Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The 10 Days of Christmas - Part I

One year in the 90s, I anticipated getting so bored in the days between Christmas and New Year that on 26 December I loaded up my car with skis, warm clothes and a sleeping bag (just in case) and headed out of SE18 to catch the 06:00 train across to France and my final destination, somewhere in the French Alps. After a straight and trouble free 11 hour drive I arrived in Tignes and then proceeded to spend the next four hours travelling to Val d’Isere, Moutiers and finally Les Arcs in search of a place to stay for one night. Not a successful ski holiday, however it certainly filled the hours.

There has been no such boredom anticipated in Kagoro with the twelve days of Christmas promising a packed itinerary – which so far – has on the whole actually come to pass.
My 12 days of Christmas started on December 23, the day after sending in the final draft of the Zittnet business plan to the Wireless Africa Project, so the holidays could finally begin.

For those that prefer bullet points – let me summarise:
  • Tuesday 23 December – shopping trip to Abuja for Christmas goodies
  • Wednesday 24 December – German Christmas dinner with Markus and Sabine in Gidan Waya
  • Thursday 25 December – US Christmas dinner on the new Pink House grill
  • Friday 26 December – visit to Fantsuam’s Attachab site to welcome the Chief and Council of Attachab/Angwan Rimi
  • Saturday 27 December – Golden Jubilee celebration of Batadon Day in Madakiya
  • Sunday 28 December – Thanksgiving at Christ the King Catholic Church
  • Monday 29 December – audience with the new Chief of Kagoro and attend the Vincent Kawai Memorial Foundation Talent Show
  • Tuesday 30 December – Blog Day
  • Wednesday 31 December – prepare for Kagoro Day and our 9 VSO visitors from around he country
  • Thursday 1 December – Kagoro Day!
Kagorians (people of Kagoro not a species inhabiting Deep Space 9) don’t really celebrate Christmas and I think there are two main reasons for this.
Christmas as we know it is a very expensive affair and if you don’t have money – any money – there’s not really a great deal you can do except go to church and visit your friends. There are no Christmas decorations, a small child will be delighted to receive a gift of a lollipop, and when a neighbour announces that he will come round to visit to collect his/her ‘Happy Christmas’ a ‘Happy Christmas’ and a few other well chosen greetings will usually do.

The second reason is that in Kagoro, January 1, Kagoro Day is far more important and limited energies and resources are focused on that. Wait for the full report on Part II!

December 23 - Christmas Shopping
When our plans for going away fell through because of cost (probably close to a month’s salary for three nights) and slight concerns about security on the roads, we decided to take what we might have spent if we could have afforded it, and have an almighty blow-out in an Abuja ex-pat supermarket. These havens of air-conditioning, non-negotiable prices with scanning checkouts and credit cards – are simultaneously heaven and hell for a village-living VSO who marvels at the endless goodies around them which, at prices often considerably higher than the equivalent back at home, are simply devilish extravagance on our monthly stipend.
Being privileged to have friends with a car (Markus and Sabine) Dori and I made an early start with Markus and after only three, completely uneventful road road blocks/vehicle inspections, arrived just under three hours later at the Grand Market store.
Shopping was a cathartic experience. Once you have decided that you can’t afford (and frankly don’t really need) one particular thing – for example, tasty jam - everything seems to fall into this category including sweet biscuits, exotic vegetables wrapped in cellophane, Heinz tomato soup, Oxo cubes (Maggi will do) or real glasses (for drinking out of).
However Dori and I still managed to blow a full month’s wage between us with luxuries such as cheese, crackers and red wine (to be eaten that evening at home), Harpic toilet cleaner and (at just over £5) a box of 24 Weetabix or, in her case a box of Special K. There were clearly many other items in the trolley including hair conditioner, a bottle of Baileys, four tins of John West tuna and two tins of Green Giant sweet corn but I still have difficulty understanding how it came to £150.

After that we needed to find solace in a beer and a chicken shwarma at the British Council where Markus had agreed to meet a fellow German who was leaving that evening for Frankfurt and had offered to carry some cards back home with her, and Dori and I took the opportunity to use Nigeria’s cleanest public toilet (in our experience).

We arrived home to discover that between them Laurie and Yashen had fully constructed the Pink House grill from Attachab’s red blocks, and cement and metal grids from the market put together with assistance of Chief Dominic’s shovel and a random (but useful) piece of iron scavenged (and later to be returned) to the Fantsuam compound.

Laurie’s labours (and our own – shopping and being a passenger in a car on Nigerian roads is hard work!) were rewarded with real Gouda, cheddar, cream crackers and red wine. This picture does not do justice to the pleasure!

