By: Molly N. Williams, MSW, PLCSW
According to Delma Jackson, professor in the department of social work at Fayetteville State University, “The pace of global challenges suggests more is needed than classroom theory and internship practice. Future social workers have to be ready with practice skills; be open minded; and be sensitive to culture, languages, and lifestyle differences of those whom they will serve.”
I took Dr. Jackson at her word and participated in an exchange between Fayetteville State University (FSU) and Covenant University (CU), Canaan Land, Ota, Nigeria, in the summer of 2009. The students and faculty participating were in biology, chemistry, history, and social work. The group was led by Dr. Daniel Okunbor, Assistant Dean and Professor. The partnership between FSU and CU was initiated by Dr. Okunbor with the aim of fostering a mutual relationship between FSU and institutions in Africa, promoting student global perspectives necessary in knowledge-based 21st century competitive economy, and engaging collaborative research among students and faculty.
Students from FSU received academic credits for two courses that they completed while attending CU. The two courses were Yoruba Language and Culture, taught by Dr. Adeola A. Shobola, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling; and African Society and Culture, team taught by Dr. Alex E. Asakitikpi, Dr. Patrick A. Edewor, and Dr. Alaba O. Simpson, who are professors in the Department of Sociology. The exchange students were able to put into practice many of the objectives from the courses learned in class while in Nigeria. As a social work student, I gained cultural understanding by interacting with CU students, faculty, staff, and many of the local people in Ota town and its surrounding cities.
I also learned some of the differences between Nigerian and American culture. For example, some agencies allow their employees to conduct a praise and worship session before starting the work day. There was use of the Yoruba language, religious symbols, Nigerian foods, meanings of family names, tribal marks, dress, and some ceremonial practices.
We traveled by van to Ile-Ife, Osun State. It is regarded as the revered cradle of Yoruba civilization. Upon reaching Ibaden, near Ile-Ife, we had a chance to practice speaking Yoruba at a nearby restaurant while placing orders for food and drinks. I noticed some of the local people in the restaurant with distinctly tribal marks on their faces and observed a variety of traditional dress/attire, including buba (top) and sokoto (trousers).
While in Ile-Ife, we had a guided tour of the Ile-Ife palace and museum by one of the palace officers. He was very knowledgeable about the history of the Yoruba people and many of the Yoruba culture and traditions. He was dressed in a buba and sokoto with a specialized haircut (half of the hair being cut very close and the other side bald). The hair cut distinguished officers of the palace.
The group continued traveling to Badagry, Lagos State, where we had the opportunity to tour the slave museum and slave camp house, slave market, and “The Point of No Return.” In the museum, there were many traditional pieces of equipment—such as chains, knives, mouth pieces—from when many Africans were captured and put on slave ships. The Mobee family is known to be one of the major slave trade facilitators in Badagry. The slave market was also known as Vlekete Slave Market. The market is located in front of Vlekete shrine. More than 17,000 slaves were sold annually at the peak of the slave trade.
While we were in Badagry, one of the local chiefs escorted us to “The Point of No Return.” It is also known as the Arc of Departure, Gberefu Beach, Badagry, Lagos State, Nigeria. This is where many slaves were put on ships and taken to an unknown destination. This area was one of the highlights of my experience in Africa. I actually thought about the many men, women, and children who had been separated and taken without free will. I can only reflect that this was truly a time when Africans were not treated with any dignity or respect.
Women Health Awareness Workshop
There was group participation and learning in a 3-day workshop, Women Health Awareness, in the nation’s capital, Abuja, Nigeria. The workshop was held at the Women and Youth Education Empowerment Foundation, and the program was developed by its coordinator, Mrs. Joyce Nwanya, and Dr. Daniel Okunbor of FSU. The goal of the workshop was to help develop the talents of women and youth in the areas of craft and handwork. It was a forum for women and youth to exchange ideas on how to improve their economic status, to maintain positive emotional states, and have healthier bodies. There were lectures on disease prevention and identification, as well as the social work profession. As an MSW graduate, I made presentations on “Women Health Awareness and Social Work as a Profession.”
There were more than 25 women attending the workshop each day. Upon completion of the presentation, the women had the opportunity to ask questions and gain a better understanding of the different types of cancer, diet, and exercise. Many of the women participated in practical exercises in which they were able to share with the group some healthy habits they used on a daily basis. Some women shared new ideas and other ways they could benefit from annual physical exams, mammograms, pelvic tests, HIV/AIDS tests, dental exams, and monthly breast self-exams. The objectives of the workshop were met, as the women had many opportunities to interact with the presenter and other women regarding their thoughts and concerns about cancer and awareness. Many of the women also picked up additional skills in learning how to make beautiful beads (advanced bead-making).
Later, while in Abuja, I had the opportunity to visit Oze Odigbe (Igbe King) of Abuja Territory. There was a group waiting to welcome my group with music (traditional instruments) and dancing. The king welcomed us to Abuja and told us of the history of the city and some of his responsibilities as king. His chiefs/officers shared many of the traditional customs and culture of the people. They also provided a special African meal for us to sample the foods. The meal included one of their specialized soups (pepper soup), goat stew with white rice, fresh vegetables, and a favored drink of their culture, palm vine.
Implications for Social Work
The international travel to Nigeria, Africa has given me another perspective of the country and the people who live there. While in Abuja, Nigeria, I spent some time with one of the local social workers, Ms. Priscilla Nwokenn. She spoke about her community challenges and lack of some resources, medication, and learning centers. Ms. Nwokenn reported many cases of HIV/AIDS clients (adults and children) in need of basic medical care and social support systems.
I also had an opportunity to visit a local school in Abuja, Nigeria. There was one room for approximately 25 children who attended daily. The school was developed by Mr. and Mrs. Nwanya for children without means to pay for their education. The children were eager to learn, and one student proudly recited his alphabet for me. I realized from the building that the school and students could benefit from additional resources to make them more successful. I had been advised to take gifts for children, so I provided coloring books and crayons, to the children’s delight.
While in Nigeria, I also learned some traditions, like how to wear their traditional clothing. I learned about styles, fabrics, and when clothing patterns are changed for different occasions and ceremonies. This gave me a better understanding of the local people and surrounding cities. This was an extremely enlightening experience for me. I look forward to other international travel, because it will better prepare me to advocate for individuals and families from other cultures. I have acquired a new level of awareness, respect, and understanding of social service needs in Nigeria.
In closing, as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Social Work, Norfolk State University, I find that there are many opportunities for social work students, social work educators, and other helping professionals to become involved with community development projects and international social work. I encourage them to seek out these opportunities and to take advantage of the learning experience.
Molly N. Williams, MSW, PLCSW, is a doctoral student at Norfolk State University Department of Social Work. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work from Fayetteville State University. She served in the United States Army for 22 years and was honorably discharged in 2002. She practiced social work at the United States Special Operations Command, Sustainment Brigade; at Womack Army Medical Center; and in the Army Community Services. She has studied the Yoruba language and African Society Culture at the Department of Sociology, Covenant University. Her research interests are military families, international social work, and the aging population.