Monday, 25 May 2009

Two weddings, two storms and a nightclub

This Easter weekend my sisters from the Pink House travelled to Kaduna. I remained in Kafanchan preserving my finances for the big ‘travel’ next week when my friend Lizzy arrives from London for her Nigerian adventure! Laurie and Dori very much enjoyed their weekend, that started with the six hour train journey from Kafanchan (public transport by vehicle takes two hours, but the First Class train ticket was still N20 (10p) cheaper), however I also had an unexpectedly busy weekend at home with two weddings planned.
On Friday morning I caught a lift into town with Laurie and Dori and took the opportunity to use the day to catch up on my blog at the Foundation. So later in the day, when a couple of colleagues from work suggested a cold beer by another part of Kagoro mountain that I have as yet undiscovered, I accepted quickly.

A small group of us walked down the steep path (with a crate of beers and stouts) from behind the Chief’s Palace to a wonderful little pool where we kept the full bottles cool and relaxed, hoping that the moon would come up to light up the treacherous path back up. Luckily, no casualties were recorded!

The steep path to the tranquil pool, and a view of the small valley at the bottom... in the dry season

We stopped by at Auntie Pam’s restaurant at the nearby Palm Garden hotel for some rice and stew before the Kafanchan party headed back.

Having got my wedding dates wrong, I woke on Saturday with a full, and empty day before me which started at 7am by hand-washing six sets of the curtains in our main room and making sure all the water buckets were filled.

Once those chores were out of the way, I made a quick trip to Kagoro’s Saturday market before visiting our neighbour Mrs Aka’ahs to help her outline the strategic plan for her local NGO which aims to motivate and empower local youths to fulfil their potential, rather than wallowing in what could be considered to be a somewhat hopeless cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
Returning home after spending a delightful afternoon with Mrs Aka’ahs and her husband, I wrote down my recommendations whilst they were still fresh in my head and finished off the evening with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ - which is a tremendous film although the story-line is at times slightly implausible.

So approached Sunday. I had arranged to visit one of Fantsuam’s field officers in her local village Zakwa at 13:00 to be followed by a wedding, close by in Garaje, of the son of the senior brother of our friend Pele who is developing the nearby Fantsuam Resort.

I spent the morning with another regular chore - scrubbing the six stone candles which filter our boiled water, ready for drinking. If you saw the sludge that congeals on the porous stone candles, you would understand why we bother with the filtering. I left to pick up transport to Kafanchan, where I had instructions to stop at ‘The White House’ (a local watering hole) where my colleague Sarah would collect me to trek to her village.

After a 20 minute walk in the blistering sun a friend of Sarah’s passed on an okada and offered to take us the remaining 500m which, given the steadily building heat, we were happy to accept and we soon dropped off at a simple compound where we were very warmly greeted by all the neighbours, Sarah’s six children and her dog Hina, who had escaped the barbecue, unlike its rigid brother that I saw roasting on one piece over an open fire in a neighbouring compound. I was offered a wonderful lunch of rice, beans and tomato stew complemented by some roasted ‘pig meat’ – the first I had eaten since being in Nigeria – and jolly good it tasted too.

Sarah and her husband, Michael Thomas; children in the Michael’s compound,

Hina – the one that got away, the five junior Michael children (L – R Comfort, Salvation, Jothan, Mordecai and Patience).

With the very generous lunch out of the way (I managed to eat about ¼ of the bowl they had provided for me) Sarah took me to visit her mother-in-law in a neighbouring compound. The heat inside her own small house had become oppressive and as we stepped outside the skies clouded over and shortly after greeting the aged kaka (grandmother) under the compound’s shady mango tree, the heavens opened and Sarah, her mother-in-law, I, and 10 small children crowded into the kaka’s tiny mud room to escape what appeared to be the closest I have come to a hurricane.

With mud floors, simple shutters and a plastic bag across the window, and no ceiling, the sound of the driving rain on the tin roof was deafening. I was just hoping the roof was not actually going to fly-off which had been the fate of many of the houses in the neighbouring village in the previous storm.

