Life in the Woods of America

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By Anthony Akaeze

It seemed, whichever way I looked at it, like living in the woods – yet it wasn’t quite so. But when, like in my case, you are coming from a  populated city like Lagos inhabited by 18 million or more people and find yourself somewhere on the outskirt of Athens,  Wisconsin, a community  of over 1000 residents, surrounded by Maple trees in a cubicle,  it might be nothing other than that – living in the woods. Except that this was one I willingly agreed to, right from when I was in Lagos. But yet, I never knew what to expect until I arrived. It was a real shock. I had read articles about life in rural America but never really experienced it. Here then was one.

Located within Stoney Acres farm owned by Tony Schultz on Rangeline Road – the cubicle is the loneliest place I ever lived in. On any single day, one could, without any stress, count the number of cars passing through the road. There’s no bus or train station or street light, and this gives an idea of its nature.

Yet close by, just four minutes walk from the cubicle, are modern kitchen and brewery offering some of the choicest cuisine and beer in Wisconsin. The former  mainly serves Stoney Acres staff until Friday and Saturday when the preparation for pizza, which Stoney Acres is famous for, takes centre stage. On both evenings, people from far and near, come to buy pizza and beer. Only then would you see a rise in vehicular movement on Rangeline Road, as people drive in to wine and dine.

When you visit a foreign country and get to experience people’s hospitality like I enjoyed, you knew just how lucky you were. I experienced it in Ontario, Canada in 2015 when Olumide Idowu, whom I met through the InterAction Leadership Programme in 2005, and his wife, proved to be such wonderful host after spending days in Winnipeg where I had covered the Super Falcons group matches in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But to now experience it in America through total strangers is different.  Well, up until my American trip in mid September, all but one-was.  Stephen Schmidt,  whom I met three years ago in Winnipeg, was the facilitator. He had, accompanied by his daughter, Maggie, travelled from Wausau to Winnipeg to watch the women’s championship and happened to have stayed in the same guesthouse as me. He and Sally, his wife, ensured I had a comfortable stay in America. For apart from their own effort,  I met people through them who equally showed me love, whether in terms of free accommodation or ride, warm clothe/articles or asking after my welfare: Wes Ebert, Tony Schultz, Alex Krause, Bill Tehan, Shahara Lefay, Ed Schultz and wife, Aunt Judy, Shannon Thielman, Peter and Trina Tiffany, Jeffrey T. Leigh, Hannah and her beau, Stin; Amber, Joe Sexton, Joshua Wright and Kyle. Before these Americans, I had met Tiffany McCallen, chief operations officer of Religion News Association, RNA, the organisation that largely facilitated  my trip to the US to attend a RNA conference in Ohio, and Amy Schiska, also of the RNA whom I had only previously interacted with online, Debra Mason, a university professor and one of the facilitators of the religion and LGBTI workshop that I attended in Cape Town in 2016 that paved the way for my association with RNA, Ken Chitwood, a member of  RNA  who I met for the first time in Ohio, and Pramod Thomas who fate brought me in contact with  at O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, on my way home. Each one of them, showed me the humane side of the typical American, the same way Sebastine Obasi, Fola Adekeye, Danladi Abubakar, Soji Akinrinade, Charles Ojugbana, Taiwo Obe, Ike Ojukwu, Jude Isiwu and Alina Mfulo evinced before my trip to America.

Fourth picture is Stoney Acres
Stoney Acres covered by snow

I arrived the US a day before the RNA conference which held at the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel, Ohio from September 13 to 15. The conference brought together many religion journalists, experts and faith leaders who shared their thoughts and experiences about religion and how their work and the world is impacted by it.

During one of the sessions which involved panel discussions, I asked one of the panels, based on the submission of its members, whether Donald Trump’s emergence as president of America has led to a rise in racial profiling or xenophobia against muslims in the country.

The response from one of them was, yes.

