truly African approaches to using computers that no longer fall in line behind a mysterious and misunderstood western world. Perhaps I’m a bit of an unrealistic ideologue  but I would love to see people using computers without spending ages worrying about the intricacies of how to use and manage the computer itself, and focussing much more on the content they are actually manipulating and communicating.

Ideas welcome.

The Highland Clearances Revisited

Growing up in 1990s post-industrial Scotland, the harrowing narrative of the Highland clearances was evoked time and again as a metanarrative to explain (or excuse?) the pitiful state of the nation. I remember the none-too-subtle play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil being performed (rather well) at the High School of Glasgow. In both History and English we studied the effects of the Clearances and were collectively outraged at the tales of woe and injustice as subsistence farmers were driven cold-heartedly out of their ancestral lands by absentee landlords who had contributed nothing to the value of the land but had squeezed the poor crofters for every last penny they had, so as to live it up in distant London. (Actually the reality may be rather that most of the landowners were probably Scots and not English, and were just as likely to have been squandering their ill-gotten gain in Edinburgh as in London, but that’s beside the point.) Continue reading The Highland Clearances Revisited