What Is It You Can’t Face?
Today’s ExpatMumma is Anna Cunningham who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. I met Anna through another British friend and really connected over a game of pétanque ( Rah-Rah! )A few intimate gatherings ensued some gin and tonics were drunk a couple of times, she blossomed into a wonderful shoulder to cry on and ear to talk to and now we are in regular communication. Anna is a journalist with courage, her pieces challenge the reader and put her in dangerous situations in neglected and overlooked parts of the world. She has a melt in your mouth perfectly accentuated and very gorgeous British accent and (you have to agree) she has the best lips to wear a Ruby Woo Mac red lipstick ever!
Welcome to ExpatMumma. Settle in and enjoy Anna’s story.
Where were you born and where are you currently living?
I was born in the UK and currently live in Lagos, Nigeria.
Where was your last country of residence?
Before we moved to Nigeria in 2014, I lived in Paris for two years and before that in Mumbai, India for nearly four years.
Is there anything you wished you had done before you left there?
Had I known how expensive decent cheese was in Nigeria (it’s largely all imported) then I would have smuggled in a tonne by the crate load! Other than that no, apart from maybe having taken more advantage of the large parks and fresh air to exercise. In Lagos, there is little green space and I really miss the fresh air.
Why did you move and how long have you been in this country?
I moved to Nigeria because my husband was posted here as the bureau chief for Agence France Presse. Sometimes fate has a really odd way of working things. We were living in Paris and had found out that we were expecting our second child. I was getting used to the whole idea, investigating what having a baby in Paris would entail, my husband even bought me a little book “Avoir un bébé à Paris”. I went for an early scan and was told bluntly by the French doctor “it’s too small, no wait there’s no heartbeat, it’s gone”. And that was it. One minute pregnant in Paris, the next not. It was a missed miscarriage no sign or signals. I went through it naturally but during the ten days that I was miscarrying my husband came home saying he’d been offered a job in Nigeria and they needed to know by the end of the week. So although my mind was elsewhere we had to decide. One evening we decided no, next we decided yes, then no again, but with more research we took the plunge and life changed and now we are heading rapidly towards our sixth year here.
What are the main differences living in your home country compared to life as an expat?
I’ve been away from my home country for nearly a decade now so I sometimes feel like an outsider when I return anyway. But I guess the main differences are all very basic, you can drink the tap water without falling ill, you have constant power without daily, sometimes hourly powercuts, public transport exists and functions and shopping is easier. For many things Nigeria has become a largely import reliant country, so you never quite know what is in the shops from one week to the next and prices fluctuate. Also you never know how long something has been sitting on the shelves for. I crave fresh eggs and fresh milk! I once had a panicked call when I was in the UK from a friend in Lagos saying “bring milk, there’s no milk”. She was right, milk stocks had been held at port, the shelves were empty. So I did! Expat life is very different, I mean who else travels with eight suitcases when they fly? That’s not normal right? We do because of what we need to bring with us. I was starkly made aware of how different my life was on a visit home earlier this year when trying to withdraw cash from my own bank. I was hauled into a room and first accused of fraud, then when they googled me, they next suggested I was being scammed. I hadn’t even mentioned Nigeria, but clearly they had seen my multiple entry and exit stamps and visas and drawn their own conclusions. I pointed out to the bank manager that with the greatest of respect she doesn’t live the way I live, she might not need cash for several months away. I don’t imagine she would be stockpiling for her next flight away. Quite often when I return home to the UK, I find myself staring in wonder at supermarket aisles overflowing with variety, getting strange looks from other shoppers. I end up explaining to cashiers the reason my trolley is so full of multiple items, if we were to do to this in Nigeria the price would be three or four times what I spend and they look back at me confused. Life in Lagos is perhaps very different to other expat postings, this is a developing country and a mega city to boot, there are vast differences between rich and poor and immense inequalities. But we have been here longer than expected and it’s true too say that with all its challenges there is something about this fascinating country that makes it home.
How have these differences influenced you?
Living here (and to be honest it was similar when we lived in India), has made me appreciate what we have much more and how fortunate we are. As a journalist I have visited places outside the Lagos bubble life, and there is a real bubble here. I value much more the basics, things that we often take for granted elsewhere and also have a realisation that stuff is just stuff. I don’t feel that materialistic need to be surrounded by things, as lovely as some might be, but having seen how so many struggle to survive here with so little it gives you a different take on what is really needed.
What is your favourite part of being an expatmumma?
