Sunday, June 10, 2007

Renaissance man of Africa

It is well! Last month saw a lot of firsts – first time I had eba (pounded cassava), first time I drank pure water from a plastic bag, first time I ate fresh cashew fruit straight from the tree, first time I had audience with a traditional ruler and first time I met the Leonardo da Vinci of Africa, dr. Oluyombo Awojobi of Eruwa, Oyo State, Nigeria.

CFC is co-producing a documentary on the extraordinary doctor, Dr. Awojobi, in the small rural townof Eruwa and I spent a few days on the shoot in May and got a fix of tranquility and renewed hope in humankind, so I felt I needed to share this story...

Being in Eruwa reminded me of the Africa I had pictured in my mind’s eyes before I set out on my Nigerian adventure: cool, quiet mornings with the cock crowing and the distant sound of voices and domestic activity. Rural Nigeria is oh so different from crazy-busy Lagos. The fences are low, no burglar proof on windows, people greet and smile without expecting a dash for directions. There are endless vistas of palm groves and lush ground vegetation, where you see flocks of white birds take off … and the farmers growing yam are colourful little patterned dots in the green expanse of farm fields. Life is hard but honest… far from the shifty business mindedness and never ending hustle of the city.

Dr. Awojobi came to Eruwa in the 80ies as a young surgeon in training. He was meant to stay for one month to provide surgical service to the community but he returned to Eruwa upon finishing his qualifications and after a few years in government service set up his clinic, ACE - designed by him from scratch and funded without any external support.

ACE is no ordinary hospital. There is no sign of computers or copy machines but records of the 107,000 patients, that have been seen here throughout the years, are neatly kept on paper registration cards in the archive all the same. There is no fancy ambulance with sirens, instead a tricycle with a roof, inspired by the tuk-tuks of India shuttle the patients efficiently.

All around the clinic examples of rudimentary yet life-saving solutions abound. The operation table utilises a car jack to lever up the patients and the distiller and autoclave in the back, made out of domestic cooking gas cylinders, are powered by corn cobs given to the clinic by farmers who use part of the clinic’s land to grow their produce. ACE gets access to bio-fuel and the farmers get rid of waste.

Another recycling solution is simple but perfect: rainwater during rainy season is collected in large reservoir tanks and is lead through the pipe system to showers and from there used for flushing the toilets. It is only during the dry season there is a need to use the six wells drilled on the premises. In fact, a nearby school is also using ACE’s distilled water for performing experiments in their chemistry lab and Awojobi’s locally made distiller won an award from the Natural Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure.

Speaking of labs, the centrifuge in Awojobi’s lab that separates the blood from other bodily fluids is another practical invention that does not rely on erratic Nigerian power supply from NEPA (colloquially called Never Expect Power Always). The machine was fabricated out of the back wheel of a bicycle and is manually operated when there is no light. The home-grown inverter is running on car batteries to charge the solar-power fridge in the lab. These are only some of the many ingenious solutions the clinic, or rather its champion, the doctor, has come up with. He is an inventor as much as he is a surgeon, a man with a true philanthropic outlook.

Dr. Awojobi is not interested in patenting the inventions he created, rather he would love to see other people follow in his footsteps and use such equipment to aid rural healthcare delivery. Having been invited to the UK for a 6-month training, he declined, saying that his patients can’t go without him for that long and only visited Britain for 2 weeks.

There was a deliberate decision behind not training abroad but rather in Nigeria during his residency training. Dr Awojobi’s decision was based on the “implicit confidence that all my teachers at Ibadan were world renowned and could train their kind in Nigeria”. He is a firm believer of Nigerians solving their problems themselves, rather than waiting for foreign expertise or help and he is certainly leading by example!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hassle and flow (T.I.L)

Another curfew beckons! It is election time in Nigeria and the race is really heating up. Gubernatorial elections are happening this weekend and presidential the next. The radio is full of jingles for the candidates - I particularly like Babatunde Fashola’s who has ripped off the tune ‘We are the World’ and sprinkled it with some subtle slogan like ‘We Love Fashola’. Last minute a public holiday was announced for Thursday and Friday even though Saturday is the voting day. Many claim this was to effectively bar the courts from ruling, thereby throwing out the cases of those who wanted to appeal to the courts regarding their contested candidacies, and in particular this refers to vice president Atiku, whom incumbent Obasanjo has not really been in favour of lately.

So the strong man in the running right now for Nigeria’s next president is Yaradua, a Northern man who is Katsina’s governor and one of the few aspirants that does not have a file with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and actually did not run up a debt for his state during his governance. Then again a suspicious Southerner the other day dismissed Yaradua saying the only reason there is no dirt on him is because the Northerners keep these things hush hush and bribe their constituency with a few handouts while pocketing the rest.

In any case his victory may be imminent – one of the style magazines has already started running features on Yaradua’s presidential fashion sense. I particularly enjoyed seeing him wearing party-branded, PDP (People’s Democratic Party) shoes to lighten up his Sharia attire. Oh, and the other main contender is ex-dictator Buhari... I know which one I’d vote for…

So anyway everyone has been preparing for the elections, noone quite knows if there will be riots, dead calm or perhaps a discrete coup. Just in case, I have been asked by my boss to bunker up with money, phone credit, food and water, diesel and a full tank of petrol for all eventualities. Saturday, actual election day, will be spent indoors, one is only supposed to go and vote and then back home and I definitely ain’t going to try walking anywhere after my last brush with the law… I can’t help but wonder why every time this nation has to vote or be counted or perform any other large scale civic duty, the only way to solve it is to shut people into their homes and threaten to arrest them if they do otherwise.

