Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Tayters in the mould

Whenever Nigerians come up to me and ask me if I will ‘take them to my place’ I always say that they wouldn’t want to go there because it’s really cold. But do you know what? Despite saying that repeatedly I had actually forgotten just how cold it is.

As BA 082 from Abuja waited on the tarmac at Heathrow for our plane’s parking spot to be vacated I gazed out on the grey, drizzly twilight of 4.30pm on a English winter’s evening, having just been told that it was 1 degree outside, and turned to my Nigerian neighbour (albeit from Birmingham) and said: ‘Welcome to Britain’.

I can honestly say that the only culture shock has been the weather. But boy – has it been terrible. Apart from messing up two out of three of my plans to meet up with friends, it is simply depressing. I even failed to find the beauty in the snow-trimmed garden and clear blue skies.

Even cheese, chocolate, cable TV, and gin and tonic have failed to capture my excitement. Things that I was craving don’t seem to be so special now I’m here and I suddenly realise how it is incredibly easy to live on what you have rather that what you’re used to.

What’s more important are the people that you see and what’s been really nice is that we’re all just the way we were before I left. OK I probably talk even more than I used to (is that possible?) to tell people about Nigeria however after about 5 minutes that novelty wears off and it’s back to being just regular family and friends.

However I have found that my year in Nigeria has changed a few things about me:
- I burst out laughing whilst walking along High Holborn in Central London in the middle of a blizzard when the thought spontaneously popped into my head: “All white people look the same”. The bature residents of the Pink House know this as we’re continually getting mistaken for one another, but it hadn’t actually occurred to me before.

- I don’t get so angry or stressed any more: when the miserable Leather Lane hairdresser harrumphs audibly when I ask her if she could actually ‘dry’ my hair (as opposed to leaving it damp) before I step out into sub-zero temperatures, I just smile and put up with it. I was also not bothered by the fact that our preparations for Christmas ‘lunch’ meant there was no possible way it would be served before 7pm.

- I don’t need TV: I think I have watched about 3 hours in total since I’ve been in the UK. The slightly worrying thing however is that I do spend more time on the internet. It’s more interesting.

As I write this blog I realise that I haven’t taken any pictures of the family outside Christmas. In addition the camera didn’t make a single appearance as I visited my oldest friend Deborah and her family in the winter wonderland of her home in Chorleywood.

Thankfully though we had a very special friend with us for Christmas this year – who does snap like a true Nigerian, probably because he is one. We were very lucky that Billy, son of Mama Laraba, a nurse at Fantsuam’s clinic, was able to join us for Christmas. I travelled up to Luton to collect him from his digs at the University of Bedfordshire where we bumped into his neighbour Norman, also a resident of Kagoro, who was running the other ISP in Kafanchan before coming to do a BA at the same university.

We spent the whole of Christmas Eve all together – driving around the sights of central London (unfortunately not stopping as parking is too expensive and parking attendants too diligent), before making a trip to Canary Wharf (one of my favourite tourist spots of London!) and my local Sainsbury’s in North Greenwich to stock up for Christmas.

Billy and Norman standing yards away from the Greenwich Meridien that had unfortunately closed early for Christmas; Two freezing Kagorians standing on the edge of Greenwich Park. Slight warmer Kagorians on London Bridge with Tower Bridge in the background.

Showing off my very own Sainsburys at Greenwich Peninsula

Having dropped the shopping off at my father’s in East Dulwich, we returned to the City for the Christmas Mass and dinner at St Magnus’.

Billy tucking into his first Christmas dinner, and then snapping with my sister Belinda and Father Philip, priest of St Magnus.

My sister and I spent the next day taking our time to prepare a delicious Christmas dinner featuring roast goose, roast duck, red cabbage and all the trimmings topped off by a holly-trimmed and flaming Christmas pudding. And the assembled party spent into the wee hours opening presents... well opening my niece’s Susanna’s presents. And I have to say that she was an absolute angel: maintaining a lively and exceptionally good humour until 2 a.m. in the morning. Not many three-year olds you can say that about.

Belinda starts carving the goose... as the duck looks on surrounded by the trimmings; Billy with my father.

Pulling Christmas crackers across the generations: grandpa and granddaughter, as I present the flaming pudding (it is.... really).

On Boxing Day, we discovered that there was no way for Billy to return to Luton via public transport (so unlike Nigeria where I remember no problems returning from Gidan Waya to Kagoro on Christmas Day), so I travelled with him to visit his uncle and aunt in Stratford: the couple, who have been in the UK over 20 years and have 5 children, are ECWA missionaries. Much more needed in London that Kagoro, I can assure you. It was wonderful to spend the afternoon with them, discussing Kagoro and the family and I very much hope that they will visit the Pink House if/when they travel back to Kagoro next year

I’m finishing this blog from the Giraffe restaurant in Heathrow’s Terminal 5 departure lounge, enjoying ‘fries with skins’ and a large glass of a South African white wine after a tasty but very unsatisfying sushi salad. I’m looking forward to a big, filling semovita dumpling when I get back! And that’s not the only thing I’m looking forward to... I can seriously say that I wholeheartedly prefer a cold shower in a hot climate to a hot shower in a cold climate. Outside it’s 5 degrees centigrade and raining. Not allowing for delays, in approximately 12 hours I hope to be in Kagoro.

