Skip to content

Nigerian diary

February 1, 2006

Bloody hell, I’m going to Nigeria

January 15, 2006

Bloody hell, I’m flying to Nigeria tonight. This has all come up unexpectedly – a WaterAid photo trip planned for the past six months. Vinny, one of the web guys, and Duncan in corporate fundraising are supposed to be going with Suzanne, a professional photographer, to visit various water and sanitation projects, take photographs, do interviews, write up case studies. Last Tuesday Vinny broke his leg, so cannot travel. Last Thursday I was asked if I could go.

What a week. An emergency appointment last Friday with the private medical company we use that specialises in aid workers. I have a blood test and two armfuls of jabs in preparation for my trip. Yellow fever, rabies, Hep A, encephalitis, I lose track of how many inoculations I get, although I am provided with a medical passport I must take with me which records them all. Anti-malaria drugs are doled out to me. I leave, feeling like a proper world traveller, and make my way to the office, stopping en route at Boots to buy mosquito repellent, SP25 sun cream.

My department head warns me that I am going to see some distressing things, suggests various coping mechanisms, not least of which is to not feel overwhelmed, but to recognise that my being there will help to make a difference. He also flags something I hadn’t registered: I will be in the Muslim north and that means covering up, despite temperatures of 90 degrees plus. One of the items on my itinerary is a courtesy call on the Emir of Gumel. I do not have any of the right clothes.

The office provides me with a first aid kit, including diarrhoea medicine (I know I want to lose some weight this year, but this is not how I want to do it) and a mosquito net. The intrepid traveller mindset sets in again.

It is the wrong time of year to find the clothes I need. The sales are on, the shops desperate to off load hideous winter apparel. In desperation I buy three cotton men’s shirts. Back in Stoke Newington I luck out in a charity shop, find lightweight cotton trousers. In the second hand clothing store I buy more men’s cotton shirts. It’s not a bloody fashion shoot. I don’t care what I look like when I get there.

Monday we get a call from the company that normally sorts out all our visas. They’ve forgotten that the Nigerian high commission is closed for three days this week for Eid. Now the only chance I’ve got of getting a visa in time is if I go to the commission personally on Thursday. Normally visas take three working days, so I will have to throw myself on their mercy.

The High Commission opens at 9:30. I arrive at 9:40. The scene that greets me is pandemonium. Visa applications are supposed to be processed between 10:00 and noon, but the basement room, which also deals with passports and work permits, is already overflowing. I take a number, sit down, read my paper. When the blinds go up on the processing windows people immediately surge to the counters. Commission staff shout at them that they will be seen in turn when their numbers are called, that everyone must take a seat. This is somewhat optimistic as there are no seats left. The first number is called and I realise I have 66 places to go. The application seems to take about 20 minutes. There is no way I will be seen in the two hour period if each takes this long. I turn to a young man sitting beside me and voice this concern. No, he says (turns out he’s an old hand, a rep for one of the visa companies), they will stay open until everyone is dealt with. They just stop giving out numbers at noon. I go back to reading the paper. I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve already arrived in Nigeria. For one thing the lights keep flickering off. Whenever this happens the crowd cheers. Just like home, apparently.

Five hours later I am finally seen. I’ve got my passport and my application form and a letter from WaterAid Nigeria inviting me to visit. I’ve told colleagues that while I am prepared to beg in order to get the visa, I will draw the line at a blow job. The man behind the counter looks somewhat sympathetic which is a relief because, after five hours, even a blow job isn’t entirely out of the question. Will you be dealing with the press, he asks. I know instinctively that the correct answer is no and that is what I say. Despite potential stories I’ve already lined up. He nods, stamps a receipt and hands it to me. It is dated for tomorrow. I will get the visa. I leave feeling triumphant.

And now I’m packed, raring to go. Shame it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and my flight isn’t until 10:45 tonight.


Show me a map

January 16, 2006

The overnight flight from London to Abuja arrives at 5:30am (4:30am GMT). The business class section on the plane is almost as big as economy. BA should not be allowed to force us to walk past all those bed/seats. There should be a separate entrance for economy so we do not have to witness all this luxury. (If this is business, what could first class possibly be like? No, I don’t want to know.) One of the available films is The Constant Gardener. I read the book some years ago and it seems the obvious film to watch during my first trip to the African continent, even if it is set in Kenya and I am heading for Nigeria. (Interviewed on Radio 4 when the film was released, John Le Carre was asked, “Isn’t this shocking news?” “Well,” he said, “it wouldn’t be if the media actually did their job.” Amen to that.)

As soon as we disembark Suzanne slathers on some mosquito repellent. She is a seasoned West Africa traveller who’s just spent a month in Mali. I follow her lead, mindful of all the warnings I’ve had from the health clinic. First rule is to avoid getting bitten. Must remember to take my malaria medication when I get to the hotel.

A driver is waiting for us and leads us from the airport building to a Land Rover. It is still dark as we make our way from the airport, too dark to see much of anything, though I stare out the window, eager to observe everything I can. There are hundreds of men along the side of the road. I wonder if they are just waiting there, hoping to be picked up for a day’s casual labour. The thought depresses me, but, no, it turns out when I ask the driver, that they are simply trying to get a lift to their jobs in Abuja. The road is filled with small motorbikes, each with at least two men on them, sometimes three. They look dangerously precarious. Belatedly I do up my seatbelt.

Our hotel, the Rockview (view of what rock, I wonder), is comfortable enough – a big, firm bed, fridge, computer with internet access. It’s nothing special, but I suspect it will seem five star compared to other places I am likely to stay during this trip.

The driver comes back at 10am to take us to the office. A meeting with the federal ministry of water is on the agenda. I manage to get a couple of hours of kip which does me no good whatsoever. I know people who can refresh themselves with a ten minute nap, but all ten minutes does is make me want eight hours. Ditto the two hours I have this morning.

The journey to the office, now in daylight, reveals Abuja to be a low rise and seemingly characterless city. This comes as little surprise, given that it was built less than 50 years ago to move the capital from Lagos into the Middle Belt region in a failed attempt to lessen the tension between the north and the south.

When we get to the office we are informed that the meeting with the ministry has been cancelled (so no pressing need to make do with two hours of sleep). We are introduced to the staff and are warmly greeted. A heartfelt “you are welcome” seems to be the standard greeting in Nigeria and Duncan and I agree it puts us to shame in London where visitors from country programmes are acknowledged nonchalantly, if at all. The biggest surprise is meeting Ron, an IT expert recently arrived from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who is on loan to WaterAid Nigeria from his full time employer, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of, amongst other things, Viagra and blot on the landscape in Sandwich, Kent.

Apparently Pfizer has a programme which allows its employees to provide their expertise to various charities on three to six month assignments. A startling counterbalance to watching The Constant Gardener on the flight. I think, but do not say, that it is philanthropic window dressing. Ron certainly seems earnest enough and I do not want to be rude.

Sam, the dapper deputy country rep, gives us a presentation about the evolution and current state of the Nigerian operation. I am shocked to learn that 70% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. How is this possible in an oil rich country? Yes, of course, I’ve read up on the post-colonial history of Nigeria and I know about the rampant corruption of the various military dictatorships, but still. Seventy per cent is a horrifying figure in Africa’s most populous country.

