Sunday, 23 August 2009


A few weeks ago I finally visited Kaduna – and number 2 Bosun Close*, home to the Brown family from 1979 – 1982 when my father was running the Kaduna office of the British Council. The visit was fleeting: I and a couple of Fantsuam colleagues were visiting NITEL – the Nigerian telephone company, to look at the possibility of co-locating our equipment on their communications masts rather than adding to the proliferation of individual towers, usually holding only one or two small radios, that litter small (and large!) towns of Nigeria.

But that’s another story...

After a fruitful and interesting visit with the NITEL General Manager and a host of his colleagues at the NITEL state headquarters, we took a quick detour to Bosun Close* which I had surprisingly managed to find on a map of the town (finding the road was not as surprising as finding the map itself).

First we passed the concrete shell that belied the former glories of the local Durbar Hotel. Only a couple of minutes’ walk from our house, my sister and I would congregate almost daily at the large and crystal clear pool with other expat kids from all corners of the world (Germany, Grenada and Lebanon, English made up the main contingent).

I don’t know the full story, but it appears the Durbar was a victim of Nigeria’s – shall I say ‘complex’ (for want of a less descriptive term) politics. It appears the Durbar was owned by Sani Abacha, former Nigerian head of state who ‘died’ in office. Since then the place has been stripped bare but there appears to be some dispute over ownership (or something...) so that this prime plot of real estate remains derelict and disused.

A 15-year old me making faces at the camera man. Today the Durbar is just a rusting, empty shell. Thanks to Jared for digging out my old photo album and scanning these pictures to remind me what it used to be like.

The first left took us into Bosun Rd* and moments later I made out the battered street sign which stood between high security walls on both sides of the road. Bosun Close* – here we were.

It appeared that the compound had not been divided up as many people familiar with the growth of Kaduna had warned that it would be, however a huge wall and iron gate stood between me and our former home. A colleague accompanied me up to the sleeping security guard and politely explained the bature’s somewhat strange request.

A short conversation took place in Hausa which my colleague then translated: this was now the house of a recently taken wife of a big local alhaji and as a result the occupants were in purdah which prevents women from being seen by men. The guard disappeared inside the compound to ask if I, a lowly woman, might be allowed inside and a few moments later he reappeared with another young man who invited me to step inside the gate.

...into a building site. Whether a result of the application of ‘Nigerian time’ to building contracts or a lack of attention to finishing, the whole compound looked unfinished although a shiny big Toyota was parked in the drive of the house suggesting it was definitely occupied. I struggled to tell whether the house was completely new or re-modelled on our former home. Although substantially bigger, it was of similar design and proportions.. However unfortunately it really wasn’t our house. The compound was devoid of the trees and greenery that had been so diligently (hmmm...) tended by our former gardener Yakubu, whilst rubble lay in small piles all around.

2 Bosun Close in its later livery in 1981 (it was blue and white when we first moved in) and in 2009, naked and bare.

The side view through the fragrant frangipani trees in 1981 whilst our bungalow neighbour seems to have been undisturbed over time.

I was reminded of this change to our former home was last weekend during Fantsuam’s ‘Vision & Strategy’ workshop. As a review of a comprehensive strategic planning process that happened two years ago, the objective of the workshop was to highlight the changes that the commuity, the region and indeed the country, was experiencing to ensure that our strategy remained relevant.

Whilst Abuja grows and the cars get bigger and the parties get fancier, the infrastructure in the rest of the country is deteriorating: schools are falling apart and teaching standards are sinking. The railways are rusting and the roads are disintegrating. It’s true there are more health clinics but it appears levels of public health are declining. Electronic banking means that the people who used to travel around with huge bundles of cash don’t have to any more so there’s been a noticeable decline in the number of armed robberies however farmers in rural areas can’t get hold of fertiliser for their crops and farming remains predominantly at the subsistence level.

