Monday, 31 May 2010

Driving me crazy

I’m not a particularly religious person however every time I put the key into the ignition of our old Peugeot I send up two subconscious prayers: First that the car will start, and secondly that I will reach my destination for the day without mishap.

I was struggling to think what occurs to me when I get into the car in the UK apart from ‘is there petrol in the tank?’ and if reserves are low, how many wheelbarrows of cash (OK my credit card) will be needed to re-fuel?

I have(by choice) become the designated driver for the VSOs of Kagoro (now 5 of us, shortly to become 6). I bring home those that wish to work beyond 4pm in the evenings and drive everyone to work in the mornings, saving our driver Michael a trip out every day (and some fuel).

The Peugeot coming up Waterboard (apologies for the recycled pictures. My camera's still out of action but hoping a new one will be delivered with the next batch of new volunteers in 2 weeks!)

Whilst cars in Nigeria work the same way as they do back home (although the steering wheel is on the ‘wrong’ side), driving is oh so different. There are three main factors that make this difference: 1 the cars, 2 the roads, and 3 the drivers (and I’m sure some would argue, 4, God).

The cars in Abuja actually pay a very close resemblance to those back home with perhaps an over-abundance of shiny black Toyotas (all varieties) which seem to be the government’s brand of choice. Notwithstanding, an employee of the Nigerian Standards Agency did confess that his department was investigating whether Toyota was actually sending its ‘Friday’ cars (i.e. the ones everyone throws together quickly so they can get away for the weekend) to Nigeria.

The cars outside of the cities are something else entirely having been recycled to a degree that puts Blue Peter into the shade. One has to question the economics of these, as I’m sure the long term costs of constantly repairing mechanical parts that are years past their sell-by dates dwarf the costs of alternatives. However the bottom line is that most people simply don’t have enough capital in one place at one time to do any differently.

'Recycling': this bus had just deposited 15 passengers visiting Fantsuam's Attachab site

The fact is that because of this, very few people have cars, even the old jalopies. If they need to travel most rely, quite happily, effectively (and more cheaply) on public transport.

And the problem is, despite the very best efforts of the Federal Road Safety Commission – Vehicle Inspection Office, some of these vehicles could hardly be described as road-worthy. At least with Fantsuam’s old Peugeot I have a good idea of when the brakes were last seen to. Although having said that – I should say thatI have a good idea of when we last PAID to have the brakes seen to... Given our recent wheel balancing efforts I prefer this latter statement.

Although I have never been in a commercial vehicle when the brakes have actually failed, I have been in a bus in a rainstorm where the driver spent the whole journey from Kafanchan to Kagoro with his head stuck out of the window because the wipers didn’t work. On about 10 occasions the vehicle that I’ve been in has simply given up the ghost at some stage during the journey necessitating the driver to flag down alternative transport and negotiate with the drivers to take us to our destinations (yes – there is a system!). And returning from Abuja last week, the smell of fumes was so overwhelming that I couldn’t help wondering whether the previous owner had chosen his car as his preferred method of suicide.

But frankly who can blame the state of the cars when they have to travel on our Nigerian roads? Luckily the main road from Kafanchan to Kagoro is really very good without I think (and I am now surprised myself as I think about it) a single pothole in its 10km stretch. It is exceptional.

Over recent weeks I have had to visit nearby Manchok on several occasions. We have four loan groups in Manchok. Two groups are excellent clients completing loan repayments promptly and ready for a repeat disbursements. One group is a shocking payer – specialising in creative storytelling and downright lying. Both groups require regular visits.

The Kagoro-Manchok road is littered with potholes that would challenge Matti Tirobustinen (OK I made that up – but think champion Finnish rally driver), despite it being the link road to the brand new Jos road,. Every time you get the courage to push the speedometer to 50km an hour – wham - a slew of potholes confronts you that seemingly offers no safe passage through despite the full width of the road being available. Kerdunk, wheel bounces (hopefully) across pothole and shock absorbers do overtime. One arriving Canadian VSO was terrified when the taxi driving us from Abuja to his placement visit in Kafanchan started chicaning across the road at high speed.

You see local commercial drivers know exactly where the potholes are on any 300km stretch and will be well versed on possible high speed routes through them (you just hope that there isn’t anything coming in the other direction as the route will frequently be on the wrong side of the road). I’m getting better on the Manchok road.

And now it’s the rainy season we have extra challenges for both tarred and untarred road. For the tarred road, rain disguises the depth of the potholes as they become glassy pools of water (never be fooled). On the untarred road it presents the question: will I get across that without being bogged down (I've got stuck only twice so far this year)?

