Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sean in New York


After nearly seven months in six countries on three continents, my trip is over. I am back in New York, back in my apartment, and back at work.

I haven't had much time to reflect, but it was an amazing trip that gave me the chance to expand my own mind while making (I hope) some small difference on a global scale.

Thank you for reading and sharing the experience with me. I really did enjoy blogging and receiving all the feedback. I won't be posting here any more, but you can always contact me at my regular email address, sbasinski [at] urbanjustice [dot] org.

With that, I'll sign off. As they say in Yoruba, "eshay," which means "thank you!"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Zulu nation


Wait, that doesn't look like Lagos! In fact, I left Nigeria and am now in Johannesburg on my way back to New York.

I'm here just a few days, but I've done a virtual Apartheid Tour.
Yesterday I went to Soweto -- the poor, black township that was the heart of the freedom struggle. Today I took in the excellent Apartheid Museum (and casino!). But the highlight was Tuesday, when I went on a tour of the Constitutional Court with Justice Albie Sachs, who my friend Ting is clerking for. Sachs is a giant in the field of human rights law, and he gave a warm and eloquent explanation of how they designed the building, how they chose the artwork, etc.

That said, I'm ready to go home. South Africa is a hundred times more developed than Nigeria, but there is also a strong climate of fear (due to the high crime rates) and racial tension that I never felt in Lagos. Plus, its damn cold here! I had forgotten it was their winter.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Le Grande Finale


Well, I finally finished my report and gave my presentation at the US Embassy yesterday. It was a huge success. More than 100 people showed up -- lawyers, professors, microcredit experts, NGO types, street vendors, and government officials. Ben Akabueze, the Lagos State Commissioner of Economic Planning, even showed up to speak for the government. With great help from the consulate and the CLEEN Foundation staff, everything went off without a hitch.

I gave my powerpoint (there I am, above), we had a panel discussion, and then we opened it up to some lively questions from the crowd, including members of the media. There was some moving testimony from street traders, and some irresponsible statements -- one professor of sociology even claimed "most street traders are criminals." But everyone appreciated my work, and the discussion was very productive. Next 234 did a nice article, and a couple of TV stations were there.

Here is the report, entitled "All Fingers are Not Equal." Its long, but if you read it, I'd love to know what you think.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Corruption, corruption, what's your function?


President Obama is huge in Nigeria, and folks here were quite miffed that he went to Ghana, their much smaller neighbor, for his first trip to Africa. But these choices are not made randomly, of course. He wants to encourage good behavior. For example, if Nigerians felt a little jab in their side every time Obama mentioned corruption in his speech, that was the whole point.

Except for one guy at the airport who asked if I "had anything for him," I haven't experienced corruption here personally. True, as soon as the sun goes down each night, the police hit their roadside checkpoints, machine guns in hand, to collect 20 naira (15 cents) from each passing vehicle. This outraged me at first, but I've gotten used to it. Its not much different from a toll booth. And, since Nigerians pay very little if anything in taxes anyway, this is their way to pay for a police force.

The real problem is with the billions of dollars that get siphoned off by corrupt politicians every year. Nigerian leaders have apparently stolen $380 billion from government coffers over the past 50 years. One guy I know, friends with the former Lagos governor, received a plot of land in Ikorodu on which he is building a new house.

Want to get a visit from President Obama, Nigeria? You might want to start by bringing back Nuhu Ribadu, the corruption czar who got fired last year for investigating the wrong people.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Healthy living

One word I hear used a lot by Lagosians is "environment." I even started to wonder if the Sierra Club had been doing some covert recruiting here. But Nigerians don't use the word the same way Americans usually do, when we refer to things like clean air, healthy wetlands, and thriving forests.

They mean, "is there trash on the ground?," which is indeed a pretty serious nuisance here, although I don't know if it's a health risk. This woman in the Dr. Seuss hat is one of teams of women who canvas the highways, obsessively sweeping the remnants of sand that invariably collect in the gutter after each rain.

I thought about this last week after speaking to some vendors in the port community of Apapa. I had to cut one interview off after ten minutes because of all the exhaust from the line of trucks that was backed up outside a big flour factory. I literally couldn't take it. And the traders stand there every day, inches away from these trucks, breathing that stuff in. I told one guy he was losing a day of his life for each truck that passed by. And I probably wasn't far off. It was unbearable.

I'm all for things looking neat and tidy. But is enough attention being paid to the environmental issues that impact on the health of the Nigerian people? Governor Fashola and President Yar-Adua, please let me know, when you get a minute.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Long arms of the law

One reason I'm optimistic that the KAI raids against street vendors here will eventually stop (or at least slow down) is that they are such horrible public spectacles.
I was on board a bus waiting to leave Ojota this week when suddenly there was commotion by the side door. Two boys were fighting. Then I saw people scurrying in panic from the open space nearby. It was a KAI raid in process. The fight at the side door was an undercover agent beating a young Gala seller, who was struggling, as if for his life, to get away. Some other KAI officers grabbed a large elderly woman trader, whose defense mechanism was to lie down in the mud and wail like a child. It worked! The officers let her go. I guess they did not have the heart to haul her into the "Black Maria" paddy wagon nearby (pictured above, with the Gala hawker being pushed inside by some undercover and some uniformed KAI men).
And very possibly the crowd would not have allowed it, either. The newspapers here have reported on two cases where crowds of onlookers have turned in outrage against KAI forces, once chasing them into a nearby hospital, where the officers sought protection from police.
Pretty crazy. But its hard to witness one of these raids without feeling great sympathy for the vendors, if not outrage at KAI's aggressive tactics. As more and more regular people see what is happening first-hand, I am hopeful that it will lead to a more thoughtful, and less harsh, enforcement policy regarding street vendors in Lagos State. We'll see.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

When life gives you oranges


One of my best memories of Costa Rica is of drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice from a vendor in San Jose's main plaza. In Turkey, I saw hundreds of men, like this guy, selling the same thing.

In Nigeria, oranges are dirt cheap (about 12 cents each) and there are lots of orange sellers. But none of them take the additional, value-added step of squeezing the oranges into juice, for which they could charge a premium. What's up, Nigerians? Do you not like fresh orange juice?


It’s not that. It seems to be a lack of equipment -- nobody I spoke to here had ever seen a simple hand-crank juicer like many Americans have in their kitchens. And good ones are pretty expensive. So I ordered one online a couple months ago and had Mom and Dad ship it to me here in Lagos. I dreamed of training a team of orange-hawkers to use it, and helping them all buy juicers through this grant program sponsored by the US Embassy. Orange juice for everyone!


Well, not exactly. I gave the juicer to Dami (below) whose mom sells fruit on my street, for a trial run. And it’s worked -- he’s slowly building up some regular customers. He still helps his mom, when he’s not in school, but now he also has his own juice stand on the side. At 15, it’s the first money he’s ever made. And we’re talking about how he can grow his business, like by painting a sign, which he’s working on.


But the bigger vision has not quite worked out. None of the other orange hawkers near me speak English, so I couldn’t easily explain the idea to them. And, truth be told, with Dami doing well, I haven’t really followed through. So right now there is exactly one fresh-squeezed OJ hawker on the streets of Lagos. And its starting to look like one 15 year-old young man will be getting a very nice gift when I leave.