Greetings from Nigeria!

  • New Students Part 5

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/8/2013
    After we finished handing out the school supplies, I was more than ready to sit for a bit!  So I finally accepted a chair, sat back, and watched the children put on a show.  And what a show it was!  First a group of young children performed a welcome song that thanked me for coming from Jamison, USA.  It was clear that they had practiced this special song for some time and they looked so proud! 
    Welcome Song
    Welcome Song
    Then they performed a series of tribal dances...I was so impressed as the children performed the complicated steps in a blur of color, weaving in and out of a circular formation as two of the teachers played some drums.  Those who weren't dancing joined in the songs and swayed where they the end we all were tapping our feet and clapping.
    Tribal Dances
    Dancing and singing
    Great dancing
     Talented Dancers
    I don't know how they managed to dance as long as they did because it was really hot that day but the dances went on for some time.  Then I was handed the microphone again and thanked them all for such a beautiful show, and presented them with one of the paintings that our Jamison kids painted for them...they loved it!  The other 3 paintings we made will be presented to some other schools that Dr. Ugboh takes care of along with the remainder of the supplies. 
    From Jamison to Lagos
    The visit was over much too soon, and it was really hard to say goodbye.  By the end of the experience I felt that my trip had in many ways boiled down to the time I spent in that school.  I truly felt that I was meant to be in that school, in that neighborhood, to meet those children who have so many needs.  I felt bonded to those little children and my mind was already spinning with new ideas of how to help them.  While the school supplies were so appreciated, I saw first hand how many other things they need and I hope now to move forward with some plans to help them. It would be impossible, I think, for anyone to spend even a few minutes in this tiny school and not feel moved to do more.  I left with renewed energy and motivation to work harder to make a difference in the lives of these children, and with the support I am already receiving after returning from this life changing journey, I hope to do just that!
    So Sweet
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  • New Students Part 4

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/4/2013
    By the time I reached the classroom on the second day, there was excitement in the air!  The supplies we had brought to distribute had been displayed on a big table on the front and the children couldn't wait to get started. 
    Jamison supplies
    First, Dr. Ugboh held a trivia contest and those children able to answer questions got Tamanend Tigers t-shirts.  My camera really couldn't capture the intensity of that competition or the smiles of those who received a t-shirt! 
    Trivia Contest
    Then I presented some large sets of crayons and colored pencils to the principal; these will be kept in her office and shared by everyone.  Finally it was time to hand out the school supplies!  Even though we had told the children that everyone would get something, the level of noise was building and as those waiting got restless.  So we handed out the supplies as fast we could...some children got notebooks, some got pencils and sharpeners, but as we promised, each child received a gift.
    When Maria Vick, the Director of the Pencil Project Organization, told me that pencils are prized possessions for these children there was a piece of me that thought maybe that was an exaggeration but it sure isn't.  We called the children up by age group and by the time we got the final groups the neat lines had turned into a crush of little bodies and reaching hands. 
     So eager!
    Can't keep up!
    New school bags!
     Some smiles!
    It felt like 200 degrees in that classroom by then but all I could see were smiles (finally!) and little hands reaching.  In that moment I wished I had millions of things to give them so that the process could have continued because it was truly special.  Every once in a while someone would accidentally be given two of something and then that child would politely hand it back, not wanting to take more than his share.  I was moved by that.
    After we finished handing out what we had brought, we distributed the postcards that our Jamison students created and the children were excited to look at the pictures and read the messages.   I was proud in that moment to have something from our students to give to them that was handwritten and heartfelt.  I know they will treasure them, and maybe one day soon we will receive some letters from them.  For now, though, I will pass on the many, many bows, and hugs, and appreciation that was so evident.
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  • New Students Part 3