It’s funny I remember being genuinely nervous, I would go as far to say frightened when, on holiday in Morocco a couple of years ago, we found ourselves on a dirt road under construction on a remote hillside. At the time I was concerned that our trusty hired Logan Dacia (‘by Renault’) wouldn’t make it across. However I have since learned that cars are much more manly than we urban dwellers give them credit for.

The dirt roads of Bayan Loco are terrible. Other formerly tarred road with remnants of tarmac are even worse because of the differential weathering of tarmac versus mud. Kafanchan okadas charge passengers 20-50% more to drop to Bayan Loco in the rainy season. I recently slid off a road not 100 metres from Fantsuam into a nearby ditch whilst turning a corner by simply underestimating the slipperiness of the mud. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

A culvert being dug on Waterboard road. Not too dissimilar from the one I slid into last week.

Do you have the picture? Make it worse. By a factor of about 10.

However having said all that, bad roads are Nigeria’s answer to ‘traffic calming’. And I’m afraid the average Nigerian driver needs calming. The most dangerous road around us is the well-built Samaru-Kaduna road. Hardly a pothole anywhere along its winding, 300km length, I have known – directly or indirectly – three people killed on this road in the last 18 months.

'Traffic calming' on the main road close to Lokoja, a breakdown presented a photo opportunity although the camera really does not do this road justice!

Because of the usually terrible condition of the road surface, few drivers ever get the opportunity to drive really fast. So when presented with a clear stretch of tarmac, drivers put their collective feet down to the floor, regardless of the limits of their own vehicles (see above) and indeed – of any other traffic on the road. Overtaking at high speed coming up to blind rises and sharp bends is very common.

Up against the reckless speed merchant, who (often) is believing that it’s simply God’s will if he, his vehicle and its occupants ploughs head on into an oncoming articulated lorry, are the incompetent drivers who simply do not know how to drive, and the nervous drivers. I think both believe that if they’re travelling at 30kph they are safe. Let me tell you now, you are not.

Cars travelling at such slow speeds are treated with the same disdain as okadas (bikes) and simply overtaken without hesitation. And if the first vehicle overtaking is only slightly faster than the one they are overtaking, someone (usually an Opel or Jetta driver from Plateau State, don’t ask me why) will overtake them without warning. You see you CAN get THREE cars alongside one another on a normal road without killing anything (as long as there’s no pedestrians on the hard shoulder).

On the good tar roads in Kagoro, local residents regularly build bumps out of mud across the road (as the Brits call wonderfully – sleeping policemen) to keep their children and livestock as safe as they can.

But driving here is part of the truly great Nigerian tapestry of life. I was going to say that road travel was what I was most concerned about when coming to Nigeria. But I don’t want to tempt fate. It is still what I’m most afraid of. But as my VSO friend Rich says in his own (highly recommended, and unlike mine, picture rich) blog on the same subject:

“Transport in the UK is dull”.

Update I: Teleri and I had to come into work by public transport this morning.. I think I may have locked the car keys in the boot. Now all I need to do is to find a spare Ford Escort boot key (don’t be confused by the fact the car’s a Peugeot – that’s recycling for you). That or a crow bar.

Update II: for those wondering what happened to the HiLux - it's here and working very very hard at business whilst the Peugeot ferries VSOs back and forth... Pictures to come soon..

Monday, 24 May 2010

Power to the People

There’s a new white person in town. We’ve seen him in his white HiLux a couple of times on the drive into work. We’ve never met him however we do have a clue to who he works for: his HiLux has a PHCN logo on the side.

PHCN stands for Power Holding Company of Nigeria, or the company formerly known as NEPA (Nigerian Electrical Power Authority). NEPA was familiarly known as ‘Never Expect Power Again’. Re-branding has not managed to throw off the reputation. PHCN stands for ‘the Problem Has Changed its Name’.

After more than 18 months in Nigeria, most of it spent in the dark in Kagoro, I don’t know what it was that suddenly inspired me to write about NEPA as I was trying not to notice what was going on in the road in front of me as the public taxi hurtled us towards Abuja on my way to a meeting there?

Whether it was that morning seeing the elusive white PHCN man for once out of (but leaning against) his HiLux in the new PHCN building site next to the Strategic Grain Reserve on the Flour Mills Road. PHCN is building a new transformer, allegedly to ‘transform’ our experience of electricity. Huh. I have more faith in... well in England winning the forthcoming football World Cup.

Maybe it was the election fever I managed not to catch from the UK and, with Nigerian Presidential elections due next year, have been advised by VSO to avoid discussing in public. Bear with me:

You may (or may not) be aware that Nigeria’s President recently ‘died’ after about 8 months completely out of the public eye. This meant that our Acting President, the wonderfully named Goodluck Jonathan, was finally inaugurated as President Proper, this within spitting distance of an election year. All around posters are going up advertising the local senate candidates; disused and unearthed petrol station storage tanks have election slogans painted across them. The local headquarters of political parties are receiving a fresh coat of paint and solar street lamps and road repairs are suddenly appearing as incumbents jostle to justify their re-election.

