Monday, December 17, 2007

The Bunker

The invasion came without warning, and I had been left alone to defend the bunker. One of my comrades, an extremely agreeable chap named Paul, was already home on well-deserved leave with his sweetheart and four tykes. My other mate, Peter, had been dispatched to complete some mission, the details of which remained undisclosed to me. Damn them for leaving me behind! As for me, I was lulled into a mid-afternoon stupor by the heat of the day and the rations sitting heavy in my belly. With only my imagination to keep me company, I easily slipped into a daydream of Starbucks frappucinnos and the saucy baristas who make them. I was shaken out of my venti reverie by a noise outside the bunker door. I cursed my carelessness in leaving the door open a crack, seduced by the hope of capturing a wayward breeze. As the sound drew nearer, I slowly lifted my feet off my desk and swung them silently to the floor. Reaching for the only weapon within range, I grabbed my half-eaten shortcake biscuit and prepared to launch it with deadly force. Too late! The intruder breached the doorway as I pitched my sweet missile. It blasted to bits on the doorframe, inches above her head as she rushed for the opposite wall of the bunker. I had failed. The chicken was in.

OK, enough of my poor imitation of Graham Greene. This gripping tale actually did happen last week while I was at work. “The Bunker” is my affectionate nickname for my workspace, a 12’ by 12’ concrete building which I share with two coworkers. Two windows have been hollowed out of the wall behind me and are covered with metal shutters. The significance of the shutters’ composition is that when they are closed, the outside world ceases to exist. No natural light enters the tomb. One could just as easily be waiting out a nuclear winter as working on a funding proposal. An air conditioner planted near the doorway offers cool relief but a cruel choice. Turning it on obviously requires shutting the hatches to avoid an enormous waste of energy. So, does the Bunker trio forsake all others for the sake of beating the heat?

My vote is with humanity. I’ve never been much of a claustrophobe, but this has proven to be quite a test, and I find myself flinging the shutters open whenever possible. Actually, flinging is an overly generous description of what I do. Because the shutters tend to stick, I find I have to repeatedly hammer them with my fists to get them to budge. The desperate metallic banging that results is not unlike a lost miner trying to establish contact with the outside world. And like the miner, I am sometimes successful in drawing attention to myself. Unlike him, this was definitely not my goal.

Working in such close proximity with two co-workers has its share of challenges. I’ve noticed that Peter likes to listen to music while he works, which is not such a bad thing, except that his preferred medium is the speaker on his laptop. I could handle this, as he does keep it at a relatively discreet volume, but he seems to have a fondness for the syrupy noodling of saxophonist Kenny G.. I haven’t checked the Nigerian Criminal Code, but I’m pretty sure I could make a case for justifiable homicide if it continues. I’ve tried to counter the elevator music by listening to boneheaded hard rock through my headphones, but the resulting mash-up of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” with Kenny’s rendition of “Wind Beneath my Wings” is an aural nightmare, though “Dirty Deeds Beneath My Wings” is a title with some promise.

Aside from the ongoing musical warfare and the threat of our supplies running out before the fallout clears, the Bunker is actually a pleasant place to work. With three of us resident in the space, we attract our share of visitors, both on business and otherwise. As the newest member of the group, I’ve had a number of people come in to introduce themselves and ask how I’m surviving. One fellow has made it a point to repeatedly tell me that I shouldn’t be afraid, which would be reassuring, except he doesn’t fill in the minor detail of what it is that I shouldn’t be afraid of. Scorpions? Darkness? A Majority Government for Stephen Harper? What? Tell me!!!!! Another of my coworkers came in for a visit and gave me an impromptu Hausa lesson for an hour, which was an unexpected highlight of that day. I now greet him as my tutor, although my pathetic attempts at communication may make him disown me fairly soon.

And of course, there are the animals, which brings me back to the chicken. She wasn’t my first barnyard visitor and certainly won’t be the last. But she may win the prize for most persistent. After dodging the shortcake cookie, she proceeded to run behind the filing cabinet and then paid a visit to the centre of the room, where she left the only calling card available to a chicken. Successfully banishing her from the Bunker, I received not one but three return visits before I finally reached my breaking point. I chased her out of the building and then continued to pursue her halfway across the compound courtyard to ensure she didn’t return for a fourth time. Unfortunately, most of the classrooms for the Fantsuam Foundation are situated next to the courtyard, so the afternoon training sessions on Cisco networking received a momentary recess to watch the Foundation’s new Monitoring and Evaluation expert chase a chicken. I’m worth every penny I’m being paid as a volunteer, I tell you.