Lunch is ordered – my introduction to jollof rice and chicken.

Suzanne, camera bags at the ready for the anticipated meeting with the ministry occupies herself taking photos of all the staff. Duncan, who’s brought his laptop to the office, busies himself reading and writing e-mails. I twiddle my thumbs, read but fail to absorb a word of various country reports.

We have a meeting with Bankole, the Nigerian communications officer who will be accompanying us on our trip. He starts to tell us where we will be going and what we will be seeing. I ask if he can show us on a map as I have no idea where Jigawa or Bauchi or Plateau (which he pronounces Plato) are. A map is produced. Now I know where these various states are. I also have a better idea where Abuja is.

Eventually we are driven back to the Rockview (the rock, I’ve discovered, is Aso Rock, one of the big Abuja landmarks, not actually visible from my room which is on the wrong side of the hotel). We agree to meet up at 7:30 for dinner. Ron, who is waiting to move into his apartment, is also staying at the hotel and joins us. It is “Africa Night” in the hotel restaurant, which turns out, disappointingly, to be a heated buffet. In the spirit of adventure, I decide to try some goat soup. Goat meat, I am assured by Duncan, is lovely. I swallow one spoonful and manage somehow not to spit it out. It is extremely spicy and tastes like shit or rather exactly what I think shit would taste like if I’d ever tried it. So much for my spirit of adventure. I push the bowl to one side, claiming as my excuse that it is too spicy for me. Duncan says he’ll have it. Fine by me. He takes one sip and also pushes the bowl away. I ask if it’s too spicy for him. No, he says, it takes like shit. I am vindicated.

In amongst all the dishes on offer there is, astonishingly, Chinese fried rice. Too timid to try anything else I don’t know, I add some to my plate. There is also salad, which looks tempting, but I am carefully heeding the clinic’s advice to avoid any uncooked vegetables unless I know exactly where they came from and how they were washed.

Ron is a man experiencing major culture shock. When I was in my teens, about a hundred years ago, I knew a draft dodger from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I think of asking Ron if he knows a Dave Smith, but it’s a common name, a stupid question, and will invariably lead into a discussion of US warmongering which I don’t think I should have. Ron arrived two days before us and is already fantasising about Big Macs. He’d applied for two secondments, one (his preferred) for three months in Uganda, the other six months in Nigeria. Pfizer have instilled paranoia in him. He is not allowed to go anywhere on foot, must use a driver (which Pfizer pays for) to get to work and come home, and also (which Pfizer does not pay for) to go anywhere in the evenings and weekends. It does not help him in any way that four oil workers were kidnapped in the Delta the day before he arrived. We try to persuade him that the culture shock is natural, that he will feel different after he moves into his own apartment. (Yes, he agrees, he’ll be able to cook hamburgers whenever he wants. Sigh.) I manage to find a probably none too subtle way of convincing him that his time in Nigeria is important because he will be able to take the message back to the US that the best way to deal with global instability is to deal with global poverty. Give him his due, he agrees.


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.


My fictitious daughters

January 18, 2006

Up at 6am (another candlelit wash and mozzie repellent smear) to depart at 6:30 for the first official WaterAid field visit. The early departure is driven by lighting. Suzanne needs the light from 7-9am. After 10am it is too harsh and there is no point in taking any more photos until 3pm. The plan is to get the photos out of the way first, then Duncan and I can do the interviews with the selected women.

We arrive in the Niger border village of Alhazai and the plan immediately goes pear shaped. Because, of course, we cannot do anything until the community is gathered and we are officially welcomed by the chief. Suzanne, with the best light disappearing every five minutes, fidgets as the welcoming ceremony is conducted.

Eventually we are led to the hand pump, which was installed 22 years ago. Like the well, dug 40 years ago, this is not a WaterAid project. Although the community had long since made the connection between safe water and health, people were still getting ill frequently. WaterAid, working with the local government authority, has initiated a programme of sanitation and hygiene education. So far, only two latrines have been built. Most of the 2300 people who live in Alhazai are still relieving themselves in the bush. Still, it is important to get photos of women at the pump and Suzanne sets about trying to do this.

Jannatu Buniya at the hand pump, Alhazai © Suzanne Porter

It is immediately obvious that crowd control is a problem. This is, as Mathew, our driver explains, almost certainly the most exciting thing that has happened in the community for years and everyone wants to see what’s going on. After frequent stops to move the crowds, she manages to get the job done. (Although access to the well is limited to the village first in the morning, later on people from other communities arrive with pack animals to fetch water. Donkeys predominate, but there are also camels! Suzanne assures me these are mangy specimens that would never pass muster in Mali, where camels are revered.)

We then go to the compound of Jannatu Buniya, a 30-year-old mother of four, photographed at the pump and well, to take some at home pictures of her. I stay behind with the female interpreter provided by our local government partner to interview Jannatu and her 10-year-old daughter Laruba. The plan is that I will later also interview Karimato Abadu, wife of the village hygiene promoter. This plan also goes pear shaped when Karimato and a number of other women crowd with us under the shelter in front of Jannatu’s home. The ‘interpreter’ doesn’t actually speak English all that well and it’s a bit of a struggle to keep straight which woman answers which question, but I persevere, feeling I’m not doing a very good job, clinging to the pre-trip briefing during which I was told it would take a couple of interviews before I get into the swing of it. Chalk these up to experience. Still, I manage to elicit the important information that the children in the village are much more active, happier and, most importantly, healthier since they began practising the lessons preached in hygiene education. The women are looking forward to getting their own latrines, because at the moment they are going to the bush. During the day this involves travelling some distance for privacy. At night they are in danger of being confronted by a snake, a scorpion or a robber. (A reminder already that the Gumel Emirate Foundation Hotel is luxury by comparison.)

Slab making © Suzanne Porter

Interviews conducted as best they are likely to be, I go off in search of the rest of my party. Duncan is interviewing someone from the local government while Suzanne takes photos of the slab makers at work.

This could take a while and I would only be in the way, so I sit on a log by a wall. In a remarkably short period of time, I am joined by several women, including my interpreter and Mina, another young woman from the local government group whose English is almost perfect. Mina says, on behalf of the women, that we have asked them many questions that morning and she wonders if they could now ask me some questions. Of course, I say. Where do I live? They want to know. London, England, I say. Mina tells me they pronounce it Engalund. I nod, smile and repeat this: Engalund. Everyone laughs. One woman asks if blonde is my natural hair colour. I tell her it is (leaving out the fact that I have lately been assisting the process somewhat). They have been told that European women often change their hair colour. Do I do this? No, I say. I have always been blonde. Another woman asks shyly if she can touch my hair. Of course, I say, pulling off my sun hat and leaning towards her. She has a feel, as do a few others.

