Tuesday, 13 December 2011

On Coming Home

We have been back home in the UK for a few days now. Even as we were on the plane I was silently mulling over the past two years' journey with VSO (the TVscreen in front of me didn't work so I couldn't watch Return to the Planet of the Apes or Winnie the Pooh!).  And quite a journey it has been. It is hard to imagine going back to my old life - at least for the moment. Being jobless and homeless kind of focuses things for a while and will occupy our daily activities for the next few weeks and days - that and acquiring some warm clothing!
On the first night I lay in bed, engine noise still filling my head, and it was so quiet - it was as if everybody had got up and left - no traffic noise, no goats, no calls to prayer, no Radio Kwara. The following morning we had a lie in until 7am - the first time for many months that we had not been up before dawn.
I have a curious feeling that I have outgrown my former working life and have no desire to go back to it. What will replace it remains to be seen but I would not rule out other placements overseas provided they are short term.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Pre- departure reflection

A pre-departure reflection:

Nigeria’s greatest asset is not its oil but its people and to them I would like to pay the following tribute by acknowledging what they have taught me:

· The importance of every day greetings and courtesies in forming and maintaining good personal relationships;

      · That if you do not have, don’t worry about it – improvise or just do without – you’ll live!

· Humility – the humility that believes that you will cope with life’s challenges – that God will provide, and if he does not, it will be for a reason;

· Not to winge and moan about your lot – there are people worse off especially here;

· That formal education is not the complete answer to your life chances – that there are many skilled people even amongst the illiterate poor who have remarkable talents that are under-appreciated.

· That traditional society lies just beneath the surface and will occasionally erupt through to reveal a completely different set of mores, beliefs and customs that may be at odds with ‘recognised’ practices and with one’s own perceptions of reality. This is a bit disconcerting to sat the least, as with ritualistic killings, but has made me think and reappraise my own position as a westerner coming here to introduce what we perceive to be ‘better ways’ .
      I still find it hard to believe that there are people here who believe that, if you pick up money dropped on the street, you will turn into a yam!

· That women in Africa work extremely hard – far harder than most men – and in our terms get a raw deal – they deserve our respect for their resilience.

· The extent to which corruption of all sorts impacts negatively on the poor who ultimately have to bear the load;

· Being depressed is something of a luxury that the poor can’t afford;

· The extent to which some of those with power and influence couldn’t give a damn about ordinary citizens , have no conscience about malpractice and will rip them off whenever possible, often pocketing obscene amounts of money in the process.

· That in spite of the above, people generally just get on with their lives as best they can and hope that better leaders will emerge eventually.

· That what truly matters is people and values – not possessions or power or status. I have tried in all the schools and colleges I have been to, to make students and teachers appreciate how important the job of a teacher is to the future of their country, always remembering the young girl who said to me that ‘I love Nigeria, but Nigeria does not love me!’

For me, I will take away many memories and I feel as though I have been changed as a person through my experiences and by my acquaintances – hopefully for the better. Returning to the UK at Christmas with all the excess and nonsense is going to be a mighty challenge - one I am not looking forward to but I guess I have got to confront – without offending family and friends in the process. How do I explain to them a position which is outside their terms of reference without coming across as moralising, patronising, a kill-joy, holier-than thou?

May be Funmi is right – perhaps I should just stay here – at least until its all over!!

50 Things I’ll miss about Nigeria

The end of my placement in Nigeria is looming large. I have of course, been reflecting on  the time I have spent here and what I will/will not miss.

So here it is……      50 Things I’ll miss about Nigeria

1.       Slow graceful herds of white cattle grazing the undergrowth under the casual gaze of their herdsman who may/may not be peeing by the roadside as you drive past.

2.       Careering down the road to Oro in the Kia with the crooning Don Williams on the CD player actually, this belongs in my next list, I think – after a few dozen such trips.

3.       The genuinely warm greetings and wide smiles wherever you go – something we have lost.

4.       The synchronised head-turning of okada driver and pillion(s) as they  speed  past us.

5.       The courtesy and greetings of school children and their desperate desire to carry my bag.

6.       Small children in Old Cemetry Road running to give us high/low 5’s – and then you realise your hand is a bit slimy!

7.       Abdullahi the gate man, always glad to see me and ask where I am going today – even though the answer is always the same.

8.       Gbenga washing his uncle’s car outside our bedroom window at 5.30 every morning – who needs an alarm clock!

9.       Goats – everywhere, sporting the bit of rag/plastic bag that indicates their owner.

10.   The fantastic wet season electric storms.

11.   Black kites circling overhead at the Kwara hotel, viewing the oyibos in the pool and wondering if they are edible.

12.   The girls of Pakata school in their lemon and lime uniforms, waving,  calling out ‘Mr Lea!’ and coming into my office for chats.