West Africa’s largest oil producer and electricity generator (and electricity exporter) can’t even begin to meet the power needs of its own population stifling businesses and progress.

When I saw the old photos again it really brought home to me the lack of real progress that Nigeria has made. This powerhouse of Africa, recently lost its African oil crown to Angola and was snubbed by Barack Obama on his recent African tour in favour of Ghana.

All over Nigeria you meet individuals trying to get Nigeria back on track: from Fantsuam’s own John Dada, to young friends from my village who are determindly trying to do whatever little they can to improve the lives of their communities. Fantsuam’s GAIYA volunteering programme is key to driving this commitment.

But how much will it change when the lights don’t work, there’s no public transport, rural salaries are typically less than $150 per month and preventable and treatable diseases like typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and malaria are killing daily? An enthusiastic GAIYA volunteer at the Foundation has started a project to improve the quality of drinking water in and around Kafanchan – a fairly sized regional town: his research has shown the 54% of rainy season admissions to the Kafanchan General Hospital involve water borne diseases. His plan is ambitious and I know he will do everything he can to change those statistics.

But for everyone looking to help the community there are five looking to help their own. "Helping your own" is a key element of the strong (extended) family values that have been a powerful and important tradition probably for thousands of years; something needs to change now in order for Nigeria to change gear and move forward. It’s difficult to comprehend how Nigeria has failed to prosper despite the intellect, drive and resourceful-ness of its huge population and despite the wealth of its natural resources. It’s also difficult to understand how it will be lifted out. But it must be lifted; although the question is how far down it has to go before coming up.

I am waiting. Real progress will come. It must come.

Sunday, 9 August 2009


I still quite can’t decide whether I want to go back to Lagos or not.

The ladies of the Pink House recently spent a week in the big smoke of Nigeria, Lagos, having been invited to the wedding of the senior son of a Kagoro neighbour who had taken a southern (Yoruba) girl for his wife.

Lagos is something else. Much like Marmite – you either love it or hate it.
On the plus side: it’s lively, everything is happening there and you can buy anything you want (with the right money) or see anything you want.

I got this picture from the internet but it's a fairly good representation of Lagos!

The downsides are that the traffic makes London’s Hyde Park Corner at 5pm on a Friday evening seem positively serene, everyone is operating at a speed and volume not seen elsewhere in Nigeria (except of course the traffic), aggression seems to be constantly bubbling under the surface because of stress levels and frankly, it’s noisy and dirty and there aint that much to see.

Unfortunately you’ll have to take my word for much of that: we were too frightened of ‘snapping’ much of the city in case we inadvertently captured something official (most of which it is illegal to photograph and might result in camera confiscation) or were asked for money to pay whoever happened to wander into the picture.
During our four days there we experienced many sides of Africa’s largest city: we spent the first two nights with VSOs in the less salubrious neighbourhoods of Ogba and Iba, the last two in the haven of Ikoyi Island.

Celebrating arriving in Lagos after the 9 hour (public transport) bus journey from Abuja with very cold (N400!) beer at Ogba's Excellence Hotel as we await the arrival of our VSO friend who lives locally.

In Ogba we were visiting a VSO staying with a family in a ‘middle income’ housing estate. One of their friends treated us to a slap-up meal of chicken, guinea fowl, rice and salad whilst another gave the three country visitors beds for the night. The latter had recently returned from Dartford, Kent (about 10 miles from my home in London) and the next morning we sipped our tea out of mugs from the ‘New Wine’ church which opened in a disused Odeon by the Woolwich ferry about 5 years ago. It’s a small world.

The next day we were visiting our second VSO colleague in Iba who lives, with another Ugandan VSO and housegirl, on the ground floor of a house belonging to the chairman of her NGO. This bordered a ‘low-income’ housing estate which we walked through to the delighted greetings of shop keepers, children and passers-by alike. She's a popular girl!

