Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Glenn's Tuna Surprise

250g macaroni or spaghetti
1 green pepper
1 small onion
1 tomato
1 small tin of flaked tuna
1 bottle of boiled and filtered water
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp lemon pepper
1tsp hot pepper flakes
1/2 tsp garlic salt

For best results, prepare after sundown and shut off power supply.

Serves one person and various critters.

1. Light kerosene stove and lantern. Attempt to light both stove and lantern with single match for higher degree of difficulty and sense of accomplishment. Avoid igniting trail of kerosene leading to fuel supply, if possible.

2. Scrape residual soot from lead pot and deposit soot on front of T-shirt. Empty bottle of water into pot and set on stove to boil.

3. Scrape covering of soot from chopping board and finely chop green pepper, onion, tomato and ants.

4. Open can of tuna and drain vegetable oil. Ensure fingers are coated with oil for maximum slickness. When transferring can to kitchen table, squeeze gently and launch can across room.

5. Watch can hit floor with sufficient force to spray contents on to nearest wall to impressive height of four feet. Compare design created with work of Jackson Pollock and consider leaving it for posterity.

6. Find can hidden behind box on floor and celebrate the tuna remaining in can.

7. Cook pasta for ten minutes or until desired tenderness reached. Mix vegetables and tuna with pasta and season with spices.

8. Scrape covering of soot from bowl and serve. Near end of meal, briefly consider whether anything might have crawled into can of tuna when it was on the floor.

9. Use screwdriver to scrape off tuna affixed to wall while humming theme songs from "Jaws" and "Flipper".

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Harmattan

Jackson Bentley: What attracts you personally to the desert?
T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.
- Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Lawrence’s desert may have been spotless. David Lean’s camera certainly captured an unspoiled expanse of sand and sky as the backdrop for the greatest love affair between desert and man ever put on film. But love affair is perhaps the wrong descriptor to use, implying as it does that the desert can love in return. Infatuation may be the better term, for it more correctly captures the one-sided obsession of the would-be suitor and the absolute indifference of the object of affection. For Lawrence and adventurers like him, the tendency to romanticize the bleakness of the desert is irresistible. It justifies, if only to them, a devotion that others might dismiss as madness.

That same blind adulation is as much a part of the mythologizing of the Sahara desert of northern Africa as it is for Lawrence’s desert a continent away. The mere mention of the word “Sahara” to most people conjures up images of hardy Bedouins, ill-tempered camels and Lawrence of Arabia (for the geographically challenged). When I arrived in Nigeria, I was told of the Harmattan, a wind that blows across Nigeria from the North, bringing with it sand from the Sahara. The Harmattan! Its name alone was exotic and full of the promise of sandy adventure. My inner Lawrence was captivated; my eyes glazed over in anticipation of racing camels with Omar Sharif. Yes, I’m one of the geographically challenged. But I’d rather daydream to the classics than get bogged down in details.

It’s been three months since I arrived, and my camel remains untested. Omar still hasn’t shown up. What has arrived in abundance is the Saharan sand, and as is so often the case, the reality is much different from the romance. The amount of sand in the air is staggering, but it hasn’t been delivered by the raging sandstorms typical in any tale of desert derring do. Rather, the particles of sand are so fine that they hang in the air like a fog and are almost unnoticeable until one realizes that a familiar landmark, like the Kagoro Mountains, has disappeared. That’s no exaggeration. Kafanchan is a ten-minute drive from Kagoro, and I was amazed to find nothing but a blank wall of grey greeting us on a return trip two weeks ago. The mountains were completely invisible. I almost became nostalgic for the North Atlantic fog of my Nova Scotia youth, until I remembered that it was always a pain in the ass as well.