To be in the Pink House: next to no electricity, intermittent running water, kerosene cooking, screaming children and barking dogs, greeting everyone you meet with a smile, being asked (as I’m sure I will!) for a ‘Happy Christmas’ and having ‘baturia!’ shouted at you as you walk along the street.

Oh yes.... And the sun.... the warmth.... AFRICA.

PS for my readers who aren’t from London – ‘Tayters in the mould’ is Cockney rhyming slang. I let you guess what the last word rhymes with......

Monday, 7 December 2009

An alternative Christmas gift?

I don’t usually count myself as one to be influenced too much by what I see on TV however I must confess that Top Gear’s systematic, yet unsuccessful attempts, to destroy a Toyota HiLux in 2002 have lingered deep in my memory.

(Left) Top Gear's Toyota HiLux that was driven down steps, crashed into a tree, drowned in the English Channel, had a caravan dropped on it, crashed through a small wooden building, hit with a wrecking ball, set on fire, and placed at the top of a tower block while being demolished, yet still started and ran (although the chassis is cracked and the body is holding it together). Ref: Benjiya

Unfortunately Fantsuam's only vehicle, a Nigerian-made Peugeot 504 whilst hardy, does not exhibit similar levels of stamina.

In December 2008, I wrote one of my first blogs about the journey down the ‘Follow the yellow sand track’ to Kono, one of our more remote microfinance centres, and how our ‘trusty’ old Peugeot only broke down, what was it, four or five times?

Right: Half way back from Kono, still 2 hours from home and the Peugeot is getting its exhaust pipe re-welded and idling mended and ......

Exactly one year later and our reliance on the battered old workhorse has become too much. The frequency of its breakdowns is not only threatening Fantsuam’s finances but also preventing us from reaching the rural communities that need us most. Field officers lives are put at risk having to travel long distances on the back of under-powered motorbikes driven by reckless youths, and loan repayment rates are suffering when we don’t reach our clients at the appointed time on the appointed day to make a collection.

Reaching communities like Kanem has become more difficult where roads and bridges are not really designed for road-going vehicles

A loan disbursement in Zankan: the Field Officers know they can reach their appointments on time and safely when there’s a car they can rely on

One trip to Kono in the dry season nearly destroyed the Peugeot. We can’t even attempt disbursements to this remote community during the rainy season.

So having had enough of talking about needing a new vehicle I set about finding one: there is a bit of a chicken and egg situation when an organisation like ours needing a big capital item: you don’t have the money to pay for it but you don’t know how much money to raise until you’ve found it – and by the time you’ve raised the money – someone else has bought it.

But Fantsum and its beneficiaries (and its volunteers!) cannot wait forever.

Kagoro's Waterboard Road is more suited to children’s tyre rolling than tyres attached to cars which it destroys at will

I called a friend in Jos, the nearest centre of car dealers, and asked him to look out for a suitable vehicle. Well when I say ‘suitable’ there was only one vehicle that I could think of that could take the daily punishment of the Bayan Loco and Kagoro Roads. Only one vehicle that could be mended by the roadside with a spanner and some good luck. Only one vehicle that was ‘man’ (or should I say ‘Jeremy Clarkson’) enough for the job.

After searching the streets of Jos high and low, we found our car: an eight year old HiLux, with all the original engine parts and body work intact; with a double cabin to carry field officers or international volunteers and at a good price: N1.65 million (about $10,500).

But there’s the problem. How to pay it?

So the ‘Bring the HiLux home’ campaign starts: a HiLux belongs on the rutted roads of Bayan Loco. The SUVs of Europe can only dream about the ruggedness of Africa, or more specifically, Kaduna State Nigeria.

A HiLux whose life will be worth living: a HiLux on the streets of Jos is like a qualfied and trained astronaut whose skills are being wasted at a supermarket checkout. A Fantsuam HiLux will be a fulfilled HiLux: bringing loans, business training, health counselling and testing and internet services to the remote rural communities. Saving lives and securing livelihoods. Every ounce of its famed ruggedness being put to the test.

And you can help.

If you'd like to help give this HiLux a chance to help Fantsuam and its many beneficiaries - you can make an online payment here. Very many thanks to our partner organisation Dadamac for making this facility available so quickly. Any donations made by UK tax payers will qualify for Gift Aid.

Unlike the Top Gear HiLux, this HiLux will save lives and change lives for the better.