I am continuing my story today the morning of election day, 14th of April 2007. The day before yesterday there were riots outside the governor’s house on Bourdillon, they wanted to set fire to the residence and apparently there were shootings too. Then last night rumours were rife that there would be a curfew from 8pm onwards since election day is today. By the way, Nigeria is always full of unverifiable rumours – concerning the elections there was one that said Yaradua was dead, another one saying they’d kidnapped one of the gubernatorial candidates and now this latest one concerning house-arrest.

Temi and I needed to go out and buy something last minute so we risked it and found out by default that no curfew was going on – or if there was half of Lagos would get arrested as there were cars everywhere around Falomo… and you know that when the majority is going against the law here, there will be no enforcement, so we could rest assured. Later at night though, we had the pleasure of repeating the exercise as diesel ran out after midnight just as we were watching a film (with Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac, I say no more). This meant all lights off, beeping UPSs and total darkness in Temi’s house, even though she had hours earlier given money to one of the drivers to go and buy diesel for the gen. It now turned out that the guy couldn’t get any – there is a new shortage going on – and instead of telling her this and give back the money, he just took off and was not answering his phone. Nothing new there, happens all the time, but really irritating especially the night before curfew, knowing there will be no NEPA for the whole next day and lots of sweating indoors.

Consequently we got on the road again at half past midnight on election night, with a jerry can in the boot of the car, and woke up a friend to borrow diesel. This time around the same roads we crisscrossed hours before, heaving with activity, were completely deserted and only a few shady characters – the odd hustler, prostitute or chewing gum seller – were still out there. If we saw a car on the roadside we just drove past quickly – in Lagos chances are it might be armed robbers getting ready to strike, especially on the eve of some big event or holiday.

This is because armed robbers know that there is a lot of money changing hands in the run-up to elections (or round Christmas when everyone has saved up to buy presents for their loved ones or finance their trip home) so hitting a political person’s house could give a lucrative bounty if they can get their hands on the campaign funds or money allocated for community relations (bribes to get votes, money earmarked for hiring thugs to instigate unrest or even kill a certain candidate or party supporters). Even the usually money-hungry road police, who stop you every five yards on Awolowo road to demand ‘anyting for di weekend, ma?’, were missing and it gave the street an uncharacteristic, eerie atmosphere. Though everyone knows they are not there to uphold order or serve and protect they are just such an integral part of the night landscape of Lagos, something seems to be up when their presence is void.

All the hangout spots on Awolowo road were shut-down and dark, another first on a Friday night, as the place is generally buzzing with touts, beggars and self-appointed car-park attendants obstructing the way, running up and down the lanes to waive a car into some gutter-side ad-hoc parking spot. At this point we discovered Temi’s tank was on empty, so a not-so-attractive prospect was that we might run out of petrol on the way back to her house. (Again, her driver (another one this time) drove the car all day and happily went home without even telling her she’d need to fuel her car, let alone actually fill it up as would be part of his job description). As luck would have it, we ran into one of the last guests of CocoNut Grove, a friend of Temi’s, so we asked him to follow us by car back to her place to be on standby rescue if our own car stopped.

I am telling all of this in such detail to give a flavour for what every single routine thing in this town entails – there is so much brain power and effort that goes into the simplest undertaking and disruptions are everywhere, there’s always a need for a plan Z as all others will have fallen through and you can never rely on someone else to do what they are supposed to cause chances are they won’t, leaving you stranded at midnight the night before a curfew.

These things are starting to get to me. In the mornings I half-expect to be woken up by support staff reporting some emergency, asking for direction on what to do: ‘‘the generator has broken down’’, ‘‘there is no more diesel’’, ‘‘can I have the office key’’, ‘‘the driver came back drunk and started abusing the security guards, can you come out?’’, ‘‘the light is on in the resource centre – I need key to switch it off’’, ‘‘only one of the two security guards turned up to work, I want to report them’’. But hey, as Leonardo di Caprio eloquently put it in Blood Diamond “T.I.A.”, a.k.a. this is Africa… and he hadn’t even been to Lagos!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I fought the law...

Just when I thought I had run out of inspiration for my Nigeria blog and it seemed I’d become too blaz­e to describe the little everyday wonders that happen to me, the long arm of the law came to the rescue.

On the last Saturday morning of January I found myself walking around my estate to clear my head and shake a red wine hangover from the previous night. The streets were nice and quiet as everyone is supposed to stay indoors during ‘Environmental’ - the 3h cleaning exercise that takes place on the last Saturday of each month - and during which no cars or pedestrians are allowed and Lagos is meant to become squeaky clean. From my walk I called Yemisi and during our chat suggested that maybe rather than wasting my credit I should come over to hers, after all she only lives a few hundred meters from me. ‘Just be careful so you don’t get arrested’ were her final words to me and laughingly we hung up and I set out to go see her.

As I was approaching the main road, there was no sign of any cleaning going on, but I did see a yellow danfo slow down and 3 policemen hop out of it to greet me. In my mushy head I was still not reacting and I smilingly said hello to them, when they asked if I knew what day it was. At first they were friendly, then grew harsher, surrounded me and insisted I go with them in the police car to the station. I tried to plead, beg, ask for understanding but in the end when they started pulling my arm and pushing me into the van, I decided it was better if I went of my free will. Nigerian police are something else, not very friendly and certainly not very honest or law abiding. If I had only had some money on me I could have ‘reasoned it out’ with them then and there but stupid girl as I was I didn’t take my wallet, only my mobile phone, thank god.

So when it became evident that we were cruising the streets of Ikeja for more law offenders to rip off and our journey would lead to the jailhouse at the local government court I decided it was time to phone Yemisi to tell her I probably wouldn’t make it to hers . . .what’s more I’d need her to come bail me out urgently. But at this point, I am still sitting in the police danfo, with 10 police around me, the closest one to me with one glass eye suspisously mustering me and all of them cradling their batons, talking strategy as they see other ‘criminals’ out in the streets: ‘you get off here, two of you round the back of the van, circle him, get him!’ And the good old Lagosians, used to battling the police, would argue, shout, beg and finally try to fight their way back to freedom rather than entering the car. I kept thinking, ‘this is not happening to me’ – at times marveling at the absurdity of the situation, at times chuckling to myself at the hilarity of it and at times wondering how intimidating it would get for a white girl in a Nigerian prison.

