Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stories from a different Tropic: Nigeria!

It's Sept 14, 2012 and I'm sitting in the YWG airport about to embark on my long journey to Abuja, Nigeria. It's been awhile since my last post as my opportunity for business travel since Timor in 2009 has been sorely missed. However another project has come around where my skill sets are needed for a short two week stint in the capital of Nigeria: Abuja.

I left on Friday September 14, 2012 from Winnipeg at 2:05pm with legs first to Toronto, then Frankfurt, Germany, and finally a direct flight some 6 hours from Frankfurt to Abuja, the capital of this country of approximately 145 million souls. With only short stops in YYZ and FRA I arrived here at 4pm on Saturday local time (the time zone is the same as Paris or 5 hours ahead. Below is a graphic of my journey from home to where I am now.


Abuja is the capital of Nigeria, and was basically designated some years ago as such and has been built up since – so, at least by Nigerian standards a, new modern city. I have heard different theories but Abuja and surrounding area is approximately 5 million people. By contrast the largest city, Lagos, is approximately 35 million with 34 million of those poor. In Abuja the city skyline dominated by a huge modern church and a huge mosque (with the gold roof) almost across the street.

Like Timor my mind is apprehensive with flying into the unknown, but the magnitude of that apprehension is minimal considering it's only two weeks vs 9 months in Timor. Though I look forward to the challenges that await me and culture shock that will greet me for my first journey to the African continent.
So after a long bout of flying I arrived as scheduled at 4 pm local time on Saturday. After a little hassle at immigration (I missed the guy that I was supposed to meet until he found me waiting for my luggage) he (Dami) quickly whisked me out to my driver contact Befi.

My first impression of Nigerians, at least those lucky enough to travel here, wasn’t good as they push, prod, and otherwise get in front of you to retrieve luggage despite your place in the queue. Given it’s not a large airport it was quickly overcome with our large plane arriving (A330 with 200 odd people on board), and everyone wanting to leave at the same time. Impression number two of Nigerians: very impatient drivers, and like the luggage experience, no one waits for the other, or respects right of ways. So here we were in a car on a single lane that suddenly has two or even three abreast, each trying to wiggle into the space vacated by the car in front. While we were stuck in this line I was entertained by these young (10 -14 year olds) kids trying to sell peanuts (which were balanced on their head). I made the mistake of opening my window and they started throwing samples at me till I, one, had more than enough for the drive to the hotel, and two, until the driver quickly rolled my window up to stop, in his mind, the nonsense. As for the fate of the peanuts I cannot say, my driver quickly informed me that eating those would be a one way ticket to dysentery, which four of our team members, I later found out, have succumbed to.

No wonder every car has scratches and dents, as they literally push their way into spots they have no business trying to be in. This artful driving didn’t abate once we got out of the airport, only the speed changed. The drive to the hotel is approximately 45 minutes on a very nice, modern motorway, though despite the high speed corridor with on and off ramps, had no lane lines, or apparent protocol. Lane lines would be futile though as no one follows the lane in any case – just motorway anarchy at 110 km/h. The use of your horn is also common, required action in driving – all the time – to what I can figure out it’s use is a warning signal to the driver around you that your coming thru so don’t drift into my lane. As if that wasn’t enough, parking is wherever you want it to be as we had to dodge not only the odd pedestrian milling in the median, but cars/trucks parked in any of the three or so lanes (if they had been painted!).

That said the journey was interesting not only for the drive itself but my visual experience of uninitiated eyes on a very different landscape. As you would imagine the poor live outside the city in these makeshift settlements that lined the highway, contrasted with the lush vegetation, and deep red soil. As I said in a previous post a few years ago, you are suddenly very aware that “we’re not in Kansas anymore”.

Once arrived at the hotel I was greeting in the lobby by many of my piers also here to lend their help to the project in their respective areas of expertise. After a quick hello I finally got to my room and a well deserved shower. Why is it that sitting, doing nothing for some 26 hours makes you feel so grimy? While the shower was enjoyable, it is like many little irritants you quickly accept when working in the developing world, in this case very little hot water – so while I start with hot water I am yet to finish with hot water. Otherwise the hotel is nice, clean and has the amenities one requires.

Thankfully I didn’t feel that bad afterward and met all my mates in the lobby where everyone congregates after work for a drink or two and decides where and who is going for dinner. While I initially indicated I was up for going out when push came to shove at 8:00 I realized I was hitting the wall quickly and desperately needed some quality sleep time. As well I wasn’t really all that hungry as long flights have little you occupy you with other than food and booze (when you are fortunate enough, as I am, to fly business class).

The next morning (Sunday) after a good night’s rest, I was informed that work would start for me with a short meeting at the nearby Hilton hotel with a couple of British gents who also work for another aid agency (NIAF) who were doing work in an area my assignment is to be focused: the transmission tariff.