I returned to my desk and had a momentary lapse into helpless laughter as I recognized what I had just done. Thankfully, my bunker mates were nowhere to be found, as I’m sure they would have put in for an immediate transfer. Or maybe a strait-jacket.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Batman and Philip

The relentless clanging and rising cloud of dust tells me that my morning ride is on its way. The road to my Pink House is one continuous speed bump – driving over 20 km/h invites a broken axel or at least a concussion. Yet, somehow, Philip still manages to tear along the road like a getaway driver fleeing a botched bank job. He skids to a stop that sends both gravel and nearby chickens flying and then lays on the horn to alert me to his arrival, a somewhat unnecessary move, considering that his car’s approaching death rattle has been spooking the neighbours’ animals for the past five minutes.

Most mornings, we’re joined on our drive to work by James, my neighbour and fellow Fantsuam Foundation employee. I will forever be indebted to James for rescuing me from starvation by fixing my kerosene stove, so I gladly surrender the shotgun seat to him. I also figure I’ll have a better chance of surviving a crash in the back seat. As we bounce along the road, the children that we meet all stop and stare. A few call out “Batauri!” (“White Man!”) as we pass. “They are starting to know our routine,” says Philip with a laugh, “They’re looking for us now. They call this the ‘Batauri Car’”. That’s great. I’m here a week and they’ve already made me the main attraction. I look forward to PT Barnum offering me a stall next to Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy. Determined to find some dignity in my predicament, I salvage some coolness by renaming my ride. From now on, it’s no longer the Batauri Car. It’s the Bat-mobile.

Well, I think that’s cool, at least.

As we complete our usual morning circuit of my new hometown, I realize that the barnyard conspirators of Orwell’s Animal Farm were amateurs compared to their Kagoro cousins. Here, the animals truly have taken over. No pens restrict their movements. No fences define their range. Free to roam wherever they like, they seem to have taken a liking to my yard. On any given morning, I walk out the front door to a scene that would give Old Macdonald a seizure. E – I – E – I – Oh, please don’t crap there. My favourite trespasser is the neighbourhood bully, a turkey with an attitude problem who controls the street with the swagger of a made mobster. I’ve seen him stare down goats and scatter pigs with a flick of his tail. I fully expect him to continue flipping the bird, so to speak, to his peers all the way to the Christmas chopping block. My guess is that Babe and his fellow victims won’t mourn his passing, but I’ll miss him.

What I won’t miss is the daily cacophony that greets each sunrise around here. Actually, if the noise waited until that traditional crowing hour, I could probably live with that, but the local roosters and dogs unite in a choir of the damned before the dawn even breaks, leading me to believe that the majority of them must be either blind or sadistic. Songs beginning at 3:30 am usually include my chorus of “Shut the f**k up!”, a coda that I’m sure my neighbours appreciate.

Back in the Batmobile, I discover on our drive through the village that the only thing more prevalent than the free-range farm fauna is the garbage littered throughout the community, a problem not limited to Kagoro. In fact, the scale of the problem would demand that it be called a crisis were it not for the number of other issues in the country already competing for that designation. Waste disposal in Nigeria basically consists of dropping it on the ground wherever one happens to be, resulting in piles of trash large enough to be used as landmarks. The situation seems especially dire in the Bayan Loco neighbourhood surrounding the Fantsuam Foundation, where the garbage is simply part of the landscape – it’s everywhere and can’t be escaped. One quickly numbs to it, perhaps a weak response, but the magnitude of the problem overwhelms any outrage initially felt. At my house, the trash is taken to the backyard and burned. It’s a sad comment on the state of the country that this is considered progressive waste management.