December 24 – German Christmas
Getting public transport into Kafanchan on Christmas Eve was not as easy as usual with numerous half-empty vehicles passing my ‘drop’ signal (low hand waving downwards as though you were patting a small dog on the head) without a care for the N50 (25p) it would earn them.
However eventually a crowded microbus decided that it wasn’t yet full (and frankly I was grateful) and carried me into town.
On my short walk into Bayan Loco I had an experience which is unlikely to be repeated: a half-cut policeman ‘dashed’ ME (i.e. tipped me) N20 and then offered me a lift the last 100m to the Foundation on his ocada. Now – whilst needs dictate that we need to get into cars and onto ocadas with strange men every day of the week (like every Nigerian woman), I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking this favour from a strange Nigerian policeman, especially not one that’s already been on the palm wine by 11:00 in the morning. However this particular policeman was known to me: as our old Peugeot makes its way from Kagoro every morning, we occasionally slow down for a police road block but always (to date) get waved through with a joyful shout of ‘Fantsuam!’ to send us on our way. This same happy policeman is the same that offered me the N20 and the ride, and how could I refuse?
Once arrived at the Foundation I had a couple of hours to kill before collecting my African outfit from local Bayan Loco tailor Seth. During this time I attempted (unsuccessfully) to create and send an eChristmas card, and re-designed a logo for our local bookshop owner Reuben who stopped by to apologise for not being in his shop when I had visited on Wednesday. The wonderful thing about being here is that your ideas and skills are actually really appreciated. Where a ten minute play with the ‘shapes’ feature on Microsoft Word might earn you a few derogatory comments from a colleague in London, Reuben was positively ecstatic with his new identity.

Glowing from Reuben's appreciation, I then visited Seth to collect my dress sharp on the promised hour of 2:00 where it was complete and just being ironed (Seth and one of his two apprentices was taking advantage of there being NEPA to iron whatever they could). Then I was lucky enough to get a lift back with our Fantsuam Marcus to Kagoro in time to try on the dress and get ready for our journey to Gidan Waya for our first Christmas dinner.

Dinner at Gidan Waya was delicious and entirely cooked by Markus as Sabine was still recovering from a dodgy piece of fish or suya (like kebab) from the New World on Friday. We drank cold beer, red wine and, joy of joys - Baileys, and ate wonderful Viennese goulash, pasta and fresh cucumber and tomato salad followed by German chocolate pudding with fresh pineapple. Thoroughly delicious.

December 25 – Christmas Day
Trying to get public transport from Gidan Waya to the Kagoro roundabout on Christmas morning reminded me a trying to get a mini-cab from Dulwich to Woolwich on Christmas Day: we had to wait about 20 minutes (in London it would have been two hours), were picked up by a Muslim taxi owner (no change there) and were happy to be charged 20% above the normal rate (try more like triple in London).
After having a short rest at home, we began preparations for the afternoon/evening ahead. Most importantly visiting Yashen and the two plumpy chickens that had been selected for the grill. No-one takes the risk of buying dead chicken in Nigeria so, having appreciated the good health of the two white birds, we left Yashen to ‘dress’ them.
Laurie then martialled the troops in the back yard of the Pink House to start clearing and burning the rubbish that was liberated from our ‘landfill’ every day by goats, pigs, chickens and the wind, and began chopping wood up for the grill.

Shortly after, Yashen returned with the chicken pieces in a bucket which were then liberally marinaded with goodies brought back from Abuja. I squeezed oranges, grapefruits and lime/lemons (I’ll let you know one day what the tree actually is) into a delicious cordial for later (hoping that someone would bring the vodka) and started preparing the side dishes of rice and cabbage before leaving to change into my new (and I think rather lovely) Nigerian outfit.

Sabine and Markus were the first to arrive and sample the first products of Laurie’s amazing grill following which visitors came and went including the Bodem, son of our neighbour Chief Dominic, Marcus from Fantsuam and his friend, and Bala Dada and his Lagosian cousin, hot-footing it from Jos to beat the 6pm curfew in place since the recent riots.
With our neighbour John Kizza away, we stashed the generator round his side of the house so we could enjoy cold beers on our terrace without too much disturbance.