Having left our bulging rucksacks at her house, we quickly visited her tiny HIV/AIDS NGO based in two rooms on the first floor of a small commercial building, before she dropped us off at the hectic junction of Ayang Ibar from where we caught a bus to Badagry, the centre of Nigeria’s former Atlantic slave trade, situated about half way between Lagos and Benin.

The town's two museums, both on the shore-front, tell an abbreviated story of the horrors which were inflicted here and overseas as millions of Nigerians were despatched to Europe and the Americas, bound with heavy chains and loaded on board slave ships.

Our guide Mr Bode takes us around the small museum of the Badagry chief 'Mobee'. Apparently 'Mobee' is similar to 'have a cola nut' in the local language which greeted the arriving colonists. Unable to understand, they thought this was who they were being introduced to and the name stuck.

At the Mobee Museum you can 'try on' slave chains. They are extremely heavy.

Dori and I pose with Mr Bode in front of the tomb of the first Chief Mobee who does not seem to have been a casual bystander to the lucrative slave trade being carried on from his town.

It was interesting to me how the museums were candid about West Africa’s slavery origins in the Saharan slave trade, that had been in operation for several hundred years previously. Also surprising was the strong link between the Portuguese, Nigeria and Brazil. Lagos is actually a Portuguese word (many of you will know Lagos in Portugal) which I'm sure describes the many lagoons which surround the capital.

The highlights of the tour included Nigeria’s first ‘storey building’ and the place where Christianity was first preached however any future visitors should ensure that they make time to visit ‘The Point of No Return’.

The monument marks the location of the spreading tree under which missionaries first preached Christianity in Nigeria.

The tree fell in the 1990s however Christianity remains very very strong in this part of Nigeria. The are rows upon rows of huge 'prayer city' churches on the roads leading to Lagos: often smart conference centres accommodating 1,000s at a time, nestled amongst the squalid poverty of the suburbs.

Badagry is protected from the ocean by a sandy island to which slaves were ferried in small boats before a 1km walk to them to the wave battered beaches and awaiting ships on the other side.

On the boat across the lagoon, I chat with a young woman who is studying at Ibadan's School of Business & Aviation Management whichwas having a study tour of the area that day (I'll let you make the link between Aviation and slavery). I discovered that she was almost a neighbour from Plateau State, which just east of Kaduna State. We disembarked and walked the 15 minutes across the island to 'The Point of No Return'.

It was at this point that the captives would catch their last glimpse of their homeland. Today, tourists can take the walk themselves to the monument and only imagine what it must have been like as you cross the clean white sands of the beautiful palm-fringed beach.

Our return journey from Badagry to Ayang Ibar was punctuated by no less the eight police and customs' check-points as the authorities look out for illegal imports from the country of Benin which is less than 50km away (and a bit cheaper than Nigeria). A female passenger's bag was thrown off the bus and she was asked to follow. It transpired she had not declared fabrics she was bringing in. She boarded the bus again 20 minutes later, still apparently in possession of the fabrics although, I dare say, a few Naira lighter.

On Friday morning we left the rawness of the VSO placement locations through often stationary traffic (the infamous Lagos go-slow, still grid-locked at 11:00am), seated five-abreast in a cramped bus, as we made our way for the calm and tranquility of leafy Ikoyi Island and the accommodation arranged for us by our Kagoro neighbour and father of the groom. We transferred into a taxi at the busy CMS motorpark and, having got away with simply a laugh when we offered water to a policeman who, having stopped our taxi, gestured his cupped fingers towards his mouth and asked what we had for him, we arrived in the large colonial compound of an empty government guest house where the very sizeable Kagoro contingent, that had arrived earlier on chartered buses, was camped.
However the bature were not being asked to bunk down with the other villagers as we were taken next door to another, identical guest house that was occupied by a colleague of our host who very graciously offered us full use of the facilities including satellite TV, airconditioning, hot and cold running water and, to top it all, a brand new Toyotal Corolla and driver.

