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.”


Anonymous said...

All sounds fab - except for the bit about watching Chelsea beating West Ham!!
Sian xx

Anonymous said...

Hey Cecil,
Jared here! What a wonderful Blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is fantastic that Lizzy enjoyed it so much and that you had a chance to let your hair down too.
I do have two comments watching football for 1!! That is funny...I got the cold shoulder at home for that...hehehe hahaha!! And Nigeria. That is the last thing I expected to see on TV. Good thing I gave you some experience of that prior....again hehehe hahaha!
On a more serious note - great to see that Lizzy loved Nigeria. I can't wait to come and visit myself.
Off to the US tomorrow - am really excited.
Take care.
Love Jared xx

Pamela McLean said...

Thank you so much for your blog Cicely. Any chance I could meet your friend Lizzy now she is back in UK?