Child runs into the room for shelter from the storm whilst Sarah and her mother in law are already sheltering in the small dark room, being deafened by the rain

A self-taken picture (no-one else in the room knew how to handle a camera) capturing just a few of the children that were squeezed into the tiny room with us

As the wind blew the rain through all available crevices, the kaka placed a large plank of wood against the door to keep it shut and the 13 of us huddled on the single chair, her unmade bed, and a rickety wooden bench along the wall. The time was approaching for me to leave for my 3pm wedding so, as the storm lulled, Sarah and I said our goodbyes only to be turned back three steps later by another onset of rain. We were luckier 10 minutes later and we made our way back across the sodden fields with piles of fallen mangoes and other tree debris brought down by the storm littering our path.

Our single-shoed hostess greets us all farewell as the storm subsides

When we returned to Sarah’s house, her friend the okada driver was there again to take me to my next appointment – the wedding about 1 mile away in Garaje. The rain had made me about an hour late however it appeared that nuptial proceedings generally had been delayed and not long after I arrived and was offered a plastic chair, I was ushered across the compound to a sofa next to Pele who had invited me, one chair away from the bride and groom, whom I had never met before.

Such can be the attraction of a bature, particularly one that has arrived with one of the principal guests, however this reverence does not preclude the MCs from announcing that we would be leading the next (traditional) dance. I was delighted that my performance elicited not only cheers from the crowd but contributions of at least N500-worth of N20 notes stuck to my forehead (before quickly descending to the ground), the traditional way of recognising performances at events as well as contributing to the cause, in this case the married couple.

Although the compound had taken quite a serious battering in the preceding storm (the marquees erected earlier had been destroyed and taken down) action was lively and it wasn’t long before the 25 litre jerry can of palm wine arrived (or the bottles of Star for the bature, thankfully).

Taken from my seat on the sofa to the right of the couple I was in prime position to see all the proceedings including the guests...

The couple's first dance (to which guests are invited to spray the couple with naira), and the wedding cake on its special stand: the cake is iontroduced by the cake maker who explained that the blue colour was for Chelsea... I hope she agreed that first with the couple!

As it began to rain again, Pele took a small party back to his new venture, the Fantsuam Resort, built on a small hill overlooking the River Wonderful waterfalls. Although we arrived during darkness (and it was Pele’s arrival that prompted the ‘on-ing of the gen’) here are a couple of dy time shots of the resort during dry season.

After a couple of hours enjoying cold beer and grilled fish, with Pele and friends, he announced that he wanted to dance and took us to a location I could not have believe existed in Kafanchan. About 50 metres passed the NEPA roundabout which we pass every day, we turned down a bumpy dirt and arrived at a large steel gate in a high wall. A car in front of us was trying to enter but was turning back due to lack of parking space so we parked the car outside and went into the modern hotel compound with a spacious covered bar on one side and a dance hall on the other from which emerged thudding Naija beats.

However all of the party (two other friends of Pele’s also from Kagoro) were beginning to tire and and not long afterwards we all piled into Pele’s car for the trip back to Kagoro, and welcome rest.

And so the relentless social whirl continued on Monday, for I had yet another wedding to attend. My room-mates have dubbed me the professional wedding guest (or crasher - depending on whether knowing either of the happy couple is required to qualify you as a guest). I think I’ve notched up five so far.

Although it may be unbelievable to some who have attended regular (in particular) Nigerian weddings though a sense of duty rather than pleasure, I actually enjoy these celebrations, particularly where the happy couple really are really happy! Nigerian weddings are all about singing and dancing and a far better opportunity to express joy and happiness of both the couple, and their guests than most I have attended elsewhere.

Monday’s wedding was of a family member of our guard Yashen and I made my way down to Christ the King Catholic church, just in time for the marriage ceremony.

The band lead the bride and groom and the bridal party, dancing down the aisle.

The congregation joins in with the dancing

Once the service is over, the wedding party dances into the formal reception outside the church with more dancing as well as the traditional greetings, cake ceremony and other formal protocols.