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/3/2013
    As I headed back for my second day of my visit at the little school in the slums, I was filled with excitement.  I couldn't wait to hand out some of the supplies that we collected and shipped to Lagos and looked forward to hopefully seeing some of the children finally smile.  As I approached the school I got a closer look at the neighborhood.  Everywhere I looked there was trash, puddles of gray water, and broken buildings. 
     Right Outside the School
    It was dusty and muddy at the same time, and I saw barefoot toddlers everywhere.  As we approached the gate, I wondered what it would be like to teach in such an environment and tried to imagine the challenges the school faced in trying to educate the little ones who trusted them to do so.
    I was greeted warmly again and before I met with the children, I had the opportunity to meet with their teachers.  It was an amazing conversation.  I asked them to help me understand the challenges they faced and what some of the issues were that interfered with their instruction. 
    Meeting With the Teachers
    I told them I wanted to help but first I had to better understand what their needs were.  I was met with a long silence and finally one of the teachers raised her hand and told me that many of the children are hungry.  Those that bring their food often bring the same thing every day...usually rice.  Many of the children arrive tired, and if they are hungry, they can't concentrate.  Many are living in such conditions that they aren't able to get the rest they need so they fall asleep at their desks.
    I did my best to listen carefully and take notes, and not react to what I was hearing but it was hard.  Other teachers opened up...the children need shoes and uniforms, I was told.  They need textbooks, proper desks, and play equipment.  The teachers wanted suggestions for parent education so that the parents could learn better ways to motivate their children that don't involve negative comments and physical punishment.  One teacher asked for books so that the children could learn more about "the outside world". The head of the school board asked if he could have some video tapes of our approach to education, saying that he had enjoyed watching me teach my lesson and how positively the children had responded.  
     Making a List!
    Once we got going I realized that even though I was thousands of miles away from home, in a totally different environment than Jamison, these wonderful, brave, dedicated teachers want what all teachers want...the very best for their students.  They had great ideas and wanted to innovate and bring new ideas to their school.  Many of them have taught in other places but were drawn to this school because they want to make a difference and for that same reason find it difficult to leave to teach in easier environments.  I was inspired by their dedication, and told them that I would work on some ideas to help them.    As we concluded our meeting and headed down the stairs to the classroom, I stopped to look out the windows at the surrounding neighborhood that these little children go home to every day after school. 
    View from School Window
    Another view from a different school window
    I tried to process all I had heard about the hardships these children face, and as I headed down to work with them I was more determined than ever to find some new ways to help them.
    Local child
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  • New Students Part 2

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/2/2013
    The program was supposed to be similar to that of the other school...this first day I would teach a lesson and facilitate them writing poetry, and the next day they would present dances, etc. So I got started, trying to ignore the fact that so many people were watching, and gathered my writers to me.
    Writing Workshop
    In the last school I had given an introduction and then all of the students except the writers I was working with went back to their classrooms until we finished. So when we were ready to start I asked if the other students would be going to their classrooms until the lesson was over and was told, "This IS the classroom." That's when I realized that this was a one room big room that they divide into sections with partitions. I'm glad I didn't ask that question louder...I was so embarrassed!
    So I started my lesson and I could see how hard it was for the children to relax...there were cameras flashing, parents and the school board watching, the principal hovering, and my own team circulating as tried to get them to share their thinking. 
     Lots of spectators!
    Working Hard
    I had less time to work with this group than I had with the first group so I adapted the lesson.  The children did try their hardest though and I heard some powerful boy wanted to bring music to the world, another wanted a world filled with peace and unity...they had great ideas.
    Afterwards we had some time for pictures.  The school had worked hard to decorate and create a place for their guests to sit...there were chairs set up in the front for us with bottles of cool water. 
    Listening to the Head of the School Board
    Throughout my visit it seemed to me that everyone kept trying to get me to sit!  When we went to unload the pencils and supplies on the second day I went to lift a box and everyone was horrified...and next thing you know they had brought what looked like a dining room chair out into the sand so I could sit.  Finally Mrs. Ugboh said, "She isn't the sitting type!"  I laughed at that and asked her how she knew that and she said, "We have been observing you!" 
    So when it was time for pictures and they brought me yet another chair, I told them that I didn't want a chair, that I would be sitting on the floor, with the children.  And that's what I did...ignoring the dusty, sandy floor.  
     Right Where I Want to Be
    The children quickly crowded around me and that's when I noticed how many of them looked tired, hungry, needed better uniforms and shoes, and some even looked like they might be sick.  Many of them kept rubbing my skin and touching my hair...I was told later that I was the first white person to ever visit the school, and clearly many of them had never seen (or touched) a white person:)  I loved being surrounded by those children...they were precious!  I will carry their smiles in my heart for a long time.
    Waving Hello
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  • Working With a New Set of Students- Part 1

