Erica Williams

Erica Williams (WOCON – Women’s Consortium of Nigeria): Erica worked at the Leadership Alliance Summer Research Early Identification Program at Howard University, in Washington, where she organized material for the African Burial Ground Project. Between 1999 and 2001 Erica worked and studied in Venezuela, Brazil and South Africa. In South Africa, she conducted historical and ethnographic research at the University of Western Cape. Erica studied for her BA at New York University, where she received several travel and research scholarships and volunteered for several different organizations: Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), WomenCare, Face to Face International, The Center for African Spiritual Culture, InI Performance Club, NYU, Golden Rose Awards Banquet Committee, NYU. She also served as Editorial Assistant, Academic Achievement Program Newsletter, NYU. At the time of her fellowship, Erica was studying for a Master's degree in African Studies at Yale University and preparing to start a Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University. Erica asked many probing questions of AP’s new fellowship program, in person and through her final evaluation: “At the orientation, I noticed the beginning of a possible conflict of interest when I learned that interns were expected to engage in capacity-building at their organizations. But I questioned my ability as a 23 year-old student to tell a 50 year-old experienced, renowned human rights lawyer and activist how to run her organization. Perhaps this is the cultural anthropologist in me, but AP, myself, and future interns must recognize their position as outsiders to Nigeria and to WOCON. Being in that tenuous position creates a dynamic where it is difficult to tell people what they should do, because as outsiders we’re not even accustomed to living in their environment." “For instance, with my office experience in the U.S., I’m used to organizing files in labeled manila folders and hanging file folders in file cabinets. Thus, I found WOCON’s filing system of long folders in a multi-shelved closet impossible to understand. But it works for them. My work experience in the U.S. has also trained me to write out my daily activities, allot a specified amount of time to tasks, and rely heavily on the computer. This is an unattainable goal in Lagos because of the constant unexpected power outages and the fact that sending two emails can take you upwards of two hours. Future interns should be fully aware of the challenges they will face in Nigeria, and even then they may still have trouble adapting to the environment.” Erica also found Lagos to be hard work: “The daily struggles of life in Lagos were another challenge. Constant power outages, traffic jams, torrential rains and floods, painfully slow internet service, and the week-long fuel strike all conspired to make my work more difficult.”

The Beginning

06 Jun

After two 6-hour flights and a long wait in London’s Heathrow airport, I finally arrived in Lagos, tired and travel-weary, at 5:00 am on June 4. Immigration was easy, except for the customs official who tried to make me pay duties on the computer that the Advocacy Project donated to WOCON. Even when I showed him the three page document detailing the fact that the computer was a donation, for education and communication purposes, and had no commercial value, he put up a fight, saying that either the donor or the recipient would have to pay. When I said I was just the transporter, I suppose he took pity on me and let me pass through.

Shortly after entering the waiting area, I saw a younger version of Mrs. Olateru-Olagbegi (Executive Director of WOCON) holding up a sign with my name on it. It was Simbo, Bisi’s daughter and dedicated staff member at WOCON, along with a friend. Upon exiting the airport, we were approached by two men who offered to push the cart with my luggage to the car. Before I knew it, there were five guys hovering around the cart. After putting the luggage in the trunk, one held out his hand for payment. Since I hadn’t bought naira yet, I gave him a dollar. He asked for $20! When we got into the car all of the young men were demanding payment. One even showed me an I.D. card and claimed to be a police inspector. I gave two more dollars and then we drove off.

If that weren’t the most classic welcome to Lagos, the traffic jam and the power outage that followed were. I couldn’t believe how much traffic there was at 6:30am. There seemed to be no lanes, no stop lights, in short, no rules! When I arrived at Mrs. Olateru-Olagbegi’s house, there was no electricity, something that I quickly learned was an everyday occurence in this city that seems to be busting at its seams. My first day in Lagos was relaxing. I met two of Mrs. Olateru-Olagbegi’s children and a few of their friends, took a five-hour nap, and went out to eat at Chikin Lickin. The following day, I went to the WOCON office in order to get started on my resume. My plan was to type it up on the way but I found it way too difficult to focus. It felt a bit unusual, typing up my resume in the same building and office I will be applying for a job at. As it turns out I was still having difficulties concentrating and ending up with something I would want to show them, so I looked online for help. I found a very good resume builder that had all the tools I needed to get a good rhythm going. It didn’t take long to finish the resume once I was using that. I was very happy when I went into the office with the resume done because I was met by friendly faces and two big signs that read: “ERICA WILLIAMS, YOU’RE WELCOME.”

So far nearly everyone that I’ve met thinks that I’m white and can’t believe that I’m African-American. Whether I like it or not, I’ll learn here what it’s like to have white-skin privilege. People seem to be really impressed when I speak Yoruba. They may chuckle a little at first, but then they engage me in conversation, most of which I can’t keep up with! After the first day at Mrs. Olateru-Olagbegi’s house, I’ve now moved to an apartment in Abule Oja, Yaba in the heart of Lagos, where I stay with the cousin of my colleague in the African Studies program at Yale University.

Posted By Erica Williams

Posted Jun 6th, 2003

1 Comment

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