Then it’s time to get down to business. How many children do I have? I’ve already been told that in Nigeria for a woman to be unmarried and childless is an unimaginably tragic state of affairs, so I lie to avoid unnecessary complication and commiseration, say I have two children. Boys? Girls? Two girls, I say. Aside from the fact that I simply cannot imagine being the mother of a son, I feel duty bound to have successful daughters in the Muslim north. What do my daughters do, they ask. One is at university, I say, knowing that the girls in this village do not go to school, the other graduated last year and is now working as a journalist. What are their names? Kate and Emma, I say, picking two favourite names so I will remember in the unlikely event that the subject comes up again. What about your husband, they ask? Oh, dear. This is spiralling out of control. I can happily envisage Kate and Emma, these two brilliant, accomplished daughters of mine striving to make their way in the world, but somehow I cannot picture their father, my equally non-existent husband. He was a very bad man, I say. He ran away after the children were born. They nod sympathetically, then ask where he went. Where? Crikey, how should I know where this fictitious bastard went? America, I say. It’s a long way from Engalund, somewhere they’d know about and the first answer that pops into my head. Did he have another family there, they ask. Probably, I say, I haven’t heard from him in years. Did I not remarry, they ask. No, I say. There were opportunities, but I decided I would rather maintain my independence. Once was enough. They are stunned by this, explain to me that in their culture, if a woman is divorced or widowed and still of child bearing years she is expected to remarry. I tell Mina that, after due consideration, I have decided that men are far more trouble than they are worth. She does not translate this to the others, but tells me she suspects I am right. However, in her culture, life without a husband is not an option. We smile conspiratorially at one another. At that point Duncan comes over to tell me he and Suzanne are finished and it is time to go, thus saving me from getting any further tangled in this web I’ve been weaving.

Back to the only eatery in Gumel to choose from boiled rice, chicken, fried plantain and salad for lunch. Between the overnight flight and the early morning departures, I’m getting quite backed up. My body is craving some roughage, so I throw caution to the wind, order chicken, rice and salad (figure I’ll save the four option combination for dinner). The ‘salad’ consists of sliced hard boiled egg, some cold baked beans, shredded cabbage and a couple of slices of tomato tossed in some substance that tastes suspiciously like Miracle Whip. Interesting.

Lunch consumed, we’re back on the road. Well, it’s a road part of the way, then we turn off and drive (I check with Mathew) ten kilometres along a bumpy, dusty dirt track, arriving eventually at Ladin Kani, where WaterAid is again working with the local government on sanitation and hygiene education.

Another welcoming ceremony, another slab building demonstration and a truly astonishing sight: in the middle of nowhere, a boy wearing a black T-shirt, emblazoned with the image of Bart Simpson mooning. Make sure I get a picture of that.


I interview Bilki Ibrahim, the female hygiene promoter. It is her job to get the message across to the women in the village that they and their children must wash their hands with soap and water after defecating and before and after preparing food. She also teaches them how to bathe their children and themselves, along with the importance of keeping their environment clean and their food and water containers covered. I ask how she does this, whether there are meetings or she goes from home to home. Mostly, she tells me through the interpreter, she goes from home to home, as women are not allowed to have meetings separate from the men, but she also takes advantage of weddings and naming ceremonies, when the whole village is gathered, to talk to women in groups. Although people never used to think about using the bush as a toilet or understood the importance of washing with soap and water, she knows the hygiene education must be true, because her children are much healthier. She and her husband always used to be in debt from borrowing money to pay for medicine when the children had diarrhoea. If they were lucky they’d have one debt of 600 naira paid off before incurring the next. Sounds a lot and then you work out that 600 naira is approximately £2.50. Recurring, overwhelming debts of £2.50. Three and a half times the amount the majority of Nigerians live on per day. Half a week’s salary in our terms. When women complain to her about the cost (20-40 naira) of buying soap, she reminds them of the cost of medicine.


Interviewing Biliki Ibrahim © Suzanne Porter

I ask Bilki what she most enjoys about her role. She tells me she feels good that she is helping to make people healthier. Then she smiles and admits that she has used some of the 1500 naira annual fee she receives – the first money she’s ever had of her own – to buy some new clothes, including the head scarf she is wearing. I smile and nod my understanding of this thrill. For me it would have been shoes.

Suzanne, meanwhile, is a big hit with the village chief. Unable to squat any longer taking pictures, she has first borrowed, then purchased from him for 500 naira a small carved stool. As we leave he is trying to sell her a young bull. Or perhaps he is trying to swap the bull for her. It is not entirely clear.

At the hotel, the live wires of the generator are once again installed in the exterior plug of Suzanne’s room. At the eatery, I have steamed rice, chicken, fried plantain and salad for dinner. Another cold, candlelit wash and an attempt, after dousing myself in repellent, to read for a while by the dim light of the kerosene lamp, supplemented by a long, thin candle. I give up when the candle folds in half and, before I notice this, sets the string on my torch on fire. String fire put out, I also put out the lantern and use the torch to crawl under the net with my alarm clock, which I set for 5:30. Another early departure tomorrow. I turn off the torch, settle down to sleep. Ten minutes later the radio starts blaring next door. God knows when later I get to sleep.

Today I have learned how to say hello (sanu), thank you (na go de) and thank you very much (na go de so sai) in Hausa. Along with Suzanne I have also learned how to say smile (mir mushi).


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.


Am I a woman?

January 20, 2006

A bizarre, interesting and ultimately deeply touching day today in a village called Fikayi. It is the first place we have visited that currently has no safe supply of water, although a well is scheduled to be built this year. We arrive and, after the usual welcome from the chief, arrange to photograph a few women at their closest and most frequently used source of water: a dirty pond 15 minutes away. Their other choice, a cleaner stream, is nearly an hour away.

13-year-old Sa’a Ali fetches water from a pond shared with frogs and God knows what else. © Suzanne Porter

Suzanne and Mathew go ahead in the Land Rover with some of the women. Duncan, Bankole and I make our way on foot. Predictably many women and children follow us. Equally predictable, while I am being watched by some putting on sun screen, Suzanne’s ability to take photos is greatly diminished by the growing crowd, a nightmare for her on every visit so far.

Mathew, Bankole and I lead the onlookers away to where the Land Rover is parked out of camera range. When we get there one of the girls called out “Bituri, bituri!” to me. When I look over she’s making a rubbing motion on her arm. I nod and shrug, trying to convey that, yes, I do have stupid skin that can’t take the sun. She rubs her arm again and nods towards me. “Ah,” I say, even though she can’t understand me, “you want some?” The question is conveyed more with gestures and facial expressions than words. She smiles and nods, so I pull out my sun lotion and squeeze some into her hand. Then, of course, nothing will do but the whole crowd want some. Dozens of hands are held out to me. Bankole gets a snap of me doling out dollops to everyone which they all rub on their arms.

Then, without me noticing, both Bankole and Mathew disappear, leaving me alone to entertain the crowd.

They just can’t figure out what to make of me. I look as if I must be a woman, yet I am wearing trousers and one of the men’s shirts I was forced to buy in the Stoke Newington second hand clothes shop after I twigged that I was going to be in the Muslim north where I would need to cover up without anything the least appropriate in my wardrobe.