One thing about international work is that as the cliché goes: it’s not the destination but the journey that is important, in that the sights and sounds of a new third world city continue to amaze, and the people you see. Nigeria is fascinating in that sense in that the people are diverse in there dress. Some dressed as western as you and I, while others are dressed in traditional garments, which vary widely for the men in that the population is diverse religiously with Christians, Muslims, and Tribal customs all being observed. So while I tried and concentrate on the information we were receiving from our British piers, I was fascinated by the other people also at the hotel. I also had a return of a little jet lag which I am told is fairly normal: I couldn’t keep my eyes open for a period of about an hour where I struggled to look fairly alert while hardly being able to keep my eyes open. Thankfully that passed quickly and I regained my composure. Good thing it was temporary as I was greeted with what proved to be a wonderful afternoon that included a trip to the local market where the Nigerians go, not the sterile whitewashed stores frequented by the expats. Unlike Timor where I had access to a vehicle and either drove or walked to where I needed to go, everywhere you go you have a driver to take you either to work and back, to and from dinner, and for any other such excursions. The trip to the market was one such experience. Like any local market the place is dirty and cramped with all matter of goods being sold – from a guy walking around with sugar cane to chew as you shop to small appliances such as refrigerators, a/c units and portable generators. As we entered the parking lot I was greeted by Muslims observing prayer time. We were lucky that our driver (Kingsley) insisted on coming with us to ensure our safety or is it more to ensure we didn’t get ripped off – as he was the “negotiator” for all of our purchases. Thanks to poor planning when packing I bought two short sleeve button up shirts – the initial price was for 5,000 nira (not spelled right but phonetically correct) – Kingsley negotiated the vendor down to 3,500 (or about $22 for both). The trick I saw that differed from say doing the same in Mexico is that instead of walking away Kingsley, after the vendor makes his final offer (4,500N), takes the cash what he is willing to pay (3,500N), hands it to the vendor and walk away – no one chased us. . . .

Afterward our adventure at the local market, a beer outside at a nearby restaurant (called Ketchup) was needed, where another contrast struck me: the disparity of the very poor to the very rich. In the course of our 2.5 hours there I saw a plethora of very expensive cars. They love Land Rovers here, in addition I saw several high end Mercedes, BMW’s, a Porsche, and even a Ferrari. Given the traffic anarchy why you would own such a vehicle I don’t know. Before you think to yourself that we are a bunch of drunks, I used the opportunity to get a haircut just down the street (while two continued on the patio of Ketchup’s, Christine, Kingsley and I went to the man’s salon. The sign indicated the cut I was getting – white man cut (and shave). For 2,000N ($12) I got a haircut, shave (electric – no razor as hoped) hot towel treatment, plus a trim of nose and ear hair. Chistine (a colleague from Hydro) was there to enjoy the experience, and Kingsley to ensure all I paid was 2,000N.

I will leave you with some brief thoughts I have had in my week thus far in Nigeria:

1) Out the window of my hotel room there is a backlane where hotel staff arrive for work, but more curious to me is a couple of guys squatting on an abandoned building site running what appears to be a little take out operation – coffee, some snacks perhaps (I don’t dare get close enough to get a good look). Cleanliness though is not top priority as the proprietors will walk back 20 meters or so to attend to bodily functions and return back to their food preparation – there is not running water.

2) I wanted to send a postcard to my nephew who might think it neat to get something from Nigeria, but postal service is very limited: from my limited knowledge it seems that there are very few post offices in the city if not only one, and I have yet to see a mail box anywhere. Plus, as at home you can’t go to any drug/grocery store, etc and buy a stamp. From my limited experience, it seemed that postal items are both purchased and sent from one place – will it get to the address in Canada? Time will tell.

3) Everyplace you go has security to get in: hotels, shopping malls, gov’t institutions, you name it. The routine is the same – you roll up to the gate, a dude with a mirror on rollers walks around your vehicle (to see if anything is underneath the car), checks the boot, all looked on by an armed soldier with a rifle over his shoulder. Once you past the check you are handed a card that you return when you leave the area.

4) I talked about posting a post card, the security guard there (I had to walk in there was no parking) said as I left to get back to the car: “good bye white man”.

5) I feel sorry for the drivers, there hours are long (they take us to the office in the morning and cart us back to the hotel after dinner which may go to 11 or 12 at night). In addition they feel as if they have to do everything. Such as when I went to a grocery store to get a few items, my driver (John whom I couldn’t hardly understand) – he insisted on carrying the hand basket as I purchased my items – weird and disconcerting when you are not use to such one on one service.

Overall though we are quite restricted and everyone misses being able to go for a walk. To ensure our safety we are regulated to a routine of hotel to work, work to hotel, hotel for dinner and back again for the night. No walking allowed. While we have been able to see something’s it is always in the presence of our driver. It is unsettling for me coming from a relatively safe, gunless place to here where armed soldiers are everywhere and they all have machine guns. In fact we were coming back from dinner one night and was stopped in the middle of the road by two guys in leather jackets and machine guns, why I don’t know as we thankfully were allowed to go through. Afterwards laughing nervously after we escaped in the car I said ‘what’s with the machine guns??’ the response by my colleagues in the car: motivation.

So that’s it from Nigeria so far – but the journey continues for yet another week, then a week of leisure time in Germany before heading home on October 5, 2012.

Once again I have traveled across the world, so very far
Where sightseeing is limited to what I see from the backseat of our car