Politicians in Nigeria are not elected on the basis of manifestos: they are elected on the basis of ‘agendas’. Yar Adua (RIP) had a Seven Point Agenda . Kaduna State(former) Governor Namadi Sambo (he’s now national Vice President alongside Goodluck) has an Eleven Point Agenda , Dr Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan Governor of Delta State has a Three Point Agenda, Nasarawa State Governor Aliyu Akwe Doma has a Thirteen Point Agenda (no hyperlink there: I don't really think you're hurrying to check these agendas out are you?)..

High up on most politician’s agendas is power: the electric variety. However few states, if any, have made any progress. Certainly not Kaduna State despite the promise “to spend over two hundred and forty-nine million naira for the development of Major Dams to generate Hydro Electricity in the State”.

I have been urging anyone that I can speak to (without incurring VSO’s displeasure), to encourage candidates standing for President next year to stand on a One Point Agenda: Power. Forget about everything else. I think about this every time I see some election activity.

Or perhaps my my mind wandered to electricity in jovial memory of the PHCN man coming to our door on Friday morning demanding that the Pink House’s NEPA bill is paid: all N6,000 (£30) of it else we get cut off. Cut off? Well as you can imagine we laughed.

There has not been enough electricity to the Pink House in the last two weeks to charge my electric toothbrush. This is not an exaggeration. I think we have seen the lights on for a total of about 45 minutes – usually during broad daylight when frankly it’s not very useful to us.

However whilst having no electricity at night is an irritation rather than a real nuisance for us VSOs, the power supply situation is crippling Nigeria:

All secondary school students take ‘Computer Science’ classes and, despite the government supplying computers to most schools, very few students will leave school having used one. Computers need electricity and most schools simply can’t afford the cost of running generators.

I had a friend who was a paediatrician and surgeon at the local, large-ish general hospital. When I asked him about the power position at the hospital he told me that if he has to do a caesarean section, the generator is turned on for 15 minutes.

Any local business that relies on power (and you just think of a business at home that doesn’t) either has to spend the majority of its day idle or spend large sums of money on generators and the fuel to run them. Generating power at a few kilowatts at a time is incredibly inefficient. How can the businesses hope to compete?

If you go to a business services centre to print documents there will be two prices: one for when there’s power and one, usually about double, for when they have to run a generator.

I recently learnt that the reason that mobile phone networks are unreliable – even in cities – and service is simply cut off for hours (or in rural areas, days) is because someone either didn’t fill the standby generator that powers the radio transmitters or stole the fuel or money for the fuel to fill it.

No point in most businesses harnessing computers to run their accounts, keep customer records, or do all of those things that modern businesses rely on in the ‘West’. You simply can’t rely on the computer being available when you need it. Consequently the accounts departments of most Nigerian businesses are drowning in ledgers (and accounts clerks) that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickins’ novel. Trying to work out facts and figures about your business can take weeks, processing thousands of manual records.

One Friday before a bank holiday our cashier spent five hours at a bank trying to withdraw the cash to make a disbursement to a group of rural clients. The systems were down and whilst the banks do run generators, I’d lay a bet on the power supply being behind that glitch.
The list goes on and on..

How can progress be made under those conditions?

I’m in Abuja right now, writing this from the Crystal Palace, a reasonably priced middle of the range hotel. The lights have gone off and on twice in the last 4 hours. The hotel runs a generator pretty much constantly which I can hear buzzing away in the background over the music in my headphones. Whilst the power situation in big cities is considerably better than places like Kafanchan, it’s still by no means constant. The density of buildings combined with the wealth to maintain generators means that nights in residential areas are polluted by the hum of generators (Kagoro is blissfully silent, and poor).

There’s a vicious rumour going around that Nigeria exports electricity, and reliably, to Niger, Cameroon and Benin. I have no evidence for this but it is so commonly reported it could be true.

Please Presidential Candidates: a One Point Agenda.

Electricity like this country deserves. Then Nigeria has a chance. And a bloody good one at that.


Monday, 3 May 2010

Rome away from home

For those of you that might be thinking I’d snuck back to Europe without telling you ... this is not indeed a picture of Rome, or any city in Europe.

This is a tiny snapshot of one of West Africa’s largest cities: Ibadan, located about 60km away from Lagos in Oyo State in the south west of the Nigeria. Perhaps some of you are thinking that I’ve definitely been in Africa too long to even consider that this might look like Rome however there are a number of other reasons that Ibadan – appearances not alone – reminds me of Rome, a city that I have been privileged to spend some time in.

