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Saturday – Do not eat with dirty hands

January 21, 2006

Mathew in Fikayi

Our last day with Mathew, which is a shame. He’s such a sweetie. Yesterday when he was translating for me, I could tell by the way Haua was responding to him, that he was gently flirting with this amazing grandmother and that she quite enjoyed it. Hell, I was half falling for him myself during the interview.

He drives us to Langtang, in Plateau state this morning where we are supposed to swap vehicles, meeting up there with Godwin, the new driver, and Gimba the programme officer from the office in Jos. (Guidebook suggests Jos is quite nice. Shame we’re not going to ever get there.) We’re supposed to meet them at the hotel, but they’re not there when we arrive so we’re shown to our rooms.

God, what a shit hole this hotel is. I’m not being a spoilt brat. I know I’m in Nigeria, I know we’re visiting places in the bush, I’m not expecting five or four or three star accommodation, but this place, has got to be in some minus column. The accommodation is again a sitting room and separate bedroom. You can see the hair oil on the back of the chairs and sofa. Suzanne, who’s in the ground floor room next to me and wise to the ways of African hotels, checks her sheets and demands they be washed. I check mine. They seem okay. I decide to use the spare time to wash some knickers and vests. No running water, but I manage with the contents of the bucket.

Apparently there’s been some problem on the road and Godwin and Gimba are nearly two hours late arriving, which throws the entire schedule for the day out. Suzanne and I give Mathew hugs (I take down his e-mail address and promise to try to get him a WaterAid baseball shirt when I get back). Godwin seems nice enough, but we agree we will miss Mathew.

We set off for the office of our partner NGO, BOLDA (Bol Development Association), where it is made clear by Karpeh, the grumpy director, that our lateness has caused some real problems in the communities that have been awaiting our arrival since mid-morning. We sit down with him and Victoria Kumbin, BOLDA’s project officer for hygiene and sanitation, HIV and gender, to discuss the agenda for the next two days. It quickly becomes apparent that far too much has been planned. We try to explain that this is a photo trip, which means a lot of effort must go into setting up photos, making sure the light is right in order to get the best images possible. It isn’t just driving in, taking a few snaps on a digital camera and driving off again. It takes time. Not only do the photos need to be right, but we also need to interview people, get their stories. The schedule is impossible. (It’s more than 15 years since there’s been a photo trip to Nigeria and no one, including the WaterAid staff, seem to have understood what this entails. I’m frankly amazed that Suzanne hasn’t completely lost it yet. I would have done so in her place.)

We manage to convince them to knock a few visits off and, when it becomes apparent that food is not on the agenda (thank God there is some bread and fruit in the Land Rover), we try to make a move. Karpeh, who’s been grumbling that we were so late, bridles at the suggestion and informs us pompously that we are in Africa now, not Europe and that, whatever the case might be in Europe, you do not visit people in Africa and deny them an opportunity to show their hospitality. A carton of warm soft drinks is produced and bottles opened. Mugs of kola are placed in front of us. The thick liquid made, I learn later from millet and other grains, is very nourishing and, I discover, definitely an acquired taste. I am encouraged when Bankole takes a sip of his then pushes the mug away to do the same. Not sure I could have made it through the entire amount. In fact, quite sure I couldn’t.

Finally we set off. We were supposed to visit three communities that afternoon: Warok, Dibbar and Kensong. Somehow word is sent to Kensong that we will not be coming. In Warok the school children have been forced to dress in the uniforms to demonstrate their hygiene education class for us. They have, we are told, been waiting since 10 in the morning and it is now 2pm. I feel a bit guilty about this, but it is not my fault that Gimba and Godwin were delayed. Dibbar is en route down the dirt road to Warok and we stop briefly to say we will not be stopping. Again, I feel a bit guilty, but, again, not my fault.

Warok hygiene class © Suzanne Porter

In Warok, the kids are waiting patiently. They sing us a greeting song, then show us their hygiene education class which involves individual turns with soap and water while everyone sings, “Always wash your hands. Do not eat with dirty hands.” Over and over again. Reminds me of the parrot fashion by which I learnt my multiplication tables. I know the lesson will stick, because I can still multiply anything up to 12 x 12 in my head in a nanosecond.

Warok school latrines © Suzanne Porter

In addition to working with BOLDA on hygiene education in this and other local villages, WaterAid has also provided a well and built latrines at the school, which we are taken to see.

