Sweat dripped between my shoulder blades and pooled in the fabric of my jumpsuit as I walked up the steps to a small, one-storey concrete building at the far end of the courtyard. I followed Endy, my “manager” at Girls Power Initiative, blinded in a delightful way by the sun reflecting off her rainbow-sequined high heels. I’d met her only 10 minutes before but could already tell we were going to get along by her introduction.
“My name isn’t actually Endy but you can call me that,” she started. “I decided I like this name because it is more sassy and sexy.” Well alright then. You do you, sister!
She led me into the building and I’m not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t 20-30 women industriously measuring and cutting fabric, drawing designs and operating sewing machines, chatting and laughing while they worked. Of course, the chatting and laughing died the second I walked through the door with my pale skin already burnt a tender red from the equatorial sunshine and my limp hair sticking to my forehead. Endy introduced me to the group of women who are undertaking an eight month fashion design course through GPI.
“This is Paige.” They giggled.
“She’s here to help us tell our story. We all have stories but we may not be good at writing them down and she’s here to help with that. I’m sure you all want to read about yourselves, yes? So you’ll be seeing her around.”
I waved and said “nice to meet you” to the room at large. They giggled.
“Are you still laughing because her name is Paige?” Endy asked. She waved her hand with a chuckle, turned on one sequined heel and led me back out of the building. I was there for only a minute or two but it was my first introduction to Girls Power Initiative and the work I’ll be doing.
Why do I bring this up? A two-minute encounter doesn’t seem like enough to fuel an entire blog post right? Well, hold onto your hats kids because I’m going to milk that two minutes for all it’s worth because for me, those two minutes in that room with those women who’ll remember me as the white girl with a funny name seemed to mark a turning point.
I’ve been in Calabar for just over a week now and I’ll be honest, it has been a struggle. I’m attributing most of this to the fact that I was prescribed an anti-malaria medication that lists severe depression, severe anxiety, insomnia, intense mood swings, vivid dreams and psychosis as side-effects. This is, of course, on top of the more common physical side-effects like nausea, diarrhea, fever, headache and dizziness.
To avoid reliving some terrifying nightmares and even more terrifying panic attacks, let’s just say that Mefloquine kicked my ass to the point that I decided taking my chances with malaria was without a doubt the better option.
Today marked a turning point in that I’m finally feeling a bit excited to be here! The last week has been overwhelming in a lot of ways. I was naive to think that my past international work experiences would prepare me for living in small-town Nigeria. Living in Calabar is going to be completely different from living in the heavily touristed Kathmandu (which I should have expected if I’d taken a moment to think about it) and even completely different from living in the heavily developed capital city of Lilongwe. I’ve had to check a lot of my expectations while simultaneously dealing with some of the most intense anxiety I’ve ever felt.
So when I felt inspired to sit down and write about my experiences after not having felt inspired to do anything for what seems like a very long time (I know it’s only been a couple of weeks but still), I felt disproportionately thrilled. I remembered that I was actually looking forward to learning the names of the women in that course, taking their photo, helping them tell their stories. I remembered that helping GPI with their communications strategy will open them up to more funding and in turn, more programming for women and girls. I remembered how absolutely invigorating it is to be around a community of strong women, even if I’m not a part of their community just yet.
Despite all the mental hurdles I’ve been crashing into since I arrived in Nigeria, I know that the drugs will wear off in a couple of weeks and my mental state will go from the thunderclouds of the Nigerian rainy season to the endless sunshine of the dry season. Cheesy? Yes. But Nigerians seem to love cheesy inspirational quotes. The desk I’m sitting at as I write this blog post at the Cuso office has the following printed out on lilac coloured paper and taped to the wall: “Your imagination is like a canvas. You can paint on it any kind of picture you choose through your thoughts and attributes. Don’t let doubt or fear paint on your canvas.”
So, I’m doing as the locals do and embracing the cheesy quotes.
*I haven’t taken many photos yet so here’s a pretty sub-par photo of my house for now. Sorryyyyyyy.