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?
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.
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).
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.
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!