But not all sights on the road to Kafanchan depress the spirit. There are wonders as well. Our morning drive is invariably bordered by scores of people walking along the road, many of them children dressed in the distinctive uniforms of their particular school. Groups of them cluster as they walk, creating a palette of colours that would shame any holiday parade. Competing for space on the side of the road are women headed to market, balancing loads on their heads that range from bananas to yams to huge piles of wood. The strength and coordination required to carry such burdens must be phenomenal. On the road itself, motorbikes dominate the strip, and the number of people riding on a single bike appears to have no upper limit. I’ve seen pairs of legs sticking out from between two riders, children casually sandwiched between their parents. Best of all, I witnessed two men carrying a mattress on their heads as they drove down the road to the city. Definitely no Easy Riders here.

The only interruption suffered as we make our daily trip is an annoying police roadblock which thankfully has never resulted in anything other than a slight delay. Usually, it’s a handful of officers touting menacing AK-47’s to ensure that the vehicles respect their makeshift stop. Such roadblocks are ubiquitous in the country and I’ve already encountered a number of them. Ostensibly set up to check for proper vehicle registration and other papers, it’s common knowledge that the roadblock essentially acts as a personal toll booth for the officers involved. We’ve been waved through each time without any dash needing to be paid, although one officer did ask me once if I was carrying US dollars. When I smiled and said I was Canadian, he just waved us through. Better check those exchange rates, pal. The loonie ain’t monopoly money anymore.

Arriving at the Foundation’s gates, I thank Robin, er, Philip for the ride and step out of the vehicle to a new chorus of “Batauri!” from the local kids. I wave to my fan club and enter the gates to start another work day.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Sunday, December 2, 2007

World AIDS Day

I began World Aids Day in a cheap motel with a beer for breakfast. Maybe I should explain. For my first week in Kafanchan/Kagoro, one of the staff from the Fantsuam Foundation has been coming to collect me in the morning, rightly assuming that leaving me to find my own way would result in me ending up on the back of a milk carton with a “Missing Since….” under my photo. Most of the time, it’s been Philip who has drawn the short straw and driven me to work. Philip’s vehicle is a wonder, as in I wonder how it keeps going. The handles for rolling down the windows have long since broken off and only one remains, so we take turns attaching it to our respective doors when we need some air. One time, when my curiosity (and nerves) got the better of me, I snuck a peek at the speedometer to see how fast we were going, only to find that the needle was indeed buried, but not in the top end. It was gone altogether, likely keeping the missing door handle company. My seatbelt provided little comfort, as it would only be effective in giving me a slight burn on my way through the windshield.

On this day, Philip said we would be taking a short detour on our way to the Foundation. Ever eager to explore, I agreed, thinking we would be on our way to look for door handles or the like. But auto repair wasn’t on the agenda. “We’re going to my quiet place,” said Philip, somehow making our destination sound both peaceful and ominous. When we pulled up to the gate of the motel, I started reaching for my Hausa phrasebook to find the translation for “I like you, but not in that way”. We walked in through the main entrance and turned right, ending up in the lounge. “Sit here and I’ll get us some drinks”, said Philip. Phrasebook, don’t fail me now.

Returning from the bar, Philip sat down and told me that this was the place he liked to come and relax when he needed a break. He would often come on his own, just to read the paper or have a drink. At this point, our drinks arrived, a Coke for him and a mega-size beer for me. I looked at my watch and confirmed that yes, it was only 9:30 am. The waiter cocked an eyebrow at me as he poured the beer, as if to say “How big an alcoholic ARE you?” Philip had seen me drinking the same type of beer the previous night and assumed it was my drink of choice, no matter what time of day it was. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I started knocking it back. At the end of the beer, Philip got up and said, “OK, let’s go now”. Yeah, man, let’s go and kick some AIDS ass. AIDS sucks and we rock! Hmmm. Maybe the beer went to my head a little.

Arriving at the gates of the Fantsuam Foundation, we found the World AIDS Day ceremony already in full swing, with drums thundering and trumpets blasting. I entered to find the courtyard decked out with canopies, with the band camped under the one on the left side and spectators seated under its opposite. A DJ was busy setting himself up nearby. I found a seat and quickly started unpacking my camera. Soon after, the Director of FF found me and recruited me as photographer for the event. I was happy to sign up, since it meant that I now was officially sanctioned to be my usual pain in the ass with the camera.