Finally we arrived to the police station, everyone was offloaded and after more pushing and shoving and intense Yoruba cursing, locked up in a communal cell with about 26 unlucky souls. People were getting quite agitated: ‘In my own state, this is how I am treated!’ and ‘You people only want money, that’s why you are doing this!’ were some of the comments made to the police. I kept to myself and fought the urge to pick up my mobile when I kept getting calls and texts about what I was up to that Saturday. I could hardly answer the phone and say ‘sorry can’t meet you for coffee, am in jail right now’. I attracted a fair bit of interest: ‘Oyibo, what did you do?’ was a common question and soon enough we were sharing tales of how we’d gotten captured and what we were ‘doing time for’ A police woman took our names down on a list – this was so that we could be summoned for our pending court proceedings. She offended one of the jailbirds somehow and the guy started to complain about her to another policeman. Rather than showing solidarity the police guy just said ‘don’t you have a wife? you know how women are, now’ and that seemed to settle the problem. Meanwhile, some of my new made friends wanted to take my number and even one police man tried chatting me up from the other side of the barred windows. I suppose [Nigerian] men will be men no matter the circumstance. . .

After 1.5h when I was finally wondering if I’d have to start sampling Nigerian prison toilets too, Yemisi and her not at all amused brother in law arrived. I could see them through the bars, outside our cell and I waved over the police woman so Yemisi could talk to her. The woman outlined the proceedings – I would have to wait for the trial, when the magistrate would gather, they would ask me if I was innocent or guilty and I would have to plead guilty, then they would give their verdict and I would have to couhgh up the dough for my penalty or rot in jail forever. This could take the whole day. Yemisi, the problem solver, said plainly, we don’t have all day so lets just sort it out and proceeded to explain ‘see na dis gerl, she no get motor, she treck in Ikeja, how many oyibo people you go see in Ikeja on di road, they all go VI in their big cars. Dis one, eh, is working for development self, she no get money’.

Well, the police woman had apparently not thought of it like that, so she responded ‘Eyyah, na true, maybe we give her staff price!’ So after some negotiation, I got 1000naira off, was fasttracked in the proceedings and somehow once the money had changed hands didn’t even need a court proceeding to get the hell out. I was taken out the back way and took my first glorious breath of fresh air after 3h of stale prison, feeling giddy from the excitement of being back out in freedom. I had never ‘seen’ my street Adeniyi Jones, now all of a sudden it looked beautiful and I was marveling at the people, the sights the dusty roadside shacks, feeling a weird intense joy!

We went to Yemisi’s house and I got treated to some akara and was laughed at by quite a number of people upon telling my story. Even Bimbo, who is now in Switzerland, was texting Yemisi, asking how ‘operation rescue Panni’ was going. To wash off my experience I had a swim in her pool and it was divine. That night, I almost felt like someone out of Goodfellas, we were a big group of people, everyone welcomed me as if I had just gotten out and there were plenty of jokes about me getting prison tattoos etc. It occurred to me that this has happened almost on the day of my 1st year anniversary in Nigeria and I s’pose I did managed to commemorate it in true Naija style!

Monday, October 30, 2006

When keeping it real goes wrong

On the 23rd of October Ramadan ended and was celebrated with a 2-day public holiday following on the weekend. In true Nigerian government communications stylee, people were kept in the dark until the very last minute about whether we would get one or two days off, effectively preventing anyone from planning to travel on the bank holiday. But, taking my chances I decided I would bank on having Monday and Tuesday off and got myself a visa to Benin to visit over the weekend. I convinced Yemisi and Bimbo to come and to keep it real – crossing the Nigeria-Benin border on foot.

Yemisi’s driver Chimeze dropped us at the border and we embarked on our adventure. We crossed at Seme and even before we got to the actual checkpoint (if one can talk of such a thing) we were greeted by a chaotic, shoddy-looking hub of activity with hawkers, okadas and taxi drivers, blackmarket money-changers and thousands of bizibodies with unidentifiable purpose milling around the place. It was so disorientating that we almost missed the first set of passport controllers as they melted perfectly into the muddy mess of the whole place and if they had not dragged their clunky mobile border control barriers (in the shape of a modified rake) with them to block our way, we would have strolled past unknowingly. After these guys we got to the real checkpoint, which was nothing like I’ve ever seen: it was a long series of desks by the side of the road so you had to make a special detour to get there – again if Bimbo would not have shepherded us that way I would just have kept on walking straight ahead on the road and into Benin. The officials – some of them in uniform, some of them plainclothes – were chilling behind their desks, surrounded by characters who only god knows if they were their colleagues or friends, with nothing better to do on the long weekend than spend some time at border control.

The first desk checked our yellow fever certificates. To the officials’ dismay mine was in order, even though they had stern words regarding my name not being on the cover of my certificate, only inside the document. Moving on to Yemisi and Bimbo the thorough inspection paid off – they both had some data missing from their certificates, which were then declared invalid. Ah, how would such a situation be remedied – could they get new emergency vaccinations on site? No! Should they be turned away at the border? Of course not! In return for some monetary compensation they were promptly issued with new yellow fever certificates containing the missing dates for immunization, which miraculously materialized out of thin air. This was the point I realized that anyone carrying any old disease can cross Nigerian borders as long as they have the cash to bribe the officials.