I begin to comprehend the confusion when one young woman holds her hands under her breasts and looks at me curiously. I nod my understanding and cup my hands under my own breasts, give them a jiggle. They all smile, but that’s not quite enough to satisfy their curiosity. One motions pulling up her top and nods towards me in a clear request that I show them my tits. I would probably agree without thinking, but there are some male youths around and I don’t fancy putting a show on for them. Ridiculous really, but there you go.

Bankole comes back and I tell him about the women’s request. He seems more shocked than I was (not that I was particularly shocked, just not particularly obliging). Duncan, who’s been interviewing women at the pond, comes over to ask if I’d like to have a turn. I would like to, but I also realise that I am the thing keeping the crowd away. I explain this to him and demur. He goes off again and I try to think of something to keep my fans entertained. The women and girls all have traditional tightly braided hair, so for the hell of it I put a small and no doubt terrible (couldn’t see what I was doing) plait in my hair. My surmise about the quality of my plait is confirmed when one of the women steps forward, gesturing that she wants to do it for me. Bankole reappears in time to take a picture of this. Great, because I really want a record.

While I’m having my hair braided a couple of others inspect my ears, surprised they are not pierced and that unlike them (even the youngest girls) I have no earrings. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets. These females, poorer than I can imagine, all have jewellery, some really quite beautiful. This reignites their curiosity and my shirt lifting friend again conveys that I should show them my tits. Bankole’s gone and so are the boys. What the hell, I smile, pull up my shirt and vest and flash one. Great hilarity ensues. They are finally convinced I really am female, but the issue of the jewellery still clearly disturbs them.

I sit down on the step of the Land Rover and a moment later, a little girl (six years old, named, I later discover, Hauwa) undoes her beaded necklace and holds it out to me. “For me?” I mime. She nods. I take it from her and get her to help me do it up. I am so touched I want to cry, but I also can’t stop grinning. This is the most extraordinary thing that’s ever happened to me and I will never possess another piece of jewellery which I treasure more.

At a loss for any other way to entertain them without language, I demonstrate that by bouncing up and down on the Land Rover step I can make it move. Some of the boys, who’ve now returned, decide this is a great game and try it on the side steps, ecstatic to find it works for them, too.

The photo session starts to wind down. Deborah Kogi from Women In Nigeria, our partner organisation, comes over to the Land Rover. I get her to take a picture of me with Hauwa, then I ask her to explain to the women for me that I do not have any jewellery because I’ve left it at home, afraid I might lose it on my travels. (Not strictly speaking true. I hardly wear any jewellery and the rings I do wear, my mother’s, I left at home in fear of robbery.) Deborah translates and there are smiles and nods all round. Mystery solved. Deborah laughs and tells me the women have just said I will have to bring it next time I come so they can see it. I say I will, feeling guilty because the odds of me ever returning to this village are slim to nonexistent.

Hadija Mahamadu fetches water up to five times a day© Suzanne Porter

Suzanne and Mathew return to the village in the Land Rover.

I walk back with the women, all of them, including six-year-old Hauwa, who holds my hand most of the way, balancing containers of water on their heads. How do they do it?

Our plan is to go to the DWMCO office for lunch and then return when the afternoon light is best for taking photos of the women and girls at home. Suzanne is completely blown away by what natural models the girls and women are. We all comment on how beautiful they are. Oh, yes, Bankole and Mathew agree, it is a well acknowledged fact that Fulani women are stunners. (Mathew, a happily married Christian, has been offered one of these knockouts for consideration as a second wife. He’s politely agreed to give the matter some consideration.)

As we prepare to leave, the surveyors turn up unexpectedly to assess the best location for the well. While Suzanne attempts to take pictures of this much celebrated event as best she can in the harsh midday light, the geologist attempts to explain the technology used to Duncan and me. Anyone who knows me can attest that science and technology are not my strongest subjects, but eventually I get the fact that the electrical currents pumped through the metal rods impaled in the ground give a reading of the water (if any) and its level below.

Sa’a Ali using dirty pond water to clean dishes © Suzanne Porter

We return after lunch, Suzanne to take her at home pictures, me to interview, with Mathew acting as my (as it turns out fantastic) translator, Haua Musa, mother of 10, grandmother of 15, who’s lost two children and a grandchild to water and sanitation related diseases. She is now the female lead on the recently formed village hygiene committee. She tells me her life has been dominated by water: when she wants a drink, there is no water, when she wants to cook, there is no water, when she wants to bathe, there is no water. She no longer has to collect water herself, her grandchildren do that for her now. But that saddens her, too. She would rather they were in school, but the nearest school is too far away for the children to attend. The village has already decided that once the well is installed and they have latrines built, the next thing they are going to do is to build a school. With water and sanitation they will be able to get a teacher to come, without it they won’t. At the end of the interview I ask her if there is anything she wants to ask or tell me.

Haua Musa © Suzanne Porter

She nods and speaks. Mathew smiles when she’s finished, seeming to appreciate her comment, then tells me what she’s just said: “I am very surprised and happy that you came to visit us today. You took the time to spend time with us. You walked to the watering hole with the women and walked back. I did not ever expect to see a bituri do these things.” That really does make me want to weep.

Everywhere we go we are treated like visiting dignitaries which is shaming. My life in London is so easy by comparison. I have a home, a job. I can turn a tap for water, flick a switch for light. That women like Haua can live with such dignity with so little is astonishing. They are the real VIPs.

On the way back to our hotel, Suzanne and I plead to stop somewhere to buy some fruit. Like me, her system is going into meltdown (or more accurately the opposite) from lack of fresh fruit and veg. I also appeal for help solving my inadequate mozzie net problem. Mathew leads me into the market to a stall where one can be procured. I’m not sure what the asking price is, but he gets it down to 600 naira – just as well, as it turns out I only have 700 naira on me.

At 10 o’clock that night (after I finish moving my bed into the middle of the room so I can attach the net to the fan and discover several condom wrappers dropped between the headboard and the wall – despite the no free women sign there’s obviously some action in this hotel), I am surprised by a phone call from reception telling me I have a visitor from Women In Nigeria. I go out to the lobby and a man I’d met this afternoon hands me a carrier back containing four gift wrapped parcels, presents for Suzanne, Duncan, Bankole and me. I am touched and also embarrassed that I have absolutely nothing to offer in return. I thank him and go and knock on Suzanne’s door, knowing she (unlike early to bed Duncan) will still be up. We open our gifts: two matching sets of tops and trousers made from incredibly stiff, tie-dyed fabric. Now I’m even more touched and embarrassed that I had nothing to offer back.


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.


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 © 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.

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.

Langtang prison hygiene promoters © Suzanne Porter

It isn’t easy to read this hand printed poster, but under the title BAD HABITS, the question is asked: “What are the things we do that make us to get infected with disease out of ignorance?”

A bullet point list follows with items such as:

– sptting in the street

– urinating in the street

– defecating outside

– blowing your nose on the sheets


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

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.)


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.

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 yesterday, 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.


How many roosters?