Such a huge amount of sand deposited in the atmosphere has effects extending beyond David Copperfield illusions. The drop in temperature is significant, with daily lows in the mid-teens and highs barely touching twenty-five. Perfect weather for this Canuck, but you would think the next Ice Age had arrived if you gauged it by the reaction of the local community. People here have outfitted themselves in tuques and parkas that wouldn’t be out of place on a Yellowknife sleighride. My coworkers raise their eyebrows in surprise when they see me in short sleeves, as though they expect to witness the immediate onset of frostbite. “Yaya sanyi?” (“How’s the cold?”) has become a question that I get asked every morning. “Ba sanyi!” (“There is no cold!”) is my reply, often followed by a hearty lumberjack laugh. But in the back of this Paul Bunyan’s mind, one alarm bell is going off continuously: if they consider this weather to be cold, what is waiting for me when the temperatures heat up? A visible shudder goes through me, confirming the diagnosis of hypothermia in the minds of my co-workers.

Despite my Canadian ruggedness, it didn’t take long for me to catch my first Harmattan cold, another byproduct of the extreme amount of dust blowing everywhere. One can’t help but inhale more than the recommended daily serving of sand, which has the effect of drying out one’s insides and making a person more susceptible to the germs also carried by the breeze. It seems bizarre to suffer from a cold when the temperatures are this warm, but maybe it’s my destiny to scarf down Sudafed and Fishermen’s Friend in February, regardless of where I am. My co-workers suffer much more than I do, as their limited diet does not provide them with the vitamins and minerals needed to fend off and recover from the Harmattan cold. A number of them showed the telltale signs of colds the minute the wind blew into town, and many have stayed ill for the duration of its residency here.

As we rattle along the dirt road leading to the Foundation, the dust blows in through the hole in the Batmobile’s dash where the radio used to be and chokes those unlucky enough to draw the backseat. That would be me. I ask Philip between wheezes when the last rain fell in Kafanchan, and he estimates the drought at six months. Six months! I try to imagine a six-month window in Canada without precipitation and realize that I've likely never experienced that in my lifetime. So, the Harmattan is not solely to blame for turning my new hometowns into dustbowls to rival those of the clapboard towns of the Old West. The landscape surrounding us is as parched as any scene recalled from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. The only things missing are tumbleweeds, stagecoaches and bad dubbing.

Walking along the dirt roads of Kagoro, I imagine myself to be Nigeria’s version of the Man With No Name, as the distant cries of “Batauri!” fill my ears. I push on through the Harmattan fog toward the lone tavern in town, a sandblasted hovel sporting a paint job as faded as the dreams of the men who drink there. Walking through the doorway, my eyes still stinging with Saharan sand, I spot Lawrence of Arabia sitting by himself in the corner, a Star beer in one hand and his head in the other. The scuffling of my sandals on the gritty floor shakes him from his torpor, and he motions for me to join him. I signal the barkeep for two fresh bottles, and Lawrence and I drink in agreeable silence. Once our beers have bottomed out, I get up to leave him to his solitude. “What attracts you personally to the Harmattan?”, I ask with a wink. He grins a weary drunken smile and rasps out a chuckle as dry as the dust devils circling our feet. Through the sand coating our table, he traces out “It’s clean” with a shaky finger, dragging the last letter across the table to the edge before dropping his hand in his lap.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hausa Goin', Eh?

“Comment ça va?”

My head spins in the direction of the salutation, and I expect to find Mademoiselle Frost, my French teacher from ninth grade, still armed with a list of verbs for me to conjugate. Instead, I find a Kagoro girl standing in the doorway of her parents’ shop, grinning at me as though she alone has cracked the code of how to communicate with the batauri. French is not a language usually spoken in Nigeria, so hearing it from a kid is especially surprising. For some unknown reason, I decide to answer her in French, so I search my foggy memory banks past high school locker combinations and junior proms until I reach, “Ça va bien. Et tu?” She then says something in French that I don’t understand, so I cleverly mask my poor comprehension by pretending I don’t hear her and running away. Despite being overmatched in my secondary language skills by a ten-year-old, I still bravely run the same francophone gauntlet every Saturday morning on my way to the market. For her part, mon amie refuses to accept that I’m not French and continues to greet me the same way each time, repeating herself numerous times to cover the possibility that I might be brain damaged.

