Grace is Beauty.

I’m dedicating a blog post to the incredible women I met picking tea leaves in the hills of Munnar, South India. They made my heart burst. They are some of the hardest working women I have ever had the privilege to meet. They surrounded me with smiles and stories and each wanted their photo taken. So here, I want to share the grace & dignity that oozed from these wonderful women. I was unable to write down their names… but I can still feel their energy now. Powerful, beautiful. They reinforced a personal mantra that started swirling around in my mind when my journey of consciousness escalated in the autumn of 2013….

Grace is beauty.

A reminder to myself in those moments when fears and insecurities start to over power the true and authentic me… when my Ego is triumphing over my Soul. It is a call to myself to awaken… and to do so gracefully. To not let old fear-based habits take over, just because they used to. Just because they could. Now I can add calling on the strength of these women to those moments when I stumble, feel weak, or lose my way a little.

Deeply grateful.1960847_10101514666233588_8183269421795565740_o(1) 10006099_10101514673414198_959197032084028907_o(1) 10700494_10101514674237548_6691893346853477965_o(1) What helps your Soul shine through a stormy moment?

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Drumming dreams come true

When you close your eyes and listen to the samba being played perfectly in time with rhythm, soul, and an undeniable vibrancy, you would imagine yourself to be in the streets of Rio. But this is not Brazil, we’re still in Lagos after all. Up wind of a makeshift rubbish dump, kids cover every inch of ground, step, wall and rooftop available. They don’t notice the smell wafting over the compound wall, they’re too busy watching the spectacle before them, something they’re not used to seeing in their modest part of town.

Seyi Ajeigbe, Nigerian/British musician (soundbites from his band AGEMO can be enjoyed here) has returned home (and brought me with him!) to give his local community something he had longed for as a child – a place that would enable him to escape his daily struggles as his mother worked hard to raise him and his four siblings in a sprawling African ghetto by herself. A space in which he could bring to life the music from his imagination. A place where he could simply, play a drum and get lost in the music.

After discovering Brazilian samba eight years ago whilst living in London, Seyi found something that matched the rhythmic beat inside him that he just couldn’t say no to. He excelled at playing samba in various forms and went on to perform all over the UK and throughout Europe. Life was pretty darn good on the drumming front, it would seem, but Seyi couldn’t shake an idea that he had had very early on in his samba career. He imagined playing this same samba, not in Brazil, but back home in Lagos, returning it to the continent where the very roots of this music had originated.

Seyi has established the first samba school in Nigeria – Eko Samba School – a non-profit organisation, which enables children from his local community to learn to play Brazilian drums. Bridging gaps between children from a mix of social, tribal and religious backgrounds, giving them team working and leadership skills as well as improving their social responsibility, and above all, learning, enjoying and performing together, it is clear this is something well deserved in this community.

Despite encountering many a bureaucratic hurdle with regards to getting support for the project here in Lagos, Seyi sums up the positives in an interview with Arise magazine:

“The best part so far has been the music itself. It brings a lot of satisfaction to hear the samba swing in the middle of a slum in Lagos, it’s as if the souls of those slaves taken via Lagos to Brazil are returning.”

For me, the best part so far is the ear to ear grins on these kids’ faces, the freedom in their enjoyment, as they sing and dance, sweat pouring from their bodies, and they play (and I mean they really play) those drums.

State hopping

Amidst a whirlwind fire cracker filled festive period we managed to escape to Ondo State for a very brief visit to see family and soak up some non-city vibes. The 5 hour drive from Lagos through Ogun, Oyo and Osun makes clear the reasons the Nigerian flag is framed in green to reflect their rich and varied trees and plant life. Most of the journey felt like a road had been carved through untouched forest and jungle with a different equally pleasurable view at each bend in the road. As a lover of drastic landscape, I was thrilled when we passed our first mountain and even more excited when we learned that a place called “Oke Idanre” (Idanre hill) which has just been classified a UNESCO World Heritage site was located just outside Akure, where we were heading. While I have mixed feelings on the political action of the UN with regards to their role in maintaining peace and helping to positively shape the world we live in, I also know that UNESCO rarely gets these sites wrong.

