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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adventures in the GSM Village

Let me make something clear from the start – I hate cell phones. Having been within earshot of too many inane conversations about grocery lists, adolescent angst and the location of the callers (“Where are you right now? Ohmygod, you’re like sooo close to me!”), I vowed to resist buying one until the very last payphone became extinct. In Nigeria, the landline is the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the careers of the cast of Friends. I’ve seen telephone lines left in disrepair so long that their sagging corpses have long since been covered with vegetation. Lines that have accidentally been cut by a passing motorist have been thoughtfully repaired by the culprit tying them up in a bow worthy of a drunken sailor. So, I had no choice – I had to join, ugh, Cell Phone Nation.

But buying anything in Nigeria is a minefield for a batauri, the Hausa term for a white person. The mere sight of the sun reflecting off a Canadian Caucasian instantly drives the negotiated price up by 25%. So, for what will likely be my most expensive purchase in Nigeria, I knew I needed help. Enter Christopher Chikwem, VSO’s Logistics Assistant, who rightfully deserves the additional title of Master Negotiator. In stature and nature, he is Nigeria’s Danny DeVito, a fast-talking dealmaker who waves the toothpick in his mouth at market sellers like a disapproving finger. I knew I was in good hands from the start.

“We should avoid the GSM Village”, he said as we weaved through the mid-day Abuja traffic, “They will sell you used phones packaged as new”. Though I had no idea of where or what the GSM Village was, I nodded my head in agreement, letting out a grunt of disapproval of the terrible Village People who lived there, presumably surviving on a diet of unwary consumers. As we pulled into a strip mall of cell phone merchants, I wondered whether I was still going to be the main course for the day.

Labelling anything as both an art and a science is woefully cliché, but negotiating in Nigeria deserves both designations in equal measure. The science is in the simple calculation of the numbers involved – how much one is willing to pay versus the listed price either on display or in the seller’s opening position. Nothing terribly sexy about that. But for a negotiator like Christopher, the play is the thing. Even though I spoke not a word of Hausa, my appreciation of his performance was undiminished by my lack of understanding. I watched as he shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and sighed heavily at the lack of movement by the cell phone sellers. In the exchanges that were in English, I heard him speak of his duty to VSO and his promise…no, make that his vow…. to me to get the very best price possible.

Initial negotiations didn’t go well, and I was the reason. Every shopkeeper we approached practically danced in anticipation of our arrival. Despite his best efforts, Christopher could not get the price he wanted. “You are costing us money,” he said, shaking his head in equal parts exasperation and amusement, as though he now had a personal stake in the negotiations, and maybe he had. I briefly considered offering to stay behind in the car, provided he left the windows open a crack, but I think agreeing to that would have been tantamount to admitting defeat for someone like Christopher. I was to be his greatest challenge, and I was coming with him whether I liked it or not. After one last failed negotiation, Christopher squinted at me and declared, “We’re going to the GSM Village”. On this point, there would be no negotiation.

My attempts at conversation on the trip to the Village were politely rebuffed by Christopher who clearly had only one thing on his mind. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Village, hawkers descended on the car with their strips of cell phone cards and personal grooming kits. I tried not to take the latter as a comment on my appearance. “Take your bag with you,” Christopher said, as he carefully locked the vehicle and strode off in the direction of the bridge. I struggled to keep up, weighed down with my backpack and starting to sway with what I was sure were the early signs of heatstroke. As we approached the bridge, I could see why Christopher made the Village his last resort.

Camped out under the bridge like so many trolls were stalls of cell phone sellers as far as the eye could see. “These are all for cell phones?” I asked. Christopher grunted a yes, as though my obvious question only confirmed for him what a liability I was on this trip. As the merchants caught sight of us, we were greeted like heroes returning from battle, with many coming up and saying, “Hello, Mr. White”. I tried to hide behind Christopher as best I could, but this was somewhat futile, considering he was about half of my height. Thankfully, we went no further than the first stall on the outskirts of the Village, and the negotiations began anew. The shade of the bridge helped combat the heat of the afternoon, but I knew I didn’t have much time left before I compromised our negotiating position by passing out. So, when Christopher came back to me and said, “He wants 6500 naira (about $60 Cdn),” I leapt at the offer like it was a free gift. At that point, I would have bought the bridge we were standing under if one of the sellers had offered it up.

Crouching over my backpack, I carefully pulled out a wad of $500 naira bills. I’m not sure what the best process is for counting out cash, but I’m confident this wasn’t it. Fumbling to count out the bills, I handed over the money to Christopher who wisely did a double count of it. Our salesman smiled as we delivered the cash and dutifully wrote out a receipt which I’m pretty sure would be a challenge to have honoured in the event that my phone was a dud. We thanked each other for the successful conclusion of the transaction and headed back to the car.

On the way, I clapped Christopher on the arm and thanked him for guiding me through the adventure. He smiled and raised an eyebrow, “So, now we go to exchange your US dollars for naira?” Oh, God. Lead on, my man.