Her assessment of my faculties would likely be echoed by her fellow Kagorons (which makes them sound like an alien race that Captain Kirk fought and probably slept with). I was told before arriving that greetings were very important to Nigerians, so I made a point of greeting everyone I met with a sunny “Sannu!” to go along with my broad smile and wave. I didn’t know anything beyond “Sannu!”, so I put everything I had into that greeting. I began to feel like the King of Kensington as I made my way along the dusty roads of my new hometown. Al Waxman was surely smiling on me from above as I sang his anthem, slightly modified:

When he walks down the street,
He smiles and says, “Hello!”
Everyone that he meets
Calls him King of Kagoro.

I gradually began to realize that strangers in Nigeria don’t necessarily need to greet each other all of the time, so my persistent and blanket Sannu’s may have started to give the impression that I was slightly addled. The Kagoro elders likely sighed with relief at the prospect of finally filling the long-standing vacancy for Village Idiot.

The lack of enthusiastic response from the locals to my attempts at being neighbourly puzzled me until one of my Bunker mates took me aside one day. Lowering his voice as if revealing the location of buried treasure, he said he had been watching how I wave at everyone when I greet them. “Hyuck”, I replied, awaiting the inevitable compliment to follow. “Well,” he continued, “you sometimes wave with your fingers spread apart, and this means “I curse you” to the people here.” Shit. I’m not even waving properly. Somewhere, Al Waxman is crying, his theme song in tatters:

When he walks down the street,
He puts a curse on your soul.
Everyone that he meets
Calls him an evil asshole.

Having been instructed on the proper waving technique (all fingers kept close together), I vowed to make amends and now hail my fellow Kagorons with a stiff tilt of the hand that makes me look like Queen Elizabeth II. Given Nigeria’s history with British colonists, this probably isn’t winning me any friends, either.

My Hausa has improved since those early days, mostly through listening to the conversations going on around me. While Canadians are usually satisfied with a perfunctory “Hi! How are you?” before moving on in the conversation, Nigerians take greeting each other much more seriously. Here’s a typical exchange:

Hello! Hello!
How was the night? Fine!
How’s the tiredness? There’s no tiredness!
How’s the family? Fine!
How’s work? Very Fine!
Hello! Hello!

The same pattern is repeated throughout the morning as friends and colleagues meet each other for the first time that day. I’m starting to pick up on the rhythm of it, although I still manage to confuse “gajiya” (tiredness) with “gida” (family), so when I tell my coworkers, “There is no family”, I manage to elicit some undeserved sympathy. Even a simple “Thank you!” is apparently beyond my grasp, as I just learned the proper phrase is “Na gode!”, not “Da gode!”, as I have been proudly repeating for the past month. I’m now afraid to check my Hausa phrasebook for fear of discovering that “Da” equates to “Fuck”.

And once I master Hausa in the next decade or so, there are only 500 other languages in Nigeria to conquer. That’s no exaggeration; with over 250 different ethnic groups speaking its own language and no end of dialects within each group, Nigeria would represent a modern day Babel were it not for the handful of regional languages understood by most people resident there. In the central and northern parts of Nigeria, Hausa is the dominant language and the one I’m currently mangling. A shared understanding of the major languages has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, as it provides wide communication among ethnic groups but also contributes to the demise of the more localized languages. Students are schooled in the major regional language and English, so it’s left to the individual villages and families to preserve their tribal dialect. This is becoming more infrequent, as younger Nigerians dedicate themselves to those languages that will allow them to take best advantage of a Nigeria set on establishing a role for itself on the world stage.

Speaking with some of my M&E team, they confirm that their knowledge of their tribal languages is less than that of their parents, and they anticipate their children will not be able to speak them at all. There’s some regret in their voices as they recount this, but also a shrug of resignation, as if they see this as the price of a changing Nigeria. The demands they face to support themselves and their families allow little time for efforts to preserve a part of the past. History is seen as a luxury ill-afforded when making decisions for the future. This kind of short-sighted pragmatism will continue to transform the country over the next century. One of the team members even posited that the creation of this linguistic melting pot is a positive thing, as it helps to bridge the differences among the tribes that have resulted in past strife. The others remained unconvinced by his optimism, maintaining their position that more is being lost than gained in the abandonment of tribal languages along the path of progress.

