As a child growing up I remember my Aunty Ros often staying in our family house for a night or two on her way to places far away with exotic sounding names. When I was about 8 she came to stay for longer and was frantically busy with appointments and shopping for a very particular list of items. We were all carried along in her excitement at the prospect of her becoming a missionary in a place called ‘Uzuakoli’ in Nigeria. I was utterly intrigued by the whole process and hugely impressed when night after night I could hear her practising strange sounds behind her bedroom door as she learnt ‘Igbo’ which she listened to on a giant cassette player. Finally, the day came when we took her to Heathrow and with a sad farewell and a few tears we waved her ‘Goodbye’ and off she disappeared through the departures entrance.
For many years we were excited to get her airmail letters and we returned her post with letters, drawings, photographs and I remember even once a tape-recorded message. Every 2 years we woke up super early to meet her at Heathrow when she arrived back for her leave when we would have precious time with her hearing about life in the Nigerian bush. There were stories of motherless babies, disabled leprosy patients, homeless mentally ill people, mud houses, different food, political unrest and bad roads. There were even more stories of how people had taken her under their wings, cared for her, guided her and adopted her as part of their communities and families.
Fast forward a few years when I was finishing my A levels and Ros was on leave. My boyfriend and I mentioned that we would like to come and visit her in Nigeria and see all the things that she had told us about and finally put some faces to names. She replied that either we could come for a couple of weeks and have a holiday or come for longer and make ourselves useful! Without a second thought we agreed to come and make ourselves ‘useful’ whatever that might be.
We saved hard, carried out some fundraising events and received a letter with some very scant details about what we’d be doing. “Kate could you set up and run and nursery school, bring what you can” and “Steve can you establish a community mental health programme?” We answered a resounding ‘yes’ despite not really having a clue what it all might entail or whether we even had the skills to do it and before we knew it we were on a plane to Lagos.
The culture shock that hit us once we had landed was unbelievable. Why hadn’t Ros told us about the sounds, the smells, the crowds, the chaos, the vibrancy? We felt so white, so exposed, so vulnerable, so shocked! We finally made it to the other side of the country (which is a whole other story in itself) and met up with Ros in Uzuakoli. In true Ros style we hit the ground running and the next day found ourselves deep inside the bush in a little village celebrating the conclusion of the harvest at a New Yam festival. Well if we hadn’t been awestruck before we certainly were now! Plucky children, no older that 6 or 7, were setting off homemade fireworks laughing with delight at every explosion, village chiefs processed, proudly in their traditional wrappers, bobble hats and beautifully carved walking sticks. Men terrified us with their casual display of guns and machetes and women danced as though the constant drumbeat was somehow part of them. In fact, the whole village danced. It was an incredible sight to witness and an amazing first experience of people’s warmth, hospitality and generosity. We were greeted with equal measures of curiosity and care and were introduced to some of the local traditions and rituals which we tried to observe with the respect they deserved even if it involved eating things that were so strange to us and marking the correct parts of our bodies with chalk.
We gradually settled into our respective homes. Steve at Amaudo 1 living as part of the community and me at Uzuakoli living amongst the baby nurses who worked at the motherless baby’s home. We bought a motorbike which Steve used during the week to travel around the State setting up the Community Mental Health Programme. At weekends we used it to explore, frequently stopping as we went to collect various pieces of the bike, which had rattled themselves loose, and fallen off on the bad roads.
It turned out I did have to establish a school for about 100 young children in a big, old, echoing hall in the middle of the Leprosy Centre where Ros had first worked. Thank goodness I was partnered with some wonderful local women who briefed me daily in some surprising local child rearing methods and stuck by me as we challenged each other frequently with our beliefs about school, education and many other unrelated topics. Despite our often conflicting views, we managed to breathe life into our fledgling school and the children had an absolute ball. We managed to compromise about what our mornings should look like and there was some formal learning for the older children but mostly there was games, singing, dancing, stories and lots of new experiences such as painting, Lego and English picture books.
One day I made a film of the children and showed it to them on a little black and white TV that we borrowed. They were absolutely thrilled to see their friends appearing on the screen and screamed and shouted with delight but as the film went on I realised that while the all recognised each other they were unable to recognise themselves. The next day I went to the market and bought a few of the biggest mirrors I could find and took them into school. I’ll never forget how the kids loved to just stare at themselves as they made faces and posed!
When we had numerous reports that children were really upset not to be able to come to school on Saturdays I knew we had created something special. At the end of my stay when the future of the school looked uncertain I realised that nothing could ever take away the experience of the previous year from these children. In later years when I visited I was still greeted with happy shrieks of ‘Aunty Kate’ from a gaggle, of now adolescent, villagers.
While I loved being at the school and with the children I did struggle with living in such a different environment. It made me learn so much about myself, sometimes I was surprisingly resilient and other times floored by unexpectedly small things. The highs and lows felt so extreme. So much challenged me. So much of what I thought I knew and believed in was thrown up in the air and landed in unfamiliar places. It made me think about what British culture is, how children are raised, how families work, the impact of politics and poverty and religion and so much more. I frequently considered my role and what right I had to be there especially in light of the many paradoxical beliefs people held about ‘Onyeochas’ (white people). After almost a year it was time to go home and ‘get on with our lives’ except Africa, Nigeria, Uzuakoli and Amaudo had somehow got right under our skin.
Just over four years later I was back at Amaudo for my wedding. Steve and I had decided it was such a significant place for us it was where we wanted to get married. We had dreams of a simple African wedding held in Amaudo’s beautiful Chapel of Peace. What we hadn’t quite realised was that we were never going to get away with such a low-key affair! The wedding itself was unbelievable. Nine canopies in a semicircle filled Amaudo’s football pitch and when they realised they had run out of canopies they built a beautiful one from palm fronds from the village. It was beneath this one that we said our vows witnessed by crowds and crowds of people. Villagers from Uzuakoli and Itumbauzo; Dignitaries from the Government including the State Governor of Abia who brought us a cow as a gift; Dozens of Methodist Ministers robed in white and burgundy who squabbled about who would read which passage; Amaudo’s residents and services users who couldn’t quite believe what all the fuss was about; wonderful friends we had made during our time living in Nigeria; and alongside us through it all were seventeen dear family and friends from the UK.
It was after the wedding, when travelling around Nigeria on a bus, kindly leant to us by the Government, that we began discussing the idea to set up a support organisation for Amaudo and gradually Amaudo UK was conceived.
20 years later I still work part-time for Amaudo UK. I’m still in the privileged position of being able to travel to Nigeria regularly to witness Amaudo in action and see how it changes lives in the most incredible ways every day. I’ve seen how it has grown and developed over the years, how it continues to push and struggle forward with its powerful mental health agenda. I’ve experienced the unwavering commitment, dedication and downright hard work of those people who have, and continue to, drive it onwards and upwards.
I’m still challenged by the myriad of questions working in such a different culture throws up for me. I’m still appalled by the inequalities that exist in our world and wrangle with how and if this will ever change significantly in my lifetime. I am always humbled by the love and generosity people show me. Amaudo has changed my story in so many ways.
You can donate to Amaudo here