Then we came to a new desk and the questioning began: why are we going to Benin, what is our occupation?... and so on. When Yemisi and I answered we work for a non government organization, the officials started to really lay into us ‘Nawow, you people must have lot of money… NGOs are a business… maybe I come work for you... what can you do to develop me?’ As it often does, the conversation started on a provoking note, but as we were speaking, took on a jokier tone and in the end the same official who started picking on us signaled to his colleague at the next desk to wave us through without even showing our passports. Well, it was about time to get some preferential treatment as all the while we were being quizzed about our purpose to enter Benin less than respectable characters were waltzing through the checkpoint, just nodding to the officials. No passport, no yellow fever certificate, no nothing. And the bread sellers and okadas were never once stopped by anybody, crossing the border innumerable times in a day. Lesson number two: crossing Nigerian borders has nothing to do with having your documents in order.

A few more desks, a few more forms to fill and a few more 200 naira notes silently slipped to the officials and we were through the Nigerian check. Now passport control on the Benin side. People were calmer, there was none of the milling and buzzing of shady characters around, but there was one similarity with the Nigerian border control: the officials on the Benin side also had to be bribed to process our passports. I suppose sitting two feet away from their Nigerian counterparts had taught them a thing or two. This is how corruption breeds – it really spreads like a disease taking over the minds and souls of people, going from one person to another, from one nation to the next.

But I digress… We quickly found a cab and our French-Yoruba driver, Michael, whose Yoruba Yemisi and Bimbo could hardly decipher and whose French also had such a thick Benin accent that it was impossible to make out. Anyway, we hired him to take us to Grand Popo, a 2h drive outside Cotonou. I had done the not very thorough due diligence on our destination. I found a website but it didn’t really have an address or directions on how to get to the auberge, but I reckoned it would be somehow obvious.

Michael did indeed say he knew Grand Popo and it wasn’t until Yemisi double-checked with him on where we were going that he started to squirm. We had spent over 1.5h on the road at this time. He said we’d already passed the Grand Popo he was thinking of and this place wherever we were going was much further away, so he needed to be paid more than the agreed fare. We got down from his car, found a business centre and I tried calling the auberge to figure out whether we should indeed turn back and to get some proper directions. Phone engaged. With my nonexistent French I enquired if the proprietor knew where Grand Popo was. We somehow established it was 12 km further on and I trusted him more than our shady cabbie so we continued. And yes indeed, finally we spotted the signs to our village and drove through a deserted holiday town with Caribbean looking sheds and swaying palms.

After our border ordeal and uncertain cab ride arriving was pure bliss. The auberge was in a to-die-for setting: the house was a colonial structure reminiscent of an old hacienda, the grounds were shaded by big trees, the terrace overlook miles of uninhabited stretch of beach. They were playing Fela in the speakers and we had a fantastic meal accompanied by rose wine. The environment was so peaceful and meditative and stressfree, we instantly relaxed and loved every minute of it, I don’t think I’ve slept so well since in Nigeria as in my breezy, aircon free room with no TV or other modernities.

We explored the area, strolled on the beach and found a little rasta village close to our auberge. There was a cute rotunda that served as a beach bar, with reggae choons blasting out from it and the owner Francois served us a carbonated fruit juice called Fizzy, which quickly became a Grand Popo favourite. We came back to his place for dinner – he had one type of food on the menu, shrimp, but cooked in a variety of ways and we had it with couscous and rice and it was divine. The wine was from a carton and we sat under the stars chatting, making friends with Francois’ cute dog Jude. It appeared (with Yemisi doing most of the talking and translating) that Francois was an orphan who’d worked as a guide in the whole of west Africa, had spent bits of time in Spain, France, Germany (mainly through girlfriends he’d met on his trips) and would have liked to go back to Europe but he’d been refused visa too many times to want to try again. So he found this little plot on the beach and set up his rasta bar and lived in the back with his artist friends in a commune. One of them was a painter and textile artist and I particularly loved his textiles, which apparently are going to go on exhibition in Helsinki later on this year. Francois talked of the locals suspicion towards rastas, his place had been raided by 14 police with guns and he said women were too much wahalla, wanting him to cut his hear, give up smoking etc. We started talking about our border experience and it turned out he knew a lot about crossing borders illegally in West Africa to get to the desired destination, Europe. He had been following the same route and had filmed some of the refugees experiences.

Our days passed quickly and before we knew it our cabbie (we had traded up from shifty-Michael to rasta-Jildas) was waiting for us in his multi-coloured taxi with Marley’s head painted on the doors to whisk us back to Cotonou and the much-dreaded border. On the way back I paid more attention to the road and the settlements we passed. All in all it was not too different from Nigeria. People in native, carrying loads on their heads, riding okadas… but the distinction was still clear. The roads were not as crowded, traffic was orderly and honking was not the done thing. Okada drivers were wearing uniforms, little kiddies on their way back from school were accompanied by grownups, the roadside outdoor stands selling things were not makeshift sheds, but extensions to the shops behind them. It looked poor, but more organized, neater, cleaner… And I loved watching the women carrying French sticks on their heads and the fat-bellied massive containers of oil sold on stands everywhere and the ever-recognizable green cross of French pharmacies constituting a common landmark. This was Francophone West Africa.