As for my French tutor, I still don’t know the origin of her introduction to the language, but if it turns out that she’s relying on me to help preserve the use of French in Kagoro, my guess is that it will also have a limited life span.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

If I Had A Million Naira

The happy couple hold hands and beam at each other in the way that only the newly married can. Relatives and friends gather around them to express their congratulations as the band takes its cue to get the party started with their version of “What I Like About You”. As tradition dictates, gifts of money are given to the bride and groom by pressing the bills to their foreheads and releasing them. The bills pile up on the floor, and soon the entire wedding party is dancing through a swirl of bills like children kicking up autumn leaves. Then the police arrive and take them all to jail. The newly minted husband and wife receive adjoining cells, so they can at least hold hands through the bars. Conjugal visits remain a question mark, so we’re left with a consummation cliffhanger as we leave the couple to their unhappy honeymoon.

So goes the latest public service announcement/warning filling the airwaves during the intermissions of the Africa Cup football matches. The crime perpetrated by the wayward revellers? Abusing the Naira, which sounds like a euphemism for something much more naughty and interesting. The Naira is the currency for Nigeria, and the Central Bank has chosen to clamp down on any activity that leads to the deterioration of the bills, including shameless celebratory dancing. The penalty imposed is six months in the slammer or a fine of 50,000 Naira. No word as to whether the incriminating bills would be accepted as payment.

To be fair to the Bank, the Naira that I’ve been using over the past three months are usually in very hard shape, with the 2005 edition looking as though past owners had truly put their money where their mouths were. Or maybe some other orifices. Anything older than 2005 requires close examination to determine the denomination. That’s a shame, because the bills are actually quite attractive. The fronts are dominated by the usual past heads of state and people of note, but the reverse sides score more points for artistic merit with depictions of ordinary Nigerians plying their trades and dancing (The artists being careful not to draw Naira underfoot). My favourite bill is the one for 500 Naira, which paints a tranquil ocean scene and puts an oil rig in the middle of it. There’s a certain unapologetic honesty about a central bank choosing to honour the commodity that has generated most of the wealth in the country over the past fifty years. Maybe Canada will someday follow suit and lose the loon in favour of the TimBit. After all, the “Timmie” would be more endearing to world markets than the connotation of craziness inherent in the loonie. Who could resist investing in a currency that conjures up images of the kid who fell in a well and was rescued by Lassie? Roll out the Tim to win, my fellow Canucks.

Speaking of things Canadian, the exchange rate of the Naira to the Timmie (See? Irresistible.) is currently 115 to 1, which means that my monthly VSO allowance of 30,000 Naira translates to roughly $260. If someone had told me before I came to Nigeria that I could comfortably live on $3000 per year, I would have slapped the top of my head and fallen flat on my face. (A rather unfortunate way to express shock, I admit. Small wonder that people stopped throwing me surprise parties.) The VSO perks extend beyond the monthly allowance, of course, as my residency at the Pink House doesn’t figure into that amount and travel in the Batmobile is free (if you don’t count the years taken off my life). But even with these bonuses, three grand doesn’t seem like much at first. In Nigeria, it constitutes a small fortune.