After the band finished its overture, one of FF’s staff took the microphone and introduced the local dignitaries in attendance, asking each to come up and speak in turn. The DJ, perhaps eager to compete with the band, decided to make his mark early. After each speaker was announced, the DJ augmented the crowd’s applause with his own carefully selected sound effects. I’m not sure how impressed the local chiefs were with having their names followed by laser gun blasts and robotic chirps, but I sure enjoyed it. Most of the speeches were given in Hausa, so I filled in the time taking the official photos of each speaker as well as some of the crowd. The kids were great subjects – very eager to get in front of the camera.

Perhaps it was the heat (already scorching at 11 am) or maybe it was the speeches themselves, but the crowd didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic in their responses. It may be the case that speeches regarding HIV have started to become repetitive, so the message starts to get lost. Or it may be that this audience was already aware of the importance of HIV prevention and care, so an element of preaching to the converted came in to play. In any event, the response of the crowd was more energetic for the next participants, a group of children performing a short play on the importance of HIV testing. The kids were charming and played their parts well. I especially liked the young guy who played the delinquent drunk among them, staggering around with a Coke bottle substituting for the demon alcohol.

The event coordinator followed the group with his own piece, a letter written by HIV to the people of Nigeria. It was quite creative, although it did amplify the A and B of the ABC strategy and left the C almost as an afterthought. Not sure whether that’s reflective of the official Nigerian policy or the choice of the speaker. (For those who don’t know – the ABC strategy for fighting HIV is (A)bstinence from sex, (B)eing faithful to your partner, and using a (C)ondom).

With the coordinator’s speech concluded, it was time for the showcase event on the agenda, the procession around the Bayan Loco neighbourhood. A banner proclaiming World Aids Day was stretched in front of the group as it assembled. The number of marchers wasn’t large, perhaps a hundred people in total, including a number of children orphaned by HIV. But given the size of the community, this was a major event.

The trumpets and drums resumed their call, the gates of the Foundation swung open, and the procession began its circuit. As we made our way along the route, the reactions of those watching us pass ranged from bewilderment to amusement to enthusiastic support. My presence on the march may have been an unfortunate distraction, given the number of calls of “Batauri!” that I heard. Also detracting from the experience were a few clowns on motorbikes who refused to wait until the procession had passed, choosing instead to drive through the middle of it. Thankfully, most people here are used to being close to the bikes, so the group was unfazed by the interruption.

The entire march lasted for only ten minutes or so, but given the heat of the day, I must admit I was happy for its abbreviation. As we walked back into the Fantsuam compound, I headed for the shade, but many of my companions weren’t ready to quit yet. Moving to the centre of the courtyard, they began to dance, refusing to let the band retire. Taking his cue from them, the DJ fired up his sound system, and soon the whole area was filled with music and dancers determined to end this day in celebration. Whether they danced in tribute to those lost to HIV or as a salute to the spirit of those who continue on, their reasons were their own and there was no need to explain.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

High Hopes

This is the story of how a tin of corned beef broke my heart.

Fresh from my first day on the job at the Fantsuam Foundation, I was delivered to my new home in Kagoro by John Dada, the head of the Foundation. An extremely likable man with a ready laugh, John welcomed me to the aptly named “Pink House”, presumably not the inspiration for the John Mellencamp song. It’s worth noting at this point that daylight was beginning to fade as we entered the house, because the darkness that soon followed played a leading role in my tragedy. Flipping the switch for the main room turned on a light that was too dim for any activity except maybe developing film. “Afraid there’s not much for power – Bwa haa haaaa!” John’s laugh had suddenly taken a maniacal turn.

A quick tour through the flat revealed its strengths and weaknesses. It was incredibly spacious, with a large well-kept main room near the entrance and three decent-sized bedrooms. There were also three bathrooms which had last seen use during the filming of Midnight Express, I think. But I could live with that. Walking into the kitchen at the back of the flat, John showed me the kerosene stove which would soon be my nemesis. One odd thing about the flat was the complete absence of mirrors, which meant the previous residents were either very confident in their appearance or they were vampires. Given the amount of time I’d be spending in the dark, my money was on the latter. “I’ll get you some water from out back,” said John. Returning with an empty bucket, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No water tonight, but hey, here’s some!,” he exclaimed, pointing to a barrel in the corner. Loch Ness was clearer.