January 24, 2006

James has arranged for the women we are supposed to photograph and interview to meet us as the old water source at 7am. We arrive. They are not there. Someone tells us they are waiting for us at the chief’s house in Takkas. We go there. No sign of the women. No problem. We can photograph them at the well first, then at the old water source. We explain to the chief that we really need to do some work first, but will happily sit down with him later. We head towards the well. James says the women we want won’t be at the well because they live in another part of the village. Suzanne looks as if she’s about to belt someone. I don’t blame her. If the women are somewhere else, why the hell are we here? What about a woman, James asks, who’s used a COWAN loan to buy and run the village shop? What about her, we ask. Turns out she is here and can be photographed while they fetch the others. We carry on towards the well. Suzanne starts taking photos. Mary, who runs the shop, is an older woman who would not normally fetch her own water anymore, but we don’t care.

Justina at the old water source © Suzanne Porter

Justina at the old water source © Suzanne Porter

The other women arrive. We photograph Justina, a primary school teacher, at the well, then go with her, Mary, and the third woman, Suzanna, to the old water source.

Justina tells me that before the well was installed it would take her up to two hours a day to collect water from the stream. She had to take the young children with her. They were always late for school. She was always late for school, always tired, always feeling as if she’d fallen behind, guilty because the school children were not getting as much out of her lessons as they should. Now it takes her 15 minutes and no one’s late for school. She tells me that before the hygiene education programme in the village her children were frequently ill. She estimates that she and her husband Maxwell, the headmaster of the local secondary school, were spending and in debt for about 5000 naira a year in medicine and treatment. Justina has always grown a little subsistence maize for her family. With the extra time she now has and the money they’re saving on medicine, she’s been able to take out and pay back three loans which have allowed her to expand to five acres of maize production. She employs five people to work the fields and is able to sell the surplus at the market. All the extra money is going towards higher education for her children. She and Maxwell are agreed that an educated population is needed to address Nigeria’s problems.

Suzanna manages to mushi © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna manages to mushi © Suzanne Porter

As there is a second WaterAid well in the community and this is the one Suzanna would normally use, we go there to take her photo. Suzanna has some difficulty co-ordinating using the pump, looking at the camera and smiling. Her photographer namesake, Suzanne, at one point actually stamps her feet while yelling, “Mir mushi!” When I tell her this later, she does not remember, but is not surprised. While we are waiting by the Land Rover, a young woman, the parson’s daughter, turns up with a bucket and some plastic mugs. She has very kindly brought us some refreshment. Unfortunately it is cola and I haven’t yet acquired the taste. I ask for a very small portion and manage to knock it back. We arrange with Suzanna and Justina that we will come back in the afternoon to visit and take photographs of them at home.

Back in the village we meet up with the chief who offers us some refreshment. Not really fancying another warm soft drink I begin to decline, then catch Gimba’s warning look that this would not be appropriate, and say I’d love to take something. It turns out to be a surprisingly nice lime drink, Nigerian originally, now owned and bottled – surprise, surprise – by Coca Cola. After we’ve had the drinks, after the chief has thanked us for coming, after we’ve thanked him for his hospitality, he produces a gift for us. Suzanne has been told the next present, whatever it is, is hers. The gift is a big, orange rooster, its legs tied together with string. She shakes her head, laughs and said she knew this would happen. Gimba takes a picture of her holding the rooster. We all say our thanks again and clamber into the Land Rover.

Back at the guest house the rooster is deposited in the garden. When I go outside a few minutes later its feet are still tied together and I ask Gimba to get someone to cut the string so it can walk around. He shrugs, indifferent to the ambulatory ability of the rooster, presuming that we will be having it for dinner. Not a bit of it, Suzanne informs him. No one’s eating her rooster. Besides, Louis has already sorted dinner: the previous day Suzanne had asked if there was any way of getting some fish and he’s gone out to do just that. There are three huge buckets of water with various fish (the only one of which I recognise is a catfish) swimming around. We have the catfish, grilled, for lunch with salad. Delicious.

Suzanna with daughter Peace and son Fortune © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna with daughter Peace and son Fortune © Suzanne Porter

In the afternoon we go back to visit Suzanna first. She actually has two schemes on the go. She has for some time been making locust bean cakes (the spicy beans are mashed up and formed into patties which are used for seasoning in soups) and either selling them in the village or trading them for other things. With the time she saves collecting water she’s now able to make a lot more and once a week sells them in the market. In addition to this, she’s used a loan from COWAN to buy cement and is now the village slab maker.

Suzanna with one of her slabs © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna with one of her slabs © Suzanne Porter

When I suggest to her that in some communities (certainly all the ones I’ve visited so far) that this might be considered men’s work, she grins and tells me anything a man can do a woman can do, agreeing with me when I add that some things a woman can do a man can’t. We finish taking the photos and thank Suzanna for her time, saying we will see her the next morning at the market. As we leave, Gimba tells me there’s another chicken. Get outta here, I say. But it’s true. My turn’s come round again, so this chicken (which turns out to be a scrawny rooster) is mine.


We make our way to Justina’s home. The maize has all been harvested, but she has a number of storage units in her compound, so Suzanne takes some photos of her there, along with pictures of her with her family. I’d already spoken to Justina earlier about meeting up at the market the next morning. We need to meet them at 8am, but normally they don’t get there until 9:30. This is bad not just for the light, but because we need to drive back to Abuja. She tells me they would have to pay a driver 1500 naira to get there by 8am. I tell her we will help with this. When I mention it to Suzanne at lunch time, she says we should pay the whole amount if it will guarantee they will actually be there at 8. So, I take Justina to one side, surreptitiously hand her the 1500 naira, eliciting her promise that they will be there for 8am. She assures me they will, tells me there will be a woman in a COWAN dress to meet us at the gate and show us where they are. As we are leaving, she presents us with a fat white hen. Technically this one is Duncan’s, but, despite Suzanne’s suggestion that it would be hilarious to take it to and present him with it in Abuja, it is generally agreed that it will not survive the journey.

Back to the guest house with our fowl collection which we again deposit in the garden. Gimba says we should have at least one of them for dinner that night. Suzanne is adamant that no one is going to kill her rooster. I’ve been eating chicken at least once a day for the past week, but somehow I, too, have a problem with killing our gifts. Gimba looks at me as if I am slightly mad, points out that is why we were given the chickens. I go out into the garden and look around. Suzanne’s cocky cock (reminds me of the old cartoon Foghorn Leghorn), clearly determined to rule the roost unopposed, is already pecking at my poor boy. Oh, go on then, I say to Gimba, no quality of life on offer for this guy. Put him out of his misery. Louis, informed of this decision, asks what we plan to do with the other two. He agrees that Suzanne’s rooster is a mighty fine rooster that will probably get the hens laying a lot of eggs and should, therefore, remain. (How much of this was said to placate Suzanne who was forced to entrust Foghorn’s welfare to him was not clear.) Unable to use my digital camera, I take a picture on my mobile of Duncan’s chicken, so we can show him what he missed, and tell Louis to chuck the fat hen in the pot, too. What with the fish and the two chickens, we now have a lot of food to get through, so Louis suggests, as it’s our last night, we should have a bit of a party. Absolutely, we agree.

