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Tuesday – Never Expect Power Always, please light candles

January 17, 2006

Depart Abuja at 6:30am, arrive Gumel in the far northern state of Jigawa 2:30pm.

In the intervening eight hours, between periods of dosing off, I wish I had my camera handy to record:

  • The fractured front portion of a lorry in the ditch between the two lanes of the road. Across the front is painted “IN GOD WE TRUST”. On this occasion the trust was obviously misplaced.
  • The truck we pass stacked 20 feet high with bananas, men perched on the top and clinging to the sides.
  • Men and women walking with preposterously large loads of improbable goods on their heads – fruit and veg, pots and pans, bedding (including a mattress).
  • Rubbish strewn everywhere along the sides of the roads in all built up areas, distressing enough until we pass through the acrid smoke of one rubbish pile set ablaze. Welcome to waste management Nigerian style.
  • Goats, everywhere by the side of the road, eating grass in rural areas, rubbish in the towns. Some cattle, too, and a few donkeys, but mostly goats. After last night’s soup, they are all safe from me. (Suzanne, who knows her West African goats, tells me the brown ones are the stupid ones that will run out directly in front of traffic. Donkeys, she says are so stupid they will just stand in the middle of the road. She’s apparently had, living in Mali, two car accidents involving donkeys, so bears them some considerable ill will. Camels, on the other hand, she adores.)

We stop for lunch in Kano at a Mr Biggs, Nigeria’s answer to McDonald’s, where burgers are available but we eat chicken and rice. The guidebook I bought when I found out I was coming to Nigeria suggests there is an old part of Kano that is quite lovely. I see no evidence of this. I expected to see so much colour here, but, with the exception of some brightly patterned clothing, everything is unremittingly brown and dusty. Kano and Kaduna which we passed through earlier are particularly depressing – the shantytowns on the periphery, homes pieced together with bits of wood, cardboard, plastic and tin, the rubbish piled everywhere, the clear and abject poverty. And, it must be said, the thrill in the midst of all this of seeing children in their school uniforms, providing a glimmer of hope that education will somehow improve the lot of generations to come.

At regular intervals throughout the journey Mathew, our driver must slow down for the ubiquitous police roadblocks. Some are overseen by men in black uniforms and mirrored sunglasses, others by men in army fatigues, others by men in T-shirts and jeans. The latter group are armed with clubs and sticks, the former groups often with automatic weapons. The first two roadblocks are a bit alarming, but it quickly becomes apparent that we will not be hassled. As Mathew slows to drive around the tree branches or car parts laid out in the road, he waves at the men controlling the obstacle and they wave back. So rumours in my guidebook that you can expect to pay 20 naira (about 8p) in ‘dash’ (bribe) every few kilometres prove not to be founded. Bankole explains that the police are paid very low salaries – when they are paid at all – so the authorities turn a blind eye to this money making enterprise. In a country where people seem to accept corruption as a fact of life, these small-scale scams are, apparently, nothing.

Upon arrival we check in at the Gumel Emirate Foundation Hotel. Sounds posh, isn’t. There is a kitchen/lounge, bathroom and bedroom, plainly furnished, adequate. No running water, but a large bucket of water in the bathroom and a bowl to scoop it out. I already know this is what to expect and it’s fine. I am, after all, in the bush and after driving through the shantytowns of Kaduna and Kano, I’m definitely not complaining.

Our schedule says we are paying a courtesy call this afternoon on the Emir of Gumel. Turns out, disappointingly, that he is not around, having gone to Saudi Arabia for the hajj and not yet returned. Instead we will meet with the local government chief. Not just the chief, it turns out, but the entire council. It is a long, interminable meeting during which every single member of the council must have his say, whether or not he is repeating something that has already been said by previous speakers. When we arrived, the chief shakes Duncan’s hand, pointedly ignoring Suzanne’s and mine. After all the council has spoken, it is down to Duncan to respond. No suggestion that I should speak and fine by me.

Meeting with the local government chief, Gumel. © Suzanne Porter

The chief is insistent that we should all visit a nearby community where WaterAid is currently assisting in latrine building and hygiene education. That is not what he wants us to see. He wants us to admire the well and pump he has built in the village. We go. The pump is on a raised concrete platform. It is powered by electricity and has a back up generator, the operation of which is demonstrated. The chief is inordinately proud of this innovation and tells me he hopes that I will share this with other WaterAid projects. I say I will, but I am aghast. Surrounding the raised platform of the well are huge pools of stagnant water, no one having thought to incorporate drainage channels (which WaterAid will now be doing). I stare at these mosquito breeding grounds and all I can think is: bloody hell, rampant malaria.

Back at the hotel, the power, which was on when we arrived, is off. Bankole explains to me that NEPA plc, officially Nigerian Electrical Power Authority is more commonly known as Never Expect Power Always please light candles. Suzanne needs power to download and back up her photos so the one small generator available is attached to her room by sticking two live wires into an exterior plug.

We have some daylight left before we are due to eat dinner. I use the time to try to figure out how to put up the mosquito net provided. I fail and go in search of Duncan who comes to my room and identifies two fundamental problems: I need some string and the net I have was designed for a camp bed. It will, therefore, never stretch across the large double bed which appears to be the Nigerian norm. He fetches some string and we do the best we can. The net is tucked in at the top and bottom and one side. I will have to weigh it down somehow on the other side when I retire.

There is one eatery in Gumel: a small, candlelit room with three tables and six benches. They serve chicken, boiled rice, fried plantain and salad. That’s it. Still mindful of the raw vegetable warning, I order chicken, rice and plantain. Sharia law rules here, so no question of a beer. I have a bitter lemon.

Exiting first after dinner and waiting for the others, I look up and gasp. A sky full of stars. I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen so many stars in the sky. Even outside London, in the countryside, there are never these many stars. I spot the Dipper. Suzanne, outside now and following my gaze points to Orion’s belt. I am absolutely gobsmacked.

Back at the hotel the power is still off. Candles are provided, kerosene found for the lamp, which smokes like hell if turned up enough to actually read. Suzanne says I am welcome to hang out in her precariously powered room, but I am absolutely knackered and, even though it is only 8:45, decide to go to bed. Have a wash as best I can by candlelight, smear on more mozzie repellent, crawl under the mosquito net with my alarm clock, torch and water bottle. Use the latter to weigh down the net, switch off the torch and try to go to sleep. Just as I am drifting off, whoever is in the room next door to me returns. He may not have electricity, but he obviously has a battery powered radio which he turns on so loudly I can hear every word of the BBC news. I consider getting up, banging on his door and asking him to turn the radio down, but the idea of having to extricate myself from the mosquito net, get dressed and go out with my torch defeats me. Eventually I manage to get to sleep.

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