December 26 – Boxing Day
Regular readers will be familiar with Fantsuam Foundation’s Attachab site. What I may have failed to mention is that much of the land was donated by the local district under district head (hakimi) HRH Daniel, who asked if he could bring his council, many visiting from further afield, to visit the site on Boxing Day.
Marcus collected us from the Pink House bang on 09:00am as scheduled and delivered us to the site via a quick detour through Kafanchan’s narrow market streets to buy minerals for the dignitaries. Comfort and John were waiting when we arrived at the site promptly at the designated time of 10:00.
Unfortunately the chief arrived two hours later.
Our time was not entirely wasted though. Marcus spotted a tapper atop a nearby palm tree and requisitioned any available containers to get some of the cloudy white nectar for us batauris to try for the first time. Hmmm.. despite it being straight from the tree (reportedly the best way to drink it) I found the taste highly reminiscent of teenage attempts to produce cider in the dormitories of Walthamstow Hall from the many apple trees that lined the playing fields. Whilst you may not know this taste, let me discourage you from trying to replicate it. Enough said?

Finally the ocadas and jeeps began arriving and a highly apologetic Chief Daniel, heralded by drummers and traditional horn players, took his place amongst his councillors and the speeches began.

Often a tedious part of the proceedings I must congratulate both the Chief and his second in command, the Baju, for their delivery, which told much about the history of the site and the hopes that the local Attachab clan had for its development.
In particular we learnt about the Scottish railway builder, James Elliott Smith, who had lost his life in the early 1900s whilst surveying for the railway route through Attachab/Agwan Rimi. As a result of his death the railway’s course was diverted through Kafanchan, indeed Bayan Loco.
Chief Daniel commented how it was fate that the fortunes of Bayan Loco should now be returning to Attachab and hoped that perhaps the young surveyor’s death had not be entirely in vain.
John Dada takes Chief Daniel and his Council to visit the ecodome

December 27 – Batadon Day Golden Jubilee, Madakiya
The Christmas break is a good time for celebrations (and countless weddings) in rural Nigeria as it’s the time that families leave the cities and congregate in their ancestral villages. The Batadon district of Madakiya in Zango Kataf first held a Chritsmas party for the local youth in 1958 in order to recognise and give thanks for the achievements of the previous year, and to plan for the coming year. The event grew in stature and, by its Golden Jubilee in 2008, it was celebrated as a full three-day festival of which I attended the gala celebration in the grounds of Madakiya Secondary School. Accompanying Markus and Sabine, we were given VIP seats for the proceedings and watched the choirs, cultural dancers and various dignitaries including the Kaduna State Governor Namadi Sambo, ably represented by the State Minister of Culture... I forget his name.

The District Head and his wife greet the distinguished guests, their royal highnesses, the honourable members of the state assemblies, ladies and gentlement (all protocols duly observed)

Choirs and dancers entertain the gathered throngs whilst the more generous guests wander into the midst of the performers and stick Naira to their heads

We had to take our leave from Sabine and Marcus' host Sebastian early and we left still wondering what the significance of the design on the event organiser's hat was?

December 28 – Thanksgiving at Christ the King
On Sunday we were invited by Yashen to attend the thanksgiving service at his church, Christ the King Catholic Church, to give thanks for his sister and niece’s full recovery from a serious road accident. Laurie and Dori had attended St Joseph’s Catholic Church on the other side of Kagoro the previous week and could therefore compare and contrast the more upmarket St Joseph’s – with its own batauri priest, carved altar crucifix and affluent congregation, to Christ the King, with its cardboard cut-out crucifix, intermittent electricity supply and no priest (but some highly enthusiastic stand-ins).

As I sat on my make-shift bench in the midst of an exclusively African congregation, I tried to ignore the unswerving stares of surrounding children to make my own comparisons with St Magnus’ Church by London Bridge, London E1.

