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Monday – That’s what men are like

January 23, 2006

More hot water brought to my room. An omelette for breakfast. And fresh mangos and watermelon and oranges. And coffee – even if it is just Nescafe and powdered milk. Bliss.

Suzanne and I rebel today. Even before Bankole and Duncan depart for Abuja and their flights to Lagos, we make it clear to Gimba that whatever is on the agenda this morning must be cancelled. There is a possibility of selling in one of the pictures to the Guardian or the Times as a counterpoint to the fat cats in Davos talking about water. I spoke to the picture desks before I left and both are interested. However, we’ve had no time to look at the photos, format the best ones and the meeting starts on Wednesday. So that is what we’re doing this morning.

First we talk to Gimba and James, from our partner group, COWAN (Country Women’s Association of Nigeria – excellent NGO that provides small business loans to women). We are quite excited about an opportunity to get an entire story in Takkas: women at the old water hole, women at the new well, women at home working on their small businesses, women selling their goods at the market. James is in charge of identifying half a dozen women who fit the bill. We will see them this afternoon. Gimba and James leave.

Suzanne asks Louis’s wife if there is any chance we might be able to get some washing done. No problem. She’s off to Cameroon on Friday for a job with Sight Savers and the need for laundry is quite urgent. I happily throw in my white trousers and a couple of shirts. They ask if we would like a thermos of hot water to make more coffee in Suzanne’s room while we work. Again, bliss.

At ten o’clock Gimba checks in. We tell him to go away. At midday Godwin checks in. We tell him to go away. We’ll be ready to go at two. We manage to get the selection down to 12 pictures, more than I’d planned to send, but good, as Suzanne points out, to give them a choice. After we go to Takkas we will have to find a spot somewhere to use Suzanne’s satellite system to e-mail the pictures. The files are big and it transmits at dial up speed, so could take a while.

As I am writing some text to go with the photos, Suzanne has another briefing with Gimba and James. Everything looks set to go. We have some delicious soup and bread for lunch. Pack up the cameras and get in the Land Rover. We’re barely through the gate when we realise there is a problem. The women we are supposed to see are not in Takkas this afternoon, they are at the market in Plankshin. Then why, we ask, are we going to Takkas. Well, say Gimba and James, we thought you could photograph the well and the old water source this afternoon and then talk to the women tomorrow. Suzanne is close to tearing her hair out. Has Gimba learned nothing from the past two days? We don’t want pictures just of the well and the old source. We need people in the pictures. There is no point in going to Takkas if the women are in the market. We need to get photos of them at the market selling their wares. Godwin, who’s stopped the Land Rover as soon as the dispute started, heads to the market.

While James is off trying to find the women (needle in a haystack springs to mind), I get in the back with Gimba to interview him about the project, while Godwin tries to stave off the complete breakdown Suzanne seems destined to have. “I explained it to them last night,” I hear her saying. “I explained it to them again this morning. I explained it to them before we left. Am I not speaking English? Do they not speak English? Or are they just not listening to a word I say?” Godwin offers an explanation of the problem. “Suzie,” he says, “when you are talking, the men will look at you and nod, but what they’re really doing is thinking to themselves,’She has a nice smile’ or ‘That’s a pretty top she’s wearing’ and when you ask them if they’ve understood, they just nod because they want to please you. What you have to do then is say, ‘tell me what I said’. They won’t know, so they’ll have to ask you to repeat yourself and this time they will make an effort to listen and then they will understand. That’s what men are like.”

My first attempt at interviewing Gimba doesn’t last very long. I’ve borrowed Duncan’s superior digital recorder and I do not switch it on properly. We start again. COWAN, he reiterates, is an NGO set up to run a micro credit scheme, providing small loans to women to start up any kind of business or project that will help them maintain themselves and their families. The money is recycled. As soon as one woman pays her loan back, it goes to another woman. Unfortunately many of the women were missing deadlines or failing to pay back the money at all. When COWAN talked to them to find out what was going wrong, they all said the same thing. They had to spend too much time collecting water and too much time caring for sick children to ever get their small enterprises off the ground. COWAN knew about WaterAid and got in touch with us, asking if we could help. We told them we could help with building wells, but they would have to take responsibility for setting up and running water and sanitation/hygiene committees in the villages. The results have, it seems, surpassed COWAN’s wildest dreams. Women are paying back their loans, succeeding with their small businesses. A great success.