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/2/2013
    The second school I visited was much different than the first.  It is located in Amukoko, a section of Lagos where some of the poorest children live.  Dr. Ugboh tried to prepare me for what I would see and I told him not to worry...I had already seen pictures and I was ready...but really nothing can prepare you for seeing such a level of need.  As we got closer, I could see the houses and streets began to look more run down.  It had a very different feel than any of the places I had been to and I took one picture of a little boy who looked so sad; I could see dried tears on his face.  However, after I took the picture his mother picked him up and put him in the house so I put my camera away then until I reached the school.
     Sweet LIttle Boy
    When we reached the gate of the school, the first thing I saw was my face!  I couldn't believe it...somehow they had gotten my picture and two pictures of the Make a Difference Kids and had made a poster out of it announcing my visit so that parents could come meet me and watch me teach!
    Poster on the Gate
     Make a Difference Kids in Lagos
    When we pulled in we were greeted by the principal and some teachers, and the Vicar who oversees the church which shares the same property.  What a warm welcome!  They thanked me for making the journey from Pennsylvania and told me how excited everyone was and then I was led into a large hall decorated with blue and white balloons and filled with children.  As I got settled I was taking in so many different things...the smell from the surrounding neighborhood, how crowded the room was, the fact that a group of moms was sitting in the back watching, the small children seated up front (some as young as 3 years old).  The students were crowded into desks, and many of them had no shoes. 
     Too Few Desks
    Many were wearing uniforms that didn't fit, and some looked tired and hungry.  As I stood there ready to begin, I was struck by a strong feeling that my whole trip boiled down to me being in that room, with those kids, in that school.  I knew then that I was meant to help these children to the best of my ability...and I will be writing more about that later.  This visit turned out to be very special so I am going to write several entries so I can do it justice.  For me, it was life changing.
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  • Sunday...a day of rest?

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 8/1/2013
    When I was in Lagos, I found that Sundays definitely had a different pace...but I wouldn't exactly call it "rest".  Nigerians are very religious, and they practice their faith just like they do everything else...with passion!  It is estimated that about 50% of Nigerians are Muslim, 40% are Christian, and 10% practice other religions.  The Muslim population is concentrated in northern Nigeria, the Christians are concentrated to the east, and where I stayed, in southern Nigeria, Muslims and Christians live peacefully together. So, each morning I awoke to the sound of the "adhan", or call to prayer, from the local mosque.  In the evenings and even at midnight, when I would finally drift off to sleep, I could still hear singing and music from local churches.  This went every night of the week...many churches would worship well into the night.
    On Sundays, Ipaja is mobilized as thousands of people set out to church.  Many people don't necessarily go to the nearest church, either.  While I was there I was invited to visit two different Anglican churches.  The first Sunday we set out in the dark, at 4:30 a.m.!  It took us 2 hours to reach the church and while I thought we would be the only people setting out at such an hour, I was surprised to see many, many people walking, driving, waiting for busses...all working hard to get to a sunrise service on time.  Our service was unlike anything I had ever seen...a blend of traditional music with African music and drums.  If I had to describe it in two words, I would say "passionate" and "loud"!  It seems to me that everyone in Nigeria is musical and can sing, and everyone participated with enthusiasm.  And there were over 1000 people there...after the church was packed people sat or stood outside.  After a 3 hour service and another 2 hour ride home, I was ready for some rest!
    The second Sunday we visited a much smaller church in the slums.  This was truly a special experience because I had just visited the school that is attached to the church earlier that week (I will describe that visit in my next post).  As we approached the church on crooked dirt roads, we often had to stop because there were many children playing soccer in the streets using rocks for goal posts...we had to wait each time for them to move the rocks out of the way so we could pass.  That gave the kids lots of time to look in the car window and see that there was a visitor among them...I heard one boy say "Obiyo " (white person) and "United States of America!". 
    Again, I was fascinated by the music and pageantry of the service.  I was honored when I was given a special seat near the front and was told that that particular seat was reserved for "missionaries".  Towards the end of the service I was asked to step out into the Vicar's office and there the school board presented me with a beautiful African dress which they urged me to put on.  When I re-entered the service everyone was smiling as now I was officially dressed as an African woman! 
    Officially Nigerian!
    view out the church window
    I was also honored when I found out that I was the first white person to ever worship there and I remember looking out one of the windows and seeing such a gray, sad view which was such a contrast to the beautiful music and people inside. 
    Afterwards, many of the children I had met wanted a picture with "Miss Young" and I am pretty sure some of them were laughing along with me as I tried to gracefully get down the stairs in my long African dress without tripping.  I saw so many kids that day without shoes...some of the children in the picture below were shoeless. 
    The little boy all the way to the right of the photo is very special and we bonded right away...he had run out of the church to say good-bye to me.  When I worked with his group earlier in the week he told me he wanted to be a musician so he could "bring music to people around the world."  I hope he can fulfill that can't see it in this picture but his smile is brilliant and brightened up a very sad place.  He touched my heart as did many of the children, and I hope some of things we are doing for his school will help him reach his goals.  What a special place that little church is!
    Some special students
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  • Life in Mokoko, a Floating Slum