The large (and I suspect liturgically complete) altar party progressing down the aisle at the start of the service was reminiscent of St Magnus although the vestments were somewhat less ornate being roughly fashioned from a shiny yellow nylon fabric as opposed to the lace and brocade in London. Despite being in Hausa, the initial part of the ceremony seemed similar in tone and standing-up and sitting-down with interspersed readings by members of the congregation.
However it was when the acting priest broke into song and started clapping his hands halfway through his sermon that it was clear this was very different. St Magnus’ own Father Philip has an excellent voice (and is an accomplished organist to boot) however I think he would be challenged, socially if not vocally, by the reggae beat and rap style our own minister adopted.
The congregation was word, and tone-perfect on all the songs (hymns?) despite the absence of any written instructions whatsoever and gently swayed in perfect time and synchronicity to the African beats.
The theme of the sermon was Family: and before you start thinking that we’ve got awfully good at Hausa in a very short time, the minister kindly gave a short 10 minute prĂ©cis of his sermon in English, I am assuming for the tiny white-skinned minority in the midst (i.e...us), for which we were extremely grateful (it did help move the 2.5 hour service along a little more quickly).
The offering is taken in two big baskets in the middle of the church as members of the congregation dance down the aisles to make their contributions whilst the choir (and everyone else) sings. After the offering, this was repeated with greater or lesser degrees of participation for each one of the four thanksgivings.. Luckily Yashen was sitting next to us to tell us which one was for his sister as we simply didn’t have enough Naira on us to contribute each time.
The service ended more abruptly than expected as Communion was omitted due to the lack of a priest and we filed out into the burning midday sun, anxious to get home.
Although we only met Yashen’s sister briefly as we were leaving, she – had her three children Miracle, Cynthia and Joy – visited us later that evening from 20 minutes across Kagoro – just to thank us for attending. Although we know we don’t deserve it, it is lovely to be so appreciated, that such a small gesture can mean such a lot.
Time to leave this instalment - so hold your breath for Part II: did the Vincent Kawai Memorial Foundation Talent Contest start on time, how did the Pink House cope with ELEVEN visitors, and the low down on the now - world famous Kagoro Day.
Happy New Year or as they say in these parts - Barka da Sabuwar Shekara!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Nigerian Night Drive

On Friday night I had the unexpected pleasure of watching the film “American Beauty” all the way through. Unexpected because it was one of 30 films on a N300 (£1.50) pirated “Classic Movie - Nicole Kidman” DVD gifted to us by our former VSO flatmate (ignore the fact that Nicole Kidman isn’t even in the movie, but you could, I guess, mistake Annette Bening for Nicole Kidman). It is no surprise to discover that not all of the data for 30 complete feature films will fit seamlessly onto a single DVD so that many of these blockbuster films (we have about 25 DVDs) simply give up the ghost half way through.

But back to American Beauty: There is a line that Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham narrates towards the end of the film which is: “'Today is the first day of the rest of your life' is true for every day of your life, except on the day you die”.

Let me explain why at approximately 6.45 on Saturday evening I was reminded of this line:

On Saturday morning, having found my own way into Kafanchan in order to be in work at 09:00 for a meeting to discuss a business plan about Fantsuam’s ICT service – Zittnet’ that had to be submitted to the Wireless Africa Project by Monday, I received a text message from my sisters in the Pink House saying that our politician neighbour Jacob had offered to take us on a trip to visit some local sites – would I be back by 1pm?
I wrapped up the meeting at 11:30, did a quick 5 minute boogie in the Fantsuam compound where the Bayan Loco children were enjoying their Christmas party with John Dada and Comfort, happened to come out onto the road just as one of the Fantsuam volunteers, Danjuma was driving past on his ocada so he could offer me a quick lift into Evans store in Kafanchan market where I was to pick up the groceries not available in Kagoro market (miniature cans of Nescafe, groundnuts and Pringles) before moseying down the busy Kafanchan high street to the Kudnax garage to pick up a taxi to Kagoro (15 in a microbus – a record you would think, but not necessarily in Nigeria) which dropped me off 15 minutes later at the second ECWA Church sign in Kagoro where residents of the Pink House pick up the track up across the abandoned railway line to Waterboard Road. Once home and having gulped down a quick snack of papaya with lime washed down with bread and Marmite, the three of us walked across the street to Jacob’s car, another of this country’s dependable Peugeots, this time the three seat row 709 version.

We set off for the Assops Waterfalls on the road to Jos.. through Gidan Waya and Forest (apparently the second largest teak forest in Africa, second only to Kenya) until we reached the “Assops Falls Picnic Resort – a great relaxation spot” which can be found at the small village at the foot of the Jos Plateau where lorries line up to check their engines and fill up with oil and courage before attempting the steep climb up the hill.

With Jacob as our negotiator we paid the stated entrance fees and the photograph fees but passed on the hiring of barbecue stand and negotiable film shooting fees and walked down towards the falls which were beautiful, cool and relaxing under the midday African sun.

As we climbed down we passed a party in full swing and, having exchanged the usual greetings, proceeded to the waterfall where we basked in coolness and serenity until Laurie spotted a whole heap of bottles submerged at the water’s edge of the plunge pool. “That’s not so beautiful” she commented until she realised that the bottles (8 Star, 4 Maltina and 2 bottles of red wine) all still had their lids on and were not in fact discarded trash but simply beverages cooling in the refreshing water. However despite our thirst, we overcame the temptation to crack a couple open instead opting for the photo opportunities that were before us. Well - we had to make the most of the camera fee...