Warok classroom © Suzanne Porter

Then we photograph the children in their classroom. Their teacher, Patience Dominic, tells me that she has been at the school for two years. All three of her children attend the school and she would not have considered moving to Warok if there had not been a well and latrines as she has to put the health of her children first. This reminds me of Fikayi’s plans to build a school when they have the well and latrines and echoes a point often made by WaterAid: without water and sanitation as the first steps out of poverty nothing else can follow. Just before I left Gordon Brown had an OpEd in the Independent in which he stated that every child on the planet must have access to primary education. This, of course, misses the point that without access to safe water and sanitation, children will be kept out of any school built because they are ill or because they must help their mothers – and no teacher will come to the community.

As we continue with the photographs and interviews, a party atmosphere starts up. On one side of the village square the men are dancing. On the other side the women have their own dance going on. I sidle up to the latter, hoping to join in the circle, but am waylaid by some functionary, wanting to ask me something.

When I turn back from talking to him, I discover that I have been joined by Duncan and we are completely surrounded by children. He asks if he can borrow my digital camera to take their picture. They look a bit glum in his first attempt.

Things improve when I stand behind him smiling and waving. Godwin and Gimba, who’ve now heard the story of my morning entertaining the crowd in Fikayi, tell me it is my magnetism. Not something for which I am renowned. Duncan and I agree that the contrast between this community and the ones we have previously visited is quite extraordinary. I’ve never been anywhere in Africa before and you should never visit a place with pre-conceived notions, but I have to admit this is much more what I thought Africa would be like. I suspect that it is simply a matter of religion. Until now we’ve been in the Muslim north and now we are in the Christian Middle Belt.

With Victoria © Suzanne Porter

I mention this as tactfully as I can to Victoria and she immediately agrees, telling me it is far easier for her to talk about her issues in Christian communities than in Muslim communities. In the latter gender is a much bigger issue (I remember Bilki telling me women weren’t allowed to meet separately from the men) and there are so many more conversational taboos.

Warok greeting ceremony

Although Suzanne still has some at home pictures to take of the girls we’ve interviewed, the chief has waited patiently and it is now time for the official greeting ceremony. The battery on my digital camera dies as I take a picture of the ending of a ceremonial dance that one man has been leading for over an hour. I am hot and exhausted just watching him. The chief officially greets us, saying us he does so that Plateau was the favourite part of Nigeria for the British when they were here. (Because it is so high up and cool, I’m told, in the evenings, I can certainly understand this.)

In the north it has fallen to Duncan to respond on these occasions. I understand the cultural significance and was never offended that it was not appropriate for a woman to respond to the chief. Duncan decides it is my turn, so this time I do the honours, expressing our gratitude at the warmth of the welcome we have received. We are presented with a rectangular musical instrument made of bamboo and straw, which sounds lovely when demonstrated and which I would never in a million years be able to master.

At the end of the official greetings, the party starts up again as I make my way with Suzanne and the girls to be photographed to their homes. Again we are followed by a crowd, this time into a fairly enclosed space. The light is going, the shadows are long, Suzanne is despairing. I do my Pied Piper thing and manage to get the excess people out of camera range. A group of boys lean against a wall, trying not to look interested. A group of girls sits further away, pointing and giggling. I pretend to ignore them, every now and then turning my head sharply in their direction which makes them jump a little. A man named Moses strikes up a conversation with me. He tells me he once lived for a year in Philadelphia, working in a factory that produced fairground rides. He says he is happy to be back in his village. We chat for a bit, then I ask him how close he thinks I can get to the young girls before they all run. He says he does not think this will happen, but I know better than this. I sidle slowly towards them. When I am only a few feet away, I turn my head and look at them. They shriek, jump up and dash further away. I go back to Moses. The girls move back into their previous position. I play the game again. Again they run away. The third time I do this, one brave girl stays put, looking at me. I ask Moses to tell her she is very brave, hold out my hand towards her. She hesitates, then gets up, takes a step towards me and shakes my hand. The other girls shriek with laughter, but, one by one, step forward to have their hands shaken, too. Moses tells me they will be talking about this for years – the day they shook a white woman’s hand.