For my American sisters, the first stop was a fast food joint to get a burger or pizza, delicacies unheard of around Kafanchan and the young driver Jones, negotiated his way agressively (as you must be here) around the growing Lagos traffic to a Chicken Republic where we chowed down on pizza, fries and Coke. Seriously - a very real treat!

That was followed by a brief stroll along Bar Beach - where we believe Jones had to part with N500 to a group of 'area boys' to ensure safe passage of both us, and the shiny new car (although he vehemently denied it). Finally we repaired to the former premises of the Ikoyi Club, once, I am sure, a very exclusive social haunt but now just a very pleasant but somewhat dilapidated roof terrace bar over looking lawn tennis courts and a suya (grilled kebabs) stall.

Returning to the house, we were offered another dinner by the maid, Margaret, which we regretfully turned down (since we were full of beer and pizza) but asked if our outfits could be pressed in preparation for the highlight of the trip - the wedding!
Because of the long distances travelled, the families had fitted in all the ceremonies into a single, action-packed day which started at 06:30 on Saturday morning as the Kagoro contingent took buses from Ikoyi Island to the Festac home of the bride where the traditional Yoruba engagement ceremony was to be held.

We met up with my friends Esther and Peace from Kagoro at 06:30 on Saturday morning as we waited for the buses to take us to Festac along with the 40 or so guests that had travelled from both Kagoro and Calabar for the event.

The bride's family was not quite ready for us when we arrived, so the cultural dance group that had been bussed in from Kagoro for the event started performing outside on the street as the ladies joined them in the traditional Kagoro 'samba' dance.

Laurie and Dori pose with our very good friend and neighbour Mrs Aka'ahs or 'mummy', and Dori snaps whilst Laurie and I pose with 'daddy'.

We were very priviledged to be invited to the part of the ceremony involved with paying the 'bride price'. I say priviledged: there were three 'toll gates' to pass before we could enter the compound, each manned by feisty mamas who took their traditional duties very seriously. The groom's parents were the first to make their contribution. TIP: bring small notes.

The samba band ushers in the groom through the gathering throng, and later relaxes during a lull in proceedings.

The gifts from the groom's family are assembled as his mother and father wait anxiously to see whether 'the price is right'.... Actually it's all pre-negotiated with a 'wish list' submitted by the bride's family, but technically negotiations could re-start at any time!

The vocal MC (who, we were frequently told, has been doing this job since 1978) loudly instructs the bride to thank her parents for everything they have done to bring her to this point. Her expectant fiance waits as she embraces tenderly with her mother whilst her father wipes the tears from his eyes.

Next the bride is covered and presented to her husband who seems relieved that they got the right girl. Next she is asked to select a gift from those presented by the groom's family. She selects the Bible. Good girl and clearly a wise choice. Her family then announce that the cheque for the bride price will be given in full to the happy couple.

The guests are fuelled up on fried chicken and delicious yam porridge before squeezing back into the buses which, as a long convoy, make their way across to the the Church of Our Holy Family causing traffic mayhem as they get lost at least twice amid unmarked 'roads under construction'.
Once Laurie and Dori have managed to find material to cover their bare heads and we are seated in the huge church, a beautiful and perfectly printed Order of Service tells us that the ceremony will be presided by none other that Monsignor Matthew Kukah, an extremely highly respected individual from the Kafanchan area. Proceedings are timed perfectly to ensure that Father Kukah leaves on time to catch his plane to another speaking engagement.... in New York.

The bride and groom are joined by their parents and the minister for photos inside the church as the service concludes although the red digital display above the bride's head continues advertising forthcoming church events in 2 foot high letters as it has done throughout the service. The photo session continues outside.

The grooms' men look on coolly as the Kagoro samba group once more do their thang in Lagos surrounded by village people. You can take Kagorians out of the village but you can't take the village out of Kagorians!

