African affair

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
What does multiculturalism really mean in Britain today? In an attempt to find out, Voluntary Service Overseas garnered the views of more than 1,000 people, including returning VSO volunteers. Primary teacher David Tomlinson chronicles his two-year stay in Nigeria

I'm a nicely brought-up boy living in south London who went to teach in Nigeria in 1999 for two years, care of Voluntary Service Overseas. My friends habitually referred to it as a "holiday", but even they knew the experience involved a bit more than a Thomas Cook package. Nigeria is many things, but Lanzarote it isn't.

There is a tale, possibly - hopefully - apocryphal, that before Guinness was produced in Nigeria in the early 1970s the prospective concession owner had to send a sample of his brew to Dublin. It was rejected outright by quality control. A few months later, and after much trial and error, a second sample was sent and swiftly rejected on the grounds that it tasted far worse. Indeed it was so wide of the mark that Guinness thoughtfully sent him back a case of their finest as a reminder of what he should be aiming for. When it arrived in Lagos the concession owner soaked off the labels, stuck on his own and sent the case straight back, winning the contract and setting up a business that thrives to this day.

This story was told to me over a bottle of the same beverage (still unlikely to be confused with its Dublin cousin) by a friend of mine in a shady little bar just off the main drag in Kaduna, a former outpost of the British Empire in northern Nigeria. As the new boy in town, I tried to keep up with the dodges, the deals, the labyrinthine local politics, but was never a match for any of it.

I was posted to edit and write a science magazine for local teachers. I loved the sound of the job as I'd written news reports (badly), before training as a teacher, and I enjoyed teaching science in my London primary school.

The need for the magazine was obvious. Most teachers had little information to teach from; a lucky few had pre-independence textbooks, with idiosyncratic examples of English people doing strange things in lab coats.

Although the work was enriching, the first few months were an uneasy cocktail of adrenalin, liberation and bouts of depression. I'd never felt so isolated. I'd wanted to join in, become accepted immediately.

Instead I was an outsider. It was all very well being a celebrity down at the tomato market, but I wanted to get beyond that.

I'd like to say I stuck at it those first few months because I was big and bold and brave. But I wasn't. I was homesick and vain - I didn't want to face my friends in London having failed to stay the course. So I stayed a while longer - one month, two months, three months. Four months and one week after arriving, a large-scale riot erupted on an average morning, a cool day typical of the cooler season (harmattan). Trouble popped up in the form of a religious riot between Christians and Muslims. Except that this wasn't really about religion at all, it was about things people really fight for - oil, vengeance, money and political influence.

This three-day conflict, in which an estimated 1,000 lives were lost, homes burned, families scattered, merited a quick mention on the BBC World Service and Channel 4 news. For 48 hours I hid under my desk heroically as the petrol station opposite burned, my own house was looted and there was smouldering at the back of the office where I worked. It was all confusion, manipulation and blood.

A strange thing happened during my two days under the desk. For the first time I felt part of the country, part of what was going on, not just a bystander. I didn't know how to trust this feeling at first, but I took stock - there was little else I could do - as the night fell and sounds of anger continued sporadically.

I looked back over my four months. The magazine had started off small, but had grown thanks to local teachers and their input. After a hard day at the chalkface few UK teachers have to work the land to support themselves and their families. Many Nigerian teachers are forced to survive this way because the pittance they're paid is often three months overdue, while the proprietor of their school drives a new Toyota. Despite this, many grew to see that the magazine was genuine and that the sweaty baturi (white man) editing it really needed some help.

All I had under that desk at that moment was a queasy stomach and a decision to stay. Because it really is too lazy to stand as a westerner in a country as proud as Nigeria and let your initial reaction to the mismanagement and corruption blind you to everything else. Nicely brought-up boys don't always know much outside the narrowness of their own upbringing - that decency and help and courage are as universal as hate, corruption and exploitation.

Today, 18 months after returning to London, if I look around the playground at the school where I teach, I can see people of many cultures playing - not always harmoniously, but together. Most were born in the UK and know nothing of trying to fit into a new country, although their parents or grandparents will. Recently, however, a boy joined our school from west Africa. He spoke no English and just stood at the classroom door, not sure of what to do, scared of getting it wrong.

I knew how he felt. It helped me to help him - although his superb football skills probably helped him more. Now, thanks to his friends in the playground, he looks like Rageh Omar but sounds like Phil Mitchell.

Displacement - whether voluntary or through necessity - isn't easy, whatever your age; it still feels debilitating once you've arrived in your new "home". And it is only when you stop using your eyes selectively that the similarities, good and bad, between cultures become clear.

David Tomlinson teaches in a primary school in the London borough of Southwark. This is an edited extract of his essay in the VSO's collection, Cultural Breakthrough: defining moments. He volunteered with VSO in Nigeria between 1999-2001. Junior Scientist, the magazine he edited in Nigeria, received a Unicef commendation and celebrates its fourth anniversary this year. Other contributors to Cultural Breakthrough include BBC journalist George Alagiah, Home Secretary David Blunkett, novelist Ben Okri and EU commissioner Chris Patten. The collection is available free at A photo exhibition connected with the collection runs from June 5-28 at the Guardian's Newsroom gallery, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday, noon-4pm. Admission free


For its Cultural Breakthrough study, VSO questioned 1,000 over-18s before focusing on a small sample of 26 to 39-year-old city-dwelling British professionals. Researchers found that most people "co-exist rather than connect". Just under 40 per cent have little or no contact with other cultures; almost the same proportion say most of their contact is commercial (shops and restaurants) or circumstantial (neighbours and public transport). Yet more than 75 per cent say they want to know more about other cultures and believe we could learn from them.

* Eighty-three per cent of returning VSO volunteers said that being immersed in another culture for two years has made it easier for them to engage with other cultures - including in the classroom.

* The research is available at

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