Suzanne and I both ask for some hot water, split a beer in the garden. When the water’s ready we go to our rooms to have a bucket shower and do some work before dinner. I put on the only dress I’ve brought with me – an old, longish, lightweight cotton dress. When I emerge, Louis’s set things up in the inner courtyard. Oh, no, I say. We have to eat out in the garden. After I leave it could be months before I sit in a garden again. Louis can understand that, but isn’t sure how he is going to sort out the boombox someone is bringing. He tells me he’ll figure it out, moves the tables back outside.

There is a fish soup to start which is fantastic. As it is served I comment that one of the things I love about the Peace Guest House is that it doesn’t have terrifying wiring. No sooner have I said this than Louis starts to do something highly suspect with the fairy lights in order to plug in the boombox. Suzanne rolls her eyes and tells me this is all my fault, that I never should have mentioned the wiring. Somehow he gets it to work and we have music. Louis asks Suzanne to dance, Godwin asks me. At some point we switch partners. When we sit back down, a surprised Gimba and two of his mates tell me I am a very good dancer. Coming from African men I take this as quite a compliment. Louis’s wife has made two different chicken dishes, a spicy one for the men and a tamer one for Suzanne and me. Enquiries confirm that we’ve scored the fat hen. It is the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. The men are welcome to my scrawny rooster. There is a bit more dancing, then the boombox guy announces he has to leave. I am surprised to discover that it is nearly midnight. We need to leave by 7:30 the next morning, so time for bed.


Roadblocks and oil cons

January 25, 2006

Suzanne’s bloody rooster woke me up at 5 o’clock this morning. If the damned thing had just crowed non-stop or in some discernible pattern, I probably could have got back to sleep, but no. It would crow five times, stop for a minute, crow three times, stop for five minutes, start up again. After half an hour I was ready to kill it myself, although of course I am completely incapable of wringing a rooster’s neck or chopping its head off (assuming I could find an axe). At 6:30 I gave up and got up.

Apparently Suzanne also heard Foghorn sound off at 5am. Not having the room adjacent to the garden, she was, she tells me when she emerges, able to smile, think ‘That’s my boy’ and go back to sleep. I tell her she’s lucky her rooster’s still alive.

Godwin, Gimba and James come to collect us. We get to Marablau market at 8am. We get to the gate. Lo and behold there actually is a woman in a COWAN-print dress waiting for us at the gate. Hallelujah, for once a plan has actually worked.

Justina and Gimba, Marablau market © Suzanne Porter

Justina and Gimba, Marablau market © Suzanne Porter

We get photos of Justina with her maize, Mary picking up provisions for her shop and Suzanna selling her locust bean cakes.

Suzanna at the market © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna at the market © Suzanne Porter

Somewhat belatedly we remember we had been planning to take a photo of the Land Rover in use in the field on the off chance that it might come in handy trying to schmooze Rover into doing something nice for us. So, in the spirit of better late than never, Suzanne gets some pictures of it in the marketplace.

Godwin, Marablau market © Suzanne Porter

Godwin, Marablau market © Suzanne Porter

Then it’s time to say goodbye to the women, thank Justina profusely for her delicious chicken, drop Gimba off at the guest house and hit the road. As there are only three of us now, the front passenger seat is vacant. I ask Suzanne if she wants it. She says no, so I claim it. Amazing how different the view seems. Although Jos isn’t on the agenda, it’s not really out of the way, so we stop there for lunch. Since about the third day out, Suzanne’s been fantasising about pizza. Apparently this always happens to her when she’s in Africa, particularly if she’s in the desert, which she has recently been. Usually she deals with this when she returns to the UK, but this time she only had two days between trips and didn’t manage it. At first I think this, like waxing lyrical about camels and trashing penguins (bad experience on a South African shoot once), is one of her little quirks, but by about the fifth day in the bush, I’m also fantasising about pizza. Godwin says he knows where we can get some pizza in Jos, his home town. We’re raring to go. Unfortunately, the place he had in mind was closed, so it’s chicken and jollof rice.

As we leave, Suzanne tells me a kid’s story from Mali (which Godwin confirms is also told in Nigeria) about why certain animals behave the way they do in the road. According to the story, a bus pulls up at a stop, a donkey gets on board, tells the driver where he wants to go, pays his fare, reaches his destination and gets off. A dog gets on the bus, tells the driver where he’s going. He doesn’t have the right amount of money and the driver tells him he will give him his change later. When they reach the destination the dog gets off, then remembers his change, but when he turns around to ask for it, the driver pulls away. Then a goat gets on the bus, tells the driver where he wants to go, says he needs to find his money and will pay when they get there, but when they arrive, the goat jumps off the bus and legs it without paying. And that, according to the story, is why donkeys stand in the middle of the road, dogs chase vehicles and goats (with the exception, it seems, of brown ones) run away when a vehicle approaches. I tell Suzanne that I have noticed she is right about the brown goats and that every time I see one standing there in my head I start singing ‘Brown goat in the road, tra la la la.’

Just outside Jos, Godwin stops at a Con Oil station to get some diesel. As he gets back in the Land Rover I tell him that was quick. As he starts to pull away, he brakes suddenly. When I ask what’s wrong he tells me he’s just been ripped off. He’s paid 2500 naira for 29 litres of diesel, but there’s no way, according the gauge, he’s had more than eight or nine litres put in. He tries arguing with the woman, but she’s not budging. The pump says he had 29 litres, so that’s what he had and that’s what he’s paid for. He’s mad as hell, but there’s nothing he can do. Apparently this particular con is not uncommon. The problem is that the large chains seldom have any diesel and the reason they seldom have any is that they sell the majority of the diesel they receive over the pump price to the smaller stations who make their money ripping people off. I do manage to make him laugh as we drive away, pointing out that the company pretty much warns you what to expect. It is, after all, called CON Oil.

Driving through Plateau and into neighbouring Nasarawa state we pass huge craters in the landscape which is, Godwin tells me, where they used to mine tin. It was an enterprise which brought considerable prosperity to the region at one time. The mines, like the workers’ accommodation that went with them have long since been abandoned. Since independence and the discovery of oil, all other industries have been left to rot by the government. Plateau, it seems, gets by growing produce which feeds Nigerians (unlike Kenya where most of the crops are grown for European supermarkets), but Nasarawa is now destitute.