Suzanne’s got her pictures. We walk back to the Land Rover. One thing I’ve learned quickly is that everyone in Nigeria (well, everyone I’ve met) loves to have their picture taken with the visitors to record the occasion, so of course we cannot go until various camera are produced and pictures are taken with Duncan, Suzanne, Bankole, Gimba and me. I turn on my digital to see if there is enough juice left in the battery to get a photo of the brave young girl who’s first shaken my hand, but the battery is dead. I ask Gimba to take a picture for me with his camera, which he does, but whether I’ll ever get a copy remains to be seen. We leave Warok amidst much waving.

A few miles down the road at Dibbar, the community we’ve told we won’t be able to visit, we are waylaid by a huge greeting committee, including men with bows and arrows and (I cannot believe it) a fire eater. Obviously, we have no choice but to stop and say hello. Music is playing as I make my way beside Victoria into the circle of seats. Everyone seems pleased when I put a bit of dance into my step on the way. Another official greeting by the chief, who goes further than the chief in Warok, saying that we should feel very much at home here as this is the natural home for white people in Nigeria. Again it is down to me to respond. I tell the chief I now understand why I feel so at home, adding (to the delight of the audience when my remarks are translated) that however long I stay I am not going to be trying the fire thing. On cue the fire eater rubs the flame on his chest and arms before swallowing it to a rousing cheer. A local councillor, sitting beside me, offers to show me how to do it. I demur. Out of courtesy we go to look at a latrine that the community has built for a disabled man. As latrines here are set up for squatting, it is very difficult for him to use it (or go in the bush), so they have raised the platform into a concrete seat for him. The old man is, understandably, very proud of his latrine. I really do not know what to say.

It is dark by the time we get back to the outskirts of Langtang. Gimba directs Godwin to a restaurant (a kitchen with a few tables outside) where we order chicken, rice and salad. I am thrilled when I hear Godwin ask for a beer. That’s right. We are no longer in the Muslim north. Sharia does not rule. Beer can be consumed. Oh, heavenly day. Duncan and I order one, too. While we are waiting, I ask Bankole, somewhat perplexed, if the effusive greetings of the two chiefs welcoming white people back to Plateau means, as it seems to suggest, that there is little resentment about the colonial period. Bankole looks at me, shakes his head, tells me the chiefs were being polite to the best of their ability. Full credit to the chiefs, then. I doubt I’d be as effusive in welcoming visitors from the country that had occupied my own for so many years. The food arrives. Duncan likes spicy food, but when Suzanne and I wait for his reaction to the chicken, even he is overwhelmed, claiming his scalp is sweating from it. We concentrate on the salad and rice, taking a few nibbles of the chicken. Still, it is lovely to be sitting outside under the stars, so no complaints from me. Before we leave, Gimba arranges that we will come back for lunch the next day, kindly sorting out some food that will not blow the roof off my mouth or Suzanne’s.

Back to the shit hole hotel. When I go into my room and turn on the light in the lounge, a bulb that cannot be more than about five watts comes on. I switch on the light in the bedroom, which is a bit brighter, then try the bathroom. Nothing. The bulb is dead. I need to do some work on the computer, so get my torch out and use it to unpack the computer and find the plug. I’m assuming that I’ll be able to see by the light from the computer when it comes on, but this really is not the case. I knock on Suzanne’s door to see if she is any more illuminated than me. She is. Go to the office and demand some light bulbs. Two are produced and a guy comes back with me to install them, which involves climbing precariously on to the back of chairs (rather him than me). One of the bulbs he’s brought doesn’t work. The second one does. He installs the five watt bulb in the bathroom. Whatever. I do some work on the computer, then go in search of the battery charger for the digital camera. Turns out this is the one piece of kit that has not been included in the bag of miscellaneous parts I was given before I left the office. So the camera is dead. No more personal photos for me. Realise I also need to charge my mobile. No sooner have I plugged this in than the lights go out. We’ve been told the generator will run until midnight. It is only 11pm. Luckily my computer is still on, running on the battery, so I can see by the light of the screen where I’ve left the torch. Go out to find out if this is it for the night. Yes, I am told, unless NEPA comes through. Like that’s going to happen. Never Expect Power Always. Knock on Suzanne’s door to let her know that is the end of the generator. She’s happy to see me because she can now use my torch to find her torch.

Brush my teeth by torchlight. Go to bed. The sheets when I’d inspected them earlier had looked okay. I now discover my pillow reeks of hair oil. Yuck. Turn the torch back on, climb out from under the mozzie net, dig out my shawl and wrap it around the pillow. God, we’ve got another night in this dump.

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