True to the way of the season, we crammed in an abundance of good food and made great memories with family, best of all young children. Ondo State is a world apart from Lagos while maintaining a consistent Nigerian thread. Reasons to move to Ondo with your family are clear (cheaper cost of living, calmer pace of life, milder climate, mosquito free) though unemployment is still as much of an issue as in any other Nigerian state.

We spent an afternoon in a village in Akure where we enjoyed freshly tapped palm wine, a national favourite, and a bowl of catfish pepper soup which was literally swimming-to-the-cooking-pot-fresh. A hidden gem not far from the state’s capital, the meal came at a bargain price given the freshness and quality of all we consumed.

 

On our second and final day we got blissfully lost in the hills of Idanre. We climbed to great heights up 640 steps and rock faces to take in views of magnificent hills, village filled valleys and luscious foliage. A range of charcoal coloured curvaceous rocks surrounded us like giant scoops of ice-cream, sleeping hippos and elephants. Here, an ancient village atop the hill has been preserved so that we could have a peek into what life may have been like for the Yoruba clan living 3000 feet above sea level for almost a millennium. According to UNESCO, “Since emigration down hill in 1923, the topography, vegetation as well as the fauna and floral life have remained undisturbed.”

In addition there are rare species of wildlife, a giant “Agbooogun” foot print, thunder water (Omi Aopara) and burial mounds and grounds caves, as well as Amen Olofin (a rock with unreadable lettering), and Odan, the ‘tree of life and beauty.’ The village mud walled school, prison, old court, market and my personal favourite, the ancient palace, collectively revealing a very comprehensive way of life in idyllic settings. Various statues (unfortunately largely defaced) form the pillars of the palace, each representing a type of local person in town such as security men, women, slaves and nobles. Beside the throne sits a stack of cow skull carcasses – each representing a successful year for the Owa on the throne. Modern day Yoruba festivals are still celebrated in the hills such as Ogun festival in October and the week long Ije festival in December breathing life into age old traditions at this ancient site.

The combined effect of being lost in nature and connecting with an ancient way of life was truly calming after a very busy couple of months in Lagos.  Neither of us wanting to leave the hills, we were coaxed home by promise of Ondo state’s “best food”, pounded yam. This was my first taste of homemade pounded yam done properly – and I was not disappointed. Using a large pestle and mortar with great precision, timing and strength, Brother D (head chef of the family) pounded boiled yam with nothing other than water. The result was creamy, delicious goodness and with one mouthful I could see why this is one of the nation’s favourite foods. With noticeably tighter fitting clothes and refreshed souls, we left Ondo the best way to leave anywhere… wanting more of everything we had experienced – not least our company.

Welcome (back) to Lagos!

After much deliberation, anticipation and a big dose of adventure I have left life in London to set up camp in Lagos for a while. After deciding to leave a job at an NGO I respect and value (Save the Children), my safety net of incredible friends, colleagues and most importantly, a family woven like Egyptian cotton (strong, close and beautiful), I’m hoping to address some deeper questions on what really defines quality of life – for me.

Leaving behind the 9-5 lifestyle where we work to live, I’d like to see if I can achieve an envisioned way of life where my personal priorities, ambitions and aspirations take centre stage. I’ve chosen to dedicate myself to positive change in a way which will enable me to truly be the difference I wish to see in my time on this planet. I also crave a life surrounded by natural goodness, self sustainability, peace and tranquility. Naturally, people here ask me why then I’ve come to Lagos – Africa’s largest metroplolis. Somewhere which can only be described as “like no other place in the world” – I can only reply that in my quest for a new way of being, I never said I wanted it to be boring…

The transition so far has been undeniably “interesting” but would I expect anything less in a move from London to Lagos, England to Nigeria, Europe to Africa? My body decided to adjust first, in a variety of ways. I’m not going to sugar coat it, most of them deprived me of comfort. But I’m pleased to report that both body and I have made it through in one piece and are still on talking terms… just.