Presently a couple of chaps from the party we had passed came down for their refills (or perhaps to check that the dodgy looking batauris were not raiding their stash) and to discuss with us the relative merits of Plateau State’s Asopp Falls to Kaduna State’s River Wonderful falls (no contest apparently) and to offer us some beer. We politely declined and continued down for a further pause to admire the water and the dragon flies buzzing busily above the torrents, becoming subdued by the deepening dry season.

As we returned to the car, the party (complete with 'bring your own' food, drink, quadraphonic music system and of course portable generator) was in full swing with the earlier strains of Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Endless Love’ having given way to far more lively African beats. I decided to snap the jollification which, after cursory introductions and further greetings, led to full group photos and five minutes of fun, although we declined the generous invitations to participate fully in the end of year celebration party with our Plateau State neighbours.

Next Jacob asked if we would like to visit Sanga, local government seat and his place of employment, which we were delighted to do. We stopped briefly at the hectic Forest junction to fight off the hordes of hawkers plying us with oranges, cashews, groundnuts and bananas through the car window, in order to do business with the pineapple sellers, where my initial horror at being offered a large pineapple on top of a pile of four for N1,200 (£6 before Sterling fell into the toilet) was relaxed when I realised the offer was for the whole pail, and we settled for four smaller specimens for a total of N400.

Thirty minutes or so later we arrived in Sanga – a ‘mini town’ as Jacob affectionately called it – halfway in size between Kagoro and Kafanchan but miles away in terms of order and neatness. Now I don’t want to sound sexist but when we were given to understand that the chairman of the local council was a woman you could definitely appreciate the feminine touch. There were relatively few signs of peeling paint, rubbish was actually piled up neatly awaiting collection and there was a general sense of orderliness amongst the ubiquitous chaos of a Nigerian market town.

Jacob took a left down a side street and under the arches of the “Rock Side Hotel” – again a tidy looking establishment which seemed to have made the (in hindsight) sensible decision not to paint the concrete walls but let them mature (as we later heard, over 24 years) into a drab but not unattractive brown, rather than suffer the indignities of inferior quality paint fighting the extreme African weather.

Jacob introduced us to the extremely affable manager James, who then led us through the main lobby to the beer garden where tables shaded amongst trees and verandas congregated vaguely around a central band-stand (which we thought would have been better off as a pool..). Having selected a suitably sheltered spot we sat down to enjoy a couple of bottles of COLD Star beer. NEPA is better in Sanga than Kafanchan – down to the arrangement of the grid distribution system and the luck of whether your town’s electricity supply is rationed before (Sanga) or after (Kagoro) the nearest big town – as Jacob explained to us.

The next three hours were some of the pleasantest I have experienced in Nigeria. Whilst being introduced to various of Jacob’s local politician friends we discussed the politics of oil in Nigeria, the relative merits of Chelsea v. Arsenal football clubs and the difference in taste between the local domestic rat (don’t touch it) and the much larger bush-rats that were currently getting herded from the hills by carefully set fires (apparently extremely yummy – but only if you know where it’s come from).

More senior politicians were introduced to us and then offered us their generous hospitality in the form of more cold Star and delicious Jollof rice accompanied by plump and juicy chicken. The company came and went and we marvelled in the serenity of the location (definitely a potential getaway at N1,000 per night and promises of TV) whilst Jacob went around his business chatting to colleagues and, always apologetically, leaving us to take a call or greet someone new.
Finally at about 6.15pm (just when we had all the details about how to trap a plump juicy bush rat) we thought it would be time to leave. And this (3 pages later) is where the story REALLY starts.

In Nigeria in ‘winter’ (yes winter, even African teak trees lose their leaves in winter as was clearly demonstrated on our trip through Forest), dusk sets in at about 6.15pm and by 6.45pm it is pitch black. Whilst I (and probably my sisters) have almost become accustomed to Nigerian daytime driving (OK – so not counting the majority of time our eyes are squeezed shut or looking pointedly in any direction apart from on the road in front), the roads at night are a completely different story.

After 10 minutes I was convinced I was going to be a millionaire within 5 years, having masterminded the next huge game to hit computer consoles worldwide. Forget “SEGA Rally” or “Grand Theft Auto”, “Nigerian Night Drive” was where the future of high adrenalin computer gaming was at, and it would be mine. This was the first day of the rest of my millionaire life.
Ten minutes later I was recalling Lester Burnham’s addition... “except for on the last day of your life”.

It’s difficult to describe driving at night on the Nigerian roads – however at this point I must offer up my wholehearted thanks to two people for the fact that I am sitting here tonight writing this blog: to Jacob, who is both an exceptionally safe driver and clearly knows the road between Sanga and Kagoro like the back of his hand, and to our final friend at the hotel who gave up a little prayer to God for our safe journey before we left.