So we came back to the border and this time around I was made to wait at one of the desks by an official who decided the oyibo would have to pay no matter what. He kept ignoring me while everyone else was attended to, using my passport as his elbow rest. Once again people were everywhere, confusion, shouting, begging, new passports landing on the desk, whispering between officials… and the eternal wait. And then, all of a sudden before I realized a guy had rushed off with my passport, noone knew if he was an official or some tout and I freaked out. Seme is so big and once someone disappears, they disappear. Would I be stuck in nomansland between Benin and Nigeria? I was informed by the mean desk official that my passport had been taken to the other side to check what the problem was with it. What would be the problem – I had all the visas and certificates needed. He could not answer this, but anyway it was beside the point. Once he had sufficiently demonstrated his power and my helplessness he summoned me to the desk saying that I had to leave a gift in my passport for him. Say no more, at this point I silently obeyed, no point to try anything however wrong or corrupt the guy, I wanted to just get through. I gave the bribe discretely only to get from his fellow official ‘You have not been talking to me, only my colleague’ meaning I should pay him off too. I gave my usual ‘but you are brothers, you should share now’ and somehow in the end got the necessary stamp to pass. Yemisi told me she’d never come to Benin with me again but this was before we got stopped by the narcotics guys who ripped her apart instead…

By the time we found Chimeze and the car on the Nigerian side we were haggard and dying for a wee, but happy to be sitting in a car heading back towards Lagos. Unfortunately, there were over 10 checkpoints still to negotiate by car before being able to breathe a final sigh of relief. And as luck would have it the narcotics police didn’t have much to do that day so they decided to stop us and take us to their little roadside checkpoint in the bush. One man was leisurely sucking on a grass straw, with his feet up on a desk under a tree, the others were attending to us. Our main official was polite at first but soon started his intimidating questioning as he was checking our bags through, ripping out my underwear. Yemisi had to go to the bathroom and this raised their suspicion immensely and they made a big deal out of how she may have wanted to dispose of whatever drug she had using the bush, so they sent an inspector to the ‘scene of the crime’ to check. Of course he found nothing there. Then he started his interrogation saying ‘I know a smoker when I see one. I want you to answer me have you ever smoked? And if you answer no I will take you back to Seme border and have you do a marijuana test in our lab’ In the end I think what saved us was that they found out Bimbo was a lawyer and he had his inhaler with him. As a little side-insult the big oga under the tree pulled me aside to look at what magazines I had with me. I showed him and he said disappointedly ‘Oh, I thought it was phonography’ I said I didn’t know what phonography was just to provoke a response out of him and then asked him ‘Why do you insult me like this, Sir’ which finally shut him up. It was probably not the wisest and most diplomatic approach but there’s only so much hassle you can take.

When we finally joined the throng of cars negotiating the massive afternoon go-slow towards Ikeja, our dignity bruised but relieved and savouring the sweet memory of chilled Grand Popo, we concluded this was a clearcut case of ‘when keeping it real goes wrong’!

Lagos – Centre of Excellence

It is past 2 o’clock on a Thursday night and I should be tucked up in bed attending to my beauty sleep. Instead, I am wide-awake, having just gotten home from a bar across on VI where the beautiful people of Lagos fraternize. But this is certainly not what gave me second wind, nor was it the ride across the dark mainland bridge with my newfound friend the cab driver mr. T.O. who possesses one of the most rickety car wrecks in town… oh no, the source of my adrenaline rush was the sight of a giant cockroach in my bedroom. Despite spending the night in a lounge full of Lagos big men, the only taker for sharing my bedspace ended up being a cockroach - now that is pretty ironic. Having said that, judging from its sheer size, it could loosely be called a Lagos big boy of sorts, so I won’t complain.

Besides, I intend to analyze a beast of a different kind tonight, in fact why not throw the whole of Lagos under a magnifying glass and dissect. Yesterday the city experienced one of its world-famous go-slows, whereby it took one of my colleagues 5 hours to go from the mainland to Lekki. The reason was a political rally around the national stadium and this caused the whole city to clog up and spend their night honking their horns at other cars at a standstill in powerless exasperation. Now that election time is coming closer there will be more of this type of entertainment I am sure. In the end, even the most refined Lagosians had to give up their air-conditioned SUVs with drivers and brave the pavement, or god forbid take an okada, to somehow get home.

Speaking of okadas, there is a new law in Lagos that bikes must not be seen out after 7pm or before 7am. This means everyone is rushing to get home before the curfew as the machines however irritating and dangerous are a vital mode of transport - most people take them once they get off their bus stop to get close to where they live. This new measure is meant to improve safety at night – apparently there were a lot of okada robberies, i.e. people on bikes robbing cars and pedestrians – but a side effect of the regulation is that the already impossible traffic situation has just got even more unbearable: the whole of Lagos trying to get to work or home at the same time.

Today people were joking that probably even the LASTMA officials (traffic police), the okadas’ biggest enemies, were getting on bikes to get home yesterday night. And rumour has it LASTMA is really taking its task of fining the offenders seriously by never missing a chance to stop an erring driver and demand a dash to let them go. It is growing into a fine side business for the officials who can complement their measly salaries with this new source of windfall, the only slight problem being that like most regulatory initiatives it will just open up yet another avenue for corruption rather than be enforced and create order in the chaos of this disintegrated metropolis, whose tagline btw. is Lagos – centre of excellence.

And although Lagos may at first glance not strike you as a centre of excellence in any shape or form it has actually been appreciated by none other than the granddaddy of modern urban architecture, Rem Kolhaas. He took his Harvard students to Lagos on a series of research trips to study this urban phenomenon and concluded that Lagos may stand as a model for the urban development of mega-cities in the future - pioneering a sort of needs-based urbanism where ad-hoc marketplaces are created as and when a mass of people spontaneously congregate in a go-slow, and dissolve as soon as the bottleneck disappears.

And excellence can manifest itself in many different ways, for example I believe that Nigerians are very enterprising indeed - for every new obstacle presented to them, they’ll find a loophole or a way to capitalize on their little corner of influence. If there were legitimate possibilities abound in this country so much creative potential could be harnessed, but as it is, a lot of it is sadly converted into schemes and scams instead. Nevertheless, it does take true survivalists to cope in good old Naija, with no welfare systems or safety nets for its citizens, it is amazing that people get by and continue their daily struggle with a smile.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reflections in the rain

Merciless downpour drenching the pavement, …changing roads into muddy pools, causing massive go-slows, corrupting phone lines and bringing the whole city to a halt. The sun is hidden by heavy clouds and the smattering of the rain overpowers even the sound of generators. Then, by night the air is cool, the cicadas sing their songs and the dark silhouettes of palm trees are swaying gently in the wind. It is rainy season.