13.   My training sessions with the teachers – usually appreciative, if there is food .

14.   Rough bus journeys to Offa  on the second worst road in the world and the unexpected – always!

15.   My walk from Offa central mosque to Moremi  High School and the people I met.

16.   The okada ride back to the bus garage (a shack) with no helmet- reminder of my youth when I had hair to feel the wind in.

17.   The relief and delight when NEPA comes back on and the water pump works – however briefly!

18.   Watching Premier League football live on satellite TV at Sue’s, trying to fend off the kids.

19.   Playing with Meg and Myesha  - full of fun and creative games.

20.   The spectacular faded grandeur of the big houses in Oro, some with a tomb in the front.

21.   The rare beauty spot – Water View and Sobi Hill – nice relaxing places to visit.

22.   Sunday morning drums and choir from ‘Powerful Prayer’ church – actually, another for the next list!  But I will sort of miss it, painting my Sunday mornings.

23.   The deep faith and belief that any good that befalls people is down to God.

24.   The fresh breeze that precedes a storm and the sound of torrential rain flowing off the roof.

25.   Heavily armed roadside police in knitted tank tops, grinning widely as they greet us – never did manage to acquire one.

26.   Being in the classroom – a real privilege.

27.   The unsubtle and simple sense of humour – so easy to make people laugh.

28.   The kids at Hope orphanage playing with toys and just wanting to be picked up.

29.   Discovering wine in a supermarket – and having enough money to buy it!

30.   Brightly painted roofs in primary colours

31.   Old trucks from the UK still with the names of their previous owners on the doors.

32.   Udofia, Elijah, James, Emmanuel  and Francis, our ever-cheerful, friendly  guards, always grateful for their tea and toast/biscuits/jollof rice.

33.   The neighbours singing ‘hymn book’ at 5.00 every morning – just prior to the car washing ceremony.

34.   Anna and Elizabeth and their mum in the roadside shack, and baby Bridget staring at me with terror just beneath the surface!

35.   The vegetable boy who supports Chelsea - and always overcharges us –but with a smile.

36.   Baba’s handshakes – never sure where my thumb should be but glad when I realise it is still attached!

37.   Trying to work out if African Magic is a great spoof or just chronic script-writing and acting.

38.   Oro Campus on a hill overlooking the town and surrounding bush savanna – quite a view!

39.   The chilly, foggy mornings during harmatan – refreshing.

40.   The cricket match that never was – but the training was fun.

41.   Writing my Blog and composing poems of Nigeria  – it has kept me sane and my mind active.

42.   Delivering workshops and preparing presentations – tiring but rewarding.

43.   Sunlight bursting into our dark apartment when I unlock in the morning – like a release from prison.

44.   Akara  and  sweetcorn takeaways for mid-morning snacks.

45.   The neighbours in our street, so welcoming and cheerful.

46.   Funmi’s opinionated chats and interesting takes on life!

47.   The joy people show when they take to your sense of humour.

48.   The ramshackle, dilapidated state of things which is rather endearing somehow.

49.   The remarkable sights you see on an okada – six people is my record (two on the petrol tank and a baby strapped to the back of its mother;  goat, enamel bath, plate glass window, cow’s head complete with horns, threatening to disembowel any pedestrians .

50.    Having the time just to think about things – situations, priorities, values.

51.  (- OK Maths was never a strong point). The SSIT - never in the field of educational training has so much hilarity been enjoyed by so many so often. I will miss them all greatly.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


I was travelling – very slowly- by car in Ilorin today when we were passed – almost equally slowly by a minibus full of people. On the side of the bus were painted the words ‘Saints on the Move’. To me it did not look much like the sort of tour bus that staff and players of either St Helens rugby league club or Southampton FC (nickname the 'Saints') would have chosen – unless those clubs were in dire financial straits. There were no  shining haloes, no cherubs strapped into their seat belts, no feathered angel wings nor wizened old men who looked as though they had come to a gruesome end  amongst the luggage bulging out of the back of the bus. As the bus eased past, it read across the back window: ’Missionary bus’.  I may be misguided or over-sensitive, but I feel somewhat uncomfortable about a level of missionary zeal that declares its own proselytizers to be saints! 
So who are these wondrous people, I wondered? They might indeed have been 'chosen' as their line of traffic seemed to be progressing a lot faster than ours, but I guess I'll never know.
It reminded me of that other window sign I saw that stated  ‘Jesus Saves’ and then underneath the team badge, ‘Chelsea’. What chance do the rest of the Premier  League stand if Chelsea have the Almighty playing for them.  In previous blogs I may have hinted at the observation that in general Nigerians are deeply religious – not necessarily spiritual.

