Teaching in West Africa

Alexander Chirila describes the interview process -- and the due diligence on both sides -- for being hired by the American University of Nigeria, and the rewards of his unusual career path.

October 12, 2012

Before I moved to West Africa to teach at the American University of Nigeria, people would ask me why I would ever consider taking a job in a place like this. They would often answer the questions themselves: "Because you can’t find anything in the States, the job market being the way it is."  Still, I felt a small surge of indignation -- not only because I was insulted by the suggestion that I was not marketable, but also because money was not my primary motivation. The truth was that I was looking for a drastic change. I had obtained my Ph.D. in writing and criticism two years prior, subsequently leaping headfirst into the overflowing adjunct pool. I spent four semesters of teaching anywhere from seven classes in one semester between two universities, to living on the salary only four classes at a community college could provide. I was writing, I was researching, but I was also burning out; I needed to set a different course, one that would expand my horizons in a literal way. As both a writer and teacher of literature, I was a lover of travel and adventure — I wanted to see the world that had inspired the authors I studied. I wanted to explore the world beyond the comforts of the West -- and what better place than the Land of the First Men?

I had plenty of time to think about Nigeria during my drive to Washington to meet with the AUN recruiter, several professors and the president of AUN as part of the interview process. Prior to the trip I had researched the university online, Googled the president and watched a number of Nigerian podcasts. My head was stuffed with facts and I was very excited about the impending interviews, but I hadn’t really come to grips with the idea that if I were selected, this would mean relocating to a continent renowned for civil unrest, poverty, and disease -- but also for untarnished landscapes, wildlife, many cultures, and a complex history. I knew the interview would be a mutual evaluation. The university would put its best face forward, and hopefully, so would I. A door was opening into an unfamiliar and challenging landscape that would brook neither uncertainty nor ambivalence. I realized quickly that this was a posting for the genuinely motivated: either I really wanted to make a difference in Africa or I didn’t. I chatted with my fellow interviewees while we waited our turns; they were clearly older, more experienced travelers, and most of them had been to Africa before. This would be my first time.

I felt that AUN represented an opportunity take my teaching to another level entirely and perhaps to see my work make an actual difference in students' lives. The stakes would definitely be higher in a place like Nigeria, where the majority of the population is illiterate and education is a rare privilege, not a right. I decided I wanted this posting very much.

AUN’s slogan, "where student’s dreams become Africa’s future," is more than a catchy phrase: It represents an imperative to participate in an ongoing process of transformation that can very well mean the difference between a failed state and a blossoming country. No pressure.

My first interview focused on my motivation as well as on my experience as a teacher of writing and literature. (I was applying for a position as an assistant professor of English.) My strategies and techniques would not only be put to the test, but they (and I) would have to prove endlessly adaptable. As we proceeded during the session, I became more and more enthusiastic. When the inevitable question came, I was more than ready: Yes, I was prepared to teach a group of young Nigerians who would not always have a reliable command of English, and who had not inherited centuries of intellectual history, and for whom any kind of literary canon was not something I could take for granted. I had worked with many different types of students in the U.S., but this would be an altogether different paradigm. The international circuit involves a host of challenges that are unique from one part of the world to the next. I would learn from my colleagues that teaching abroad in Asia is not the same as teaching abroad in the Middle East, nor is teaching abroad in the Arab Emirates the same as teaching abroad in Africa.

An AUN professor of political science and native Nigerian conducted the second interview. He was well-versed in the complex history of this young country, including the political, economic, and cultural issues. (I realized that I had done well to watch all those podcasts!)  I asked a lot of questions, trying to demonstrate that I knew enough about Nigeria to warrant my interest in living there. "What is it really like living and working in Nigeria? How are the students likely to perceive me?  How effective could I be with so many obstacles?" I was impressed with his knowledge of the country, his thoughtful and straightforward answers.

My final interview was with President Margee Ensign. She is both personable and intimidating, commanding real respect and admiration. If I were forced to distill what I felt from our meeting, it would sound something like this: The potential for genuine change and greatness is always present, but it demands an inexhaustible supply of goodwill, effort, dedication, and a toughness of character capable of withstanding the shadows of Nigeria: corruption, poverty, obstinacy. Did I have any idea what it was like to live in a place like Yola, a rural town in northeast Nigeria? I tried to say that I had traveled to many places, but my words came out flat and empty; instead, I admitted that my imagination would never be sufficient to prepare me … but I was all right with that. I was ready to be shocked. I was ready to be unprepared (if that statement makes any sense).

