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Monday – Show me a map

January 16, 2006

The overnight flight from London to Abuja arrives at 5:30am (4:30am GMT). The business class section on the plane is almost as big as economy. BA should not be allowed to force us to walk past all those bed/seats. There should be a separate entrance for economy so we do not have to witness all this luxury. (If this is business, what could first class possibly be like? No, I don’t want to know.) One of the available films is The Constant Gardener. I read the book some years ago and it seems the obvious film to watch during my first trip to the African continent, even if it is set in Kenya and I am heading for Nigeria. (Interviewed on Radio 4 when the film was released, John Le Carre was asked, “Isn’t this shocking news?” “Well,” he said, “it wouldn’t be if the media actually did their job.” Amen to that.)

As soon as we disembark Suzanne slathers on some mosquito repellent. She is a seasoned West Africa traveller who’s just spent a month in Mali. I follow her lead, mindful of all the warnings I’ve had from the health clinic. First rule is to avoid getting bitten. Must remember to take my malaria medication when I get to the hotel.

A driver is waiting for us and leads us from the airport building to a Land Rover. It is still dark as we make our way from the airport, too dark to see much of anything, though I stare out the window, eager to observe everything I can. There are hundreds of men along the side of the road. I wonder if they are just waiting there, hoping to be picked up for a day’s casual labour. The thought depresses me, but, no, it turns out when I ask the driver, that they are simply trying to get a lift to their jobs in Abuja. The road is filled with small motorbikes, each with at least two men on them, sometimes three. They look dangerously precarious. Belatedly I do up my seatbelt.

Our hotel, the Rockview (view of what rock, I wonder), is comfortable enough – a big, firm bed, fridge, computer with internet access. It’s nothing special, but I suspect it will seem five star compared to other places I am likely to stay during this trip.

The driver comes back at 10am to take us to the office. A meeting with the federal ministry of water is on the agenda. I manage to get a couple of hours of kip which does me no good whatsoever. I know people who can refresh themselves with a ten minute nap, but all ten minutes does is make me want eight hours. Ditto the two hours I have this morning.

The journey to the office, now in daylight, reveals Abuja to be a low rise and seemingly characterless city. This comes as little surprise, given that it was built less than 50 years ago to move the capital from Lagos into the Middle Belt region in a failed attempt to lessen the tension between the north and the south.

When we get to the office we are informed that the meeting with the ministry has been cancelled (so no pressing need to make do with two hours of sleep). We are introduced to the staff and are warmly greeted. A heartfelt “you are welcome” seems to be the standard greeting in Nigeria and Duncan and I agree it puts us to shame in London where visitors from country programmes are acknowledged nonchalantly, if at all. The biggest surprise is meeting Ron, an IT expert recently arrived from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who is on loan to WaterAid Nigeria from his full time employer, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of, amongst other things, Viagra and blot on the landscape in Sandwich, Kent.

Apparently Pfizer has a programme which allows its employees to provide their expertise to various charities on three to six month assignments. A startling counterbalance to watching The Constant Gardener on the flight. I think, but do not say, that it is philanthropic window dressing. Ron certainly seems earnest enough and I do not want to be rude.

Sam, the dapper deputy country rep, gives us a presentation about the evolution and current state of the Nigerian operation. I am shocked to learn that 70% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. How is this possible in an oil rich country? Yes, of course, I’ve read up on the post-colonial history of Nigeria and I know about the rampant corruption of the various military dictatorships, but still. Seventy per cent is a horrifying figure in Africa’s most populous country.

Lunch is ordered – my introduction to jollof rice and chicken.

Suzanne, camera bags at the ready for the anticipated meeting with the ministry occupies herself taking photos of all the staff. Duncan, who’s brought his laptop to the office, busies himself reading and writing e-mails. I twiddle my thumbs, read but fail to absorb a word of various country reports.

We have a meeting with Bankole, the Nigerian communications officer who will be accompanying us on our trip. He starts to tell us where we will be going and what we will be seeing. I ask if he can show us on a map as I have no idea where Jigawa or Bauchi or Plateau (which he pronounces Plato) are. A map is produced. Now I know where these various states are. I also have a better idea where Abuja is.

Eventually we are driven back to the Rockview (the rock, I’ve discovered, is Aso Rock, one of the big Abuja landmarks, not actually visible from my room which is on the wrong side of the hotel). We agree to meet up at 7:30 for dinner. Ron, who is waiting to move into his apartment, is also staying at the hotel and joins us. It is “Africa Night” in the hotel restaurant, which turns out, disappointingly, to be a heated buffet. In the spirit of adventure, I decide to try some goat soup. Goat meat, I am assured by Duncan, is lovely. I swallow one spoonful and manage somehow not to spit it out. It is extremely spicy and tastes like shit or rather exactly what I think shit would taste like if I’d ever tried it. So much for my spirit of adventure. I push the bowl to one side, claiming as my excuse that it is too spicy for me. Duncan says he’ll have it. Fine by me. He takes one sip and also pushes the bowl away. I ask if it’s too spicy for him. No, he says, it takes like shit. I am vindicated.

In amongst all the dishes on offer there is, astonishingly, Chinese fried rice. Too timid to try anything else I don’t know, I add some to my plate. There is also salad, which looks tempting, but I am carefully heeding the clinic’s advice to avoid any uncooked vegetables unless I know exactly where they came from and how they were washed.

Ron is a man experiencing major culture shock. When I was in my teens, about a hundred years ago, I knew a draft dodger from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I think of asking Ron if he knows a Dave Smith, but it’s a common name, a stupid question, and will invariably lead into a discussion of US warmongering which I don’t think I should have. Ron arrived two days before us and is already fantasising about Big Macs. He’d applied for two secondments, one (his preferred) for three months in Uganda, the other six months in Nigeria. Pfizer have instilled paranoia in him. He is not allowed to go anywhere on foot, must use a driver (which Pfizer pays for) to get to work and come home, and also (which Pfizer does not pay for) to go anywhere in the evenings and weekends. It does not help him in any way that four oil workers were kidnapped in the Delta the day before he arrived. We try to persuade him that the culture shock is natural, that he will feel different after he moves into his own apartment. (Yes, he agrees, he’ll be able to cook hamburgers whenever he wants. Sigh.) I manage to find a probably none too subtle way of convincing him that his time in Nigeria is important because he will be able to take the message back to the US that the best way to deal with global instability is to deal with global poverty. Give him his due, he agrees.

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