As my host Yashen was busy with ushering duties, I had to make my own way to the reception and though not offered a place on the sofas on this occasion, I was quickly given a seat next to family of the groom who had travelled from Kaduna.

I attempted to leave half way through the proceedings as I had forgotten to bring any water with me and my mouth was parched. Although drinks (usually minerals) are served, this is left to the end of the occasion as the huge majority of the guests (and this goes for any event, be it wedding, send-forth, chief’s turbanning, or cultural festival) just pack up and go once the refreshments are served. Forget about what’s on the programme or who’s speaking – they will just up and leave.

I went to find Yashen for his invitation however he persuaded me to stay, luring me with food and drink. And I (as an almost native Nigerian) could of course not refuse! The ceremony itself continued for about another 30 minutes during which the atmosphere once again started heating up like an oven and the skies quickly blackened.
Just in time Yashen found me and escorted me to a house across the road where other women had met, again just as the storm broke. And once again we sat inside a (larger than last time) mud room, with a tin roof, this time with a group of 15-20 women, jollof rice and (in my case only) a few pieces of meat and a bottle of cold Star. Worth the wait!

By the time I had made it back to the Pink House – in need of a well earned rest and perhaps even another holiday – the girls were back from their adventure to Kaduna. A trip that I hope to be making before too long.

Monday, 11 May 2009

The kindness of strangers (and friends) - PART II

So are you seated comfortably? Then we’ll begin ... Part II

So as Lizzy and I, squashed into the back seat, began to feel a little nervous about the night ahead, the young man introduced himself as Father Ben, Reverend Father of the Marist Brothers School in Ejule, half way between Ayangba and Idah.

Carelessly he mentioned ‘guest accommodation’ and Lizzy and I imperceptibly perked up. OK this nice young man was a complete and total stranger we had never seen before but he spoke good English and anything known (even just a face) was looking preferable to landing late, in a small Kogi State town and having to make do with the local flea-pit (which is far more literal in Nigeria than anywhere ever in the UK) and probably a dose of diarrhoea just in time for our long haul back to Abuja.

Casually (yeah – you think?) we enquired about prices. Father Ben just tilted his head, raised his eye brows and smiled. “It’s for guests of the mission, there is no charge unless you’d like to contribute.” Things were looking better and better.. We had no idea just how much better.
Father Ben made a few ‘phone calls on his mobile and then we settled back in our seats for the two hour trip, occasionally chatting but trusting that our tentative acceptance of lodging for the night had been understood. We reached Ayangba and Ben spotted a bus by the side of the road and asked the driver to stop. We read ‘Marist Brothers, Sacred Heart College, Ejule’. If we had had any doubts they were now well and duly quashed AND we were to get a lift to our destination for the evening.

Lizzy, Ben and I, plus another passenger from Enugu who was going in the direction of Ejule, loaded onto the small bus and drove the 20 minutes or so to the small town, discussing with the driver the locations and scale of the car wrecks in the previous week. We dropped the fourth passenger and turned off the road into the college where we were shepherded into the front sitting room and quickly introduced to the other Fathers and Brothers who all welcomed us courteously but enthusiastically.

After introductions, we were taken to the guest accommodation, generously supplied with groundnuts, fruit juice, water (for drinking and bathing) and asked if we would be happy for have rice and stew for dinner. We bathed and changed, and emerged refreshed, happy and frankly almost converted Catholics, for a short tour around the school grounds where the children were having their daily recreation hour. On every side activity was going on: football (both boys and girls), volleyball, general running around or sitting. We visited the boys’ dorms at one end and, following a rapid bell tolling, were greeted by the sweaty youths returning for evening prayers, whilst we met the girls already changed and rapidly donning headscarves for their own Vigil.
The girls getting reading for evening prayers are happy to pose with the bature

It would be difficult for Lizzy and I to describe the friendliness, peacefulness and downright joyfulness of the place. As they say here (a little too often I sometimes think) – Praise the Lord!

