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Sunday – Welcome to Langtang prison

January 22, 2006

Bankole announces first thing this morning that we’re changing hotels today. If I knew him even the tiniest better, I’d kiss him. As happy as the news makes me, I am nowhere near as happy as Suzanne who, exhausted the night before and deciding she couldn’t be bothered putting up her mozzie net, had been woken up in the middle of the night aware that something was moving on her cheek. She is understandably freaked out, not sure whether it was a mouse, a giant cockroach or one of the ubiquitous lizards. She’s had no sleep since and is understandably more than a little tetchy this morning.

First stop of the day is in Zamko to visit COBATI. An acronym within an acronym, standing for COCIN (Church of Christ in Nigera) Bible Agricultural Training Institute. Pretty much what it says on the box. Pastors are trained in theology. They and their wives are trained in agriculture (thus allowing the wives to grow some crops to keep the family going on the pastor’s low if any salary).

COBATI

COBATI © Suzanne Porter

WaterAid and BOLDA are involved in the community on a number of levels. We’ve rehabilitated an old well, which used to be part of a complicated and constantly broken down plumbing system, turning it into a functional hand pump, making life considerably easier for the trainee pastors’ wives. Prior to the rehabilitation of the well, water had to be collected from bore hole with a low table that needed time to replenish. As a result, it had to be collected on a timetable which regularly involved a turn at one or two in the morning. (Did I mention that fetching water is always women’s work?) We’re also providing sanitation and hygiene education and working with the trainees to ensure that the hygiene message is also preached when they take up their professions.

COBATI Provost Reverend Philemon T. Gurumse, J.P. (standing for Jerusalem Pilgrim, not, as I first assumed, Justice of the Peace) nods enthusiastically when I suggest people are far more likely to believe and do what they are told by their pastor than they are anything said by a government official. Unfortunately for spreading the hygiene gospel, there are only 18 graduates a year. The provost invites us to stay for the service. Women, dressed in their Sunday best, are already beginning to arrive. I am genuinely sorry that we cannot stay. I’m not religious, but I’m prepared to wager (Bankole confirms) that a church service in Nigeria is a lot more fun than any staid C of E offering. Unfortunately we have to go to jail.

Langtang prison

Langtang prison hygiene promoters © Suzanne Porter

As you pass through the first gate to the second gate at Langtang prison there is a hand printed sign which reads: NO PROVOCATION JUSTIFIES A KILLING. Inside the courtyard the prisoners are sitting cross legged in three rows. As we enter, they start to sing, “We welcome you, we welcome you, we welcome you to Langtang prison.” This goes on for several minutes until we are all seated in the chairs provided. How many of the prisoners welcoming us are in here for committing murder is never explained. In addition to building latrines and wells both inside and outside the prison (with funding from the EU and Unilever), WaterAid and BOLDA are also providing hygiene education classes to the prisoners. This is done by Victoria, who also lectures them on HIV.

We introduce ourselves. In his welcoming remarks, the officer in charge, Adamu Baba-Musa, says that we are the only NGOs concerned about the welfare of prisoners, adding that when we first contacted him to offer assistance he thought we were joking. He says he knows of the work of WaterAid Nigeria, but did not know there was also a WaterAid in the UK. I find this very welcome news. It is great that the country programmes in WaterAid are seen as their own entities and not as subsidiaries of a UK charity.

Some of the prisoners perform the drama they use to convey the cleanliness message to new prisoners. It is quite an intricate and amusing tale about the hygiene promoters (there are, apparently, two hygiene positions in the prison which are refilled when prisoners are released) visiting a village where the chief has recently been ill and things have rather fallen down. They talk to the chief about how dirty and unhealthy the village is. After they leave the chief summons the villagers and demands that they clean things up. Most of the villagers come, but a few elder do not answer the summons. When they finally do come to the chief, he lectures them about sitting around waiting for him to die so they can fight amongst themselves to be his successor. He demands that they, too, help with the clean up, which they grudgingly do. The village is cleaned up. People are healthier and happier. Problem solved. The prisoner who played the chief, banging his walking stick and chastising the elders, was fantastic. I’d love to think there is an acting career awaiting him after release, but sadly this is unlikely to be the case.

After the performance, Duncan and Bankole were presented with walking sticks, carved by the prisoners in their carpentry workshop. (Nothing for the ladies, so I claim ownership of the musical instrument. Suzanne asks where her present is. We tell her whatever the next gift is she gets.)

This has to be the most bizarre visit I will make during this trip.

We go back to the shit hole to collect our things. Duncan left his bag in Suzanne’s room before we set off in the morning, so goes there with her. A few minutes later Suzanne comes to my door. She’s solved the mystery of the cheek crawler in the night. High up on the wall of her bedroom are two huge cockroaches. She spotted them when she went in to finish packing. Trying to convince herself that they weren’t that big, she called Duncan in to view them. Instead of calmly saying they weren’t that bad, he jumped back a foot and yells, “Jesus Christ, those are the biggest cockroaches I’ve ever seen.” Now she’s freaked out all over again. I point out we’re leaving soon, but she isn’t reassured.

