It has been an extremely interesting experience.
Yes, yes. I know the reputation Nigeria has as a breeding ground for scams and for tolerating corruption. My response -- based on first-hand observation -- is simple: Don't judge expatriate individuals by the rulers and societies from which they have fled. After all, would you want to be judged by Bill Clinton's standards of conduct when you go abroad? None of the Nigerians I have met so far deny or offer excuses for the problems of misrule "back home," but neither do they excuse themselves from continuing efforts to help the children and other victims of Nigerian corruption who remain behind.
On a recent Saturday night, I was honored to attend the first fund-raising event for the Ivbhia-Edo Association USA (don't ask me to pronounce it.) The meeting was held at the Southeast Atlanta Recreation Center on Cleveland Avenue so, as a reasonably prudent citizen, I packed heat in my car. A .45.
Edo, for the uninitiated, is the state within Nigeria from which most of the association members come -- a state that is backward in many ways, but rich in fertile land, minerals and industrious people who recognize the value of education. Most of the communities of Edo share common traditions and trace their heritage back to the ancient Kingdom of Benin, which flourished centuries ago in what is now Nigeria.
My friend J. Odion Aikhuele, a graduate of Clark Atlanta University who runs the Odion School in Cobb County, is president of the association. In his brief speech, he set forth the organization's goals of providing direct aid to Edo children: used books, school supplies, safe wells and purified water (typhoid and the horrid Guinea worm are still problems in some parts of the region).
Judging from that initial fund raiser, I'd say the association's prospects for helping those back home are promising. The leadership seems to be in good hands, and they promise to account for every penny spent.
The Nigerian Consul General in Atlanta, Joe Keshi, was the keynote speaker. He passed out a no-holds-barred paper, Reinventing Edo State, that pointedly laid out many of the problems facing the region, and spoke briefly about efforts toward industrialization in Edo. The entertainment was great, too: African drumming by two local men, one of whom is a State Farm agent in College Part and then -- of all things -- a demonstration of clogging by a local Nigerian family.
So why does any of this matter? What observations does this editorialist wish to share with CL readers? Just these:
No. 1. There do seem to be effective ways to provide direct aid to those in need (and I'm not talking about helping corrupt government officials who "need" more fancy cars and bigger Swiss bank accounts).
No. 2. We should judge Nigerians as individuals and not by the flood of get-rich-quick scams that pour from their country by mail, fax and e-mail.
No. 3. As one of the few non-Africans there, I was made completely welcome, inferred no resentment or racial animosity, and felt no paranoia or insecurity at all. The .45 in the car was in case there was a problem with Americans on the way to or from the event.
No. 4. Everyone I spoke to admires this country and thinks of it as a land of opportunities, not a land of barriers.
No. 5. The people I met that evening offered inspiring examples of the human will to succeed and an impressive ability to overcome tremendous obstacles on their paths to success.
The last sentences of the program booklet are worth sharing. They illustrate what kind of people make up the association:
A man's attitude, not his aptitude, is the chief determinant of his success.
You are where you are and what you are because of the dominating thoughts that occupy your mind.
That's something for all of us to think about as we get down on our knees to kiss the ground and thank God for the blessings of living in the U.S.