Consider some of the costs I’ve encountered to date:

Lunch of yam and beans with a Coke: 90 Naira ( = 78 cents Cdn)
One dozen bananas: 100 Naira (87 cents)
10 minute taxi ride from Kagoro to Kafanchan: 50 Naira (43 cents)
3 hour transport from Kafanchan to Kaduna: 500 Naira ($4.30)
Large bottle of Star beer (= two Moosehead): 150 Naira ($1.30)
Bottle of drinkable Spanish red wine: 600 Naira ($5.23)
Passing out and waking up with a new tattoo: Priceless

As with most places, the secret to stretching the Naira is to buy only local products and services. Any goods produced in Nigeria can be picked up cheaply, but abandon the yam in favour of a bowl of Trix? Silly rabbit. Trix are for millionaires. The stores that cater to ex-pats in the larger cities are glowing oases of Western consumption, but their shelves are stocked with fond memories at prices that I don’t remember. A regular box of Rice Krispies will set you back over $10 Cdn. A small jar of Nutella rings in at $8. On a volunteer’s salary, caving in to a comfort food craving can wipe out a month’s earnings in a single binge. Of course, window shopping is free, so an hour’s browsing is a good tonic for homesickness. And it’s also good fun to lurk in the parking lot and wait for Embassy staff to drop a can of Green Giant corn on the way back to their Cadillacs.

Detours to Haagen-Dazs heaven aside, it doesn’t take long for one to stop converting prices to a home currency and begin to think strictly in Naira. This leads to the joy of haggling, a competition worthy of inclusion as a demonstration sport in Beijing. Nothing ever has a price tag attached, so the initial cost depends on the vendor’s need, mood and estimation of you as an adversary. I’ve come a long way from my naïf days in the GSM Village, but my efforts in the market would still disappoint my cellphone negotiator. Still, I’ve walked away from okada drivers who demanded 30 Naira for a 20 Naira ride, so I see that as some measure of improvement. I know it sounds rather ridiculous and petty to argue over such small amounts, but the fact is that everyone negotiates and no one takes the process personally. Like the vendor in the Life of Brian, a failure to haggle is a missed opportunity for entertainment, especially when the buyer is more chump than Trump. And, unlike dancing on the Naira, haggling will not get you featured on "Nigeria's Most Wanted".

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


I share credit for this week’s installment with Adomi Ochuko, which is a nice way of saying that I was too lazy to write it all myself. Mr. Ochuko’s book, “Powerful Emotional Text Messages, Volume 5”, is listed as a “No. 1 Best Seller” and the back of the slender volume warns “CAUTION!!! 94% of the text messages in this book has changed people’s relationship positively, yours can not be an exception if you grab your copy now.” How can I resist? I need this book!!

Some background before we go any further. As mentioned, Nigeria is a nation of cellphone users and a recent adopter of the system. Prior to 2001, cellphones were non-existent in the country, and so was telecommunication for the most part. Some communities, including my hometowns of Kagoro and Kafanchan, had no telephone systems at all. Placing a call meant travelling to Jos, the nearest town connected by landlines to the rest of the country. This is a 90-minute journey by car. For critical matters, such as a death in the family, people relied on a network of relatives and friends to travel to other communities to spread the word. To say the introduction of the cellphone has transformed the country is an exercise in stating the obvious.

That is not to say that the system is perfect. Far from it, in fact. Three service providers currently vie for cellphone supremacy in Nigeria, but none seems to be competing through good service. My own provider, MTN, regularly fails and is sometimes unavailable for a day or more. The others, Celltel and Glo, have similar track records. This history of failure has led some in the country to hedge their bets by carrying two or more cellphones with different service providers, the expectation being that at least one will work at all times. Sadly, this often proves to be incorrect.

But the flawed system has led to an interesting trend in communication. No calling plans exist with any of the providers; rather, charge cards of different denominations can be purchased and loaded on to one’s phone. The sale of these cards has become its own industry, and booths painted in the respective colours of the three providers have become ubiquitous. I use a Celltel booth as a landmark for my stop when I take a taxi home. If they ever remove it, I’ll likely end up in Cameroon. Every call placed on the cellphone subtracts from the charged amount, and even brief domestic calls can soon reduce one’s balance to zero. But text messages (short emails typed out on one's phone) cost only a fraction of an actual call, so the majority of people communicate this way, rather than attempting to speak to each other.

