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Thursday – No sale or consumption of alcohol. No free women

January 19, 2006

I am awoken at 5am by the call to prayer, the first time I’ve heard it. Takes me a moment to work out the significance: if I can hear the call to prayer, the loudspeakers must be working which means the electricity must actually be on. It is, so no need to use a candle for my wash.

A five hour drive from Gumel to Bauchi. As we leave, Suzanne asks Mathew if there’s any chance of buying some bread anywhere. He manages to find a guy selling bread out of the back of his van and, after some negotiation, we buy six small loaves and immediately begin to devour them. Doughy and white and reminiscent of Mother’s Pride which I would never dream of buying or consuming in London, it tastes fantastic.

We are now staying at the Hazibal Suite hotel. Unlike the previous accommodation, which was a suite, this is a bedroom with an en suite shower room (perhaps that is the suite). A sign as you come through the gate into the compound warns: “No sale or consumption of alcohol. No free women.” Ah, yes, I can’t help wondering, but what if the women charge?

Duncan, Suzanne and I are staying here. It is Mathew’s home town, so he’s staying at home. Not sure where Bankole is laying his head. We arrive at 11am and are told we will be picked up again at 1pm. Although the hotel purports to have a restaurant, clearly lunch is not normally required, so some negotiation, dealt with by Suzanne, ensues. It seems they can produce egg and chips. Fine, I say, desperate to get under the shower and wash my hair, anything except rice and chicken. I have my shower, switch on the TV. The only channel it seems to get is CNN. There is a deep freeze in Europe, Moscow, never exactly mild in winter, one of the worst places hit. People are being asked to conserve energy by turning off their refrigerators and freezers and putting their food outside. Standing in my hotel room in Bauchi, already drenched in sweat from the hardly what you’d call exertion of drying myself off after my shower, I find it impossible to imagine what it must be like in Moscow.

I survey the room, considering my options for the mosquito net. This bed is even bigger than the one in Gumel (apparently there is no such thing as a single bed in Nigerian hotels) and nothing on the wall to which I might affix the netting. The overhead fan, which Suzanne with her properly double size net intends to use, is hopeless. Even if I dragged the bed away from the wall and into the middle of the room under the fan, my teensy net would not stretch. I’ve already mentioned the problem of my net’s inadequacies to Bankole and Mathew in the hope that a larger replacement might be found when we left the largely shopless Gumel behind.

Wondering why lunch is taking so long, I check in the restaurant, which reeks of what I realise must be chip fat, and am told it will be ready in 10 minutes. I advise Suzanne and Duncan of this. The food arrives. Although they have a slightly rubbery consistency, the eggs are quite tasty. Never a great fan of chips at the best of times, I think these are the worst I’ve ever had. Duncan and Suzanne both tell me they’ve had worse.

We are collected and delivered to the office of our partner NGO, Dass Women Multipurpose Co-operative Union (DWMCU, pronounced DUMCU), before heading off to our afternoon field visit in Birnin Gaye, an isolated village of 400 where WaterAid is very popular, having installed a well and pump in 2004. Prior to that the women (because fetching water is women’s work) used to have to spend up to three hours a day collecting water. During the dry season (most of the year), this involved digging deep into a dry riverbed and sharing with their livestock the water they used for drinking, cooking and cleaning. During the height of the rainy season in the summer months the river would swell and flow so rapidly that there was a danger of being swept away.

Adana Haruna digging in the dry riverbed. © Suzanne Porter

Mother of six, Adana Haruna, demonstrates, sleeping baby strapped to her back, how and where they used to dig. As she does, a young girl comes over offering me a pale green, oval shaped fruit which I learn is called a garden egg. Mathew rinses his and mine with water from my bottle (how awful I’ve been feeling, trying to take surreptitious swigs in these communities), hands one back to me and tucks into his. I take a bite. It is quite bitter, though not unpleasantly so, reminds of something else, but I cannot think what.

I chat with Adana, through another translator. The story she tells me is becoming all too familiar. Before the well and the hygiene education classes, her children were frequently ill. One died. In addition to the cost of the medicine, she would have to pay someone to take her to the clinic 14 kilometres away. Each illness cost 1000 borrowed naira and the debt was endless. The time she saves on fetching water allows her to make a bit of extra money labouring. That and the money saved on medicine are going towards the cost of school fees and uniforms for her children. All of them, boys and girls, will be able to get at least a basic education. She hopes they will also go to secondary school and perhaps even university. She doesn’t know whether it is the well or the hygiene education that has made the difference. She’s just happy that her children aren’t always sick. Oddly I find myself thinking about my fictitious daughters Kate and Emma, wondering how, in Adana’s position, I could find the strength just to get through the day.

I’m still wondering about this when we go out for dinner (proper restaurant – tables, chairs, tablecloths, napkins). I am keen to try something other than chicken and rice. Mathew recommends something called semovita, a grain based substance which is dipped into soup or sauce. I order it with acheh, a vegetable and fish based soup he promises me is not going to be too spicy. The orders are placed. It is 8pm on Thursday evening and apparently this is when Nigeria’s most popular TV show, Super Story, is on. Bankole and the others ask for the television to be switched on. No sooner have the opening credits finished than the power goes off. Battery powered lights are switched on, but the TV is finished. The food arrives. Despite Mathew’s assurance, the acheh is quite spicy, though not unbearably so. The semovita looks and unfortunately tastes like the flour paste we used to make in primary school.

Before going out for dinner, mindful of the ‘avoid bites’ lecture I have received at the clinic in London and defeated in the prospect of hanging my mosquito net, I have emptied my suitcase, looking for the electric aerial mozzie repellent dispenser I bought before leaving. There is only one electrical outlet in the room into which a European three way plug operating the fridge and the television has been inserted into a UK/European adapter into a UK three prong plug. My aerial dispenser has a British plug, which means I’ll have to remove everything else to use it. So much for keeping my water cold or charging my mobile. As I switch the outlet off to remove the plugs, sparks emerge. Nigerian electricity. Yikes.

When I return after dinner, my room reeks. Hard to believe I used to be a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace. When it comes down to me versus malaria, to hell with everything I know and everything I used to say: chemical warfare is required. I read for a bit, but decide there is no way I can sleep with this dispenser going all night. Hoping the two hours I’ve been out of the room have killed off the mozzies, I swap the plugs back (more sparks fly), get into bed, pull the sheet over my head.

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