Sunday, 19 July 2009

Enough to bowl a maiden over

I’m desperately trying to think of something to write for this blog: I’m sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon, having actually polished all my work off yesterday and this morning, but determined to stay glued to the internet to see whether English manage to polish off the Aussies in the latest Ashes test.

Apart from the fact that there is a serious chance that England will win (unless the Australians can pull off something substantially more impressive than England did at the 1981 Headingly test), I have now been quoted TWICE on the BBC’s test match commentary site, and feel slightly obliged to be on hand to attend to my adoring public again should an opportunity arise.

For those of you who have not enjoyed the BBC’s Live Action commentary – you don’t know what you’re missing. Don’t worry if you don’t like cricket. The web takes the place of Brian Johnstone and Jonathan Agnew’s (amongst others) wonderful radio commentary that I remember my mother trying to find on the World Service when in foreign climes or listening to whilst watching the UK TV coverage with the sound turned down.

Tom Fordyce’s hilarious written commentary is interspersed with contributions via text message and email from around the world: so far today we have had (mainly Brits) from Brighton, Dublin, Napa Valley, Charlotte (North Carolina), yachts off Lopud (Croatia) and Turkey, Kalkaringi (Northern Territories), Sydney, Cornwall, Connecticut, New York and of course, Kafanchan (Nigeria).

I was compelled to contribute yesterday after reading a comment from someone in a survey ship off the Angolan coast who was bemoaning the lack of chastened Aussies to gloat over. I had to show this amazing example of world-wide connectivity to a colleague who has recently joined Fantsuam who has not yet been introduced to the internet. His amazement and delight prompted me to share his wonder with the online cricket audience.

Max, offshore Angola, TMS inbox: "I'm on a survey vessel and there is only one Aussie on the ship but he doesn't follow cricket. I feel cheated."

From Cicely, Nigeria, TMS inbox: "To Max in Angola - at least you've got one. Here in Kafanchan, centre of Nigeria, we haven't seen an Australian for months. However I have overawed my cashier colleague at work, who (like the majority of people here) has never been online, by showing him how you can have live scores from a match (he'd never heard of cricket), online voting (clearly an extremely optimistic online audience) and comments from someone in the middle of the ocean, via the power of the internet."

From Jeff Robbins in Melbourne, TMS inbox: "Re Cicely, Nigeria - I don't believe the claim that your cashier colleague has not been online before. I have several emails from him telling me that I can make a fortune if I only send my bank details to him immediately."

In the 30 minutes that it took this conversation to travel around the world, Australia scored 33 runs whilst England took two wickets...

As the local ISP, Fantsuam has fantastic internet service which enables us to connect with just about anyone anywhere around the world, at any time. Last Wednesday we had an online Skype meeting with participants in Buenos Aires, London and Kafanchan and Abuja. The Abuja contribution was from a colleague sent there to represent Fantsuam at a Digital Bridge Institute conference from where he was online via wireless access.

Initially when preparing his presentation for the event, we’d focused on using ICT in development, however with less than 24 hours to spare, we realised that Fantsuam was to be a case study on how ICT supports the operations of a development NGO. We had a short brainstorming session with the Foundation's general secretary and one of the founders. It became clear that one of the key operational benefits is being able to connect with stakeholders (OK... well donors mainly). We can search for funding opportunities, submit proposals in double-quick time, conduct research to make proposals more informed and in-tune with donors’ needs and, at the end of the day submit and execute projects with less expense (phone calls, visits etc.).

On arrival at the Abuja conference, my colleague discovered that Fantsuam was really to be the star of the show. This small-ish NGO in the rural (or as we say – peri-urban) backwater of Bayan Loco, Kafanchan – making ripples on the Nigerian and international stages. I reckon if we had to put this success down to one thing – it would be the decision taken early on to invest in ICT and to keep up that investment over the years.

Our next step is to harness ICT to really drive economic development in the communities that we work in. We have recently scored several successes: our computer school’s reputation has students coming from over 30km away to enrol for bulging classes. We are now running Computer Certificate Classes from 8.00 in the morning until 8.00 in the evening. One of our ISP ‘cyber cafe’ clients has just applied for a microfinance loan to fund opening a second internet cafe and soon we will be setting up a satellite training school and cyber cafe in nearby Ungwa Rimi.