I sit out on my porch and slowly drink a glass of wine, taking in the mellow evening. On an overcast Sunday I wake up to the bombastic preaching of the next-door redeemed church of Christ (their generator never seems to give up while mine has as a pastime to flake on me particularly on weekends) and don’t bother to go out because of the rain, spending the day reading, settling down in the afternoon to the distant prayers of an imam.

But this is on a lazy day – I do indulge in more energetic activities too! Like for example walking… to the nearest fastfood restaurant for some jollof rice and dodo. The walk is about 2-300 meters but is quite a novelty since everyone’s inclination is to take the car wherever you go. I have started jogging within our estate and am doing exercise in the garden after the run, much to the amusement of our security guards, I am sure. The only problem with jogging (apart from the fact that timing has to be chosen carefully: it should still be light for the sake of personal safety and there should also be NEPA so that I don’t have to take heavy breaths of generator exhaust while trying to keep fit - and believe me these two conditions almost hardly coincide) is all the spectators in the street who encourage me with hollers like ‘welldone’ and ‘good for your body’.

Since coming back to Nigeria from my holiday I have started to sample the Lagos nightlife again, even though a resolution as an outcome of my vacation reflections was to live healthily (hence the exercise) and cut down on alcohol and late nights. But the sad truth is, in this environment there is a very strong urge to ‘unwind’. Plus, my darling friend Bisola is going back to England this weekend so I’ve wanted to take the opportunity to hang with her as much as possible before she disappears. Already after 6 months here many of the faces in the bars and clubs are the same and predictability is definitely setting in. There will be groups of Lagos big boys living it up with champagne, with a bunch of hangers-on around their table, everyone crowding upstairs in the VIP lounge of the ultimate hangout, Bacchus (noone wants to admit they like it but everyone winds [up] there eventually) eagerly scoaping the dance floor for babes.

One of the most cited statistics is that there are 3 or 4 girls to every guy in Lagos. I have no idea if this is true but it would definitely explain a lot when it comes to pulling. Here’s a bit of amateur behavioural psychology for you: there is an alternative moral code developing in Nigeria, whereby those who do not cheat on their wives or girlfriends are the ones to feel left out and a man of stature is expected to have multiple girlfriends, and conversely, the more girlfriends the higher the status of someone. If you ask any Nigerian man he will vehemently deny this and claim that it has nothing to do with Nigeria: all men all over the world are the same. However, here apart from the demographic imbalance the role of socio-economic factors also boost infidelity – polygamy is still widely spread and women are economically dependent on their husbands, making them less likely to go their own way just because the man is unfaithful. And the strong religious and family-oriented outlook Nigerians have means that filing for a divorce is a bigger scandal than putting up with a man who has a taste for extramarital activities (or a woman for that matter). Naturally, there are exceptions, but where would the fun of outrageous postulations go if I tried to be nuanced in my analysis?

So instead, let me be even more obnoxious. A big reason for guys being players and all this cheating is that there are some very wealthy people around, with too much money and time on their hands. There is a shortage of leisurely activities and hobbies to pursue, so the default is creating excitement in an otherwise monotonous lifestyle by having an affair. And since many are more concerned by earning money from oil and gas contracts and impressing on ladies, they may be more interested in the looks of said ladies rather than their personalities, which is why women are treated as materialistic objects to desire, pursue, then exchange/upgrade once acquired.

I totally expect to receive hate mail after this rant, but if I do get some I’ll just feel vindicated that I’ve hit the nail on the head, so please don’t bother :).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Living dangerously

Finally, I am sitting here typing in my first locally sown dress: having difficulty to breathe, while displaying unhealthy amounts of breast – in short my idea to get a Nigerian tailor to make a western-style dress of my own design has failed. The tailor, Bayo, a young man who was recommended by a friend from Akwanga, stormed into my life and disappeared without a trace just as quickly. He came to Lagos to work for a lady here and I was to be one of his first clients. He called me as soon as he arrived to town and I invited him to the office to discuss the makings of my dress. On his second visit he took my measurements and a week later, when he was supposed to come with the finished goods, having failed to show up for our arranged appointment, decided to come a day after without calling, at which time I was in Ikoyi. Finally we fixed another date for him to deliver my dress and it just so happened I needed to go to a meeting out of the office so when he arrived I was not there. By the time I got back in the late afternoon, having expected him to have left, I found out that he had become urgently ill, puking all over our reception area and had to be rushed to a clinic. He got the usual treatment: pills of different colours in little plastic bags, that noone knew what they were, probably an injection or two, no diagnosis and a large bill to pay. He had no money so our admin officer lent the cash from our pettycash and I decided he should stay in our spare room in the boys’ quarters for the night as he still had fever. He then told me the story of having had to walk everywhere for the past week as his job at this lady’s workshop didn’t materialize and he’d had no money even for public transport. He had showed up at his prospective employer’s place and found out she had been shot. I know it sounds like an unbelievable story but I think people here do live from hand to mouth and there are absolutely no safety nets so when disaster strikes, it strikes hard. The next day, he looked better, I tried the dress on and it was too big so we decided he was going to adjust it. He was so grateful for us at the office taking care of him, he said he would make me a few adire attires as a gift. I told him he could just sow some more stuff for me and I would cover his hospital bill. After this he went off and I texted him a week later without getting a response. Then his brother showed up with my dress and said Bayo had left for Abuja and was still ill. So this is the story of my too tight dress.

