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Sensing local identity

Last January I took a 13-day trip to Nigeria to lead a spiritual retreat with missionaries and staff of Christian Reformed World Missions and World Renew. A full three and a half days I spent travelling – from Buffalo to Washington, D.C, to Frankfurt to Abuja. Returning, I left Abuja for Frankfurt and for Newark. I escaped from there to Buffalo 16 hours before a blizzard shut down the Northeast. I arrived home in St. Catharines about 1:45 a.m.

Besides spending a lot of time in airport terminals, I stayed in secure missionary compounds while in Nigeria, once not leaving for three days while leading the retreat. Over ten days, I got out twice on my own: first for a two-kilometer walk back in the dark from a small restaurant in Abuja and later in Jos, returning to the compound from Hillcrest Academy. A free-time highlight of those days was a splendid Sunday afternoon hike with missionary hosts among the dramatic rock formations outside Jos. The rest of the time, I was driven between compounds, to churches, to an NGO office complex, to a seminary and a restaurant.

Boring ambiance
What strikes me still three months after I returned is how oddly similar the ten days I spent in two large Nigerian cities felt like the airports where I waited for connecting flights.

In most airports, discovering any sense of place is impossible. Dulles, Frankfurt, Newark and Buffalo Airports all share the same dull, blah ambience. Flashing electronic advertisements and front-shop glitter only disguises the shallow fakeness of all such travel hubs. Similar or identical shops and chain restaurants, announcements and ads – primarily in English – lead passengers from terminal to terminal, washrooms to coffee shops, bookstores to security check-points. Comfortless chairs in huge, noisy gate areas prevent catching up on sleep lost on trans-oceanic flights. Everything about airports compounds the zombie-like state we economy-class passengers all share.

While in Nigeria, the closest I came to experiencing Africa was while hanging out of a car window madly snapping pictures of vendors in street markets and chatting with an uncharacteristically friendly “vehicle safety inspector.” Wearing a heavy red uniform sweater in the 30 C. heat, he asked me, “Do you think I’m good-looking?” (I knew the wrong answer would prolong the driver’s conversation and maybe necessitate a bribe.) Seeing my camera, the inspector ordered, “Snap me,” which I did.

The cities my hosts drove me around to see the sights – Jos, Abuja – are as frantic and alienating as any North American metropolis, with even less predictable traffic. In all, I am pleased to be able to travel for good work with missionaries, but remain significantly perplexed by the lack of profound sense of culture and place I have experienced elsewhere.

Sense of place
A year and a half ago Rose and I spent five days in Iqaluit at the city’s only “B & B,” curiously called “Beaches.” Sure, it cost $175 a night; the room was small and the bathroom shared. But we were welcomed uniquely with a sign on the refrigerator door: “Welcome to Beaches Bed & Breakfast. You make both.” Immediately I knew this would be a place and time impossible to forget and far more sheer fun than staying at the cheapest hotel that would have sucked up $325 a night without breakfast.

Over those days we visited with our hosts daily over the breakfast we did indeed make ourselves. We soaked up Jack Anawak’s stories and suggestions about how to get to know some of Iqaluit in five days. We hung out at the locally curated museum cum library, chatted with locals, hiked to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park outside the city, haggled with soapstone carvers and shopped at the fabulously expensive Northmart on Queen Elizabeth Way. That main street was first paved for its namesake’s 1994 visit.

The contrast between big city Nigeria and Iqaluit still haunts me. In that small, remote sub-Arctic town, I experienced a sense of place and connection to the geography I could not discover in my short time in Africa. In Nunavut the Inuit are working with great diligence and hope to preserve their culture, while also trying to develop an economy and public life within Canada that anticipates a gentler future than the oil economy of Nigeria imposes.

I regret that I could not visit more remote Nigerian villages where the colour and customs of the past still provide inhabitants significant grounding to their geography. The irony, though, is that people living in such places either covet life in the bulging, culture-erasing cities or are forced to move by economic necessity. Loss of farmland, destruction of forests and mountains by careless mining, drilling or logging operations drive people to cities that are becoming as faceless as the airports that open those cities to visitors like me and dubious cultural and industrial imports blandly called modernization.

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An Anglican cathedral in Iqaluit, modeled after igloos.

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Tim Hortons in Iqaluit – sort of like home.

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Women selling produce on the highway between Jos and Abuja, Nigeria.

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The Nigerian countryside during Harmattan (dry wind of winter).

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James Dekker pictured here in front of an ant hill outside Jos.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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