I love the experience we are gaining as a family. Aside from my work life, my two young children get to experience a different culture and way of living. They too get to appreciate the simple things. My eldest daughter only knows the Nigerian National anthem, not the British National anthem. Both can speak with a Nigerian accent, which is amusing to many. I also get to see how parenting is done in other cultures, some of it I might not agree with but it opens your eyes. I know that my youngest (who is three) will not remember much about life here, as my eldest (who is seven) doesn’t remember much about life in India where she was born, but I hope one day they will be grateful for the experiences they had growing up as truly global children.
How many children do you have and who are they?
I have two daughters a seven and three year old.
What do you love the most about your children?
I love that they make me laugh and that they have such innocence. They are free from the worries of the world and it’s refreshing to remember that life can simply revolve around who to play with, what to draw, what to eat and what fun to have and a fascination with all things new. We often get wrapped up in the seriousness of our life as adults when we have so many responsibilities and it’s good to see them enjoying life for the moment and valuing that.
What shits you the most about your children? naughty question
Refusal to sleep. I have realised that I have been seriously sleep deprived for almost a decade, pre children I was doing night shifts which stood me in good stead for little ones, but now I know I need sleep and they don’t seem to get that yet.
What is your job? If you are trailing spouse then how do you spend your time?
I am a journalist. I went freelance a decade ago, after ten years as BBC staff. I left to move to India with my husband and have managed to keep freelancing in each country we have moved to. I report largely for the CBC news (Canadian broadcasting corporation) as their freelance foreign correspondent, and also for France 24 and others, so I’m often found in front of a camera on my terrace or elsewhere delivering the latest news. Recently I’ve had the chance to do more in-depth reporting, on a subject I’m passionate about – air pollution, which took me elsewhere in Nigeria, and I’ve covered the Boko Haram crisis extensively over the years. Freelancing has allowed me the flexibility that a staff job perhaps wouldn’t in terms of having my children and being able to pick and chose when and who I work for and what I cover. Sometimes I’d prefer to have a regular monthly salary as it can be feast or famine in the world of freelancing, but equally I wouldn’t be around as much as I have been for my children especially during their early years. I still go out on assignments but when I do, largely for security reasons, it has to be when my husband can work from home, so one of us is always around to be on hand for the children. And yes I am that person you see on the TV or hear on the radio whose children are always trying to get in on the act from behind the scenes (and sometimes, I admit, if I’m called early to do a radio report I might do it in my pyjamas… what staff job would allow you that?!).
What was the easiest thing settling in ?
We settled in quite quickly to life in Nigeria perhaps because we had lived in another developing mega city (Mumbai, India), that helped. We had less of a culture shock and were reasonably adjusted to life where things don’t quite go to plan.
What was the hardest thing settling in?
Finding a social life. A lot of expats here are with oil and gas industries, and there is a true expat bubble life. Their lives seem pretty much set up when they arrive, someone even told me they had a handover note with where to shop, how to get this and that, drs, drivers etc. We arrived and had none of that. We were the only journalists here with a family at the time, so even the comfort circle of other journalists wasn’t quite at hand. It took a while to adjust and find like minded friends. It felt like a secret society at some points when people said “oh didn’t you know that” or “don’t you know where that is”? It felt like everyone else knew and you had to work your way into the circle of knowledge! It’s also somewhat different and difficult for us, we work odd hours, I often work to a different time zone, so when the expat crowd clock off at 4 or 5pm, sometimes I’m just getting started and my husband is working until late at night. But we found a way, we found friends, although I think our children still have a better social life than us! What has helped is we do have a brilliant nanny who has become a real part of our family.
How do you live your life differently now you have the hindsight of your expat expe- rience?
I don’t know, maybe we tend to live very differently here, we stockpile food for times when you can’t get what you need and the major hassle it is to get to the shops. Sometimes I think that’s a good idea, other times I’d rather just pop to the local shops for a few things. We go “home” to holiday when everyone else is leaving for the sun, we relish the cool fresh air of a British summer. We are still in “expat life”, although we don’t quite fit the description of expats, journalists overseas never quite do, we kind of encircle it, so maybe come back to me when we have retired to some far flung place and I can answer you then!
What advice would you give to a person who is soon to be an expatriate?
Don’t expect your friends to understand. They wave you off seemingly excited for you and return to their life. Meanwhile you struggle to piece your life back together in a new foreign country and when you have done that, you want to share your experiences, naturally. But your experience might be so alien to their lives that they don’t really, truly want to know, especially if it’s a place where they are unlikely to visit you and experience. Sometimes your tales can be misconstrued as a boast. The only real people who get it, get the “wahala” (hassle) as it’s called here, are those in the same situation. You discover who your real friends are, the ones who make an effort to stay in contact. It’s difficult, you might go home and find it hard to fit back in and the longer you stay away the harder it becomes as that distance grows bigger. But appreciate the friends who stick with you as you live this crazy life overseas, they are the only ones who matter.