My car journey ended in the office car park but before leaving the vehicle I was quizzed by the driver as to my own religious persuasion. He was greatly surprised by my reply and ended up laughing uncontrollably at my suggestion that some people don’t take the Bible literally and that heaven doesn’t lie somewhere high above the clouds.  VSO warns against getting involved in deep religious discussion, especially given current tensions in the country,  but I didn’t initiate this conversation and each answer I gave to his barrage of questions only seemed to produce more mirth and disbelief. 

There has been a spate of suspected ritualistic killings in Ilorin recently; although nothing has been reported in the local press, most people know about it by word of mouth and there is a feeling of unease and tension when you try to find out more. We know there have been four rapes/ murders in Sabo-Oke which does not make us feel too good and has confirmed to us that we are doing the right thing in leaving next month.  I briefly discussed this with my driver but his grim experssion told me not to go there so I just put up with his remaining questions : Was I a Christian? Did I believe in Allah? I answered ‘Yes’ to both. In the stunned silence that followed I said ‘Odabo’ (goodbye) and made my getaway.

For many people their faith is literal and unwavering and any attempt to follow through with a conversation on say, gay rights will result in quotes from the Bible and a complete, assured and unalterable belief  in their own position which leaves you a bit non-plussed. Anyway, in a country such as this, to have a firm belief in a higher power must be a great comfort - and I don't mean the government!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011



The Durbar festival dates back hundreds of years to the time when the Emirate (state) in the north of N igeria used horses in warfare. During this period, each town, district, and nobility household was expected to contribute a regiment to the defense of the Emirate. Once or twice a year, the Emirate military chiefs invited the var­ious regiments for a Durbar (military parade) for the Emir and his chiefs.

During the parade, regiments would showcase their horsemanship, their preparedness for war, and their loyalty to the Emirate – but sadly not their poo-picking skills. Today, Durbar has become a festival celebrated in honour of vis­iting Heads of State and at the culmination of the two great Muslim festivals, Id-el Fitri (commemorating the end of the holy month of Ramadan) and Ide-el Kabir (commemorating Prophet Ibrahim sacrificing a ram instead of his son, which his Mrs Ibrahim must have been dead pleased about – not to mention the son).

We recently attended the Durbar  festival in the Jigawa town of Dutse, perhaps not  the most mag­nificent or  spectacular in Nigeria, but still highly impressive and entertaining. Id-el-Kabir, or Sallah Day, begins with prayers out­side town, followed by processions of horsemen through the streets. Each surrounding village, town, district, and noble house is represented with riders and horses dressed magnificently. Last  to arrive, apart from the security jeep, is the Emir and his splendid retinue of guards and fan-wavers; they make their way to the front of the palace to receive the jahi, or homage, of their subjects. The whole  fanfare is intensified by drumming, dancing and singing – oh! and yes, the guy wearing shades and listening to his i-pod while rollerskating through the procession – a nod to the 21st century or just a local teenager getting in on the act?.

We did a lot of snapping and videoing and then noticed that at times the procession stopped so that those on horseback could take snaps of us!

In Katsina the festival begins with each group racing across the square at full gallop, swords glinting in the sun. They pass just few feet away from the Emir, then stop abruptly to salute him with raised swords. Failing to stop abruptly with raised sword would probably result in a life being stopped abruptly.

 After the celebrations, the Emir and his chiefs retire to the palace probably to watch African Magic or a Premier League Match (probably Chelsea), and have a nice cup of tea and a Hob Nob before going to bed.
 I was virtually instructed by a mobile TV crew  to be interviewed as the bature (white man –an old one at that) on the street. I spoke of the event in wondrous terms. ‘How would I set about advertising the event overseas?’ I was asked.  ‘Well actually that is not my job, thankfully, but before you can even begin to think in terms of mass tourism you’ve got to……’(don’t get me started!)

Monday, 14 November 2011


The term ‘Almajirai’ is a word borrowed from Arabic  that refers to  people who leave their home in search of knowledge of the Islamic religion. It is an ancient  tradition in northern Nigeria where is has acquired a rather sinister reputation founded on exploitation and injustice bordering on cruelty.

