Somehow I convinced Rhonda to go with me on my one-week express visit to the Lungo project. Our team's breaks don't often overlap with the backup team's, but for once she and I were both free at the same time, so we agreed we had to do something significant together. She felt like a culture trip to Vienna, Venice, Paris and London, but I said something typically preachy like, "Which would be more memorable and unique: staring up at what other people built long ago in the past, or helping to build up a future for Nigerian children?" She had to admit that she didn't know anyone else who had started their own rural community development project.
So we hopped from
to Cairo to , then out in my friend Farhan's
borrowed SUV, through Keffi, Akwanga, Lafia and Nyam, along the wonderful A3
highway, then miles and miles of dirt tracks to Lungo village. We arrived caked
in dust just as the sun was preparing to set. The many tribes of tree frogs and
insects were croaking, whistling and burping as loudly as ever from the bush,
and I saw three of the few surviving white-backed vultures flapping sleepily
through the tops of the acacia trees. And two half-naked children, both aged no
more than five, were walking a flock of goats back through a gap in a thorn
Ahh! It still feels like coming home, or like stepping into my own personal legend. The first five or so years of life are formative to our identities and how we view the world. For me it was eight, right there in Lungo. But at the same time it felt like dropping in from another planet, an emissary from another race. I want them to like me and say, "You're one of us!" I'm aware of the issues I have, but much more than that, I want them to grow up tall, strong and hopeful and forget all about me. Of course it's not just me they would thank anyway, but all the project staff and volunteers and the other donors.
The week flew by, as it usually does. We started each day with a long and glorious to-do list, usually got stuck on about number two or three, got sidetracked by several chance meetings and emergencies, then crawled under our mosquito nets exhausted and full of other people's hurts, but also drenched with their love. One evening of singing had Rhonda sitting speechless and in tears of amazement.
As we drove back to
we swapped fragments of what we could
remember. We both wanted to retain a deeper record than the snippets which we
had snatched on our tablets. But as I narrate this now into LifeCloud, it's
little more than a blur of eager young faces, fields of cassava and maize, long
hot days helping to repair the water pump or plaster the wall of the new school,
sudden spectacular sunsets, the tired but radiant faces of mothers going home
from the fields carrying their babies in colourful slings on their backs, and
evenings talking by the light of the new solar-charged lanterns. Abuja
By the time we reached the outliers of
, Rhonda was sagging
against the half-open window trying to sleep. She had dived right in to village
life for the first three or four days, but by the end I think she struggled
both with diarrhoea and with the frustration of being unable to express any
thought more complex than "How are you?" and "I'm from
California" in the Idoma language. But she did learn to say "akpanga"
and "ayi" so that's not bad at all. Abuja
One other vivid memory now – five months later – is sitting on the plane as we climbed away from
It was a night flight, and Idu's industrious swirls of factory lights swung
below us like the circuits on a computer circuit board. We were on our way back
to Abuja Airport and a
very different kind of project. Training to live on Mars sits next door to
building a latrine for village people. Dubai
I told Rhonda that it felt like time travel.
She looked hard at me, almost with tears in her eyes, overcome, and said no, that's the tragedy, that in the same year and on the same planet such wealth and power could allow such need and sorrow to carry on. She sounded like doubting what we were doing. But I didn't want to answer or speak my mind at that moment.
We all hear it – mainly from some of the more daring journalists, who aren't so starry-eyed with the Mars Project: Why try settling another planet when we obviously can't look after this one? How can we justify the effort and expense?
But I never went through that doubt. It doesn't add up like that in my head. Perhaps there's something wrong with me, the way I grew up. First I wanted to fix the world – become a doctor or a development technologist – then Hadfield visited our school, and – wham! From that day onwards I saw that I, an African village girl, fatherless, refugee in
schoolgirl, successful student, going to live on Mars, could be a twinkling star
for other village girls to follow. What I do could point them on their own way
to make something sweet out of their lives. Canada
Anyway, will not going to Mars actually solve anybody's problems? I think I heard that first from
But Rhonda's usually a star herself. She inspired me to keep trying when I was giving up on myself in the training camps. When she could see I would get selected ahead of her, she kept helping me out. She's very sweet like that.
As she talked to me on that flight I think I could see beyond that star. I could guess that her determined, optimistic persona had cracked in the face of all the raw human need that I had shovelled in her face. Actually, her whole life, she was pushing hard to keep one step ahead of failure – something about demanding parents whose business and marriage both failed and left her to rebuild her life – and so fixing the world's problems wasn't high on her agenda. At least I always had my mom and uncles and aunts. She's an only child and has no cousins she keeps in touch with. Sad! She doesn't think that poverty can be eradicated, that conflicts can be resolved, that tyranny can be dissolved by the likes of us. She's firmly in the camp of those who go to Mars in order to build a last, desperate "backup for the human race". They've already given up on Earth One. They want an Earth Two.
Not me. If our homeworld went down somehow, I think it would lead to the disturbing conclusion that the human race wasn't worth saving, that we didn't deserve another chance.
But it won't come to that. I believe in the human race. If one destitute child can make it all the way to the Red World, a whole generation of them will be able to rise above the red line of poverty.