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!  

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Return to Hope

Yesterday we paid a return visit to Hope orphanage, partly to take some of the toys, books etc, bought with donations from St Mary’s church, Eastham and other benefactors, and partly as a venue for Sharon (Funmi’s wife) to celebrate her birthday. She had expressed a wish to visit Hope and to have a small party there for the kids which was a really nice thought.

Caroline booked the cake which duly arrived – beautifully decorated and sufficiently weighty to suggest it would amply feed the 20 or so kids and their carers. In the car as we set off  I held it on my lap. Within minutes I could feel the blood supply to my legs being cut off . If I had known, I would have worn my green and pink ‘First Choice’ flight socks – perhaps not! I  was rescued from an almost certain attack of DVT  by Sharon herself who wanted to look after her own cake; I was mightily relieved -she has much more substantial knees than me anyway!

So the cake made it  intact, in spite of frequent swerves to avoid other road users and potholes, to be greeted by the wondrous eyes of the children who were well up for devouring the lot.

We spent a couple of hours with them, showing them how to play with their new toys, trying to sort out squabbles and then attempting to mend the toys once they got broken! They got as much enjoyment out of being bounced, twizzed, tickled, thrown and generally man-handled as by playing with the toys.

It is some months since I last saw them and they were thriving - clearly being well cared for by Mrs O and her staff.  Sadly, there have been new admissions – two new babies had arrived – rescued from desperate situations. Baby Gift is almost crawling and the good news is that her young mother has visited her and expressed her wish to have Gift restored to her – such a beautiful, alert little girl – the daughter that is – possibly the mother too!

Mrs O’s dream of having a mini-bus to take the children out has come true, thanks to the donation of a bank, and they have been to school and on visits in it. Hopefully the orphanage will continue to go from strength to strength and we will get the chance to visit again before we go.

As we left Grace, aged 6 was singing a hymn; what a beautiful voice she has – a voice that might never have been heard had it not been for the dream (literally), the vision and the commitment of Mr and Mrs Omolehin.

Independence Day

 Any similarity between the events of today and a popular film of the same name are purely coincidental!

We have been strongly advised to avoid public gatherings of any sort in case we draw attention to ourselves ( as if!) on a potentially volatile day when there are people abroad who would seek to do us harm, or think about doing so having seen us. There is allegedly a high risk of indiscriminate personal abuse or attack from celebrants who may be politically, religiously or alcoholically motivated.

So we can’t travel to see the parades at Ilorin Stadium or jostle with cars, okadas and market traders along Yoruba Road (quel – or is it quelle, dommage – or is it domage!?). We must sadly decline any invitation to the Governor’s House or the State Assembly, and even think twice before venturing out down Old Cemetry Road to the tomato girl.  At the moment – any moment in fact, I have no problem with this – a good day for washing hair, if I had sufficient to occupy me for more than a nano-second.

Actually, my predilection for staying indoors today comes more from  the string of sleepless nights we have had – ever since the vigilantes appeared on the scene. Our sleep has not been so much broken, as shattered, which pretty much describes how we are feeling this morning.

Light and power both went off simultaneously as it happens, at about 10pm last night, which hastened our bedtime. Our night-cap of Hot Chocolate had been a mistake – on a very warm night, with no fans – or even casual admirers! The precise timing and sequence of subsequent events is a bit fuzzy but I know that between flopping down, my temperature at almost fever pitch at 10pm and struggling out from beneath the mosquito net at 6am I only caught a few nuggets of proper sleep.

First came the noise from the bakery  - sounds as of  bursts of a very loud and protracted  fart, with occasional breaks in which the rhythmic shaking of an industrial-sized tambourine can be heard. At this time of night the compound guard dog may or may not be heard – presumably objecting to the racket as much as us. Then come the vehicles to the compound after a night out on the town – or more likely in the church; the associated clanging of the compound gate with all its locks and fixtures,  is a nightly – and indeed daily  occurrence, as  it is repeated any time after 5.30 am when engines are revved in preparation for leaving for the office.

Not long after the first tour of duty of the vigilante brigade was upon us, clanging their metalware while blowing whistles and/or howling. Several groups now seem to operate in this area on adjacent territories. Next, I think came the gunshot. The whole compound shook; any wretched burglar in the vicinity would surely have pooed himself and left a telltale trail all the way back to whatever hole he had crawled out of (I’m not bitter!). Anyway, the gunshot didn’t seem to have disturbed the sleep of the guards, who in true Western style could have been attacked and their throats cut by any invading Red Indians. It did seem to arouse those whose job it is to call the faithful to prayer – and the faithful duly did as they were told – by car.  They got in a bit more howling and whistling before Powerful Praise congregation, presumably also woken by all the noise, kicked off in their usual style with a crescendo of drums, rhythmic chanting and cheering – which set off the dogs again – all this before dawn had even thought of breaking; and when it did, it decided to throw the battering of raindrops on metal roofs and car bonnets into the mix- and why not?! This did seem to arouse the guards who may have been sleeping al fresco as there was almost immediate animated chatter from the direction of their hut before it died away and they just let the rain get on with it.

With a couple of unwelcome dreams thrown in, I have been rather glad of the excuse to go nowhere and do nothing today. Unfortunately, catching up on lost sleep is not an option – the bakery has not yet concluded its business – the good folk of Sabo–Oke still need their daily bread.