I travelled down to Ibadan to attend the wedding of a friend of a friend... obscure you may think – but a connection a lot closer than many of the couples who are considerably surprised to see a white person showing up for their happiest moment.

‘Travelling’ really is travelling in Nigeria: in this case 11 hours in a (s)lightly air-conditioned bus across roads that, between them, could pick up prizes for the best in Nigeria (a short stretch of brand new tarmacadam in Ekiti State), most post-holed (all the other 300km of roads in Ekiti State), most dangerous (Abuja-Lokoja – mentioned before) and most devoid of rules (Ibadan Expressway, although this might be an ‘also-ran’ as there’s a lot of competition).

I’m sure the story would not be that different driving from London to Rome after negotiating German autobahns and more provincial Italian strade.

The bus deposited us under a crowded overpass late on Friday evening from where we found a bus to take us to ‘Roundabout’ in Mokola in the very centre of Ibadan. I’m not quite sure how ‘Roundabout’ got its moniker as (a) it’s not a roundabout (b) there are about 50 other similar junctions/roundabouts in Ibadan so I’m not sure why this one stands out. However there you are.

After a swift couple of meat pies at ‘Tantalizer’ – Nigeria’s answer to KFC but so much better named, we began the search for accommodation that took us from one side of Ibadan to the other (no mean feat). Unfortunately no suitable accommodation was forthcoming so our extremely gracious host took us back across town to his place, a peaceful suburb on the ‘outskirts’ of town graced by silence and almost continuous NEPA, both relatively rare in any Nigerian city.

The traditional Yoruba engagement party and civil wedding went without a hitch, though once again I’d made the dire error of going to a wedding without small change and spent most of the time desperately trying to avoid all the ‘tolls’ that the groom’s side were required to pay on behalf of the bride. I did manage to earn myself about N200 in N10 notes dancing at the after-party but by then, it was too late.

Having covered the traditional engagement formalities, the couple make a quick costume change before heading off the the local registry office.

Challenging the groom and his men to a dance-off.....

My earnings

The next few days were spent visiting friends and relatives around Ibadan which is where I got the feeling for Rome:

Ibadan is a huge ‘small’ city. Unlike Lagos, or even Abuja, which have cosmopolitan centres filled with people from all over the country and even the world, Ibadan is Yoruba. Somehow there’s not the stress and tension of Lagos with a more friendly, laid back attitude. Anyone who’s spent time in Italy will appreciate the comparison between the Romans and the Milanese. I rest my case.

(Left) A serious game of Ludo taking place metres from Ibadan’s ‘Roundabout’ nerve centre in Mokola, whilst there’s none of the insane Lagos congestion in the busy market area of Bodija (centre), close to the University of Ibadan (right), Nigeria’s first.

And, like Rome, the locals will always be able to find you the best places to eat and drink offering great company as well as refreshment.

A group of students gather for palm wine at ‘Profs’ (2nd from right) situated down a pathway in the University of Ibadan’s leafy campus; a local Mokola restaurant where I got to eat the best amala and bean soup in Ibadan.. made by Mama Raheem, pictured here in her roadside kitchen.

And for the occasional luxury there’s the hill top Premiere Hotel. A hefty N300 entry fee however cold Star and a peaceful environment.

And one thing both Ibadan and Rome have in common is history: or should I say the term ‘historical’. All Nigerians I have spoken to describe Ibadan as a historical city and as you travel around amongst the trademark rusty roofs that cover virtually every building in the city, you can’t help but think what it must have looked in the days before the old stone buildings with their fine ornamental windows, doors, pillars descended into today’s decay.

Perched on a hilltop the grand Mapo Hall is a favourite venue for conferences, church programmes, wedding, barmitzvahs (ok - perhaps not so many of those), whilst Ibadan's Adamasinga Stadium (previously Lekan Salami - name kinda goes with the Italian theme I thought?) hosts Ibadan's Shooting Stars, one of Nigeria's top football clubs.

Ibadan is also hilly – you notice this sitting in any battered public transport vehicle struggling up frequent inclines or (more worryingly for me) switching the engine off completely to coast down a busy urban street to conserve fuel before deftly joining the two ignition wires under the steering wheel to re-start once the bottom is reached. And no visitor to Ibadan should miss the tremendous view from Bowers’ Tower – a viewing tower situated on a hill in the very centre of the City.

A keke driven by Suraj, more comfortable and safer than an okada, cheaper and more manoeuvrable than a cab: the view across Bowers’ Park from the tower, definitely past its prime. My friends venture to the very top of the tower to get the best view.

And in fact, as Suraj, the keke driver told me, “Ibadan is built on seven hills”. Remind you of another city?