As we drive through Lafia we are confronted by yet another roadblock. For the first time since we left Abuja last week, we are flagged over. In an urban area, especially with a nailed plank put down in front of the tires, we have no choice but to stop. An aggressive man comes over to the passenger window and starts yelling over me at Godwin. Godwin’s having none of this. We are a charity. We are exempt from these (bogus) road tax demands. The man does not or will not comprehend what’s being said. WaterAid has paid employees and is therefore a company which means our vehicle is a company car which means we are liable to pay these fees. Okay, says Godwin, if we’re breaking some law, we’ll go to the police station and sort it out. He tells the man to get in the Land Rover and direct us to the police station. No, screams the man, reaching across me to point an accusatory finger at Godwin, we deal with him. Godwin tells him to get his arm out of the car and stop disgracing himself and therefore the country in front of visitors. A more senior shakedown artist appears at Godwin’s side of the car and tells us that all vehicles must have (a) road tax stickers, (b) radio stickers (yes, we do have a radio), and (c) several more that I can’t remember. Godwin pulls out a binder full of vehicle information, including a photocopy of a letter from someone quite senior in the government, stating that WaterAid is a charity and therefore exempt. He again suggests we go to the police station to sort this out. The senior guy grudgingly agrees to let us proceed, warning that there will be several more roadblocks and, if we don’t pay now we will be expected to pay later. Godwin says fine, he’ll explain it all to the other roadblocks. That guy, says Suzanne as we pull away, acted like he was drunk. He didn’t act as if he was drunk, says Godwin, he was drunk. Not surprisingly, between the diesel con and the shakedown, Godwin is fuming and a rant ensues about the hopeless corruption in Nigeria. It is, he says, so ingrained now he despairs of anything ever changing. This is not the first time I’ve heard this concern voiced and I admit that I’m more than a little stunned by this state-sponsored shakedown. Then I remember parking permits and parking fines in London and wonder what the difference really is.

As predicted, there are a few more roadblocks. Godwin does not bother to explain the situation again. He guns it through all of them. Fortunately none of the roadblock guardians are armed.

Back at the Rockview. Still on the wrong side of the hotel, so still no view of the Rock, but, as foreseen, it does seem like five star luxury now compared to the places (particularly the Langtang shit hole) where we’ve been staying. As lovely as the Peace Guest House is and as happy as I would be to go back there, a toilet that flushes without pouring water into it from a large bucket, is very nice. (Why the ‘Peace’ guest house, I asked Louis before we left this morning. Turns out the motto of Plateau is ‘home of peace and tourism’. The latter seems overly optimistic in a country that simply is not set up for tourism, but Louis certainly plans to give it his best shot and I will certainly recommend visiting him to anyone going to Nigeria.)

Suzanne and I plan to meet up with Godwin later. Apparently Wednesday is Ladies Night at the clubs and we’re keen to get a piece of that. At seven she rings me to say Duncan is back from Lagos and Jonathan Burton, the country rep, has offered to take us all out to dinner. Although we’d both rather go clubbing with Godwin, we concede that it would be inexcusably rude to decline Jonathan’s offer, so I text Godwin to let him know he’s off the hook. We meet up with Jonathan in the lobby and he asks what we want to eat. Without hesitation both Suzanne and I say pizza! And, bless the man, he takes us to a lovely wood fired pizza establishment. It’s delicious.

Jonathan, it turns out, is the brother and son of the Burtons who were kidnapped in Gaza over the Christmas holidays. Jonathan and his wife Selma, who works for the UN in Abuja, were on holiday on her native Mauritius at the time and were scarcely able to take in the news when they got the call. This is not the sort of thing that happens to your family. Quite. Nor is it the sort of thing that happens to the family of anyone you know. His sister Kate has returned to Gaza. His father just can’t believe they did something so dangerous.

I mention that one of the things I am looking forward to about returning to London is being able to bathe without immediately having to slather toxic chemicals all over myself. There’s no problem with mosquitoes in Abuja, Jonathan tells me. Really? Fantastic.


Pad Thai in Abuja

January 26, 2006

Suzanne and I spend the morning going through the photos, adding to the ones we’ve already pulled out to put together a representative cross section of pictures for the Nigerian office and head office to use until she is able to get the remainder to us. (She leaves tomorrow morning to spend a week in Cameroon with Sight Savers, followed immediately by a last minute booking to take over from another photographer on the WaterAid supporters’ trip to Burkina Faso.)

We go into the office to have a formal debriefing with Jonathan and Sam. (Bankole is still in Lagos, where his wife and son live, finally seeing a doctor about this chest cold that just will not go away.) Jonathan begins by thanking us all for coming out and going to the dangerous places we’ve just visited. We are, he says, quite courageous. Really, I think. I’m glad I’m hearing this after rather than before the trip. I thought the Delta was where all the problems were, but no, apparently there’d been some major violence in both Bauchi and Plateau just before Christmas when the government bulldozed some illegal communities. Yikes. What you don’t know really can’t hurt you.

We ask Jonathan if he knows of any restaurant within walking distance of the hotel where we might go for dinner that night. He tells us there is an excellent Thai restaurant nearby, the hotel can direct us. We set off at 7pm. It is, of course, dark and no NEPA (the hotel has a generator) means no streetlights and, more importantly, no traffic lights.

We need to cross one very busy road. Luckily Suzanne points out that we have to look the other way just before I step out into a rush of oncoming traffic. At one point Duncan legs it half way across the road. Suzanne and I, in a leap of faith, dart after him.

A couple of minutes later we make it the rest of the way across. We are shocked by the prices on the menu at Thai Chi. The most expensive meal we’ve had in the bush was about 400 naira. The minimum main course item here is 1700. Quick mental check. Bloody hell, it’s only about seven quid. Having Pad Thai in Abuja is somewhat surreal.


A day in the office

January 27, 2006

A day in the office. Bankole, who it turns out has a bad lung infection, appears briefly then, following doctor’s orders, goes home to take his antibiotics and rest. While Duncan meets with his aptly named fundraising counterpart Charity, I spend some time properly captioning the selection of photos so they will be most useful to the office.

There has been talk of going out for a drink after work with Adi, the political officer, and some of her friends, but at the end of the day Duncan is absolutely knackered and just wants to go back to the hotel. I don’t want to mess up the logistics by requiring a separate driver, so I go back to the hotel with him.

It’s the night of Nigeria’s second match in the Africa Nations Cup, so I decide to go to the bar to watch it. The bar is packed, the atmosphere festive. I am both the only woman and the only white person there, bit of a curiosity, but I cheer when Nigeria scores (the second goal even I, not ordinarily a football fan, can see is perfect, a header off a corner kick) and when the Nigerian goalie makes one of his fantastic saves (suspect this guy will be playing for Arsenal or Man U soon), so I am accepted by the fans and included in all the back slapping when Nigeria wins. Make the mistake of ordering a steak sandwich (marinated? for how long and in what?) and while I am eating this Sam turns up with his friend Dan. On hearing that we have not gone out for a drink with Adi, he offers to take us to hear some music in a bar tomorrow night. I’m well up for this.


To market, to market…

January 28, 2006

Jonathan, who’s invited us for dinner at his place tomorrow night, has offered to take Duncan and me to the market this morning and to an art gallery this afternoon. A text from Duncan first thing tells me he has a blinding headache and will have to take a pass on the morning’s outing.

Jonathan collects me, heading first for his home, an apartment five minutes’ walk from the hotel, as he needs to pick up Selma and give her a ride to the UN office. This turns out to be a fortress like edifice set well apart from any other buildings.

Abuja market

Abuja market

The market is huge. We head first to the produce section, pausing to hire one of the many barrow boys who follow you around, collecting your purchases. In its heyday I don’t imagine Covent Garden could have competed with the size and variety of food on offer. After haggling over various fruit and veg purchases, we head off to buy wine and then to fetch some beer, sold in crates at a huge depot. Guinness, I’ve discovered, is surprisingly popular and manufactured under license in Nigeria. Too bloody heavy for me in this temperature. I’ll stick with the lager.