I first heard of the Almajirai during our recent stay in Jigawa when we were shown a DVD produced by Almajirai children themselves. For the Almajirai have had no voice. They are boys, usually, who , from the age of 4 or 5 and up to twenty, are taken by their parents away from the family home – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, to be placed in the home of a ‘mallam’ or Islamic teacher for the purpose of learning the Koran by heart in Koranic schools.

Perhaps a dozen boys will be provided with sleeping accommodation – no more than a mat and floor space in a room crowded with others. They receive no food and have no option but to beg .
Every morning they are sharply woken by an older boy wielding a whip or stick and quickly flow out into the street with their begging bowls where they are abandoned to fend for themselves. Scavenging from waste bins behind hotels and restaurants or in compounds is common, as is roadside  and door-to-door begging, and scrabbling round in markets for damaged or rotten fruit..
The entire system is unregulated and the mallams untrained, some running their schools in a ‘faginesque’ way, praising those who return with useful items and beating those who do not. There is a common belief among mallams that the more beatings they mete out, the more rewards they will receive in life, which is no consolation to the boys who, after an hour or two of begging must return to the school for prayer and lessons i.e. committing chapters of the Koran to memory – the school, often a shack made or rusted corrugated iron sheets, or a dark musty room in an abandoned building.  Several hours a day are spent reading and chanting the scriptures, sitting cross-legged, unkempt, unwashed with a small slate or torn scrap of paper with Koranic verse scribbled on it. Sometimes one-to-one with the mallam who will gauge their progress and administer punishment to those who do not meet expectations.  The threat of 100 lashes if they fail to recite a chapter accurately would, I imagine, focus minds intensely. The regime is harsh and unrelenting. An Almajiri boy has no rights and receives no respect; they are usually seem as a nuisance. Occasionally an Almajiri may strike lucky and be given alms or be taken in by a family to run errands, as a house boy or may get a job as a shop assistant but wherever they go, they are viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

Eventually, having graduated from the school, the boys are sent back to their families having had no useful education and completely unemployable. Having struggled to exist in the fast lane of urban life, they find it hard to settle back into rural life, estranged from their parents and siblings  and so drift back to the cities where their prospects are bleak – often a life of crime, or being the victims of crime.
In Kano alone it is estimated that there are 1.2 million Almajiri children. Some had been groomed by mallams as foot soldiers in religious clashes and sent to fight, and a real fear exists that Almajirai will be the breeding ground for future terrorists and suicide  bombers.

The State governments concerned pay only lip service to addressing the problem although there have been pilot programmes to try to integrate the Koranic schools into the state system.

So why do parents put their children through this suffering?  Some believe they will reap rewards in the after-life; others believe the official line that the children are being taught a true understanding of poverty and humility – I guess they are also learning about injustice, cruelty, intolerance and bigotry along the way too. Some families clearly see that off-loading children in this way means financial savings to impoverished households                                  
In Sokoto, VSO has provided funds for a shelter for Almajiri boys, but with an estimated 8 million of them in Nigeria, Niger and Chad, the problem seems only capable of being properly addressed at federal level.
The DVD, produced with help from the Goethe Institute in Kano, is the daily life story of Almajirai in their own words and according to their own direction and acting. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves a wide audience

Friday, 11 November 2011


(For all of us who were privileged to enjoy  Lucy and Lawrence’s hospitality in Jigawa this Sallah).


I rise and greet the half-light at Imam’s strident call

And wonder if my shirt and socks can last another day;

I unwind frustrations of an arid road as I sip and

Savour tea and oranges from afar

And  slowly  slowly slide

Into your deep cool shade.

I sit beside a well beyond the breakfast hour

Watching the gecko and the butterfly,

Trying to glimpse the small small bird with purple  voice

Through the mango-filtered light.

The dappled sun-splashed floor soaks up tales

And stories that come all the way from Ireland

As skills are shared  and lives we seek to change, and

With fine food and beer come all the way from Holland

We forget the hour but

I welcome that the day yet has time for me

To lie in hammock sway

Toasting tranquillity and companionship,

Gifts to us from Africa,

Till the night-birds song

With time of day forgot

And, for the moment , no reason to care

And every reason to belong.

Thanks to all for a fab experience


Wednesday, 2 November 2011


Just a quick note to let you know, if you have read the blog that is called  This Blog Contains Disturbing Material', that the head teacher at Pakata Girls School has declared that corporal punishment will no longer be tolerated in her school. Sincere congratulations, Mrs Y. - a bold step into the unknown for you and your staff and a huge forward step. I trust you are not contemplating capital punishment to replace it and that the information on Assertive Discipline proved to be useful bedtime reading - Ekuse!