However, with the exception of the money Fantsuam's cyber cafe clients are making, it’s difficult to see how ICT is actually bringing $$$ into the community. We are now looking to change all that by using the internet, mobile phones and possibly radio to help the local markets work more efficiently. I’ll let you know how we get on!

More importantly as Ian Walker in Douala, Cameroon lets us all know that he is: "Putting off my crocodile with termite sauce dinner, stuck to the cricket text updates. The hunger for an Australian defeat is greater”, another wicket falls and Australia 120/4 chasing 500 and something.

I wonder if Fantsuam’s hotspot wireless access extends anywhere nearby serving beer?

Thanks to my colleague, co-incidentally head of our Zittnet ISP, for taking this celebratory photo. I Skyped him in his office to ask if he had time.

Well - you weren't expecting me to leave the computer and walk the 20 metres to get him were you? Another great benefit of the internet.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Abuja, Federal Capital Territory

I’m sitting on the plush roof terrace cafe of the British Council in Abuja. Overlooking the noisy Maitama roundabout with Aso Rock looming majestically in the background, as a business day in Abuja comes to a close.

Aso Rock – pictured on the day of the Abuja Durbar last November. It’s tricky taking pictures in Abuja as virtually everything is a government building. Cameras are also banned from the British Council.

I found this website that’s covering world capitals that describes the city well

I came up to Abuja for a meeting with the Universal Service Provision Fund , a department of the Nigerian Communications Commission which has given Fantsuam a grant to develop a Community Communications Centre in nearby Ungwa Rimi, the village in which Fantsuam’s permanent site of ‘Attachab’ is located.

When I say ‘given’, I should say awarded. The letter came through at the end of December 2008 and since then Fantsuam representatives have been back and forth to Abuja delivering letters, guarantees etc. in order to secure the first tranche of funding. Each visit is N2000 in transport and a full day out of the office for an executive staff of Fantsuam. But that’s how business, or should I say government, tends to work.

This time I took the trouble to set up a couple of meetings to ensure that what we were delivering was what was wanted, and to be sure of next steps so to avoid wasting another month before being told something was not quite right. Apart from the project manager in charge of Community Communications Centres, I ensured that Mrs Jones, the lawyer was also there to look over the documents whilst we were there.

The NCC is in a stunning, architecturally exciting building, one of a few in Abuja. It is the very epitome of the corporate world with a large marble reception, ID tags, Otis lifts and suits. It’s always quite strange coming from public transport from Kafanchan into this rarefied air-conditioned world. I register with the friendly front desk staff who send me up to the floor for my appointment. The NCC is a building of long, arching corridors with marked and unmarked doors. After my third visit I know that you just ask for the person you want. You will find them eventually.

In the past such meetings have been perfunctory, however Mrs Jones was different. After studying the documents for some time to check the details were correct, she called across her assistant to make a copy, and whilst copies were being made in a distant part of the building, Mrs Jones and I started chatting. In VSO they train you about the importance of informal conversations to learn, network... well basically to get things done. I am extremely grateful to Mrs Jones for taking the trouble to chat, instead (as had happened before) the recipient of our letter sits in stony silence, answering mobile phone calls and rifling papers on his desk until the task is completed.

Mrs Jones went to university in Houston where she said she had the best of both worlds: the Western lifestyle without the cold. I have often cautioned Nigerians who yearn to be in the UK about the weather. Mrs Jones knew what I meant.

We talked about the project – about how the USPF was initiating a ‘bottom up’ programme: get the people, the communities to define the projects and then roll them out. Some people may see this as getting other people to do your work but as Mrs Jones pointed out, and as Fantsuam, VSO – and doubtless 1000s of NGOs around the world have discovered, that is the way to get the communities involved, to own the projects and to take an interest.

We talked about how Fantsuam could use the experience of other partners around the country who have been implementing CCCs to see what went well... and what didn’t. She gave me her card and asked about life in Kagoro. Despite her aversion to the cold, she was interested to find a place where it gets cold: well – last night I woke up cold despite being wrapped up in a blanket. She wants to find a cooler spot in Nigeria. Cooler than Abuja or Anambra – her home state – at any rate.

Shortly however the assistant returned with the copies and the conversation was curtailed. We parted promising to keep in touch. I for one intend to do so.

And so here I am relaxing on the breezy 3rd floor terrace of the British Council, waiting for my colleague to return from his own Abuja appointments so that we can return to Kafanchan. Where the beer may be warm but only costs N160 (not N400).