Then it's back in the buses to the reception which takes place at a resort on the edge of Festac Town. It appeared that members of the public had filled up the tables under the marquee so many of the wedding party headed for the public areas, where, for the price of a beer, we watched the stretch limo draw up from which emerged the newly wedded couple who danced up the aisle to set off the celebrations.

More than 12 hours after we had left that morning, the Kagorians were dropped back at their residences on Ikoyi Island. Exhilirated but too tired to even take advantage of the satellite TV, a hot shower and sleep beckoned quickly although earplugs to drown out the sound of the samba group that had started up again next door.

The next morning we met up with VSO friends in Shoprite – one of Lagos’ answer to Bluewater (i.e. a modern shopping mall). In retrospect, I was very pleased that the ATM machines would not dispense cash from my UK credit card, although I still managed to spend just about all my spare cash on two large bags of crunchy breakfast muesli and a potato masher, and therefore had nothing left over for the, surprisingly excellent quality arts and crafts of the market at Lekki Beach. Definitely worth a visit, though preferably armed with cash.

From the market we squeezed into a taxi to take us to the pretty Alpha Beach. Six passengers plus the driver was clearly too much for the aging Jetta which gave up the ghost about 100 metres from the beach, where another ‘toll’ (N200 per person) was extracted by the 'area boys' before we settled into a small bar to drink Star, eat grilled fish, and watch the beach’s goings on.

The entertainment ranged from rides and photo opportunities being offered on smart horses for a fee and young people frolicking fully clothed in the raging surf, to intoxicated youths in the neighbouring bar acting like rugby players after a significant victory and 15 pints of real ale (indecent exposure and urination were involved if you cared to look).

On the same subject, none of us will forget the priviledge of paying N20 (or in some cases N50) to squat on a rubbish heap behind a building in order to ease ourselves with any degree of privacy.

Posing for photos and downing Star to help us forget our toilet experiences.

Finally our day was rounded off by a visit to a former VSO, now working for an NGO based in the Niger Delta. As a poor evacuee from her former home of Port Harcourt, she is being housed in the 'guest house' of one of the oil companies that supports her organisation. We sympathised with her as we ate fresh baguettes, brie, liver pate and downed any drink we could think of alongside the crystal blue pool in the centre of a manicured lawn fringed by frangipani trees on Victoria Island. However the good news is that the oil company concerned has just been taken over and she's going to have to find some permanent accommodation so she won't be an evacuee any more.

Monday was travel day and we quickly accepted Jones' generous offer to drive us to the Cross Country motorpark at 6 the next morning. Clearly, driving to public motor parks is not something that senior public officials do very often so unfortunately, after several U-turns and double-backs around the Jabba district of Lagos, we arrived at the terminus after the first Abuja bus was filled.

Three hours later the second bus left - admittedly full of huge apologies from the bus company and supporting prayers from the pastor who reminded us that he had waited to ensure that our bus was sent off with God's blessings, as I pressed a N20 note into his hands.

I had reason to recall his words about everything happening for a reason, when we passed the first bus, broken down in a fairly remote location outside Lokoja and carried on our way to Abuja.

So will I be returning to Lagos? Hmmm.. On one side, I would be lying if I said that occasional access to genuine expat luxury and party opportunities are not a little alluring for a poor VSO based in a rural backwater of the north... Lekki Market with its wonderful (and reasonably-priced) arts and crafts and the white sandy beaches are a great treat which is just not an option here.

However getting from any A to any B (unless you have access to the Joneses of this world and an airconditioned car) is both a hassle and expensive, and the trip cost us more than a month's salary even though we only had to pay for two meals, and no accommodation during our visit.

This time we had a very good reason to go: I would not have missed the wedding for the world and I am extremely thankful to the Aka'ahs' for both giving us that chance, and accommodating us so wondefully during our stay.

As we drove up from Abuja on Tuesday morning, the first sight of Kagoro Mountain in the distance as we came over the brow of the hill just outside Kwoi, brought a huge smile to my face.
If I get another good reason - I think I will do. But perhaps next time I will fly.