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.


Anonymous said...

Morning Cecil,
Jared here with a BIG well done Jacob!!! Your story reminded me of our trip from Agra to Dehli in the fog at 50mph. How far could we see....maybe 50 feet. Maybe this could be the follow up game to Indian Fog Drive!!
Again a very entertaining read.
I wish I had some Star Beer with me on Thursday to cool in the Murchison River after my long hike....ho-hum next time.
Merry Xmas and a great 09 Cecil!
Jared xx

Richard said...


Catching up on your fascinating story. Sad news about the railways in your area.

This all reminds me of my time in East Timor and North Maluku.

Keep up the good work.

Happy New Year!

Richard (cousin)

African Woman said...

Thanks alot for the great post
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