Monday, 31 October 2011

Kite Flying for Beginners

             KITE FLYING for BEGINNERS

Kite flies high over Sunday morning
Bright spirit of the air
Set free by thoughts and hands and
A flowing breeze like maiden’s hair
String bowed, seemingly disconnected
Vulnerable, inadequate,
For all its rough fixings it rides the wild wind
My energy conducted high into its soul.
I keep it there for all to see
This crest bearing flag that I would  fly on
When  zest and skill is spent, beyond my  leaving,
Higher, avoiding the tangled cliff
Catching the eye of the sky gazer,
Cloud dreamer, truth worshshipper.
I can show you how it flies, and say
‘Take it from me children; take it my friends;
Feel the pull of it
Feel the immunity from darkening skies;
Run with the power of it;
Nurse it as far as the string will allow,
And when other kites appear,
And when you are happy to do so
Simply let go!’  

Friday, 28 October 2011

Hallowe’en Special!

As we are approaching a ghostly time of year with the possibility of strange phenomena occurring along Old Cemetry Road (Yes, I know you don’t spell it like that really, but they do here!), I thought I would describe what I know about ‘ghost workers’ in Nigeria – I haven’t found a picture of one or even any ectoplasm but according to our neighbour they really exist!

In a recent army pensioners audit they found MORE than 24,000 ghost pensioners . A Minister said that August salary and pensions would be paid to staff  through a pay  parade, and that whoever refuses to show up in person would be considered a"ghost worker."

Following a manpower verification exercise conducted by the Federal Government, personnel in the employ of the government were found to be 215,000 not the 255,000 which were in the official records. This leaves a difference of 40,000 names, which in all likelihood, are non-existent. The Lagos State government has similarly announced the discovery of 4,000 ghosts in its "employ".

No wonder a minister once estimated that ghost workers may be costing Nigeria as much as £21 million ( N7 billion ) per month - or N84 billion annually !

Imagine how many teachers or medical workers you could properly employ with that, or how many km of roads you could rebuild!

I don't know whether any one of you  would want to  run your own home and be paying a ghost worker as well; neither can I imagine you would want to run your own private business and be paying  extra ghost workers! In fact, you would be happy for those to be "workers," and yet be "ghosts", because ghosts don't need food, and hence don't need  to be paid!

But not in Nigeria: "ghosts" even seem to need more housing and food than humans. At the rate we are going, there may be more ghost workers than human workers in Nigeria. And those ghosts may also soon have their benefits "monetized" - including their housing allowances, despite the fact that ghosts live in "Iroko" and a few other kinds of trees, according to Yoruba traditional beliefs.

It would be putting something back into the system, 'abi?',  if all the ghosts that may be considering making an appearance this Halloween, actually did some work for once – they could clean up the old ‘cemetry’ for a start – charity beginning at home? (Especially as this weekend .there is the monthly Environment Day.) And then perhaps they could give our guards a break and become ghost-vigilantes for the night – and scare the sh** out of any night prowlers - they'd get my vote, providing they didn't want paying!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

'Smooth Generator'

Do you remember Sade Adu, the Nigerian-born, British-raised smooth-jazz singer  who rose to prominence in  the 1980’s? Her breakthrough song ‘Smooth Operator’ was playing on Radio Kwara this morning – and broken off for the broadcast of daily words of wisdom called ‘Moment of Truth’  - always worth a listen if you’re feeling down!

Anyway, as Sade was singing her heart out in a smooth, mellow way, and in my mind's eye looking gorgeous,  I started to hum along. It wasn’t long before we got to the eponymous refrain, and whether subconsciously or not, I found myself singing ‘Smooth Generator’ as the gen next door fired into action.
So, after a little internal chuckle, I thought I would re-write a few lyrics to go with the tune – sing along if you know it! Being of  Yoruba cultural background, I hope Sade would relate to it.  
Here goes: .....
Fading light……. fading sight……..
Got to get the cooking done before its night ……….

But  no more sweat …………,  we had to go down Taiwo Road,
Had to get…….  (ourselves a)

Tiger Generator: Nigerian Electrical Power SourceSmooth Generator……

Smooth Generator……..

Dusk to dawn and constantly thrumming, power control……..

Neighbours knock and admire the humming,
Give  a roll……..                                                (Nigerian expression!)

Charge your cell phone, fire up your laptop,
Check email…….

Keeping the air cool, finding the fridge cool,
We’re OK…..

We gotta.....

Smooth Generator   (repeat3x)                                                            

After a while, noise getting tiresome,
But its all right…

Close the windows, see how the fan blows
 – awesome sight!