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 7/26/2013
    On 2 occasions we drove from the mainland to Victoria Island to visit the American Embassy.  To reach the island you can choose from several bridges; we drove across the "Third Mainland Bridge", the longest bridge in Africa and is over 7 miles long.  As we started to cross, I could see modern high-rise buildings on the horizon...these are the hotels and properties owned by banks and foreign investors.  And then I looked out of my passenger window and saw the most overwhelming sight.  There in front of me was Makoko, a floating slum that I had seen pictures of before. 
    makoko Makoko
    For those of you who saw my Pencil Project video, I used images from Makoko that showed haunting images of children rowing through the polluted water of this slum.  However, seeing these images in the safety of my own home and classroom did nothing to prepare me for the real thing.  Even from a safe distance the stench was overwhelming.  A smoky toxic haze hovered over shacks that spread out in all directions.
    I could see children on boats fishing and a huge tangled community of shacks made from plastic, pieces of metal, and anything else that could be used to build a shelter.  This community is much larger than I had imagined; it is estimated that more than 80,000 people live there.
    Makoko started out as a fishing village and today most of the "homes" are built on stilts.  None of the shacks have running water and most don't have electricity.  The water that sits below these shacks serves as a garbage dump, road, floating market, and toilet for the people who live there and yet you can see children swimming in the dirty water. 
    makoko swimmer
    Conditions in this slum are challenging at best.  The average life expectancy here is 47 years old.  Only 25 % of the people under the age of 30 can read or write, and 14 out of 20 people do not get educated beyond 6th grade.  The homes are very crowded and I was told that sometimes up to 16 people live in one room.
    I was so moved by what I saw that I asked Dr. Ugboh (my host and driver) to take me closer...I wanted to see more.  I wanted to see the faces of the children because I knew that it would motivate me to work harder to help them. However, each time he refused, politely telling me that "It is not a good place for you", explaining that as it is the rainy season the few roads are flooded with dirty water and that he also thought it would be "too much for me".  I insisted that I could handle it but I could not get him to take me in.  So I had to snap pictures from the bridge and made a silent promise that I would be back and that I would find some way to make a difference for those little children that I could see fishing and swimming in the dark, oily water.  Dr. Ugboh is hoping to soon include those children in the relief work he does, and I will be joining him in that.  For the moment, though, I drove off wondering how some people could be living in such conditions while in view of expensive, glittering hotels; two worlds colliding in plain view of each other.
    lagos skyline
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  • Badagry - Slave Trade Center