Fetching a lantern from the neighbours to fend off the now pitch blackness, John put his hands on his hips and said, “OK, I think you have everything you need. Have a good night!” I was sure I heard a “Bwa haaa haaaa!” as he drove away. Facing my cavernous new digs for the first time on my own, I was determined to be upbeat. After all, I had come prepared, armed with a box of canned goods to do me for the first couple of days. “I think maybe some soup with a corned beef sandwich”, I practically sang as I unloaded my box of treasures.

I had never seen a kerosene stove like this before, a single burner which looked as though it was a veteran of at least one war, but how different could it be from the camp stoves I’ve lit in the past? I’ll just prime the stove by pumping the nozzle, thought I. As I pushed the nozzle, the stove skid across the table and rattled its disapproval. Hmmm, said I. Maybe I just need to shove a match directly into the burner. This will make for an interesting obituary, at the very least. But the stove refused to light, no matter how persistent my death wish. So, I had no heat for cooking. No matter. A corned beef sandwich and some orange juice will be a decent enough first meal, I thought as I pulled the tab off my jug of OJ and promptly sloshed it on to the table, my pants and the floor. “Gosh darn it,” I said, or words to that effect, “I’ll clean that up later.”

Grabbing the tin of corned beef, I started rolling the key around the side to open it up. Resisting the urge to start rocking back and forth, I kept up my happy mantra, “Everything is going to be OK, everything is going to be OK, everything is going to be…. SNAAAP” The key broke off halfway through its intended journey, leaving me staring at my tin in disbelief. “Bwaa haaa haaa!” I roared as I ran to the kitchen to grab a fork to start prying my meal out of its prison.

It was at this time that I heard voices outside the flat. Two men with flashlights approached the door and started rattling it. It speaks to my frame of mind that my first instinct was to protect my can of corned beef. Finding the door locked, the men proceeded to circle the building and start working on the back door. My years of training at hiding from Jehovah’s Witnesses came in handy, as I shut off my flashlight and huddled in the corner, fork at the ready should I need to defend myself. Eventually, the men gave up and walked off and I resumed my dinner in peace.

Now somewhat sated, I took the opportunity to start playing my flashlight around the room. Oh, hell. For the first time in my life, I hoped my anti-malarials were causing some kind of psychotic episode, but no, trooping across the floor toward my pool of unmopped OJ were dozens of ants, on a mission to clean up what I had foolishly left behind. Normally a fan of the industrious ant, I must admit to dispatching this troop with murderous glee, stomping them while cackling the tune to “High Hopes”:

Just what makes that little ol’ ant – Stomp
Think he can move that rubber tree plant – Splat
Everyone knows an ant – Squish
Can’t - Bambambambam
Move a rubber tree plant – Kaa-pow

But he’s got hiiiiiiigh hopes……..

No, he doesn’t. And he can’t have my orange juice, neither.

Concluding my after dinner exercise, I realized that it was finally time to get ready for bed, so I crept into the bathroom which had been wired shut for some reason and turned on the tap. And turned on the tap. And….holy shit. No water. Did I want to brave Nessie’s bucket for a splash of water on my face? No, thanks. I made my way to the nearest bed, rolled myself up in a ball and went to sleep. Nowhere to go from here but up, right?

Oh, he’s got hiiiiiiiigh hopes………

(P.S. As it turned out, the guys trying my doors in the dark were security for the building, so you can stop worrying, Mum.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Durbar Festival

The Abuja Carnival has the distinction of being the least publicized major event I’ve ever attended. Our intrepid band of Nigerian neophytes scoured the local newspapers, surfed the Net and called local state officials with a zeal that would have done Woodward and Bernstein proud, but our efforts came up empty time and again. Finally, we located our Deep Throat within the Ministry of Tourism, who gave up the location and time of the first event, the Durbar Festival at the Equestrian Centre on the outskirts of the city. My keen sense of deduction told me that this would have something to do with horses.