We leave the shit hole behind, heading for the restaurant where we thought lunch would be waiting. Instead we are informed that Karpeh, who hadn’t want us to take a break, had contacted the establishment to cancel our order and pass on a message that lunch would be waiting for us at the BOLDA office. Bankole, who’s been recovering from a bad chest cold the whole time we’ve been travelling and yet remained sunny throughout, completely loses his rag. I don’t blame him. By the time we get to the BOLDA office we’ve all calmed down a bit, but it is particularly galling when the boiled eggs and salad I’ve been awaiting expectantly turn into steamed rice and chicken. Oh, and there’s more undrinkable kola. Yum.

Azrupa Gimba © Suzanne Porter

Azrupa Gimba © Suzanne Porter

After lunch we drive to the tiny village of Mugurou, home to Azrupa Gimba (no relation, he’s quick to point out, to our Gimba). Azrupa had the lower part of her left arm amputated when she was a child after her home caught fire and she was badly burned. Her husband Nangel was blinded as a child by measles. They lived in town for a while, but their combined disabilities made it impossible for them to get by, so they returned to Mugurou, their home village. Family and friends have helped them out with a home and with food, but, there is only so much they can do. Fetching water used to take Azrupa a very long time. There was a basic well with a bucket attached to a rope. Most women just pulled the rope up hand over hand which, of course, Azrupa cannot do. She used to have to pull the rope up, wedge it under her arm, pull some more, shift the rope. Sometimes the rope slipped and she had to start all over again. Thanks to the hand pump installed by WaterAid and BOLDA, she can now fetch water very quickly. They also now have their own latrine, which is almost as important to her as the hand pump. It was difficult for Nangel to go to the bush to relieve himself, so Azrupa always had to go with him. Now he can find the latrine on his own which has helped to restore his dignity.

This information is elicited during the most tortuous interviews I have conducted. Turns out none of the visiting party speaks Azrupa’s particular dialect, so the interview is conducted by me asking the questions of Godwin, who translates them into Hausa to one of the villagers who speaks both Hausa and Azrupa’s dialect and the answers coming back to me third hand.

Bankole in Mugurou

Bankole in Mugurou © Suzanne Porter

Suzanne remembers that she needs to take a picture of Bankole in the field to go with an interview I am doing with him for our magazine. As he and Duncan are leaving the next morning this is her last chance. We decide to get a photo of him taking a photo of Azrupa at the well with some of the other villagers in the picture. Unfortunately, the kids are for more interested in Suzanne than they are in Bankole and all are staring right at the camera. Talk to them, I suggest. Tell them a joke. I don’t speak their language, he replies. Okay, just talk gibberish. He does. They laugh and look at him. We get the picture.

One last stop at the BOLDA office to take photos of Karpeh, Victoria and the rest of the staff. I’ll give Karpeh his due. He’s a tough nut. He will not smile no matter how often Suzanne says mir mushi.

Back on the road, heading towards Plankshin. On the way my ears pop. I may have to upgrade Plateau from hilly to mountainous. Our destination is the Peace Guest House which Godwin assures us is a real haven, nothing too fancy, but run by a man who is used to catering for European guests. Sounds like heaven.

It is heaven. Even before we drive through the gate I see bright red flowers tumbling over the wall. Inside the courtyard it is a riot of colours. The guest house is a single story building. We enter through a net curtain into a plain bar area. Our host, Louis, emerges, greets Godwin effusively, is introduced to everyone. Suzanne and I are led, via an interior courtyard, to our rooms. There is beautiful, floral bedding on the framed bed, a mosquito net tied above it. There is nothing special about the wardrobe, desk or chair, and yet the room is charming. No running water in the bathroom, but I do not care. I’ve already been told by Louis that I can have a bucket of hot water if I want to bathe after my journey. I do. In the back there is a lovely garden, tables set in the shade, others in the fading sun. I am enchanted and, sitting in the garden after my bucket shower, feel truly relaxed for the first time since I arrived. I curse the dead battery on my digital camera, because I want to take photos of this enchanted place.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. We have a great evening, Duncan, Bankole, Gimba, Godwin, Suzanne and I, eating our chicken and rice and salad, drinking beer, sitting, relaxing, talking under the stars. Duncan and Bankole are off tomorrow to Lagos for fundraising meetings with Unilever and Arup. I’m so glad we’re all here tonight. How awful if we’d still been at the shit hole. (Louis, who’s been running hotels for 20 years, all over Africa, including Beirut in the 80s, tells me the Langtang hotel used to very good, owned by a wealthy businessman and run to very high standards by his wife. Since this excellent woman’s death it’s been run into the ground, he says. It should be bulldozed into the ground, I says.)

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