The best way to picture the journey really is as a computer game – one of those where you are sitting in your own little dark virtual reality booth. The headlights of your own car aren’t working particularly well, there are no road markings (middle or side) and, since the moon hasn’t risen and there’s no NEPA to be had (no street lights anyway), it’s pitch black. Add to this a motley collection of vehicles in front of you with some or no rear lights, or substituting indicators for rear lights – from heavily laden ocadas to crawling, overloaded lorries or indeed stationary broken down lorries with the same collection of vehicles approaching from the other side of the road where extremely quick wits are required to decipher whether the blinding light pattern coming towards you is:

(a) Four lights: could be a very large lorry coming towards you with every light it has on full beam OR a car overtaking another car (trying to figure out how many of the lights are actually on your side of the road)

(b) Two lights: could be a car, or two ocadas, or a car with only one operational headlight and an ocada (and all variations therein) or, most frighteningly, a huge lorry where only his nearside set of lights is actually working.

(c) One light: could be an ocada or a car with only one light working, or a lorry with only one light working

Whilst your dazzled eyes are trying to figure that out, watch out for the shapes emerging out of the darkness on the hard shoulder – pedestrians waiting for a ‘drop’ or ladies returning from the market with huge empty bowls on their heads (these at least were white and served the UK equivalent of a high visibility vest), or perhaps a suicidal goat, dog, pig or child unwisely (or I guess if truly suicidal, wisely) deciding that 10 metres in front of a speeding car is just the right time to cross a busy road. Oh yes – and don’t forget to swerve to avoid the scarcely visible tyre-wrecking potholes, as you make your way home through the Christmas holiday traffic on a major artery between the east, south and north of Nigeria.

How we managed to drive through that for well over an hour, through busy market junctions where darkness is no deterrent to hawkers plying their trades by the side of the road (and their customers unexpectedly stopping to sate their hunger with the odd banana) without being involved in an accident let alone witness another one, is enough to make one very religious.

As I sat alongside Jacob in the front seat (Laurie and Dori prefer to travel in the back), despite his calmness and excellent driving skills, I still couldn’t help thinking – was this going to be my last day, and therefore not the first day of the rest of my millionaire life?

However I am alive and well sitting here writing my blog and, as Dori observed as we sat enjoying our warm Star back home in the Pink House, if the ‘Game Over’ message had flashed up on the consoles of our lives, at least it would have been at the end of an incredibly enjoyable, friendly and wonderful day in Nigeria rather than being hit by a truck after a boring and frustrating day at the office back home.

As it is – tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life – and I can’t wait!

Oh and finally – for any games publishers out there – if you want to find the world champion of the next worldwide console and arcade bestseller – Nigerian Night Driver – his name is Jacob and he lives in Waterboard Road, Kagoro and I’m convinced he’s the reason we’re all alive today.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Follow the yellow sand track

I have to confess that when I first contemplated VSO, it had crossed my mind that perhaps the pressure of work on a volunteer might not be so great as on a Business Development Director at a multi-national business process outsourcing company based in London, earning might I add, a salary several magnitudes higher. However, whilst I have said in previous blogs, the level of job satisfaction is certainly far higher, the items on the ‘to do’ list keep adding up and sometimes I wonder how to fit it all in?

There are so many opportunities to do interesting and worthwhile things that aren’t on that day’s ‘to do’ list that make the list get longer, and longer. This was my dilemma on Saturday: do I stay in Kagoro and entertain our fellow VSO, Esther, visiting from the south with her mother, or do I take the long trip to visit Fantsuam’s clients in Kono (“the road is terrible you know,” I was told by at least three people)?
Well you can guess that I chose the latter. If there’s one thing that I have inherited from my father, it’s his love of ‘interesting’ roads and what lies at the end of them, whether they be gated, ‘unsuitable for long vehicles’ (even better – ‘unsuitable for motors’) or carrying repeated warning signs about the dangers of even attempting them in icy conditions. The more people that told me how terrible the road to Kono was, the more I wanted to go and to really experience the Nigerian savanna.

So, at 6:30 on Saturday morning my colleagues Mr Shinggu and Mack, Grace and Sarah pulled up in the trusty old Peugeot for our trip to visit 90 clients in Kono to the north towards Kaduna. We sped along the tarred roads at a good lick, past the previous day’s crashed minibus and shortly afterwards, a recently overturned soft drinks truck until, un-noticed by all the other occupants,. Mr Shinggu commented that he thought the car had started ‘jerking’ and pulled over to the next village mechanic.