Room to room and into the kitchen,
Constant light……

Top up the fuel tank, pull on the rope crank,
Power all night….

(When you got a ...)

Smooth Generator (repeat 3x or as many times as you like).          He!  He!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

One Year On

Today marks the anniversary of our first arrival in Nigeria, a milestone that at times we thought we would never reach. Has it been worth it, giving up 1/60th of my life for? Giving up time from a relatively trouble-free existence to try to make a miniscule difference, improvement, indeed, to the lives of a few of the children out here? I remember  thinking when we first applied for VSO that I would be prepared to go anywhere in the world – except Nigeria! There had been , and still is a lot of bad press concerning this country, most of it well deserved on the political front. I knew Nigeria was going to be a tough place to live and work in but I have got to say that yes, it has been worth it, not least because it has taught me the fundamental truth that the vast majority of people  here as elsewhere in the economically developing world are decent, hard-working, law abiding people who want  little more than a fair deal in life, but who are frequently let down by those who are supposedly  elected to lead them. This is where anger  and frustration set in and you come to the conclusion – well I have – that people are looking for any small advantage, any hint of an opening that will enable them to move on and hopefully upwards. This is why we are constantly asked for money, asked what I have got for them, asked if I will sponsor them, asked for my pen, for my shoes, asked if I will take them with me when I return. And a year on, they know the answer I will give  but they ask anyway. That corruption is ingrained here is beyond doubt as is the fact that is descends from the top. Nobody is under any illusion. Posters  printed and presumably sanctioned by State or Federal organisations  exhort people to say no to corruption and malpractice whilst in all probability their fingers are as coated in guilt as anybody else’s.
But as you travel  and you meet people and listen to them telling you their stories and their hopes and dreams, you come to know and respect them, and yes to love them in the way that you earnestly want them to prosper and for the children to grow happily and have a fraction of the life chances  that children in the UK spurn.

So, yes it has been worth it – even the bad times – and they’re probably not over yet!

Monday, 17 October 2011


Or Osogbo, as it is spelt in Yoruba but with a little dot under the s signifying a ‘sh’ sound (lesson over).
Our bus driver to Osogbo (I would spell it the English way but I'm trying to cut down on the paper work!) drove like somebody possessed. He kept his hand on the horn for most of the three hour trip and it burbled rather cutely as we flew past most other road users, slowing down only where road conditions absolutely demanded it and where highwaymen - sorry - road police - also demanded it. Crossing from Kwara State to Osun State, you detect a slightly less poverty-stricken situation and the roads improve greatly. More hilly, more forested, more banana and the vegetation generally more lush.
It was looking  doubtful that we would actually get to see much of the Sacred Forest as we clambered out of the bus after a three hour, bum-numbing, knee-knocking, white knuckle ride from Ilorin. It was just starting to rain. The sky was literally black – well deep purple and we hurriedly and rashly grabbed a taxi just as the entire contents of huge bulbous clouds  tipped onto us as if they had been ripped apart. We were charged well over the odds for a 20 minute taxi ride through rivers of water to our hotel on the far side of town. The driver’s wipers were not working, needless to say, so as well as not being able to see the road clearly, he was continually wiping his misted up windscreen with every chance he would press it out completely, so crazed was it. The window on my side of the back seat wouldn’t shut properly and rain sprayed in on me for the entire trip. By the time we got to the Leisure Springs Hotel my right side was completely  soaked and my left completely dry.

We had arranged for Daniel , an artist living in Osogbo, to show us the sights and he turned up with his friend and sculptor Baba, one the rain had eased a little. Both guys are based at a workshop and gallery down the road from the hotel which we walked to  - just to absorb a bit more moisture.

The workshop was very interesting and we got to speak with the batik workers who willingly discussed their techniques and designs; two of them were Liverpool supporters which always engenders comradely feelings.