It didn’t take long for satellite businesses to be created to capitalize on the text messaging phenomenon. One of the most interesting is the publication of books ( extended pamphlets, really) that seek to help those with writer’s block when it comes to communicating with their sweethearts. Ready-made text messages for all occasions and reasons, including birthday wishes, messages of encouragement and good morning greetings, are now at one’s fingertips. I don’t know whether Mr. Ochuko’s series represents the best or worst of these books on the market, but reading through some of the “new, hot and RELOADED” messages, I found some to be noteworthy, for reasons both good and bad.

So, just in time for Valentine’s Day next week, here is my top ten list of the most memorable love texts from Mr. Ochuko’s tome. Please feel free to use them and take full credit for their brilliance, but remember that only 94% of the text messages in the book changed people’s relationships positively, so the ones I've listed may be the 6% that flushed people from the bathroom of the heart (to paraphrase Johnny Cash). You’ve been warned.

All spelling, grammar and use of capitalization are as they appear in the book. Here we go!

10. If I hav a Heart Attack, then that’s all becuz of u, cuz, u r in my heart with anotha heart that is ur heart, which is striking my heart and saying, I LOVE U!

9. If 100% of people Love u, make Sure I’m one of them, if 99% hate u, make sure I’m the 1% which Love u, If 100% hate u, make sure I am dead.

8. U r like asthma, U take my breath away. U r likes dandruff, I can’t get U out of my head. U r like my car, U drive me crazy. U r like my Lips, I can’t smile without U.

7. Why did God Create U before Me….? Ans: Bcos he wanted to Create a Sample, Be4 Creating A *MasterPiece* He! He! He! Hu!! Hu!! Hey!! Hey!!

6. Just go to hell, yes u only ! bcos only u can change hell into heaven by your sweetness.

5. Can we do romance in the midnite 2day? I’m in a gud mood:) Just a little bit of kissing n bitin!! Reply me soon, urs Loving Mosquito

4. As a person u r:
In short U R an ASSHOLE!

3. Wakeup & Wink those Teeny Weeny Eyes. Stretch those lazy Winzy Bones, Wear that Jolly Winning smile & tell urself today is a beautiful day… Good Morning….

2. As u go 2 bed 2night, I ordered bats 2 guard u tight. I told some ghosts to dance in white, & 2 make sure u r alryt, i’LL ask the dracula 2 kiss ur neck goodnight..

And my personal favourite:

1. I m going to write on all the bricks I MISS YOU and I wish that one falls on ur head, so that u knows how it hurts when u miss someone special like u.

Ring the Bell - School's Back In

Friday, February 1, 2008

On the Road

We haven’t even left the parking lot yet, and I’m already covered in blood. Relax. It’s not mine. It belongs to Jesus.

Of course, I’m not speaking literally, as this would require Jesus to be riding next to me, and given the state of most Nigerian taxis, I think the answer to “What would Jesus do?” is most likely “Walk”. No, the metaphoric blood being spilled over me and the other passengers comes courtesy of a lay preacher who appears in the doorway of our van shortly before we leave for Ossiomo. It’s a common practice for a vehicle and its passengers to be blessed before a long-haul trip, which is why the protection of Jesus’ blood is invoked. I appreciate the sentiment and the prayer, although I’d rather not set out on a marathon journey with anyone’s blood on my mind. The preacher soon gets on a roll and is enjoying a vigourous call-and-response with my fellow passengers when our driver, obviously a philistine, decides he’s had enough and drives off, leaving him in the dust of the motor park. Undaunted, the preacher leaps into the open doorway of our van and continues as we speed down the road, his rear end swaying precariously out over the asphalt. It’s like getting a sermon from Indiana Jones. I fear our driver will use the nearest road sign to brush him off, but he relents and even slows down so the preacher can hop off safely once his prayer is complete.

Death-defying men of God are but one of the wonders found in the motor parks. Transport within Nigeria is dependent on these hubs, and one is amazed at first how anyone gets anywhere. For the uninitiated, the larger motor parks seem hopelessly chaotic and intimidating. Imagine walking into a full parking lot and having the driver of every car yell at you at once to come with them. The head spins. But a system does exist, and it works quite well once understood. Vehicles headed to different parts of the country are grouped in sections of the park according to their destinations. All I need to do is announce where I’m headed when I walk into the park and I’m immediately directed to the next available vehicle for that location.