There’s no need for the AA, RAC or even emergency ‘phones because every town, village or even hamlet has a car mechanic, his (always his in this part of the world) shack distinguishable from the other roadside businesses by the old tyres assembled on the tin roof; that and the vehicles in various states of disrepair (or is it perhaps repair?) littering the area in front of the workshop. As one of four VSOs having to travel in the old Peugeot to work every week day, we’re quite familiar with these local tradesmen on the road between Kagoro and Kafanchan. The only problem they couldn’t fix on our old, locally made Peugeot was when the drive shaft snapped however on that occasion, our considerate car waited until Kagoro roundabout to announce that particular failure, at which point we were able to pick up a ‘drop’ very easily up the road into the village and our driver Marcus could roll the car into the nearby mechanic’s yard.

But back to the trip to Kono. This particular mechanical hiccough took only a few moments to rectify before we were once again on our way towards Marabar, where we took a left down a sandy yellow sand track – the road that we had been warned about.

Let me tell you about Kono: the area around there is extremely fertile, full of fields boasting all manner of grains, beans, yams and many other staple crops. However whilst popular with farmers, it’s clearly not a principal residence of politicians as the 20km (my guess) road has never been tarred. So along this road, in all seasons wet and dry, large lorries travel ferrying their heavy loads of crops to be taken to the markets in Marabar and beyond. We didn’t actually see any of these lorries along the road (thank goodness) however the numerous 12 inch gouges (or should I say, gorges?) in the unexpectedly wide sandy track were testimony enough to their frequent presence.

I estimate that we travelled at an average speed of 15kph to reach our final destination of Kono, nestled under a hill in a way extremely reminiscent of my own home village of Kagoro.

Views around Kono

We entered the village and made our way down the track towards the primary school, where over 80 women awaited us expectantly under the branches of a spreading tree. Our anticipated arrival time of 08:30 had been somewhat delayed by the short pit stop and particular brutality of the yellow sand track however they were still delighted to see us.

Where the Foundation has more distant clients, we appoint a local field officer, and we were greeted at this distant outpost by Sophia who managed Fantsuam’s extensive client base in Kono. The chief, always present at these meetings was called and first Mack and then the Chief made their speeches to the expectant crowd.

When I asked Shinggu to translate the Chief’s speech, he was effusive: “The Chief was speaking as though he was Fantsuam.” Having commented on how he was seeing much more lace in the dresses of the women since they had started working with Fantsuam (some years now) he reminded them that they should use their loans to develop productive businesses, that would build their income and their families’ wealth. And, as always, he reminded them of their repayment responsibilities under the terms of the loan. As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is the Chief’s duty to recommend women as clients, and he takes moral (though not fiscal) responsibility for any debts.

Mack and the field officers (Grace, junior Sarah and Sophia) made their way to a classroom to set up for the disbursements. As a primary school they seated themselves at the mini-seats and desks whilst I took a look at the blackboard and the previous day’s exercises, trying not to notice the hopelessly torn ceilings.

I found the multiple choice questions interesting and would have loved to have asked the teacher what the correct answer to question 3 was:
The head of the family is
(a) The father
(b) The mother

But there was business to be done...

Seeing the crowd of 80-90 women queuing outside, Mr Shinggu and I knew that we had some time to kill before the return journey and decided to explore the very pretty and rural village unspoilt by rubbish, vehicles or (for the most part) electricity wires. We asked a couple of children the best path towards the mountain and before we knew it, we had accumulated a large and youthful crowd, with little else better to do than follow the visitors (in particular the white one) around their village.

On our travels we met with the local pastor who, sporting an Arsenal shirt, drew friendly rivalry from Shinggu, himself an avid Chelsea supporter. Later on Shinggu gazed longingly at the fields of dried grasses ready for the seasonal burning that could, with the right resources, be rescued and made into bricks with Fantsuam’s compressed brick maker at the Attachab site. But that was at least 2 hours and 20km down a yellow sand track – a journey that Shinggu would probably not want to contemplate more than absolutely necessary. More children joined the happy throng, and, whilst I tried to master the names, I struggled to get beyond Moses, Mercy, Joy and Francis to the less familiar African names.

After enjoying the scenery and the locals for a good hour and a half, Shinggu and I returned to the primary school where a lengthy queue of women was still waiting outside the class room for their disbursement. We settled under the tree to talk to another group of youngsters whilst we waited. Shinggu started asking three older, better dressed boys, what they did all day... “Nothing..” was their reply. What – no helping their mother with the household chores, working on the farm, playing football? No nothing. So Shinggu suggested they took a pencil and paper every morning and wrote down every activity they undertook each day – the longer the list the richer their life. It was tough to say whether any of the youngsters will do anything differently the next day to sitting under the tree, but we hope.

Finally Sophia led the last group of women into the classroom to sign for their loans and Mack and the Field Officers totted up the numbers and we all piled back into the old Peugeot for the long drive home.

It was clear that the incoming journey on the yellow sand track had not helped the starter motor but after a couple of false starts and Shinggu’s foot down hard on the accelerator we eventually pulled away from the dry field in front of the school and back down the track.
Each bump and ravine took its toll on the old car and by the time we were less than a quarter of the way towards the tar road, Shinggu was having to ride the clutch hard to slow the car down rather than take his foot off the accelerator which would cause the car to stall. Another thirty minutes down the road and something happened to the silencer. The good news was that we could hear the deafening engine roar to know that at least something in the old girl was still working. Would we make it to the end of the track – to Marabar village at the end where we would doubtless find a mechanic, and if we were lucky, a welder who could reconstruct the battered silencer?

As we bumped along, passing the Fulani herds making their way across the fields, or whole Fulani families moving camp, field officer Grace told us the story of a former neighbour of theirs who had suddenly quit the local compound in Kafanchan, with the savings of quite a few residents in hand, to make his fortune in Lagos. She was laughing because the day after the young man had called her husband professing excellent business prospects in Lagos, she and her husband had seen him selling yams by the side of the road in Marabar (at least a 15 hour trip from Lagos) as they passed on their way to attend a family funeral. Grace, unwilling to let this oddity go unnoticed, challenged the man who said he’d just that day driven up from Lagos and was going back down soon to resume his great business venture. Funnily enough, she’d seen him again as we’d driven through the village on our way into Kono, less than two weeks after the initial meeting.

The nomadic Fulanis driving their herds south from the drying north

However, local knowledge is always a useful thing, particular when you’re 70km from home in a car that can’t idle, having to listen to a cracked exhaust pipe, so she stopped at the corner to talk to the young man again to enquire about the whereabouts of a local welder. Once again professing a recent trip from Lagos, her friend pointed us in the right direction to a spot across the road where we could find a mechanic and a welder side by side (not to mention the local motor bike repair shop, the chemist, a small fuel stall and a grocer).

The welder (foreground), mechanic and motorcycle repair shops

We deposited the sorry car and went to sit on truck tyres under the shade of a nearby tree whilst we waited for the welder to finish one job and attend to the car, and then for the mechanic to fix another minibus before attempting to coax a bit more life out of our old girl. But Grace’s forthrightness was rewarded when her friend came over and bought minerals (soft drinks) for all of us: well – if you’re a businessman from Lagos you have to show a certain degree of largesse to your poor rural cousins! So next time someone tells you that they’re from Lagos – just check whether it’s the well known Lagos of the south, or that lesser known Lagos of the north in some indeterminate location between Kafanchan and Kaduna.

Grace and Sarah enjoying special Lagosian minerals!

With only an hour or so delay, we were once again on our way. Although sounding healthier, the car still refused to idle, but by this time (about 3pm) we were all too tired to argue with the mechanic grateful at least that the car was moving, and without the roar of a jumbo jet. Luckily the roads were fairly empty so we could travel along at a fair pace, avoiding reducing the speed below 50kph which would stall the car, although we did get caught three times behind the same slow-moving lorry which we always managed to meet on a blind corner, with Shinggu thankfully taking the decision to stall the engine rather than follow many Nigerians’ blind faith in God and fate, meaning that if you died in a head on collision going round a blind corner, that was just the way the Lord had meant it to be.

We reached Kagoro at about 4pm in time for me to make it to the market to buy some ‘wrapper’ fabric that I needed to take to the Bayan Loco tailor to be made up for my outfit in time for the Kagoro New Year’s party. Although I did feel extremely guilty asking my fellow travellers to stop to let me off, knowing that this would again necessitate a stall followed by a frantic high-rev racing start to get the car moving again. However it was either that, bailing out at 50kph or driving 20km past my destination to Kafanchan and taking public transport home to Kagoro as dusk was falling, and missing the market. I’m afraid my guilt didn’t last too long.

As I walked away from the main road into the still busy market I pondered if I would see the old Peugeot again after its trip down the yellow sand track, or whether it would be a different vehicle that would be tooting its horn outside the Pink House at 07:30 on Monday morning on our way into work.

Why did I ever doubt her?