The RNA conference was an interesting event, marked by networking and friendship. At the end of it, I proceeded to Wausau, and alighting from the bus, met Stephen and Wes. We then headed for Wes house, and the day after, Stephen drove me to Stoney Acres Farm, about 35 minutes away. From Rangeline Road, I occasionally visited Medford, about 15 minutes drive, or Wausau. I even had the privilege of travelling to Ghana  to attend a journalism conference and award after which I returned  to the US. The privilege extended to giving a talk at the Wausau Area Montessori Charter School where I addressed 2nd and 3rd grade students. The students were curious about Africa, wanting to know, among others, about life there: the language, food and way of life. I told them about Nigeria’s diversity, the sense of community, food and climate. The climate, I said, is the opposite of Wausau’s. On the day I interacted with the students, November 8, the climate in Wausau, like much of the two months I spent in the country, was cold, too cold for me. For the first time in my life, I arrived Central Wisconsin Airport, from Ghana on October 16 to find the ground covered with snow. Shannon, friend to the Schmidts, who gave me a ride to the farm, said I might not get to witness another snow before returning to Nigeria as Wisconsin’s climate is unpredictable. She was wrong, as I beheld a couple more snows, the heaviest of which probably happened on November 4.  Though there was a furnace in the cubicle, and stacks of wood- thanks to Ed Schultz – Tony’s dad, who worked on the maple trees within the vast landscape to produce Maple syrup, such that there’s no shortage of wood there, which, once lit, warmed the cubicle, I or Alex, my American housemate needed to feed it with wood every now and again to keep it going. I was more prone to keep tabs on the furnace, being the one most affected by the weather, and there were a number of times Alex complained that the house had become too warm for him. It was never too warm for me. The woods appear to burn faster than normal and I needed to be awake all night and check it every hour, to keep the house perennially warm. That was impossible.

“Dont burn down the house,” Alex told me, on a day he was preparing to go spend the night elsewhere.

“I won’t” I said with a smile. But to me, keeping the room warm was a task that must be done. It was in my own interest to do this. Long before the opportunity to speak to the Wausau Area Montessori Charter School students came, I did occasionally wonder how people survived  such cold weather, and now addressing the students, I said, “some of us in Africa do wonder how you live in such cold climate, the same way, (I think) some Americans wonder how we live in such hot climate.” This amused some of them, including their teachers.

Regarding climate, I found that the average American is weather wise. They often refer to the weather forecast on their phone or gadget to get the latest information. While battling today’s conditions, many could easily tell what the temperature would look like tomorrow, so to know how to adequately prepare against the element. On November 8, Stephen told me that the next day’s weather was likely to be colder. He turned out to be right as snow enveloped the land. When he, accompanied by his daughter, Tessa,  dropped me off at a bus station enroute Chicago, the young girl laid on the ground to make an angel snow as her parting gift to me. The day before departing Wausau, I accompanied Wes and his son to the Great Dane restaurant and watched, as he and his friend, Kurt Hornby participated with much success, in a quiz game at the eatery.

Arriving Chicago, where I spent three days enroute Nigeria, Joshua Nwokoye, my in-law, another kind man, asked me, on November 11, to accompany him to Mountain of Fire church attended by mostly Nigerians. After the service, I couldn’t help but compare it with the one I attended in Wausau, First Universalist Unitarian Church, Schmidt’s family’s church. The Mountain of Fire church’s pastor, a Yoruba, aside his sermon on “How to be a Champion” spoke about dark forces, witchcraft and envy in Nigerian homes in Africa  as reasons some people from such families face challenges even in America. His counterpart at First Universalist Unitarian Church, on the other hand, talked largely about love, and death, and why man should live each day as if it is his last as there’s no running away from death. The First Universalist Unitarian Church’s bulletin of the day, quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay(1892-1950) as saying: ” I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.”

The difference in theme, which I do not consider coincidental,  given my knowledge of  Nigerian pentecostal churches and their tendential messages, at home or abroad, says a lot about Africans and westerners and the things we tend to focus on, which, for someone unfamiliar with Africa, defines us as a people. In African churches, some people infer relocating abroad to escaping from witches and wizards in their family, a view amplified by their pastors and church members who organise prayer sessions to cast out evil spirits. Every challenge, even when they have taken refuge elsewhere, is attributed to the same witches and wizards, such that leaves me wondering whether God created us differently. Are there no witches and wizards in other parts of the world or are they less malevolent? Simply, witches and wizards, no matter what the pastors say, is besides the point.  People talk about witches and wizards because their leaders, consumed by greed and love of material wealth, like many in their society, failed to improve the quality of life of their people through the non provision of basic amenities or system that ensure a better life for all, poor or rich. If these symptoms, which are very clear, and manifest as a lack of empathy, are part of the attributes of witches and wizards, then, I concur, we have them plenty in Nigeria.

– Dec. 17, 2018 @ 18:25 GMT |

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