Monday, 8 February 2010

The Rivers of Babylon

Peanut butter and jam: two things that shouldn’t naturally be put together yet Lord knows millions of people, particularly in North America, swear by this unlikely combination. This thought occurred to me as I contemplated another odd combination which has become part of home life in Nigeria: toilet seats and duct tape.

You must understand that at the time I thought this, I was looking at the toilet in the other half of the Pink House into which Teleri and I moved yesterday. Whilst the four of us ‘Pink Ladies’ get on famously, it was beginning to get a little bit cramped in our existing accommodation, particularly when we learnt that Teleri would be extending beyond her initial three month project window. And serendipity helped us along the way, when our colleague, good friend and neighbour Mr Shinggu landed an excellent job in his home state, making the other half of the Pink House (now called the ‘Yellow Flat’ see picture) available for us.

With two bedrooms and one bathroom, it’s not quite as well appointed as the ‘Pink Flat’ which sported two bathrooms and three toilets, however the rooms are large, airy and bright. However with a bed being the only furniture in the bedrooms, no fittings to speak of in the kitchen and an incredibly tired old sofa in the corner of the cavernous living room, it was difficult to believe that the house been continuously inhabited, although admittedly, by men.

The Yellow Flat and the Pink Flat in the shade of Kagoro Hill

Men who would not (and clearly had not) questioned a toilet seat that had at least 4 cracks across it, none less than 3 inches long. Back to the duct tape: early on in our Nigerian adventure, us delicate flowers had all discovered the ability of cracks in each of the three toilet seats in the Pink Flat to pinch softer regions of our anatomy more aggressively than an angry crab.

However the solution was readily on hand: duct tape (left over by former VSO, ‘acanuckamuck’ Glenn). This wide, reinforced and colour- compatible plastic tape, provides a durable, comfortable and, not unattractive (wait til you see the toilets!) solution to the cracked toilet seat problem.

However the toilet seat was just one aspect of furnishing our new home. With no Ikeas, Habitats or similar to be found in easy public transport distance from Kagoro, the solution is usually to find a local carpenter who, for less than the price of a “SVALBØ” basic cabinet will knock you up a set of shelves or a wardrobe.

That was certainly our experience when we first arrived in Kagoro where we discovered an excellent local carpenter who produced good quality items including wardrobes, shelves and bathroom cabinets. Very, very sadly one night he was bitten by a snake on his way back from a party across fields and died.

So in this move the search was on again. My sisters in the Pink Flat fortunately came to the rescue having got chatting to such an artisan – called Babylon- at a local joint. So passionately did Babylon speak about his commitment to carpentry (despite being a couple of brugutus worse for wear) they thought he would be worth an introduction. Things got better when our new, improved guard who is reliable, diligent and never ever with a hint of alcohol on his breath, said that Babylon was a neighbour.

So we arranged for Babylon to come and price the job on the Friday morning prior to our Saturday move. I’d wanted to see him earlier so the work could be completed on Saturday, and Lady Luck waved her magic wand once again when the guard met him on the way home from duty the previous evening and brought him back to the house. Slightly drunk again. This should have been a warning sign however carpenters are not so easy to find at short notice, particularly not those that came with referees: always important when they will be in your house.

We agreed a bargain price – causing me to comment to my sisters that alcohol does certainly not sharpen one’s negotiating skills - with a bonus to be offered for completing the job by close of play Saturday.

Babylon arrived (sober) at 7a.m. on Friday morning and collected the money for the materials. By our return on Friday evening my wardrobe and bathroom cabinet had been relocated from the Pink House and a shelving unit for the kitchen was well on its way. I think ‘shonky’ is the best way to describe the kitchen shelves which I did not hesitate to point out causing Babylon to whip out his plane and sander to try and make good.

Shonky shelves...You can see why I had my doubts?

Teleri chopping vegetables at the only existing piece of 'furniture' in the kitchen

Before he left that evening, Babylon said that he needed more money to get the better quality plywood from which to make the kitchen cabinet.

I remonstrated that I was reluctant to do so given that I wasn’t convinced by the quality of the workmanship, let alone the materials. I also accused him of raising the price unnecessarily to extract more money from me and he looked downcast and said: “Mommy I would never cheat you”. With our reliable guard standing by, I conceded and handed over the additional N1,000 but reiterated again and again that I expected a quality outcome. “Of course mommy, of course”.

Saturday arrived and I had moved virtually all of our belongings into our new home by the time Babylon turned up at 9am, still without aforementioned sheet of plywood. He spent a short time finishing the shelves before leaving for Kafanchan to collect the wood. Before he left he pleaded for help getting treatment for his sick daughter who was suffering from ‘catarrh with dysentery’ (OK – perhaps that was another clue). Being a soft-hearted type, I duly helped.

It was during the three hours or so that he was in ‘Kafanchan’ that the toilet seat contemplation took place and by the time he finally arrived not only was that repaired, but I had also filled all the water butts, hung the mosquito nets, scrubbed and rinsed the bathroom floors and successfully concluded surgery on the (almost unused) kerosene stove.