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 7/26/2013
    My trip to Lagos was really busy as we were working with kids in different schools. But we took one day to make the 2 hour drive to Badagry, a coastal town which is located east of Lagos, very close to Nigeria's border with the Republic of Benin. This town is situated on the Porto Novo Creek which is also known as the Badagry Lagoon. Badagry was founded in the early 1400's and was a major slave port and key entry point for many of Nigeria's missionaries. It is estimated that over 18 million Africans passed through the slave market in this town on their way to a life of slavery in America, the Carribean, Europe, or South America. Badagry officially became part of Nigeria in 1901 and today is know for its fishing, agriculture, and tourism.
    When I arrived I immediately was struck by two pretty the waterfront part of the town is and the aura of sadness that exists there. It was hard to look at such a beautiful view of sparkling blue water and swaying palm trees while standing on the very spot where so many people stood for the last time on the coast of Africa. Standing on the wharf you can see an island across the lagoon which is officially called "Coconut Island" but which is nicknamed, "The Point of No Return". It is called that because the slaves would be rowed across the lagoon to the island where they had to walk along a sandy path to the far side of the island where slave ships awaited them to begin their journey across the Atlantic. Any slaves who reached The Point of No Return would never be coming back to their homeland.

     Point of No Return
    We explored one museum called the Brazilian Barracoon museum. One of the first things our guide told us is that when Badagry was founded there were tribal chiefs who had control of the area. Since that time the position of chief has been handed down through many generations to descendants of the original chiefs. I was shocked to find out that there is still a chief living there today: His Majesty, DeWheno Aholu Menu-Toyi. He lives in a house right next to the museum and spends a lot of time in the front room of his house performing his "duties" which include settling neighborhood disputes. Next door to his house his family runs a shop where you can buy snacks or a cold soda, and his family also runs the museum.
    welcome sign
    Snacks for Sale

    Back to the museum...the first display shows how slaves were exchanged for different things. It was shocking to learn that a porcelain bowl from England would have cost 40 think that a bowl could be worth 40 lives. So sad! A cannon would be worth 100 slaves.
    Slave Exchanges
    Trade items
    We heard a little bit about how badly slaves were treated on the plantations and then we were led into a courtyard surrounded by buildings in which slaves would be held before beginning their journey. We entered a holding cell that would have held up to 40 slaves waiting to be sent to the ships and my group of 5 could barely fit in the room! The only light and fresh air that each cell would have would have filtered in through a tiny window set high up on the wall.
    Holding cell
    tiny window
    There was a display of chains and shackles which I couldn't help touching...when the guide saw me he offered to show me how they worked. He "locked" them around my wrists and neck and even though I knew I would only be wearing them for a few seconds, it was terrifying, hard to breathe, and sad. I didn't expect them to be so heavy. He wanted to put chains around my ankles, too, but I had had enough:) He quickly took them off. To think that those same chains were used on slaves really impacted me; it was very moving!
    In chains
    Once he "released me" I went to the doorway to breathe in some fresher air and I saw a young girl at the well that was in the middle of the courtyard...I was told she was part of the chief's family. That's when I was told that the chief's family actually lived in the museum compound. What must it be like to sleep next to such a sad building?
     Courtyard well
    Living Near the Museum

    Back inside the museum we were shown different kinds of tools and things used to control the slaves, pictures, artifacts, and an outfit that one of the original chiefs had worn. We were told that the chiefs, who were also Nigerians, allowed the capture and export of their own people. That's when our tour guide told me he was also a descendent of one of the original chiefs. It occurred to me then that the chief and his family, by running the snack shop, museum, and offering boat rides to the Point of No Return, are still benefiting from slavery.

    By the time we finished we were ready to leave this intriguing place. I had to watch my step as a very mean monkey had found a resting place near our car and he looked ready to take a bite out of my ankle!
    Watch out!
    We carefully got into the car and talked the whole way home...especially about how the chief's family was still profiting from slavery. It was a powerful experience to visit such a place with an African family; it would have been a sad place to visit under any circumstances, but with people who very likely had ancestors who were sent into slavery, it was even more moving. It is just so hard to understand a world where the slave trade was accepted as part of life, and where the price of different goods would be measured in how many slaves would be needed to trade for them.
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  • What is School Like in Nigeria?