Baba sculpts in various media and is responsible for the monstrous two-fingered gesture in cement that adorns one of the roundabouts in Offa – see picture; I think this is hideous but he is very proud of it . There is another roundabout in Offa with a cement peacock on it;  I asked if this was his work also and he innocently said no – the commission was given to somebody else! I’m not surprised!  His work in wood, however is superb and has attracted interest from British, Dutch and Swiss visitors .
We hopped another taxi and were soon dropped  outside the gates to the Sacred Forest of Osogbo, a ‘tourist’ spot mentioned in all the guide books, We were guided round the forest by a ……guide! This is a UNESCO world heritage site and had enormous steel gates to keep the goats out to prove it. This is a place of deep meaning and reverence for those who still adhere to the traditional Yoruba religion – apparently, quite a sizeable proportion of the Yoruba population, though they keep their options open, mixing it with Christianity and Islam where convenient.
The rain had abated by now  and the humid forest with its quirky Tolkienesque  14th century figures and shrines was wreathed in a light mist.  Droplets fell on us from the high canopy  and the mosses and lower  leaves oozed water. Monkeys scampered up the tree trunks to get a better look at us as we walked down the path towards the sacred river where on festival day you might catch a glimpse of the River Goddess if you are lucky – and just in case you are not lucky or its not festival day, there is a stone statue of her midstream as the brown waters  swirled round her knees – appearing much like something Anthony Gormley would have produced. There was a spiritual feel to the place, the prayers and offerings of two women echoed into the mist. For a small donation from us they offered up prayers on our behalf to the gods of river and forest – possibly asking for their protection of us in the bus going home – well, it seems to have worked!  

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Road to Jebba

I did think of calling this blog 'The Road to Heaven' but thought this might be a bit unfair on that particular route and certainly be misleading. I would not be at all surprised however,  to learn that many a motorist has met his maker on this stretch of road. They say the road to heaven is paved with good intentions -well there is little evidence of paving on this route, and even less of any intention on anybody's part to do anything about it.
 We were travelling to Jebba in order to monitor the procedures for delivering the MLA in primary schools. Jebba is in the north of the State near the River Niger, about 2 hours drive out of Ilorin. Our return was along the main highway that connects Kano with Lagos which you will appreciate is horrendously busy and choked with dust, fumes, traffic, people and police/road safety looking for the main chance. Nevertheless, there are still goats that seem to be able to find something to nibble in the middle of the carriageway - even though if they turned round they would see great quantities of roadside plants there for the nibbling; they are fearless in the face of  traffic and laugh at the threat to their existence posed by heavy trucks bearing down on them!
Almost every other vehicle on the Jebba road was a tanker or artic and the carcasses or broken bodies of their fellows were strewn along the way about every 100 metres or so -  not surprising given the state of the road:  potholes like bomb craters, the depth of Olympic swimming pools and three or four 'lanes' of traffic swerving and darting all over the road to avoid them. Our driver, Sam, was performing heroics continually, keeping us on the road and going in a forward direction. Broken down vehicles in mid-stream caused havoc and we saw one huge truck lying on its side, probably overloaded, having narrowly missing a line of wooden shacks and stalls as it toppled.

 As we lurched past the driver was clambering out of his door - now more like a hatch in a submarine, looking rather shaken. It was notable as we entered Jebba the number of roadside workshops dealing in vehicle repair! - and the number of stalls selling reclaimed vehicle parts. The only sign of road repairs even being thought about was a gang of tattered, sweaty guys throwing rocks - or rather a rock -  into a pothole and grinning widely to us as we passed.
Three times we were stopped by the LGA traffic patrol guys who don't seem to have a function apart from harrassing commercial vehicles hoping for 'donations'. Sam was told his licence was a forgery - even though it was issued by a recognised licensing authority - but shortly after we were allowed to proceed nevertheless!
Presumably nothing of a fragile nature gets transported along this road - not successfully, at least.
We saw everything from truckloads of longhorned cattle on the way to meet their maker - one way or another, to mobile mountains of foam mattresses  teetering precariously as their truck plummeted and sank like a ship in a storm.

It was one of these that had over turned - perhaps many of the local people will get a decent night's sleep tonight!

It is now the following day and we were off in the opposite direction to Offa and that much-loved stretch of road beyond Ajasse-Ipo.
Our friend Dory, a French/Lebanese road construction company co-owner, employer of a gang of Italian road workers, told me months ago that his men were working on this very stretch of road and that improvements were imminent. Well, we saw about a 20 metre stretch of road only which showed any evidence of having been resurfaced, apart from a small mountain of rubble dumped hopefully in the road adjacent to several hundred metres worth of road, stripped of all hard surfacing, and no sign of any road workers at all, Italian or otherwise. A hovercraft would have been a more appropriate form of transport along this road today, as after the heavy rains all potholes were brimming and several unwary drivers had wrecklessly and inadvisedly taken the plunge. So, Dory, if you are there, I know the footy season has begun and your Italian guys are probably spending most of the day watching AC Milan by satellite and consuming impressive quantities of  vino rosso, but we and countless others who must use this thoroughfare regularly, would regard it as a great service to the nation if you could get stuck into some serious labour on the Ajasse - Offa Road, and repair all of it :) Thank you! - and when you've done that, howsabout having a go at the Jebba road and earn yourselves an honorary citizenship of Nigeria - or a place in heaven!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Just in Case!