As Babylon walked through the front gate toting the large sheet of bendy plywood on his head, his spirits were much improved, and clearly not just from the anticipation of creating a really special piece of furniture for me. But by then it was too late to just send him straight home as he’d been warned when he was originally commissioned. Oh if only we’d followed our own instructions.

Leaving him at work with the plywood, I made a quick trip to Kagoro’s Saturday market to pick up fresh vegetables, bread and fruit but by the time I returned, the damage had already been done. The plywood had been cut and cobbled together so badly that there were barely two straight edges to be found and at least half the nails were protruding in places they should have not been.

I brought all this to Babylon’s attention however I was not buying the downcast ‘sorry mommy’ look. The least that he had done was ruin a perfectly good piece of plywood. The worst was fraudulently extracting extra funds not only for materials but also for his sick daughter: funds which he subsequently drank. He started fumbling over the pathetic excuse for a cabinet trying to ‘make good’ but his attempts were so clumsy that we feared more damage and indeed personal harm would be done if he continued. He was sent packing immediately with half of his agreed pay, no ‘on-time’ bonus and harsh words from me.

This cabinet would struggle to register a 'Pass' in an 'O'Level Woodworking exam...Nails protruding, layers delaminating and structurally unsound... Oh dear.

Unfortunately Babylon’s situation is all too common in Kagoro.

Drunkenness is rife amongst men and women. Scarce Naira that should be saved for school fees, medical bills and – well food for the family – is simply drunk. Our local Catholic parish priest Father Richard lamented on the increasing incidence of liver cirrhosis causing untimely deaths living further impoverished widows and orphans.

So far, Alcoholics Anonymous has not been added to the list of Fantsuam’s ‘integrated model of rural development’ however, and I mean this seriously, perhaps it should? There are so many direct enemies in the fight against poverty: unemployment, inadequate education, lack of infrastructure. However all too often some of the basic building blocks for ‘development’ like paying for health care and school fees, let alone responsible parenting, are foregone to alcohol.

When a friend you often see drunk approaches you asking for money to fix a shoe or make an essential journey, it’s all too easy to preach: “Well if you just saved what you spent on alcohol....” however of course the solution's not that easy. Life for most in Kagoro is not that easy. Many people will have less than N50 (20p) a day to spend, will be unemployed with bleak prospects, craving a family but being unable to support one. Drink is an easy ‘out’ to plaster over the problems albeit temporarily.

We too, the girls of the Pink House could buy a new toilet seat. But we prefer duct tape. It’s easier.

As Teleri comments: it’s all about coping mechanisms and priorities.


Sabine said...

Hi Cicely,

it's all too bad and frustrating and we've seen it in our own Gidan Waya neighbourhood many times, too. But the problem is so difficult to tackle! I guess something like AA wouldn't really work in a country like Nigeria. Everybody is so close with everybody - how can anything be anonymous?! Your reactions might seem harsh to some of your readers, but I think they are correct. Maybe he will some day think back about the incident with Mommy and it'll open up his mind in regards to alcohol..

All the very best & congratulations to the yellow flat! I am sure that within no time it'll be as lovely and comforting as the pink house.

Take care
Sabine & Markus

Hilary said...

Hi Ciceley we bought a new toilet seat from, as ours broke last week, we didn't use duck tape! Sounds like a good,sober carpenter would certainly do well. Very annoying for you when all you want are some shelves-not a lot for a girl to ask for one would think. It's not as if you're asking for a dishwasher-Heaven forbid! Sorry I've not been in touch, we moved back into our home in July, after having it rebuilt-which took 7 months!!
We are well in Hassocks, we have two hens Lola and Lotta and a vegetable patch-its not exactly the 'Good Life' though as we only have about three tiny leeks growing and have had to ban Charlie from contact with hens for a while as he keeps smuggling them into the house, via the kitchen cupboard when our backs are turned!!
I hope that you are happy in your new home and what are your plans-any idea how long you are staying out there for? Lots of love Hilary, Chris and Charlie xxx

Glenn said...

Hey, Cicely,

Now you know why Kizza and I never did any home improvements! Well, that, and the fact that we were lazy around the house. I do like the duct tape on the toilet seat. Glad it finally saw some use (the duct tape, not the toilet seat, though I suppose that's also good news).



Anonymous said...

Hello Cicely,
I lived in Kafanchan as a child in the early 70s. My parents were Baptist missionaries. We visited Kagoro often. Question, have you run into a house with an indoor pool? I have enjoyed reading your postings.

Cicely Nigeria said...

To Betsy: Wow - a house with an indoor pool? I haven't come across a house with and indoor bath yet! (showers yes...). Was that in Kafanchan or Kagoro? I must look out for it.

Let me know if there's anyone you'd like me to look up for you in Kaf or Kagoro. I don't suppose a great deal has changed although I think you will be very distressed by the state of the railway and Bayan Loco, although a single train service is now running to Kaduna.

Wonderful to hear from you and thanks for the comment.