Even small things can make you happy – that is what you can read on the faces of Nigerians. Most of them do not own much, but they cherish what little they have. In the picture, there is a little boy who carries water bags in a bowl on his head. In Nigeria, water is a very precious and scarce resource whereas Europeans often waste water and underestimate its importance. The boy has an important mission and he fulfils his obligation dutifully. In another picture, there are boys selling meet straight from a blanket on the ground. The seemed to be very proud of finding customer for their product that, unfortunately, may cause serious diseases. The meat is never checked by any competent person or institution because vendors simply cannot afford such tests. In the third picture, there is a shop with a “Fresh Food” logo. It is considered a rather exclusive shop because it has a roof and a fridge. Thus, its customers may feel a bit special. Having been among Nigerians for a couple of weeks, I have understood the power of the message that my grandma and mum kept telling me: “You should appreciate what you have because you could have much less”.
In the picture there is a small girl in a wig and high-heeled shoes. Her father was a cook at the facility that I worked for. Obviously, he did not worry that his growing daughter would develop spinal disorders because of the high heels. Interestingly, although regular activities were held at the facility that day, the girl’s parents decided to make her wear special clothes. As to the girl, she seemed to be aware of the fact that those clothes gave her a somewhat weird appearance, even by African standards. In fact, she was not happy in that stylized outfit. In general, Nigeria is completely different from Europe when it comes to fashion. Not only clothing, but also hair styles are amazing to the European traveler. Nigerian women can spend many hours just braiding their hair. Hair dressing is a very good and reputable job. In view of this, why do we tend to make our lives so complicated?
Nigerians are very spontaneous and uninhibited people. Part of their culture are daily dances, artistic performance and… of course hair styles! They do not feel ashamed of performing in public, it is something so natural for them.
What is more, they love waering eye-catching hair styles. Women and little girls alike change their hair comb every three days on average. Usually, stiff wires are used to give the hair the desired shape. Surprisingly, mothers find it very important that even 1-year-olds visit hair dressers regularly. They fo not consider that their daughers may feel uncomfortable with wires on their heads. When I was in Nigeria, I wanted to try on the popular hair style but unfortunately I took to this project too late. What a shame!
A girl kept posting on Facebook that she did not accept her black skin and that she wanted to wake up white-skinned every morning. One day she came across the picture of Alek Wek, a very successful and very black model who is considered also very beautiful. This inspired her to think that she is somebody special, too. In fact, many African girls have changed the way they perceive themselves, following the example set by Alek Wek.
Alek Wek was awarded the “Model of the Year” title in 1997 by MTV, and was the first African model to appear on the cover of ELLE that year. Dark-skinned models were rare, if not unheard of, in the high fashion industry. Her industry saw her as new and exotic – a savage beauty. Her distinctive looks, so different from the usual catwalk fare, caused a stir in the world of fashion and won her many awards.
Alek Wek was born seventh of nine children in Wau in 1977 (When I volunteered in Nigeria I met some people from Wau). Her family belongs to the southern Sudanese Dinka tribe. Her name means “the-black-and-white-cow”, which was supposed to bring her luck.
She grew up in a poor, dangerous and war-ridden area, where leaving home meant the risk of rape, or kidnapping, or death. Once a gunman in her yard began shooting like crazy into the night because he took a handle being pressed for the click of a rifle. When the civil war broke out in Wau in 1985, the Alek family had to flee from both rebel and government forces.
Alek’s older sister had moved to Britain before the civil war, and applied on behalf of her family for refugee status. In 1991 Alek and her younger sister were accepted, but it was two years before they were joined by their mother and two more of their nine siblings. The remaining family members were finally given refuge by Australia and Canada.
Alek’s father, Athian, once broke his hip in a bicycle accident, and his hip was repaired with metal pins. He soon developed an infection and upon the family’s return to Wau, he became paralysed and died not much later. This shows the very poor healthcare standards in Sudan and the plight of the people.
While living with her sister in England, Alek supported herself with odd jobs outside school hours and sent money back to her mother. She learnt English quickly, and went on to study fashion technology and business at the prestigious London College of Fashion.
Alek knows that it is an awful feeling to be hungry. Still, she understands now that people are hungry for different reasons. Some want their bodies to look a certain way, whether their bodies are meant to or not. They choose not to eat.
In restaurants in her Brooklyn neighborhood, she always asks for a doggie bag, to bring the leftovers home. Having experienced hunger and poverty in Sudan, she finds it embarrassing that she should have so much more than others do.
Ales decided to share her perspective and help bridge the gap between two completely different worlds – the world of plenty and the world of paucity. She raises awareness about the situation in Sudan, as well as the plight of refugees worldwide. She is a missionary for World Vision, an organisation which combats AIDS, an ambassador for Doctors Without Borders in Sudan, and devotes time to UNICEF. She has been always faithful to her Sudanese heritage.
The interviews usually start with the question: “What’s something special about you?” or “What do you want the world to know about you?” He treats everybody with respect, is always extremely positive and patient and communicates with his interviewees using their communication method, for example, there are children who don’t speak but use gestures like tapping their fingers.
Among the millions of comments on his videos, thousands of viewers say they have been brought to tears. Some of what his interviewees go through is heart-wrenching and he wants the world to see that and make people change their attitude towards disability. Chris insists that children with special education needs are persecuted for being different. Be showing other people the value of such children and the lives of their families, he wants to familiarize them with disability and eradicate the bullying.
The initiative is also very important for parents of disabled children. It allows them to share expericences with other parents around the world being in a similar situation. This can take away at least some of their fear and give them the power to go on with their daily ordeal.
One oft he interviews features Owen, who cannot use his arms or legs so he moves around by rolling on the ground. Another video presents the twins Tinley, who has Apert syndrome, a condition that affects the skull, being the reson for which she is sometimes teased by other children and David, her brother who protects her from bullies. The next one shows Ethan, who has autism, and his sister Leya. Yet another story is about Samuel, whose mother Ellen was offered an abortion several times, because Samuel was diagnosed with an illness that would not let his live longer than a couple of months. Now, at 11 years old, Samuel has defied all the odds.