I left the interview feeling that I had disappointed her -- that she had seen my lack of international experience and that she would dismiss my application. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I really wanted the posting. During my drive home I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime, a chance not only to improve myself, but also to improve the lives of those who were in a position to genuinely appreciate it. Secondly, this was a change that, if accepted, would have profound impact on me, both as an educator and as a human being.    

Shortly thereafter, much to my surprise, I received a letter of appointment. But my happiness quickly turned to trepidation. How does one get ready to make a life-changing move? I had many questions.   

Naturally, there was the security concern; northeast Nigeria is not a tourist destination. Was it safe? Could I travel or would I have to consign myself to living behind guarded walls? I am a traveler by nature, and I already had a list of places I wanted to see, in Nigeria and throughout Africa.

I was assured that AUN was well-protected (this proved to be true), that media reports of violence were often exaggerated (also true) and that it was entirely possible to travel throughout the country, provided I was prepared for difficulties (which I wasn’t but soon would be.) Once you leave the environs of an urban center, even a small one like Yola, you are in “the bush”: an expanse of small villages, rolling hills, distant mountains, and nomadic herdsmen.  The road is rough and gouged with potholes and there are no restrooms. My idea of breaking for lunch is stopping on the main road of a small village and buying suya (a dry-rub BBQ of goat or chicken meat), fresh pineapple slices, and a semi-cool classic glass bottle of Coca-Cola. I am always at my destination before night falls, because once it does, the only light between cities comes from cookfires.

AUN was very helpful, answering my questions and helping with the requisite paperwork. I received packages detailing what I could expect as an expatriate, what forms needed to be filled out, visa application, inoculations, etc. The process was straightforward and AUN staff were available via email or Skype.

Just as importantly, AUN paid my travel expenses, which included two massive suitcases and two of my most valuable possessions: my dog and cat. Yes, I did bring my animals to Nigeria, and that is in itself a testament to how confident I felt in my decision, and by extension, how confident the AUN staff helped make me feel throughout the relocation process.

Now, over a year later, both my dog and cat are doing just fine.

The acculturation process is incredibly dynamic, and also fiercely subjective. Beyond all the talks and orientation sessions, it is really up to the individual to adapt to the environment. You can either lament the absence of luxury and familiarity, or learn to love a new pattern of living, feeling and thinking. There is a middle ground, of course; you can keep your head down, keep working, and stay within the walls of a gated compound. But this is Africa! It is a wondrous and beautiful continent, and there is no dearth of adventure or experience to be gained from traveling its roads, both paved and unpaved. Already, in the space of less than two years, I have seen Ile-Ife, a pilgrimage destination for those who practice the traditional Ifa religion, and Oshogbo, home of the UNESCO-protected Osun Grove and site of the annual Osun Festival.  I have traveled to the Gashaka-Gumpti National Park in Taraba State, and the ancient World Heritage Site of the Sukur Kingdom in Northern Borno State. All of them amazing places, not to speak of Kenya and Cameroon!

AUN, which is positioned as the only "development university" in Africa, is community-focused. All students must fulfill a community service requirement in order to graduate. They participate in a wide range of educationally oriented efforts, helping in local elementary schools and other community institutions. The recently created Adamawa Peace Council is an AUN initiative spearheaded by President Ensign, involving the highest levels of local religious and institutional leaders from the state.

The faculty is truly international, situating AUN at a crossroads of cultural exchange during a temporal crossroads in Nigeria’s history: modernization, with all its attendant woes and blessings. AUN owes its success in part to its connectivity; it has one of the only reliable Internet networks in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. All of the students are completely plugged in with their iPads, iPhones and laptops.

Africa has embraced modernity and has proven able to both learn and adapt quickly, accomplishing in a few generations what might otherwise have taken centuries. Nigeria represents a new frontier in education, and the stakes are high. The archetype of the relaxed expatriate enjoying both local and imported comfort is no longer viable; nor is the neo-colonial paradigm able to hide under the guise of democracy. AUN is tapping into another paradigm: a true cultural exchange, a teaching experience that always works both ways. I can say with a rare satisfaction that I always learn as much from my students as they learn from me.

In two days, I will take the weekend bus to the Modern Jimeta Market to stock up on the week’s provisions: fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and a selection of familiar and welcome imports. I have made this trip many times now, and I always enjoy both the company and the experience. I took a while to get acclimated, of course, but I would say that I never did experience the dreaded "culture shock." If anything, I experienced a culture surprise: that a place so different from anything I’ve known can feel as familiar as home.

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Alexander Chirila is chair of the department of language and literature at the American University of Nigeria.


Alexander Chirila

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