Speaking of hospital visits – Temi, Bisola and I went to the Lekki forest reserve on my initiative, as a different thing to do on the weekend. It was wonderful to be walking in the rainforest on a wooden walkway, with monkeys overhead and peace… most importantly peace and quiet, the biggest scarcity in this town. Unfortunately, the bliss ended with Temi treading on a rotten plank and badly hurting her leg. She was bleeding and we took her to the entrance, where the attendant had conveniently disappeared and the gateman proved utterly useless. Of course there was no first aid kit, off course he wanted to wash the wound with contaminated water and of course there was no possibility to get a refund. So our adventure ended up in a clinic with Temi promising to write an article in the new edition of ‘Whatsnew?’ (Lagos’ equivalent of Time Out that her brother runs) about the appaling state of the forest reserve. The response we got from many when telling the story was ‘What did you go and do in that forest in the first place?’ I am noticing a lot of people don’t explore at all and are perfectly happy doing the same things over and over again. When I ask people (and I mean young, educated, well-off) about what they get up to in the weekends, they answer ‘go out on Friday, go clubbing on the Island on Saturday’, not even thinking that I may be asking what they do during the day. The answer is nothing special. No wonder the National Theatre is just an empty relic, and the only cinemas in this country are in Lagos (there are none in Abuja!) people just don’t crave cultural stimuli. They go to church, visit friends, go to engagements and weddings and watch TV. I suppose I should modify this statement – the culture here is all of the above and just very different from what I associate with culture.

Recently I arranged a recruitment day at the office because we are sourcing for a new finance officer and all the CVs had under hobby: meeting people and watching TV… or occasionally reading, but when prompted people could not really answer the last book they had read, so I think it was just put in to be original. Shopping at an air-conditioned mall is another favorite pastime and one I have started enjoying as well. Today I went to Citymall for lunch with Yemisi, my favorite so far, it has a coffeshop where you can get panini and lattes (unfortunately not with soft foam, but I don’t want to push my luck anyway) and then we looked at some bling (tacky whitegold and precious stone jewelry ) at the jewelry store run by a friend of hers, who turns out to be the brother of one of Temi’s friends who used to be married to the wife of another friend of Temi’s, who I also know… This is not an unusual setup, I am only now beginning to realize how small Lagos is, even though big, and everyone knows everything about everyone else… even I can start making the connections after a few months here.

Workwise I have been absolutely swamped, as Yemisi was away for 3 weeks and Bolaji, the other senior person in the office was off sick with typhoid and malaria. So I was having to deal with everything from writing proposals, managing our financials, running two projects, overseeing the electrician’s or generator repair man’s work, to consulting with the architect on how to best fortify our compound. The reason for this is that we were robbed in broad daylight by two men dressed up as carpenters last week. They eventually managed to walk off with 2 laptops and a mobile phone even though we have a security guard standing by our gate. I always knew these security guys were just for show but this really demonstrated it. So as a consequence the executive director put me in beautiful hotel for 5 nights and did a security overhaul, resulting in stringent procedures and the poor guard who let the carpenters walk off with our stuff is now querying staff as they enter the compound about what they have in their bags. We also employed a malam, however that’s spelled, basically a guy from up north, who is supposed to be patrolling our premises. In the general confusion of the last days, they forgot to introduce him to me and one eve I just saw a guy in shorts walking around the compound. I can’t say it made me feel more safe. There is another guy who sleeps in the spare room (Bayo’s sick room) for now so the place is crawling with new faces and I get phonecalls at 5am about what to do with the key to the spare room or whether I have an umbrella… So I certainly don’t feel alone anymore.

Lagos can be an unsafe place but if you give in to that notion you end up never leaving your compound. Last weekend we didn’t managed to go out in VI because the guys we were with did not feel at ease with driving across the Third Mainland bridge at night, having heard of too many incidents of people (of fair skin colour) getting shot, robbed and kidnapped of late. Ironically enough, later that night Yousef (Syrian friend) got a phonecall that armed robbers were in his street in Ikeja. And I gotta admit staying in the nice hotel in Ikoyi was lovely. I felt much more unrestricted there, I could get on an okada and be at Temi’s in 5 minutes, we could spontaneously go to the cinema on a weeknight or have a drink… the island is much more geared towards the lifestyle I am used to than the mainland, but I guess I can console myself that I am keeping it real and I am tougher than all these ‘ajebottas’ (Yoruba for people born with a silverspoon in their mouth).

Friday, June 09, 2006

Getting a dose of Nigerian medicine, Juju shrine of trash and other observations

For every bad experience there is a good one. Last weekend Chantal and I went to my favorite beach, Tarkwa Bay, for a relaxing day. Instead we came up against a rather large dose of unfriendliness, not to say racism. Once we disembarked after our boatride to the beach, we discovered two characters on the landing, who had barricaded off the jetty and were now selling ‘entrance tickets’ to the beach, which is normally free. When queried they quickly got agitated and said there was a show on the beach, so we had to pay. I still refused, arguing that sea and sand are free and anyway we were not interested in any show (both me and them knew there was never going to be one). During our interchange the locals kept passing the barricade without having to pay so soon enough Chantal and I were the only people who they wanted to force payment out of. A girl overheard our discussion and stepped forward to say that we were all friends, visiting her aunt on the island, so none of us should need to pay. Wow, that really set one of the guys off, who now bellowed “you are selling out your black brothers, these whites have money, they come here and eat off our land” etc. etc. The whole thing got nasty and she finally pulled out a 200 naira bill and threw it to the area boys so that we could pass. Jennifer as her name turned out to be was very sweet, 22, and quite a feminist with a lot of strong opinions about Nigeria’s male dominated society. We hung out for a bit on the beach and I forgot about the nasty incident, that is, until I needed to change into my bikini and was showed to a deserted bamboo shed by Jennifer’s sister. As I came out of the shed a livid man was shouting incessantly in Yoruba, showing that well-known gesture of arm extended, palm open: give money. I have often wondered how come that these beach managers and shed proprietors never manage to appear before one unknowingly utilizes their services, but pop up out of nowhere to demand payment for something that a minute ago seemed entirely free. Nevermind, the old geezer was waved off with a few Yoruba phrases (courtesy of Jennifer’s sister, not me) but continued to follow us all the way, muttering, probably cursing me for seven generations onward. We ignored him, as I have now learnt to do very effectively, to get rid of hawkers, beggars, windowcleaners and future husbands. I have noticed that as part of my acclimatization I no longer suffer from the loud cacophony in markets and motorparks and have no problem with being followed by 10 kids shouting after me. In fact it is quite a fun game to listen to the various slogans of streetsellers. Usually they just repeat “oyibo, what do you want to buy” or something along those lines, but today in Ife an enterprising Haussa vendor (presumably well-versed in the mysteries of the cyber world and the new opportunities that eBusiness could provide for his muslim hats) was chanting “How are you, dubyou dubyou dot”.