As I overlook the big roundabout full of shiny SUVs, (oh – and there goes a bright blue Hummer) green and white taxis of various ages, and not an Okada sight (they are banned within city limits), I hear violent hooting and look up to see an old Peugeot 504 being pushed round the three lane roundabout. Not pushed to one side, but right around a gyratory that would hold its own against Hangar Lane. I’m reminded that I’m still in Nigeria.

And in Abuja it’s easy to forget. It’s like many other purpose-built capital cities. Full of wide leafy boulevards bordered by government buildings and embassies. Cranes litter the skyline as high-rises (only up to about 10 storeys mind) and implausible mansions are built from the naira (and dollars, and pounds) sucked out of the rest of the country.

As I knew I had time after my meeting before my lift home, I decided to walk the few miles to Park ‘n’ Shop – a department store which, amongst its other qualities and abundantlly stocked shelves, sells vodka at N975 (about £4.50) a bottle...

As I walked, I had to hold back the greetings as I passed other pedestrians and, unlike Kafanchan, they were not offered. Every now and then a Fulani woman in traditional dress and hairdo walks past with the bowls used to make nono balancing on her head...but mostly it’s suits, high heeled shoes, dark sun glasses and grim faces that would look at home on London’s Bishopsgate in the heart of the City.

Another picture courtesy of the Abuja Durbar. A Fulani woman carrying her business on her head, whilst her 'backed child' cranes round her body to suckle.

Taxis constantly hoot as they pass me, hoping to earn a couple of hundred Naira extra from the bature, but I’m walking today. One of the new buildings is leaking cement across the pavement and I detour onto the road to pass another bature collecting her child from the local school. “Is this the way to Park ‘n’ Shop’ I say? “Yes,” she answers in a heavy German accent, “but it’s still quite a long way”. “That’s OK – I need the exercise,” I say. She understands. Most Nigerians don’t. Walking is what you do when you can’t afford the taxi fare. Coming to think of it, in Abuja, walking allows me to have another cold Star at the British Council rooftop cafe!

I pass a heavily armoured building. In fact I didn’t realise there was a building behind the steel walls, barbed wire and disguised entrances until I saw the announcements and instructions fixed to the glass fronted-noticeboards. Posters advising how to get British visas. Emphasising that if you go to Britain to study it’s for study. Not to live. This is the British High Commission. Not the welcoming environment of the British Council, although even here security is significantly higher than it was in 1979: I even had to leave my vodka at the front gate!

I finally reach the hustle and bustle of the malls in Wuse 2 district and the relative serenity of Park’n’Shop where I pick up a bottle of (delicious) Farm Fresh yoghurt, 3 tins of cheap tuna (how bad can it be?), Jordans Crunchy cereal with strawberries – two for one! And of course the N975 vodka... Or so I thought until I got to the checkout where the electronic till rang up N1,140. “But it said N975 on the shelf,” I remonstrated with the cashier who apologetically said that she’d been trying to get the staff to change it for ever. To her credit she even called a young man proudly sporting his Park ‘n’ Shop uniform over to complain... again. I doubt it will change. I still bought it though. A bottle of vodka for a fiver: still a couple of hundred naira cheaper than Kaf.

So from there it’s a quick taxi drop to the British Council where I register for use of the library and more importantly free (for VSOs) internet access before making my way up to the rooftop terrace where the story began.

Before long my colleague returns from his errands and I quickly pay – struggling to remain calm at paying 2 days’ salary for 2 beers and a small chicken shawarma (kebab). Still it was worth it.
We join the ‘go slow’ heading up the hill out of the City and towards Nya Nya – a sprawling satellite town outside of FCT and untouched by many of its regulations. Okadas weave in and out of beaten up taxi-buses, both of which stop unpredictably at the side of the road to pick up and drop passengers in front of endless small shop frontages, businesses in prime position to gain custom from passing commuters.

On the central reservation, amongst the choking fumes, a scattering of beggars and hawkers use the same principle. A young Muslim mother sits with two small children who, despite the cruel circumstances have bright smiles on their faces. Two old blind men recline, chatting and hardly really bothering to shake their collection cups at the vehicles crawling by.

Soon though the traffic starts moving too quickly to be lucrative for opportunistic transactions. Buildings become scarcer and vehicles older and less shiny and before long we’re speeding away along the three lane highway towards Keffi and beyond that, the road to Kafanchan.