I’m currently staying in Ijegun Egba, Satellite Town, a far cry from the Westernised “luxurious” (everything in this world is relative) Victoria Island, which is a short drive away. Here, I’m fully immersed in what it means to be surviving day-to-day in the most populous country in Africa. Despite a relatively high income per capita, and an abundance of natural resources, inequity is widespread. 45% of the population earns less than $1.25 per day, and in this part of Lagos I am surrounded by people in that bracket. However, to reference Christian Purefoy:

Living in Lagos taught me the true meaning of eternal optimism.

Indeed, optimism penetrates your senses here – despite huge inequality and struggle for basic human needs, Lagosians will always remind you that tomorrow is another day, and things will be better. Their resilience is inspiring.

One of my favourite aspects of where I’m living is the abundance of children… everywhere! Unable to hide their innocence they stare, point and gleefully shout out “Oyinbo” to one of very few people they’ve seen in their village who looks so different from them (this is clearly not a part of the world frequented by Westerners). They want to touch my skin, my hair, and check with their friends or parents if they’re really seeing me, my favourite comment so far being “is she TV??” … ahhh… children! My most treasured people on the planet for good reason.

That’s not to say a lot of the grown folk around here aren’t thinking the same when they see me, they’re just not as fortunate as the children to be able to declare it so openly, though many find a way to welcome me which I appreciate. And so, as a mixed Mauritian/Sri Lankan I’ve gone from being categorised as an ethnic minority in the UK to an even greater minority here – definitely a new dynamic to adjust to.

Adults and children alike, people here greet you. Greet each other – all the time. More than just a polite pleasantry, I’m often caught unaware, missing the opportunity to return the appropriate greeting for that time of day as they fly at me from every direction. Here, greeting one another is an ingrained aspect of people’s culture. I kick myself for not being quicker with my counter “good morning/ good afternoon/ good evening,” but I feel my awareness shifting as I open myself up to my surroundings more and more each day. Barriers down, I embrace these warm cultural differences and thank the sun for making it easy for people to smile and talk to each other, stranger or friend regardless.

I’d like to put a quick apology out to anyone back in the UK as the temperature starts to dip and the sky takes on an even darker shade of grey than you thought possible. Right now in Lagos, it is hot. Hot, hot, hot. Take a cold shower before you step outside, hot. Take another cold shower before you go to bed just to get through the night, hot. Don’t venture outside in the midday sun unless absolutely necessary, hot. Thank NEPA (National Electric Power Authority – more aptly known as – Never Expect Power Always) if and when they decide to bring electricity in the middle of the night and you get an hour or two of deep sleep… Hot. Delicious, I might add, to a self-confessed sun worshiper.

As “Harmattan” season begins, the air is getting noticeably fresher, but the tail end of the rainy season still plays games with us. Just a couple of days ago when I was outside washing my clothes the skies opened, refreshingly drizzled on me and soon after, poured. With Alanis Morissette singing in my head I watched the mammoth raindrops fall into my bucket of soapy clothes and couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the irony of the timing. Fortunately, as people here remind me, “this is Africa” and after it rains, the sun always comes back out. And it did, full beam, and dried up all my clothes before the day was done.

Transition indeed. When you move to a place where clean water and electricity are a daily challenge, you truly appreciate the moments of bliss. After three weeks of longing for a trip to the very ocean which encouraged me to return to Lagos, I finally made it to the beach. A short boat ride from the jetty and my surroundings changed drastically from the frantic pace of daily hustle and bustle, to views of the serene lagoon. With a fiercely blue sky juxtaposing the luscious greenery all around, I lapped up every moment. Laying under a coconut tree, I took solace in the type of natural beauty I had often day dreamed of from my desk at the office, or stuck on the London underground, again. Letting the sea breeze wash over me, I allowed myself to become fully revitalised, looking forward to what this unique, magnetic place has in store for me.