Then it was dinner time where we joined six of the brothers / teachers around the dining table, trying desperately to ignore Wrestlemania blaring on the TV. After a delicious and companionable dinner, accompanied by cold Star and cake, we made our way back to our room for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Breakfast in the morning was another huge spread of eggs, cereal and mangoes and our journey was made once again easier when Father Ben drove us back to the motor park in Ayangba where we loaded our rucksacks into another large Peugeot, only after Lizzy and I had carefully inspected and fully approved the deep tread on both back and front tyres. Thanks to the wonderful Ejule Marist Brothers and divine luck we were well refreshed, happy and ready for the (generally agreed upon fact) worst road in Nigeria: Lokoja-Abuja.

The car finally filled up about an hour later and we were relieved that the nutter who had been engaging us during our wait on a small bench in the shade of the car, was not in fact (as we had thought), the driver. Lizzy and I were once again in the very rear seat with the fragrant fumes of petrol (serious shortage in Abuja so passengers were bringing their own) and smoked fish wafting up from the boot. Lizzy was in the middle next to a lady who was ‘lapping’ a young child (as in: ‘lap your rucksack – there’s no room in the boot’ command) whom she regularly doused with squirts from a pure water bag (supposedly filtered water... in a plastic bag).

Even before we got near Lokoja, the road surface was appalling – frequently disappearing completely so that cars in both directions meandered carefully across the stretch of dirt picking out the flattest bit (and occasionally trying to avoid oncoming cars doing the same thing). Despite a couple of feeble requests from passengers to stop to buy from roadside hawkers, the driver concentrated solely on the road. However when the young toddler next to Lizzy said: ‘want shit’ (he can’t have been more than 2 and would still have been in nappies in the UK) the message spread like lightening to the front and the driver came to an immediate halt and the other passengers made room for the mother and child to exit. I confess I was extremely surprised when no more than a few minutes later the pure water bag appeared again, this time in place of a bidet, and the couple returned to the car.

Shortly afterwards I felt a familiar ‘jekking’: aged Peugeots’ first symptom of oncoming sickness (so much for checking the tyres!). It’s usually something to do with the fuel pump and causes the car to hiccough constantly in higher gears and then, as you change down, finally roll to a stop by the side of the road.Driver gets out – fiddles under bonnet (often involves sucking petrol through a tube) and tries again. Jekking restarts as soon as the gradient is uphill ... repeat process three or four times.

It's impossible that the road looks this good in the picture:

Finally another passenger (who, we subsequently learnt, has considerably more mechanical knowledge than the driver) gets out, tinkers under bonnet for about 30 minutes which at least allows the stricken vehicle and its passengers to limp into Lokoja at about 20km an hour. We thankfully reach a mechanic and the car is taken into intensive care whilst the passengers find any perch they can. There is no breakdown service or refund when mechanical problems occur to your chosen mode of transport. You simply wait for it to be fixed, or pay the fare again.

Our perch under a spreading mango tree was populated by a group of local men, including a severely disabled small man. Speaking extremely confidently and without any hint of a ‘give me something’ he was pleased to hear that I was from the UK as he was expecting a shipment of wheelchairs from London for him and his support group. After a short chat he politely excused himself and hopped off the bench we were on and crawled on his hands towards a beefy looking okada. Somehow he leapt up onto the seat and sped away – only then did we notice the stabiliser wheels.

Shortly after, a leashed monkey that had been loitering in a dark doorway was brought out into the yard and tethered to an exposed tree root. Lizzy and I were not sure what to do: a visitor to the Drill Ranch had a mission to release these pet (or possibly dinner) primates from their captivity. We don’t feel quite so strongly about animals however our decision for inaction was made when someone left a juicy bit of coconut for the monkey to eat which it just ignored until a young child thought better of the waste and helped himself. A monkey that stupid would not survive in the wild.
After about 90 minutes we were back on our way with our full car including small (quiet) child, petrol fumes and fish and about the embark on Nigeria’s worst road. Do NOT underestimate this statement. The Lokojo-Abuja road is a truly terrible road. Despite being one of three trunk roads from the south, its surface is about as predictable as a No. 37 bus (perhaps before Mayor Ken’s improvements). It is also extremely busy and littered with drivers of varying degrees of care for their cars. Those limping along carefully at 15km are overtaken without a second thought for oncoming traffic by less cautious drivers who themselves will be overtaken by the truly reckless who will be (ill-advisedly) using the less cautious vehicles as an indication of whether anything is coming in the opposite direction. In the three hours it took to reach the outskirts of Abuja we passed four or five (I lose count) accidents and frankly, I’m amazed it wasn’t more.