After all of this is packed in the car it’s time for my search: CDs and fabric. Femi Kuti is top of the CD list, but I also have some recommendations from Godwin to track down. I leave with more than I’d planned to buy, paying more than I’d intended, but what the hell, they’re only two quid each. If a couple are duds, no problem. The fabric is more of a challenge. No sight of any of the wonderful floral prints I’d admired in the north. Closest I get is actually curtain fabric. Get the guy down from 450 naira a yard to 350, but still isn’t what I had in mind, so we try a few other places. Success at the last one. Not a floral print, but a vibrant black on crimson red tie dye. The woman running the stall wants 2800 naira for six yards. Too much I say. Get her down to 2400 which Jonathan later tells me is a successful haggle. God knows what I’ll do with it, but it’s beautiful.

The gallery in the afternoon is interesting. It’s one of several crafts workshops set up by a southern female chief named Nike where young people learn to paint, sculpt, dye and work with fabric. We get a demonstration of how indigo dye is made. For some reason I’d always thought it was based on octopus excretion (wonder what that colour is?), but no it’s from the indigo plant. The only thing I can afford are the 200 naira key chains. I buy three.

Duncan, who’s head has also precluded the afternoon outing, is feeling a bit better but sensibly decides that live music is probably not the answer to the problem.

Blake’s Most Excellent Bar

Blake’s Most Excellent Bar

Sam and Dan collect me about nine and we head to Blake’s Most Excellent Bar. It is indeed most excellent, an outdoor bar with a live band playing a fantastic jazz/reggae/ska mix. A variety of singers take turns at the mike, doing everything from James Brown and Tina Turner to Bob Marley to Nigerian rap. I am enchanted and even get a few dances in. Sam tells me I’m a good dancer. Maybe he’s just being polite, but I still take it as a compliment.


Night of the living ex-pats

January 29, 2006

We’ve been asked to give a talk about our trip at the staff meeting tomorrow morning, so I spend a good chunk of the day putting the photos we have into a Power Point presentation. Have discovered that the only plug in my room which will actually power the computer is the one for the fridge, so have to keep swapping them back and forth.

The big news on CNN (between interminable reports on Davos) is the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections. The Yanks are appalled. Democracy is all very well and good, but not when you don’t like the outcome.

Dinner at Jonathan’s tonight. A very pleasant, but for me somewhat disturbing evening.

The guests are all white ex-pats, mostly colleagues of Selma’s from the UN. Ron is there, as is a delightful man named Edmund who had worked as a country programme auditor for WaterAid for some years but is now working with the UN Development Programme in Abuja.

I discover that UN staff aren’t allowed to go to some of the areas I’ve just visited. Again, glad to find this out after the fact. As they sit on the terrace discussing tennis games and other ex-pat activities it all seems just a tab too cosy and colonial for me, especially when Paul, Jonathan and Selma’s black factotum, serves dinner. (I know he’s doing a job and getting paid for it, but still…) I’m not sure what it says about me, but I know I felt more comfortable and enjoyed myself more at Blake’s last night with Sam and Dan or hanging out in the Peace Guest House garden with Godwin and Gimba.

I cannot believe that after a fortnight of slathering mozzie repellent all over myself, successfully avoiding getting bitten once, having taken Jonathan at his word that there is no problem in Abuja, I got bitten seven times this evening, sitting on his terrace. Let’s hope they weren’t malarial mosquitoes and that the Malarone is working.


Plotting my return

January 30, 2006

An e-mail from the office in London this morning. I thought we were all set to do a press trip to Malawi in early March with Rory Carroll from the Guardian, but he’s cancelled on us.

Paul wants to know if I’ve been anywhere in Nigeria that would merit a press visit. The answer is, of course, yes.

I’d love to take a journo to Fikayi (must remember to get some girlie tops, wear some jewellery and possibly even get my ears pierced before I return) and to Takkas (hurrah! possible return to Peace Guest House). I think my mate Antony at the Observer might be interested, especially if he could combine it with a more generic piece on Nigeria. Turns out Bankole used to work in the President’s office, so could easily facilitate some interviews with government officials. All sounds decidedly possible.

Before I left Paul told me that he would not have picked Nigeria for my first trip to an African country and I can understand why. Compared to Ghana and many of the other countries where we operate, Nigeria really is a mess, but I also suspect that, like other historic firsts, you always have a soft spot for the first African country you visit.

Fingers crossed that I will be back soon.


Fond farewell

January 31, 2006

Kept awake half the night by bloody mozzie bites which felt as if they were on fire. Bloody Jonathan bloody no mozzie problem in Abuja. I get the driver to stop at a pharmacy to pick up some antihistamines and lotion.

Lunch with Bankole at the British Council’s roof terrace restaurant. We finally do the interview and then have a really good chat about promoting WaterAid and its issues in Nigeria. He’s asked me to have a read through the five year plan. It’s very ambitious, but includes no public component. We bounce around various ideas, including approaching some rap groups and talking to some filmmakers. (There is, apparently, a Nollywood emerging in Nigeria which has a huge direct to DVD film industry, the products of which are in high demand all over Africa.) When I suggest that Unilever might be approached for some assistance, his eyes light up and he tells me that Unilever sponsors ‘Super Story’, the most popular programme in Nigeria (the one they’d tried to watch when we were in Bauchi) which is about average family life in Nigeria. Obviously this is a natural place to pitch. He’s very excited about the idea and so am I. I want to put together a comms strategy for all the country programmes incorporating non-traditional methods just like this. So Bankole is going to be my willing guinea pig. If he is successful we can put together a plan for all the other offices. Makes me feel as if I’ve earned my trip.

Sam offers to take Duncan, Edmond (who’s moved from the Hilton to the Rockview) and me out tonight, our last night in Nigeria. Before that he is meeting up with some friends to watch the third Nigeria match in the Africa Nations Cup. I have dinner and watch the match in the hotel bar. Again I am the only woman in the bar, although this time there are a couple of white men. Very nail biting with Nigeria down 1-0 at one point, but they come back with two goals and the bar erupts with celebration.

Sam and his friends arrive. He suggests a club. Is it indoors, I ask. Yes, he tells me. No, I say. Tonight is my last night to sit outside for months and I’m not going to spend it inside a club. So we go off to the Paradise Hotel, which has a reggae band playing by the pool. The singer tries to get us to take a turn at the mike. Edmund does actually sing a couple of lines, surprisingly well (turns out he’s in a choir at home), Duncan speaks rather than sings a few words. I flat out refuse.

Back at the hotel, bag packed and alarm call booked in five hours for our flight to London in the morning. Nigeria hasn’t been exactly what I expected (although now I’m not sure what that was), but it has been fantastic. Certainly it’s a challenging country compared to others in Africa and the ingrained corruption makes you want to weep, but, as Bankole said earlier today, things are changing. Corrupt police and elected officials are actually being arrested, put on trial, pilfered money seized. It is something most people could not have imagined happening just a few years ago and there is a new optimism.

God, I hope I can come back to watch it unfold. Besides, I need to check up on Suzanne’s rooster.


From → Nigeria

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: