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..

1 comment:

Sabine said...

Dear Cicely,

as usual, a very entertaining blog post and one that reminds me of the scary as well as funny parts of my very own Nigerian road story... Travel safely!!! Big hug from Germany. Sabine