As we approached Zuba – our destination motor park on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital city – I started trying to contact our hostess in Abuja with whom we’d arranged to visit the famous Abacha Barracks for delicious grilled fish. The breakdown had lost us a couple of hours and when we reached the bustling motor park, on the opposite side of town, the thought of two more modes of public transport to get us to our destination was not appealing. So having been surrounded by taxis offering drops (and using the now invaluable...”If I could afford....”) we finally agreed negotiated down to N1,000 and made our way along the highway towards deeply black skies and increasing winds.

Ten minutes later, as the car’s elderly windscreen wipers struggled to clear the torrential rain our driver (and many others) sought refuge by the side of the road. Whilst Nigerians are not the most cautious of drivers in good weather conditions, they will frequently stop and wait for a passing storm. By the time we reached Thessa’s, the queues out of town (towards the Barracks) were huge and we opted rather for a drink in town in one of Port Harcourt Crescent’s lively beer gardens, where, prior to travelling to Afi, I had found myself watching Champions League quarter finals seated next to an Arsenal supporter from Plumstead, less than two miles from my home in London.

After a jolly evening with expected and unexpected friends (it’s great place to bump into people) we went home ready for an early start to Kafanchan which we reached, with minimum motor park wahalla by 10:00 the next morning.

And then it was the turn of our Nigerian friends (rather than strangers) to look after us and continue to make Lizzy’s adventure even more unforgettable.

Our first stop in Kaf was the market – where Lizzy picked up some wrapper fabric which we delivered straight to my tailor Seth who promised a brand new ‘attire’ for her by Monday.
Lizzy with Seth who delivered, as expected!

On Thursday I left Lizzy at home to recover from the exertions of travel whilst I returned to my bulging email inbox. She was well looked after by the local kids and was (thankfully) not taken complete advantage of by the likes of Confidence, Marvellous, Divine and Blessing.
Kagoro card sharps pose for Lizzy, whilst she is seduced by cuteness

The kids look confused when, after continuously chanting "take our photo", Lizzy actually does.

Despite having taken the day off work on Friday, my birthday, I was up at the normal time (06:00) for a wonderful present opening session. Lizzy had brought many goodies from friends and family back in the UK. Books, necklaces and scrub gloves were all wonderful but, ever since picking up Lizzy from Abuja airport, my curiosity had been aroused by the large, but light, package wrapped in a black bin liner that was attached to her rucksack. One colleague had suggested it might be a lacrosse stick.
However it was something for which I was bound to find far more opponents in Nigeria: a spider catcher (complete with plastic practice spider) from my dearest sister who has arachnaphobia. Claiming not only to easily catch spiders at arms’ length, it promises that they will not be killed and can be harmlessly released. Hmmm.. we haven’t really succeeded in catching any yet (the practice spider is a little more sluggish than real ones) although the local children love it.

So started a busy birthday which proceeded with a morning trek up my favourite Kagoro Mountain accompanied by Marvellous and Jethro....

a slide down Konk Rock for Lizzy....

.....and afternoon spent chopping and peeling vegetables for little Victoria to brew into delicious jolof rice in a cauldron in the back yard ready to serve to the 15 guests who came bearing yet more wonderful gifts (including Danish butter cookies, red wine and a bottle of Vodka... simply fabulous and apparently a benefit of having your birthday on pay day).

Food and drink - waiting for the party ahead!