The origins of the Durbar Festival are lost in antiquity, which is my way of describing something that I haven’t researched. Hey, this is a blog, not a f*ing thesis. All I can say is that the rumours that we started hearing on Friday pointed to this being a massive event, with all of the states in the country sending representatives to participate. Given there are 36 states in total, plus the Federal Capital territory (That’s a researched fact. Happy now?), “massive event” doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Our VSO quartet decided to beat the anticipated crowds by going before the “announced” start time of 4 pm. We arrived at the Equestrian Centre to find a scene worthy of Noah’s Ark, if Noah had ignored God’s instructions and just put horses and camels on his boat. And also skipped the bit about bringing two of everything and brought a bunch instead. Yeah, you’re right. That analogy blows. Anyway, we arrived to find the sides of the road littered with horses milling about, not the safest thing in the world, given the propensity for Nigerian drivers to treat the ditch as a passing lane. We found a place to park the car, somewhat encouraged by the positive response of a bystander who probably had nothing to do with controlling the parking.

We began walking about the compound where the horses and camels were being collected and prepared for the procession. We soon drew much attention to ourselves by our obvious uniqueness and were promptly approached by a police unit. Visions of the day coming to a premature end in a detention centre proved to be unfounded. “Come over here and see the camels,” said the leader of the group. Relieved at not being subjected to a cavity search, I happily complied. “Take his picture,” he said, pointing to an old timer already seated on a prostrate camel. “No, wait until the camel is standing!” OK, Captain Bossy Boots. “Now, we go to see the elephant!” And on it went, for a few more stops on our tour.

Leaving the police behind, we were left on our own to explore. The Equestrian Centre consists of a huge dirt field ringed by buildings for the horses resident there. As we strolled around, a few curious people approached and spoke in Hausa with Kristel, the veteran VSO volunteer among us. Her facility with the language was an enormous boon. People immediately relaxed around us, and we were able to take pictures we otherwise might have been dismissed as too intrusive. She was even invited to meet an emir, with a photo op soon following. As the afternoon progressed, we began to see more and more people decked out in their spectacular traditional dress. Nigerians are known for being brilliantly dressed on regular days, so when a special occasion such as this occurs, the results are truly magnificent.

Our tour of the preparations was often punctuated with explosions nearby, the first of which set bells off in my ear and almost caused me to hit the deck. Soon, we realized the source was the firing of muskets, ostensibly to test them out, but I think mainly to scare the bejesus out of those within earshot, a term which takes on a whole new meaning in this context. Tony and Sue, the other members of our foursome, retreated to the hillside overlooking the presentation circle in order to claim a good vantage point for the procession. Kristel, perhaps emboldened by her earlier successes with the locals, headed straight into the preparation area, with me following in her wake. She knew no fear, walking in among the horses and camels and coming dangerously close to the hind legs of both. But the rewards from the risk were grand – camels dressed in orange and yellow finery, horses trussed up in metal armour, warriors in monstrous headgear. We witnessed it all in extreme closeup.

Eventually, it became apparent that order was ascending from the chaos. Groups began to organize themselves around the perimeter of the field in preparation for the procession. And the crowd of onlooker had also increased, dropping our status from unique attraction to mere tourist. Five spectators managed to find brilliant viewing spots, perched on seats ten feet high, as though they were lifeguards posting watch on the scene below them. Kristel and I opted for a closer view once again, lining up alongside the riders on the perimeter of the circle. Given the thousands of riders and animals involved, the final preparations were remarkably smooth. How the various groups knew where to find their place in the circle is beyond me, but at an appointed time of someone’s choosing, the riders all began to move forward.

As they marched past, we saw many familiar faces from earlier in the day and were recognized in turn. We made a point to stay away from the grandstand housing the local VIP’s, because of the crowd and also our anticipation of what the musketeers had planned. Sure enough, as they approached the viewing stands, the guns went up and off. Almost as impressive as the noise was the smoke that billowed out in the aftermath. Combined with the dust raised by the riders, the effect was similar to a nice summer day in Toronto – thick smog (or maybe smust?) blocked out the setting sun and the view of nearby Aso Rock.

With the procession winding down, the chaos returned. As the riders finished their tour, they could return to their base camps, and freed from their official duties, they cranked their inner Born to Be Wild. Horses seemed to be everywhere, and the prospect of getting trampled suddenly seemed all too real. We wisely packed up our cameras and headed back to meet up with Tony and Sue before the sun left us to fend for ourselves in the emerging darkness. The Durbar left us dusty, sunburned and amazed.

The Durbar Festival - Abuja Carnival