This week in our expat-profile series, we meet a Torontonian who gave up her steady gig at the CBC to do humanitarian work for Bill Clinton… in Nigeria.
Brianna Goldberg does what most of us feel like we should be doing: volunteering her time in Africa. As a communications volunteer for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the global health branch of the Bill Clinton Foundation, Goldberg met the do-gooding ex-president while she tried to “not pass out from fever.” She writes freelance and produces radio from Nigeria, where she’s also “missing Toronto something awful.”
Why did you move?
[I moved on] September 11, 2010. The flights were cheap that day. I’d been a producer for several years at the CBC; I learned a lot, and loved the work despite its all-consuming-ness. I wanted to start building up a portfolio of self-driven projects but Ceebers was an addiction I couldn’t quit. I was never one of those people who fantasized about dropping it all to travel the world, but then my boyfriend got an offer to work for an aid organization abroad—first in the Caribbean, and later Nigeria—and it was an undeniable opportunity to step out of the shadow of Mother Corp. and do my own thing. Right place; right time. Plus, you have to follow your heart and all that, you know.
Are you happy you moved?
No question. I’ve seen and done so many crazy things I would have never even imagined [while I was] sitting behind the studio mixing board at the CBC. Now I’ve hiked volcanoes, swam with sharks, eaten pig snout and reported on conflicts from Nigeria; I’ve had time to write a book about my year in the Caribbean and co-edit a literary anthology. But the best part is getting to meet and work with so many different kinds of people and, especially through my volunteering, feel like I’m using my skills to give back. And I get to do it all while hanging out with my man-friend, so that’s been pretty sweet. Plus, being in Nigeria gives me massive street cred. People are always like, “Nigeria?! Seriously?!”
I live in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. A purpose-built city that isn’t very populated except for aid workers and bureaucrats. We live in a fairly well-off part of town. Most of the people who make Abuja “work”—the people who work in restaurants, sell phone cards, office admin people, even many Nigerians who work for government or NGOs—live in satellite towns, and the expats and high-level bureaucrats live in town where we are. [Our place] is a huge four-suite apartment. Most apartments here are giganto marble-filled multiple-bedrooms, and have “boys quarters” around back for the stewards, which definitely takes some getting used to. It’s guarded and surrounded by razor wire. Rents here are completely insane. We have roommates.
You’re working for the Bill Clinton Foundation. Have you met Bill?
Yes, it was crazy. I had this bizarre face infection and I’d been suffering from it and its side-effect fever for like two weeks, but didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, so I tried to pull myself together and look like a human. I flew to Lagos with some of my co-workers and we found ourselves in a room full of Nigeria’s elite, who were also there for the meet and greet. There was so much wealth, so much power, so much bling, and there was me in my jersey dress with my swollen nose and eye, looking like I’d been in a bar fight, trying to not pass out from fever. Anyway, he was so kind and spoke with us for some time about the real specifics of our work, nitty-gritty stuff. It was clear he really cared about the work happening in Nigeria. And I managed not to yak on him, so that was a bonus.
Does anything about Nigeria remind you of Toronto?
Not a thing. Everything here seems to be the exact opposite of Toronto. There’s so much more interaction for everything: negotiating prices—groceries, taxis, general palm-greasing—and asking questions. I had to get some medication for an ailment that shall remain nameless, and when I got to the pharmacy the clerk instructed me to shout what I needed over the heads of the lineup of people.
To get what you want, you have to learn how to ask. In Toronto, I order my pizzas online so I won’t have to talk to somebody, and then it shows up without black olives and I’m all depressed but, no, I don’t complain. Here, skirting human contact is not an option. You gotta use your words.
What is your day-to-day life like there?
Usually, I go in to the office and work from there. Eat a big, heavy, extremely spicy Nigerian lunch of stew and pounded yam. If I’m doing a freelance piece for CBC or otherwise, I just go where I need to go to get the info, and then I either write or record it in a corner of my bedroom with a blanket over my head to serve as makeshift soundproofing. Then I curse the internet for hours as I try to upload the story on a continually breaking USB modem connection.
In the nights I go for a jog, or play Ultimate Frisbee. People here think jogging’s hilarious and often laugh and point at me, and sometimes run alongside me. When the security situation makes me feel like staying home instead, I hole up inside and do selected sections of P90X. Often we’ll go get “fiery fish” at a bush bar, where you get a big old roasted catfish served with spicy sauce and French fries in its stomach. You eat it with your hands, with everyone at the table from the same platter all mowing down on the same fish, so you nom that and drink a Star beer, or a Maltina. This is very common among Nigerians—it’s like the equivalent of getting after-work drinks at a patio. Then we usually spend at least 10 minutes per night trying to kill the various weirdo bugs that sneak into our bedroom: mosquitos—malaria is a big problem here—weird flying things, cockroaches galore. The nightly massacre!
What do you tell your friends in Toronto about Nigeria?
The line I give people I don’t know well is “It’s hot, there’s lots of automatic weapons, and the food is really spicy.” To my actual friends, I tell them that, day-to-day, [there are] big ups and downs but overall I’m grateful to be learning about such an amazingly different place.
What do you miss most about Toronto?
Diversity of food options. In Nigeria, the options are pretty much Nigerian food or “Chinese” food, but I use the term loosely. Or Lebanese—there’s lots of Lebanese. But what I wouldn’t give for a plate of kimchi, already. Also: Banh Mi. Tacos. Pints at The Victory. Brisket sandwiches at Stockyards. Brunch, generally: Aunties & Uncles, Burger Bar on Augusta, Starving Artist on Lansdowne. A latte and continental breakfast at Ezra’s Pound. Coffee from anywhere at all. I lived in the St. Clair and Bathurst area in an awesome 1930s-era duplex—its proximity to Dutch Dreams was a problem in that it is one of my favourite places on Earth. Late nights at the Horseshoe. Running through Cedarvale Ravine. Buying US Weekly and bags of candy at Shoppers Drug Mart. The clanging of streetcars. Snow.
What don’t you miss at all about Toronto?
The sense of fatalism. Many of my most enterprising friends and colleagues there felt they were operating within some sort of pre-determined structure, that someone else would give them their big break or their big love or their happy ending and I know I was that way, too. I just see it continuing as I read about so many weirdo political changes in the city being grudgingly accepted. But studies reflect that Nigerians are among the most optimistic people in the world, and it shows. So many people I’ve met here have a plan, a big, big dream, and they throw everything into making it happen because they believe it can and will. I also don’t miss three-dollar TTC tokens. Yeesh.
Would you ever go back?
I hope so, but I worry that work opportunities in the cultural industry are dwindling, or changing, at least, and overall I find the work landscape in Toronto and Canada to be a bit limited. I’m really hopeful I’ll find a place that’s right for me in Toronto, because it would be great to be back in the place that just feels like my city and, hot damn, my mom and dad sure would like it.
Are you from Toronto and doing something cool somewhere else? Email Kate@TheGridTO.com.