The next morning we were off early as a Fantsuam friend and colleague had offered to show Lizzy and I a good weekend in Jos: Nigeria’s ‘hill station’ and formerly a favourite of the Brits, now unfortunately better known for last year’s religious riots that killed more than 400.

There were few (well frankly for me, no) signs of the conflict as we made our way up the shiny new road from Manchok to Jos and we reached our carefully selected hotel by 11:00am and by 12:30 were on our way to the first destination, the swanky (well, for a VSO) Ibiza bar where we drank cold beer, ate delicious shawarmas and watched Chelsea beat West Ham. Then we went off for a late lunch/early supper to a local restaurant in town where we were (luckily unreliably) promised amala and draw soup. Whilst I am a big fan of many Nigerian dishes, this is one combination I struggle to love, well, even put in my mouth.

Amala is a grey starchy ball made from dried yam skins. ‘Draw’ soup’s other name is (quite accurately) ‘slimy soup’. Made from okra, it’s ‘drawing’ characteristic gives is a mucus-like quality which I more often associate with things that I don’t really want to eat. However as I said, luckily, amala and draw soup were ‘not ready’ so we had to make do with the very delicious semovita, egussi soup, jolof rice and stew.

The group moved from there to the Rock Brewery resort, a collection of porta-cabin guest chalets in a pleasant shady spot with a central area sporting a swimming pool, bar and pool table. You will all know that I am a BIG fan of Star beer. I have even been known to guzzle Gulder and Harp whilst leaving the more expensive Heineken to people that are paying themselves. Rock is a whole new ball game in the world of lager. The Nigerian equivalent to an ‘interesting’ home brewed ale. Let’s say to be reserved for the more adventurous beer drinkers that want a bit of – well not beer flavour anyway – with their beer.

We moved on to the pool table where my years in the printing industry (and its bars and pool tables) came to the fore, so that I was asked to ‘clean up’ the table as it was looking as though it would be well after the 21:00 curfew before the current challengers were able to force a result.

So of course it was curfew so we went home to bed.

Or perhaps... we went to a quieter part of town, very near to our ‘well selected’ hotel and partied the night away in a large night club filled with pumping Nigerian beats and more men with rhythm than you could find in London’s Ministry of Sound on a Saturday evening.

I’ll let you guess. And here’s some clues.

So having had an early night (you did guess right, didn’t you?) Lizzy and I wanted to take the opportunity to go to an African church service and were up bright on Sunday morning to attend the nearby St Christopher’s Anglican Church recommended by our friend.

St Christopher’s is not so much a church as a large room at the back of a large house. At 08:50 (for a 09:00 start) we arrived a few minutes before the pastor and about 40 minutes before most of the congregation. The lack of an audience did not deter the priest from starting, however I was beginning to regret the tales I had told Lizzy of festive church services as the standard C of E texts were rolled out and a traditional English hymn sung before a lady from the audience stood up to preach.

The room filled up as her sermon progressed however I did not notice too much as this really was one of the most eloquent deliveries I have heard in a church. Whilst focusing on suffering – in particular the suffering of the local Christians at the hands of the ‘sons of Ismail’ – and despite perhaps not being totally in line with my line of thinking, it was measured, well argued and excellently delivered. By the time she had finished the church was almost full, the choir and band had arrived and things finally kicked off. It's clear the congregation only turn up for the fun stuff.

An hour and a half later, Lizzy and left uplifted and happy – and about to renounce our new-found Marist Catholic faith back to Anglicanism. It’s the Living Faith ‘Winners’ church next. One for every week!

After church it was back to the hotel to pack up and then off to our friend’s house for a lunch and relaxation before making our way back to Kagoro via another friend’s fish farm, located on a beautiful quiet spot at the back of Jos where we enjoyed cold beer, good company and grilled fish.
Grilling fish with delicious Thai seasoning on an open fire

Lizzy eating a fish's eyeball while I relax with the scent of frangipani flowers

I think Lizzy’s status on Facebook when she returned to the UK just about says it all:

“Lizzy Hawkins has returned, unkidnapped (hah, doubters), from the friendliest place she's ever been and is finding London a bit quiet.”