James comes back smiling. Hurrah. We’re in business. No we’re not. He’s found some women from Takkas, but not the ones we’re after. The ones we want don’t sell in the market in Plankshin on Mondays. They sell in the market in Marablau on Wednesdays. I can sense Suzanne’s blood pressure soaring. We’re supposed to be leaving on Wednesday morning and the whole idea was to get pictures of the women at the market. Okay, I say, what time do they get to the market on Wednesdays. About 8am, I am told. Okay, I say again, here’s what we do. We go to Takkas tomorrow in the morning. Get the pictures at the old water source and the well. Do the interviews. Go back in the afternoon when the light is right. Get the pictures of them at home and doing something connected with their business. We arrange to meet them at the market on Wednesday morning at 8am. Get the pictures of them there. I look at Godwin who is supposed to be driving us back to Abuja Wednesday morning. We don’t need to be there any specific time, do we, I ask him. No, he agrees. I look at Suzanne. Okay? She nods. I look at Gimba and James. Right, I say, that’s it for today. We’re going to go somewhere and send these pictures to London. We’re going to leave the guest house at 6:30 tomorrow morning to be at Takkas by 7am to get the best morning light. Right? Everyone nods. Problem solved. James goes off. The four of us leave.

nigeria lake

Godwin, who’s turned out to be a godsend, drives us to a beautiful lake, high in the hills. We park near the shore and set about sending the pictures. As part of her deal for the loan of the satellite equipment, Suzanne has promised the manufacturers a picture of it in use in the field for their in-house magazine. She sets me up with the laptop and the transmitter, sitting on the stool she bought in Ladin Kani (which has served her well and been dubbed the Royal stool first by Mathew, now by Godwin), leaning against the Land Rover while she takes some pics of me and the equipment in action. Each photo is being sent individually and they are going slowly, so just as well we’ve cancelled this afternoon’s plans, otherwise we’d be here all night. Gimba is off at the shore skipping stones on the lake. Godwin’s put some music on. It is quiet and peaceful and beautiful and I am feeling unbelievably contented after an exhausting, non-stop week. (Every time I’d tried to suggest earlier that we needed to dump something in order to get some down time, Duncan had been quite insistent that we were only going to be here once and we had to see and do as much as we could. Good thing he and Bankole left this morning.) Suzanne gets Gimba back from the shore so she can get a picture with all three of us in it. Minus her stool, she squats down to take the photo and promptly falls over. She needs this day even more than I do. This morning she went to empty the dregs of her coffee cup in the toilet and spilled most of it on the seat. Then she tried to empty her bucket into the toilet to flush it and poured most of it down her front. She couldn’t find her water bottle when we were getting ready to leave and eventually discovered she’d put it in the wardrobe and almost immediately afterwards literally hit the wall, turning to walk out of the room and missing the doorway. It is a relief that when she falls over taking the picture all she does is laugh. Then she gets the tripod out so she can set the timer and get a photo with her in it. She says she wants to remember this moment. I know I’ll never forget it.

Back to our haven, the Peace Guest House. I go to my room to do some work on my computer, Suzanne to hers to do the same. Gimba and Godwin join Louis in the lounge to watch the first Nigeria match in the Africa Nations Cup. The match is against Ghana, unlike Nigeria, one of the four African teams going to Germany later this year for the World Cup. Sometime later a roar can be heard from the lounge. No marks for guessing Nigeria has scored. Turns out it was the only goal in the match and Nigeria have beaten Ghana.

Over dinner and beers in the garden that night, Gimba and I have a long and fascinating conversation about Nigerian politics. (Karl Maier’s book This House Has Fallen has given me some useful insights into what’s gone wrong in Nigeria. There’s a long way to go, but people do seem to feel optimistic that civilian rule is here to stay. Ironic that President Obasanjo, now in his second term, was 20 years ago the only military ruler to keep his promise to hand over power to an elected government – and was jailed, as I was reminded at Langtang prison today, for his troubles by the military dictator who overthrew the elected government). At the end of the evening, Gimba pays me a delightful compliment, saying he thinks I am the most adventurous of the visitors because I am the one who is thirsty for experience and knowledge of Nigeria, not just here to work. I am thrilled that this stands out because I think – I hope – it’s true.

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