I have been pondering on whether ex-pats  in Africa actually start to develop and display a kind of ‘war-time mentality’ after being here a while. You stop taking anything for granted, assume you can’t get it without a degree of difficulty – like chicken with more than just a thin shred of meat on the bone, more than 5 chips to a portion, beans without the added protein supplement of free-range weevil.

Today we visited a rather splendid private school, Thomas Adewumi College at Oko near Omu-Aran. Driving up the avenue leading towards the main building, past colourful borders, and lawns that resembled the old and famous Wembley turf, was like stepping out of the TARDIS into a calmer, brighter, more disciplined, purposeful environment than I have experienced anywhere else in Nigeria so far – and many other places too! Uniformed gentlemen were trimming hedges, patrolling the campus, collecting litter and dead fronds from the many trees  and flowering plants that made the site seem like an arboretum. The hostels, teaching blocks, chapel, and other buildings were well maintained and spotlessly clean; not a goat in sight, which explains a lot!

The Principal kindly showed us around this oversubscribed, International College where the children of the rich and influential are educated to an impressively high standard, many going on to University in the UK or US. There is a swimming pool and a full medical centre which the outside community may use, equipped with a maternity suite, full operating theatre and its own pharmacy.

After our tour we were treated to lunch in the Principal’s home on the campus. His kitchen boy, for want of a better description, had prepared a delicious chilli con carne and rice  – with real carne! There was still plenty left in the bowls when I had finished my plate and Roy imvited me to a second helping – which I duly did, even though I was fairly full by this time. Not wishing to feel gluttonous, I justified my attack on another bowl by inwardly asserting that it would only go to waste and how long would it be before I tasted food as good as this again?

When we were kids my parents always drilled into us that we should never refuse a meal and always eat everything that was set before you – whether you liked it or not, because you never knew when or where your next meal was coming from.  If we raised objections the next battery of guilt-inducing accusations would be fired at us: ‘Your mum/Aunty Pat has gone to a lot of trouble to cook you this meal ‘ or ‘Children in Africa would give their right arm to have a meal like this’, which begged the response ‘I’ll go and get an envelope then – they can have it!’ This cut no ice with dad – ‘you’ll jolly well sit there till there isn’t a scrap of food on your plate. During the war….(switch off time- can't remember what came next!)

So we sat there and often all the food got eaten – eventually - cold – unless our sitting there prevented something else from happening at the kitchen table – like our homework!

Anyway, back to the question as to the degree of my inherited parsimoniousness.

Never before has a toothpaste tube been required to yield so much of its contents, down to the last possible smear of Colgate or its Nigerian equivalent, Close Up – after all, I never know where my next full bristle load will come from; and I will only spit and rinse when I have felt that my teeth and gums have been scoured sufficiently to extract the maximum benefit from tonight’s centimetre of paste. Ditto for washing up liquid- except that I have not yet been known to drink it! When the almost empty bottle starts blowing raspberries, time to dilute it to eke out a few more washes – beyond the 30 that a full bottle is allegedly capable of delivering.

Ditto for baked beans – always swilled round with a desert spoon of warm, previously boiled water to obtain the last drop of tomato sauce – and woe betide any baked bean that tries to defy capture!

As for tea bags, 3 cups per bag is about my limit –I am not willing to compromise on this Knowles staple – and in any case, after the third cup, the brew looks more like the contents of the washing up bowl – and tastes like it too – trust me , I know! Drying it out first before re-immersing it is not a solution either – it gains an acidy sort of taste – depending on the quality of the initial tea bag, of course!  

Used matches – handy for igniting that second gas burner without advancing the destruction of yet another tree from the fast disappearing Nigerian forests. And while I am on the topic, I reckon I can light four candles per match if NEPA goes off, before scorching my fingers.  

There is a small alp of packaging in our kitchen – ‘just in case it happens to come in’ (voice of my Nan still in my head). I have recently discovered that the ring pull on a soft drinks can makes a serviceable replacement for that completely losable widget that comes with a mosquito coil – better than scorching the varnish or setting fire to last month’s copy of the Winner’s Chapel newsletter – then again…

So, my visual aids workshop for the benefit, hopefully of lecturers and students at Oro College is on the horizon. I am confident that my magpie/squirrel tendencies have enabled me to amass enough low cost/no cost resources to enable them to construct a life-size replica of the great  mosque in Abuja. My parents philosophy lives on, and I’ll keep saving and maybe have that extra portion – just in case!