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?


davidj said...

Quite delightful Cicely - I find I look forward to your posts and pictures!


Anonymous said...

Hi Cicely!
Jared here - good old trusty Peugeots hey!! Did they employ the coke can around the exhaust as the silencer I wonder. An ever enjoyable read with a nice touch of humour. I look forward to more pre-Xmas and of course of your New Year's party dress!!
Jared xx