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.

1 comment:

Megan said...

I told Madeleine about the turkey in your yard. She wants to go to Africa on Saturday morning after ballet lessons to see it. I guess we'll be stopping by - hope you'll be in. There's no convincing a 4 year old that the map is not to scale - she does not accept that Africa is too far to go for a morning and is sure I am just being difficult.