My conquest of Nigeria continues and I visited Port Harcourt in the Niger delta last week as well as Kabba in Kogi state this weekend. Both places are high on the ‘don’t go there’ list – Port because of the oil-fuelled (xcuse the pun) rebel activities (they shot a western oil exec there just a week before) and Kabba because of its access roads being notorious for armed robberies. While Nigeria does not have any sights to speak of per-se, instead it offers endless opportunities for those wanting to practice the extreme sport ‘staying alive’. OK, slight exaggeration, but I did end up in a bad way in Port Harcourt. Unfortunately it was nothing as glamorous as getting kidnapped – I just had a bad egg sandwich on Virgin Nigeria. If this had happened in the US I could have sued the airline, or at least demanded a free ticket, but it being Nigeria no such luck. Indeed, one of my friend’s cousins, who is a bit of a personality in the Lagos tabloids and has a long-term boyfriend in the UK, has been falsely accused by the papers of having an illicit affair with an engaged guy. The fact that there is no truth to the story and no basis for it seems not to matter much and when I suggested she sues for slander I was outright laughed at.

My egg sandwich afforded me a good opportunity to get the lowdown on the crème de la crème of Nigeria’s healthcare. It just so happened that we were at a negotiation with Shell about a prospective project when I fell ill. Throughout the budget discussions I was feeling hunky-dory - it was when we were about to wrap up and wanted to see a bit of Port Harcourt that my nausea set in. So, our counterparts in the negotiations being doctors, I asked their advice on what to do and one of the nice physicians took me to their inhouse clinic (Port Harcourt is Shell’s HQ in Nigeria and they have a veritable town in their camp, with their own power turbines, hospital and staff accomodation) and I had to give all sorts of samples to determine what was wrong with me and got injected with something that made me dizzy for the rest of the day. They aren’t big on telling you what medication you are getting and in my foul state I was too weak to resist, even though I had promised myself I would never get an injection in Nigeria, let alone one that I had no need for.

So for the rest of the day I was feeling like a zombie and spending 2 hours in a hot and humid airport lounge without aircon and with fever and nausea was really awful. Little did I know that I would soon get home to find my generator broken down so that I had to instruct security on what to do in my feverish state. There are times when having friends and family around really becomes important – this would have been one of them. I started fearing that I had malaria – it is the most over-diagnosed illness in the tropics and as soon as fever is involved that is the first suspicion. And even though malaria is wide-spread some people have no idea how you get it – a common misconcepion is that it is caught from another person, like a cold, and has nothing to do with mosquitoes. As I am writing this an HIV/AIDS public service announcement came on the radio – there is a lot of them, some of them quite good, attempting to give the disease a ‘human face’, to try and reduce the stigma and discrimination against those affected. This is all good and well, but going back to malaria, there is not at all the same focus on educating people and preventing other killer diseases. HIV/AIDS is where a lot of the health-funding is and so the rest of the huge healthcare problems in Nigeria, e.g. Africa’s highest child mortality rates, are being ignored.

And now a funny little anecdote: Our compound has been engaged in trench (stench) warfare with the neighbour who put his trash next to our fence the whole time. Finally someone in our office came up with a creative solution and we decided to put up a bamboo partition around the smelly dustbin to shield it from visitors’ eyes. But law and behold, instead of praise we got a proper piece of mr. Neighour’s mind. He tore down the partition and accused us of juju, saying the bamboo fence looked like a shrine and we were trying to unleash evil spirits. By the way 80% of Nollywood productions are on the topic of juju (equivalent of voodoo) and have a corrupted heroine who is possessed by the evil spirits. Lying in my boss’ office I discovered another Nollywood film called ‘the Aids patient’. It is about a young girl contracting HIV and how this affects everyone around her. This is all good: development messaging in a commercial film, but then shockingly in the end she gets cured by the grace of god. I find this a very dangerous message. Religion is an extremely strong influence in Nigerian culture and many actually believe in miracles and may take the whole thing literally and as an excuse to not protect themselves.

I am about to go and eat some popo (papaya) so that I don’t take my Lariam on an empty stomach and have vivid nightmares. I never thought papaya would become one of my favourite fruits: back in Cuba, where it is called fruta bomba, I used to regard it as the poor man’s mango but now I love it. Dodo (fried plantain) is another favourite and to my delight corn season has started so when stuck in traffic I often get corn on the cob. Oh, and before I forget, I got some lovely shrimps from the beach last weekend and was cooking them with garlick, lime and pepe tonight. Now you are probably thinking that I am turning into a Nigerian Nigella, but unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. It is so easy to get into bad habits here. For example, I am drinking a lot of soft drinks (minerals) because I don’t trust the water they boil in the office so whenever I get thirsty from eating the peppery stew for lunch I flush it down with a coke. And I still have not found any good way to keep fit, which is important as it is impossible to walk anywhere, so I end up doing very little physical exercise. I may try the airport hotel pool for swimming before work, which means getting there very early and going to bed basically asap. So goodnight and over and out from Lagos, Nigeria, Africacacacaca……