Sodzi Sodzi-Tettey, MD, MPH, is a member of the regional team for IHI’s work in Africa, serving as Director of Project Fives Alive! He joined IHI as the Director of Project Fives Alive! in 2011 and is currently leading the project to national scale-up. Based in Accra, Ghana, he is also an active columnist for a Ghanaian newspaper and a blogger.
By the time we left the hotel three days ago, the bomb blast that killed scores of people had already been detonated. We had only been in Abuja for two days. And Friday, our driver, took care to keep us uninformed. That Tuesday morning however, there appeared to be an unusual military and police presence – more road blocks, more snap checks, more guns, and more communication devices. It was only natural that we would ask Friday again what this heavy security presence signified. Reeling under our questions, he manufactured an explanation - this was all in anticipation of a presidential drive-through!
Soon enough, his otherwise noble attempts to calm the visiting delegation of six – two Americans, one Ethiopian, one Nigerian, one Zimbabwean and a Ghanaian - gave way to the permeating shock and awe. At the office, an official walked in and with a look of concern, asked the front desk officer, “Where were you when the bomb went off?” At the end of the day, we joined colleagues in observing a minute’s silence for our fallen compatriots from the deadly Boko Haram attack.
In many ways, Abuja has become the city of shades – of hope and promise, of latent violence, of kindness and laughter, of beautiful people, and of a cadre of talented health professionals determined to turn health indices in the right direction within their spheres of influence. Engaging over four incredible days – leading and facilitating quality improvement— has left me inspired with warm and pleasant memories of my new Nigerian colleagues and friends – Nneka, Ijeoma, Afolabi, Victor, Oronsaye, Emmanuel, Ginika, Nwosu, Ezeh, Michael, Mama Esther, Hajia, Bamidele and of course Ezinne inter alia!
In a way, this second visit has rivalled or even upstaged my first foray into Abuja in 2010. Presenting at a scientific conference then, I had been blown away by Abuja’s planned beauty, its ample sidewalks where I could have a steady uninterrupted morning run. Reflecting back, it was perhaps only in Amsterdam that I had seen more impressive sidewalks. Both made total mockery of my rugged, pot hole rich, dirty pooled Spintex Road jogging routes. Back in 2010, we attended an opening ceremony after a hectic day of engaging discussions. I expected the usual humdrum formalities – introduction of chairman, chairman’s opening remarks and what nots. I was pleasantly surprised. Ushered into an impressive but almost empty hall, we were treated to live band music. In good time, the Oga Professor took the microphone, welcomed us into Abuja and encouraged us to have fun – in other words, dedicate the rest of the night to music and dancing. In three minutes, he was done, the band broke into rhythmic sound and there on the dance floor, leapt the Professor with a beautiful girl a third of his age wearing something skimpy, scanty, tantalizing, and totally powerful with the dance moves to match. Eish! It was not easy!
Abuja’s spicy African cuisine has been a welcome colorful departure from the stony bread-fest I have been subjected to in the past week in Paris. Over these five days, we have sampled pounded yam and vegetable stew, rice with egusi stew with fish and ‘wele’, and last night, banga soup. Ogbono and ewedu soups still remain outstanding gaps worth remedying before we leave tomorrow. As to whether DeAnna, my young American coconspirator, has the stomach for this is an entirely different matter altogether!
President Goodluck Jonathan is arguably Nigeria’s foremost proponent of the country’s sartorial elegance. Blown over by the crisp tailoring and the pride with which the Nigerians wear their clothes, I yield and with Friday’s help, get connected to a local tailor. Over three days, I acquire two exquisitely tailored ‘South-South’ Nigerian suits with which to score major political points back in the motherland. Much later, I seek further clarifications from my colleague Dr. Ezinne Eze Ajoku. She proves generous with her explanations, “South-South is a region in Nigeria, so the term is used to describe the people, food, etc. Now, because the President is from that region, he wears the South-South styles a lot, so it’s in vogue. Sometimes, the South-South is also called Niger Delta. Now if you were making an attire from the Northern region, you will hear terms like kaftan, malo, etc. The South West regions have clothes such as- buba and sokoto.”
As we prepare to leave at the dawn of Easter Friday, I come into a security alert released by the US State Department – “The U.S. Mission advises all U.S. citizens to be particularly vigilant around churches and other places of worship, locations where large crowds may gather, government facilities, and areas frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers during the upcoming holiday weekend. Security measures in Nigeria remain heightened due to threats posed by extremist groups, and U.S. citizens should expect additional police and military checkpoints, additional security, and possible road blocks throughout the country during the holiday weekend”
Na wah o!