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 7/25/2013
    When I entered my first school in Nigeria, the first thing I noticed was how young some of the students were.  That's when I found out that children begin school at the age of 2 or 3!  Not just a few times a week like in our preschools...children that age go 5 days a week and for the entire school day!  That's when I realized how different our school systems are...
    Nigerian schools are modeled after a British system of education.  There are public schools, but I was told the conditions of those schools is terrible.  I was told that children in those schools "do not learn" and are often abused.  So, parents make great sacrifices and will even go hungry so that they can send their children to some sort of private school.  To attend a private school you have to supply your own uniform, supplies, and pay school fees.
    If the private schools are "better", it is hard to imagine what the public schools are like.  I visited two schools and in both I did find great, dedicated teachers.  However, these schools need so many things!  I saw no books at all, though in some classes they share basic textbooks.  There was a lack of paper and of course, pencils.  There weren't enough places for children to sit.  Not everyone had a surface like a table to write on.  Some schools are actually one big room shared by all the grades, like a one room school house.
    Kindergarten Classroom
    Even in these difficult conditions, children are expected to handle a tough list of subjects.  Children are taught in English, the official language of Nigeria, even if no one in their home speaks English.  Some children don't learn English until they come to school.  They have classes in things like reading, math, science, like we do but also in areas like agriculture, Yoruba (the local native language), and morals.  I noticed that schools are much stricter, too, than our expectations at Jamison.  Children stand up when they are answering a question.  They receive major consequences, too, for things like forgetting their homework or misbehavior or ...children are still punished physically in all schools, even for having a wrong answer.  I saw a woman walking around with a "cane" which I was told was used to "correct children" though after she saw my expression she put it away:) 
    Sleep 3 year old!
    First Grader
    Children attend school for more years than we do...several years of full-time Nursery and Pre-Primary School followed by Primary (which is like our elementary).  When they finish 6th grade they have to take an exam; if they don't pass they don't go on to Secondary School and have to do 6th grade all over again!  Talk about pressure!  They attend Secondary School through 12th grade.  College is not possible for everyone as tuition is so expensive.  Most families cannot afford it.  Some children opt for trade schools.  It is hard for young people there as unemployment is is estimated that only 1 in 10 graduates can find jobs!  Everywhere I went though I was struck that even in tough conditions, the children I met are so eager to read, to learn, to know more about the world.  I hope to continue to find ways to help them access that education!
    Ready to Go Home!
    School Bus
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  • Just Like Us?

    Posted by CLAUDIA YOUNG on 7/25/2013
    Nigerians love Americans! I found this out quickly. They don't love all foreigners, but they certainly love Americans. I wanted to understand why so I spent some time trying to figure that out. I asked a lot of questions and found out they appreciate Americans because they perceive us to be generous, friendly, and caring people. I heard people say that they like Americans because they are open-minded and when they do business in Nigeria, they treat Nigerians with dignity. When Nigerians come to the U.S. to visit or study, they are accepted and treated well. But a big reason that they love Americans is that they feel connected to us because just like we did, Nigeria started out as a British colony. However, our struggles for independence had really different outcomes.

    We all know that we gained our independence after the American Revolution, we wrote our Constitution, and that Constitution still stands. We had a Civil War and difficult times, and today our economy is troubled. However, Nigeria has had a much tougher time of it. I was shocked to find out that Nigeria did not gain its independence until 1960! As a brand new nation they quickly found themselves with big problems. By 1967 they found themselves in a violent civil war and by the time it ended 3 years later, over 3 million people had died...mostly children. For years they experienced changes in their government and times where the military was in power and finally, in 1999, they became a democracy. So they have only had a democratic government for 14 years!

    Today, President Goodluck Jonathan is working hard to fix some of the problems in his country and you can see evidence of that in the new roads they are building. So why do Nigerians love Americans? Well one reason is they admire how we went from being a colony, to fighting for our freedom, to building a nation that may not be perfect but still tries to stand up for what is right. Maybe to them we represent what is possible when people dream big.

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