This is where luck and timing are critical in equal measures. There are no scheduled departures. Vehicles only leave when completely full. If you’re the last person in, you leave immediately. First person in, enjoy your novel or crossword puzzle, because the wait can be an hour or more. And the vehicles are always filled to over-capacity, far beyond the recommended safety standards for the ……Ha! Ha! Recommended safety standards? Forgot where I was for a moment. If a car can comfortably seat eight people, then eleven can sit uncomfortably. If a van’s capacity is twelve, then there’s room for sixteen. And so on. I now know how circus clowns feel when a ridiculously large number of them exit their tiny clown car. (Relieved, I expect, and with a certain amount of numbness in their clown asses.)

My favourite ride so far was in a station wagon. As we all pile into the car, there’s a sense of going on a road trip with Mom and Dad, if Dad was a slightly hungover teenager and Mom was a three-hundred-pound businessman. The tight squeeze forces us all to put our arms around each other and we reluctantly hug each other for the duration of the drive. When my cellphone rings, I ask my new best friend to answer it, since his hand is already shoved into my pocket. Visions of Steve Martin and John Candy sharing a bed pop into my mind, though thankfully, no one’s hand has been between my pillows…..yet. Despite the close proximity, there’s surprisingly little interaction among the passengers once we get settled. The ride is completely silent, except for Dad’s use of the horn and his love of hiphop. People begin to doze and heads loll at painful angles. We all share a moment of amusement watching Mom fall asleep and drift over to put his head on Dad’s shoulder. What a nice couple. Inspired by the hugs received from my fellow passengers, I consider starting a singalong to pass the time, rather than continuing to sing the same songs in my head. Something jaunty like “Mony Mony” would encourage participation, although the X-rated version of the chorus could get me expelled from the vehicle. I’m on the verge of suggesting “Sudbury Saturday Night” when our wagon breaks down. On the railway tracks.

Normally, this would be cause for concern. I’ve seen enough silent film clips to know that the steam locomotives never come unless there’s a car or a damsel in distress on the tracks. We have both, if we count Mom. But thankfully, of all the dangers that exist in Nigeria, getting run over by a train is at the bottom of the list, thanks to a railway system long ago mothballed and never revived. As we exit the vehicle and push it off the tracks, my fear is more for Dad, as my fellow travelers start gathering the pitchforks and torches needed for official Angry Mob status. I don’t know the Hausa for “Can’t we all get along?”, but I can probably manage “Fire. Bad.” But my Tarzan-like peacemaking efforts aren’t needed in the end. The group resolves to funnel its anger into auto repair instead. I take my turn looking under the hood and grimacing knowingly, pointing out that the black thingie is missing its rack-and-pinion hubcap.

Eventually, we discover that the secret to preventing another stall is to keep the engine revved up at all times. This leads to a highly amusing scene repeated every time someone announces his or her stop and scrambles to get out of the car while Dad guns the engine in neutral. Amusing, that is, until it’s my turn. As we approach the Kagoro market, I zip up my backpack, give my seatmate a goodbye squeeze and get ready to jump. At the appointed location, Dad gives a nod and I grab the door latch to fling it open. And nothing happens. “Vroom, vroom!” goes the engine as I push on the stubborn door. I hear my travelling companions begin to murmur behind me, and I imagine them rummaging through their bags for their pitchforks and torches. Finally, Dad reaches around the outside of the door and pulls the handle. The door falls open as the engine falls silent. A collective groan shakes the wagon, and the remaining passengers get out to push again. I try to apologize, but my “Fire. Bad.” falls on deaf ears. The wagon soon sputters to life and everyone hurries to get back in, leaving me on the side of the road. I consider waving good-bye, but no one glances in my direction to receive it. I shoulder my backpack and start walking through the market toward the familiar cries of “Batauri!” It’s good to be home.

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