Lessons learnt from hosting an international intern
From early January to March 2018, I played host to an international student intern from Dartmouth College. For Linford Zirangwa, a Zimbabwean and computer science undergrad at Dartmouth, it was his first visit to Nigeria.
Over the course of his 2-month stay, we worked on his first product, Shona101; a Shona language learning story app for children.
Ordinarily, receiving visitors to Nigeria isn’t one that has me on my toes. I’d done it a few times with little more than airport pickups and helping them get around for a day or two, to mention a few tasks.
However, when a visit is preceded with certain protocols and spans 2 months as I experienced with this, it suddenly takes on a different perception. I couldn’t help some fears around my expected responsibilities over my intern’s experience. “How should I help him settle to life in Lagos for 2 months? What does he stand to gain from working with a business like Genii Games with its peculiar structure?” Those and more were the questions on my mind as I prepared to welcome Linford to begin his internship in early January. I’d gone from being Uber excited about his coming to a state of anxiety as his arrival date drew closer.
Still, I was keen on it as Dartmouth already held (and still holds) a special place in my heart from my 6-week summer experience as a 2017 YALI Mandela Washington Fellow. The reception of its community of students and faculties was such that it inspired a feeling to continue our relationship. Interestingly, The John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, which is responsible for hosting YALI fellows, also provides opportunities for students like Linford to undergo international internships.
Notwithstanding my initial anxiety, the internship turned out to be an exciting experience for both of us. Here’s how I navigated the experience with some takeaways.
(1) Managing expectations
In seeking to understand the intern’s objectives and expectations, I had a series of chats with him.
For one, I needed to paint the true picture of what it means to work with Genii Games. Genii Games isn’t some big studio like what you see online with major gaming studios. Far from that, it’s an entity whose system I’ve come to structure around my preference for keeping things small, simple and functional. Though a work in progress, I wasn’t sure if my system was going to be comfortable with him and I felt a need to relay that true picture to Linford as he made plans to join me. It turns out, Linford simply wanted to experience firsthand the process that goes into creating Genii Games’ products in an environment that’s not so different from his native Zimbabwe’s.
By being upfront with him about my organizational structure, we got on the same page prior to his arrival. It reinforced the importance of being open to understand the intern’s objectives and expectations.
Though I’d checked out a few places via my network prior to his arrival, my concern was over whether Linford would like them. The Airbnb apartments he’d checked out were crazy expensive though decent in my opinion. It wasn’t solely about the cost. Proximity to my place of work was another factor as commuting across Lagos can be a headache. Eventually, we settled for him to stay with me or a hotel to allow him room to check out the options I had down before committing to one.
His initial residence was a guesthouse close to my house while he searched for an Airbnb apartment he could physically inspect.
Even though I thought the guesthouse was cool with guaranteed electric power and serene environment, it turns out it wasn’t his preference. For him, it was lonely and felt like a dorm. He also felt removed from the real-world experience of living and interacting with everyday people. I was thinking security and convenience while he was thinking of the freedom to experience everyday Lagos.
In less than a week, He found himself an Airbnb apartment in Yaba, checked it out — one of the benefits of having him here first — and loved it. Also, he seemed quite comfortable with commuting from there to my place of work despite the distance. Because the Airbnb apartment was occupied at the time and wouldn’t be free for 3 weeks, he booked it and moved in with me for the 3 weeks waiting period.
Having him on ground ensured he wasn’t under pressure to get a place without being sure he wanted to stay there. 2 months is a long time to spend in a poor environment.
Also, staying with me afforded us a great bonding experience. We got to know each other better and work began in earnest. He got to experience my daily grind and appreciate the conditions under which work gets done, drew similarities between Harare and Lagos among others. Also, it’s on record that Linford fell in love with dodo (fried plantain) while staying with me.
(3) Getting around Lagos
I realized having Linford commute to and from his Airbnb residence in Yaba was a great choice. Except you want to burn through all your cash, commuting around Lagos requires a combination of different modes of transportation and so Linford experienced the keke napep (tuktuk), okada (motorcycles), danfo (minivans), cabs (Uber, Taxify).
From what I gathered, the experience wasn’t really new. What was new was that it came on steroids typical of life in Lagos. Bikes, for example, he’d experienced in Kigali (Rwanda), but it was nowhere as close to what he experienced in Lagos.
Here, I learnt an interesting lesson from a language perspective after he ran into issues with the written directions I’d give him when exploring Lagos on his own. Turns out there’s a stark difference in how we pronounce words and what’s written on paper. Afterwards, I switched to voice descriptions.
Use WhatsApp voice notes! Don’t rely on written descriptions. There’s a world of difference between how Lagosians pronounce almost every bus stop. Also, if your guest thinks of learning any language to navigate Lagos, it’s Pidgin English!
(4) Exploring beyond Lagos
Because Lagos isn’t all there is to Nigeria, I felt a strong desire to show him a different part of the country. Even though he’d heard of how big the Nigeria was and seen only a fraction of Lagos, I felt the need to add some context to it. I took him to Abeokuta, Ogun state, to spend time with my family. He saw a different life to Lagos’; slow albeit modest and serene. We went climbing the famous Olumo Rock to get a great view of the town, touched on its history among others. I also introduced him to palm wine.
(5) Cultural difference
Many times, Linford didn’t exactly know how to greet adults. He was at loss to the gestures to use — prostrate, bow, handshake, nod etc. One notable experience was when he stretched out his hand to shake an adult Yoruba lady and she felt offended. I had to explain to her that he wasn’t from here, hence his unfamiliarity with the culture. On hearing that, her face lightened up as she warmed up to him.
Step in with unfamiliar situations that may sound offensive. People are generally understanding when they know you’re of a different culture and don’t mean to disrespect them.
There’s so much to share but I’ll wrap up with the following general tips:
Don’t try too much to impress your guest. There’s little you can help to douse any preconceived notion or biases they hold about the country.
Avoid being too protective. Usually, a decent awareness of security as you would adopt in any environment is enough to help them stay off trouble. Give them room to explore.
Be wary of trying to sell an image. Personally, I don’t consider it mandatory to impress upon my guests their opinion of Nigeria or Nigerians. Nah! Rather, I’m of the opinion that Nigeria to any guests will be to them what their individual experiences are.
Let your guest experience different environments. I realized how much socially enriching Lagos was for him, thanks to his Airbnb hosts. They were such nice hosts and ensured he got the taste of Lagos social life in ways I couldn’t.
In all, 2 months went by in a fly and it was an interesting experience.
How did I know Linford enjoyed the 2-month experience? Well, he gave me a beautifully written card just before we parted ways at the airport.