Monty Raisinghani has lived in Nigeria for two years and, needless to say, it’s a little different from Canada.
“There’s a lot of poverty out here, and education in African countries is very limited,” the Surrey native and UBC grad says, adding that he lived a “pampered lifestyle” in British Columbia. “To be in Canada and to be in that situation… they don’t realize that many people (in Nigeria) live off one Starbucks coffee salary in two, three days.”
Raisinghani is a leader and mentor with the ELITE4Africa program and, on Friday, Aug. 4, he had four team members – none of whom had ever been to Africa – join him in Akute, Nigeria, a small town near Lagos. Together, they’ll build an educational facility at an orphanage as part of a global mentorship program.
It’s all for the children of the orphanage, and Monty says he wants them to know what it feels like to be helped, and to have hope. It’s hard work, and he hopes the long-term effects of this project extend beyond this summer alone.
“How do you help these people, how do you go out there and change something thats been the norm out here?” he says of the preparation that went into the project. “We want to provide a place within the orphanage that makes them feel like they’re outside the orphanage.”
The 63 children who are living at the orphanage have also been exchanging letters with pen pals in Canada. The batch sent from Canada was written in the Cloverdale Amphitheatre on Canada Day.
“Working at an orphanage, you see life from a very different perspective,” said Harish Raisinghani, one of the members who has volunteered his August for the build in Akute.
Now, he says, it’s hard to imagine returning to Surrey when their build ends on August 21. A “reverse culture shock,” he predicted.
“We’ve spent a week here… a lot of our luxuries don’t really exist here,” he said. “I think it puts a lot of our personal issues in perspective.”
The team said it was a huge shock when they arrived in Lagos. For one, the traffic is immense, and it can take them anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours to get from their lodging on Victoria Island to the orphanage.
They also described their arrival as “chaotic.” They were escorted through Lagos to Victoria Island by police armed with AK-47s. One car in front, another behind. Armed robberies are common over there, after all.
“There’s a huge difference as soon as you cross the bridge into the mainland,” said Clive D’Souza, another team member. “You see the chaos, and Victoria Island is a little more comfortable.”
D’Souza said their daily commute has been their unofficial tour of the area, and of the country. Traffic is lined by market places, taxis, folks bartering on the streets, and children running around.
“This whole culture is extremely addictive,” he says. “Every day, we’re learning new things, we’re coming across new people, local staff, brick layers, carpenters… so many different kinds of people.”
The best part of their experience, says Elite4Africa member Harpreet Parmar, has been meeting the kids.
“They’re pretty awesome,” she said. “Our first day, we all didn’t really know what to expect, and we’re passing through the gates of the orphanage, and they put on a little reception for us… they’re surrounding our car dancing, taking pictures.
“All they wanted to do was be given some attention and be loved and hugged.”
Harpreet said that it was “heartbreaking” to know these kids had been abandoned by their parents, but he knows they’re grateful for the work being done by the Elite4Africa team.
“You can just see it in their eyes,” she says. “I remember sitting at the swings, one girl came up to me and just held my hand. The kids would be coming and giving us hugs. You can feel it.”
Culturally, the Surrey team has gone through quite an experience. They’ve been introduced to Nigerian dances and music, and they’ve been in awe of the country, the continent, and the African lifestyle.
However, there’s work to be done.
“In terms of the build, I think we’re on a very strict timeline,” said Monty. “There’s been a lot of preparation and we need to hit our target dates and deadlines, so we can have a good chunk of time to education these children, as well as set up a mentorship base locally.”
That base has included a letter-writing class, led by Surrey member Richa Sharma, where the kids have had a chance to respond to their 63 pen pals and mentors back home in Canada.
“For me, when I saw that, their eyes just opened up,” Monty said. “Like they thought, ‘Wow, somebody on the other side of the world is thinking about me.’
“It’s been a team effort all along, and everyone has chipped in.”
The completed educational facility will include four computer work stations, a mini-library, and a couch area. The kids will develop their skills, and they’ll be able to read books and study.
It’s a far cry from their experience now, but that’s like everything, isn’t it?
“It’s so different from home,” repeats Clive D’Souza. “We (Canadians) go about the same routine every day, work five days, enjoy the weekend, but here anything can change at any time.”
“It almost seems like our lives are so bland compared to the lives these people live here.”
*The Elite4Africa team will be returning to Surrey when they build ends on August 21. They are currently blogging all their experiences on Elite Vancouver’s website.