Describe a usual day?
There isn’t one, but if there was:
Get the kids off to school and nursery.
Try to motivate myself to exercise a bit.
See if any major news is breaking or any reports that need following up and speak to various editors around the world (time zones permitting)
Do the nursery pick up 1230
Youngest fed and nap time (sometimes)
Squeeze in some more work (now people have woken up elsewhere)
Do the school run 1530
Juggle homework, dinner, reporting (sometimes live).
Generally end up having a load of kids over for a playdate (not sure why it’s always at ours?!)
Kids bathed and bed
And somewhere in the day, check for food supplies when needed and spend hours in traffic jams if necessary to get food etc.
Post kids bedtime, husband home and catch up (or often both of us end up working), dinner, collapse. And do it all again next day.
Other days it’s get woken up by a phone call about some breaking news, throw on clothes and make up, go on TV and radio and feed the rolling news beast.
What languages do you speak?
The best thing about living in …………….?( you choose which country)
Nigeria is… the insanity of life here, you never quite know what will happen from one day to the next and I kind of live that life well. For my children life is great, they have friends in the compound and sometimes it feels like I have a playground/creche in my house but it works well for them and they have fun.
WHAT is the most challenging thing about being an expatmumma?
Having zero support network, other than those friends you make. We have had no visitors in nearly six years. People have an ill informed fear of coming to Nigeria, whereas in actual fact you could visit and have a great time. It’s difficult, especially when you have small children not to have that support network. I had postnatal depression with my first child and no support. I remember talking to an old school friend at home about it, maybe five years later and she said she had no idea. When I look at friends who have stayed put, they have their network of family, friends, neighbours that has been established for years. But every time we move we pack up our lives and start again, relaunching our entire network. It’s not easy. Children adapt, but I think it’s sometimes harder for the parents. You have to have faith in one another that as a team you can make it work, because really there is only the two of you. Equally when you return home you feel like an outsider, everything is familiar but also you have become the outsider.
What is the BEST thing about being an Expatmumma!
In years to come I shall remind my children of their probably long disappeared Nigerian accents and their crazy experiences in various countries. But the fact I get to share this odd life (and let’s be honest it is a bit odd) with them is great.
Tell us an anecdote from one of your postings?
I went to Northeastern Nigeria, on an assignment to report on Boko Haram and victims of the insurgency when I was six months pregnant. My security guy said he could deal with bullets and ambushes but if I could avoid going into labour that would be great. It was hot, it was tough but I was glad I did it. I think most people I met just thought I was very fat.
What are some things you do when you know you are leaving to go to a new country?
I get rid of all the “tat” I have acquired during my time and then maybe acquire new stuff to remind me of where we once lived.
Where would your ultimate expat posting be and why?
My husband was offered the Kabul bureau chief job once, but our daughter was six weeks old so we turned it down. We have both worked in Afghanistan before and that would have been interesting. But now with two young children our priorities have changed, we can no longer do the danger zones for obvious reasons. I think we would both like Sydney, but it’s not realistic at the moment with elderly parents to be living so far away. Maybe New York, who knows, the world remains a fascinating place!
Any last thoughts?
I sometimes/often don’t consider myself an expat… an economic migrant maybe. The word expat comes with so many labels/assumptions, ones that we don’t have. We, as journalists, don’t have the big expat “packages”, we don’t get big so called “hardship allowances” and no we don’t get a big “entertainment budget”, we also don’t ride around with a mobile police unit after 10pm and we certainly don’t get an annual container allowed to deliver whatever we want (and believe me I’ve seen some arrive loaded with John Lewis and Lakeland deliveries and crates of prosecco!). But we do get to visit the places many others are not “allowed to”. I find I kind of straddle a multi-layered life, I’m a wife and mother, a journalist, a sort of expat, a foreigner, a traveller and increasingly a stranger to my own “home”. But it’s true that wherever we go there will be ups and downs, good times and bad, but we manage this life.
This so called “expat” life is fun, challenging, crazy, insane, annoying at times, alien at others, but what an experience. Live it, love it, breathe it, be grateful you have the chance to do it when there are people dreaming of just visiting the places you live in. Remember it takes a strong woman to live this kind of lifestyle, we often forget that. I recall once someone I know moaning about how tough it was moving house (to the next street!), I had to keep quiet but secretly reminded myself that I was coping just fine and that how we live, where we go and what we do is not for everyone, but when we do it, we do it well.
What is it you simply can’t Face living in ……….?
Traffic in Lagos no! The trees being cut down around Lagos.
Put it like this, Nigeria was never on my “must move to and live in” country list, and we’re still here!
Bravo Anna this is a unique insight into life in Nigeria of a journalist family
xxxx muita obrigada