Tuesday, July 29, 2008


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
- Toto, “Africa”

In case there’s any confusion, Toto is the 80’s rock group, not Dorothy’s dog from The Wizard of Oz, although he probably could better sing lines like:

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

It’s only now, sitting in Africa, that I can appreciate how ridiculous that song is. I’m still not sure how a dog (or anyone, for that matter) is ever going to find solitary company, but the band gets full marks for trying to find a word to rhyme with “Serengeti”, though I would have personally gone with “spaghetti”. My guess is that the band didn’t spend much time in Africa during the rainy season before they penned this song, because if they had, they likely wouldn’t be blessing the rain.

Of course, this is just the grouchy batauri in me speaking. The local residents do bless the rains, because they are dependent on them for survival. Despite the immense wealth that Nigeria enjoys from its oil reserves, it remains essentially an agrarian society, its citizens relying on subsistence agriculture to carry them from year to year. If you had told me in March that the parched landscape around me would soon produce more than dust devils and my chronic cough, I would have reckoned you were crazier than a cactus cuddler. Nuttier than a one-armed rattlesnake milker. Loonier than a coyote…..you get the idea.

But the rains did come, and it would be difficult to overstate the dramatic transformation of the countryside. If you blindfold me now and drop me 200 feet from my house, it would take me some time to recognize where I am. Of course, the same was true before the rain began, so this might not be the best gauge. But the speed of the growth of the grass and other plants is startling, as though they’ve been conditioned to maximize their existence before the rain disappears. Left to grow as it chooses, the greenery has even overtaken roads, reducing passing lanes to a single track in some places. I’m sure if I stood in one place long enough, I could grow another couple of inches taller. And gain some moss on my willy.

Not all of the growth is unplanned. As soon as the weather hinted at a change, people headed for their fields to prepare them for planting. Wielding a tool that’s a cross between a shovel and a hoe, the men dig their fields by hand, an extraordinary thing to witness. No tractor. No horse or oxen. Not even a plow. Just a shovel swung into the ground, acre after backbreaking acre. I wouldn’t last five minutes. Every morning as drove to the office, I would watch the men at work, already hours into their labour. Somewhat uncharitably, the one thought that dominated all others was not an admiration for their effort but rather a sense that there must be an easier way for them to farm the land. And the short answer to this is “Of course”. But the farming techniques we take for granted in Canada all come with a price tag that few people here can afford. With 90% of the population living on less than $2 per day, a plow might as well be a Cadillac.

Whether these men take the same amount of satisfaction in seeing their crops grow as people do with their hobby gardens back home, I don’t know. Given the stakes involved, I suspect the overwhelming feeling is rather one of relief. Whatever the case, the corn has now grown as high as an elephant’s eye, to paraphrase the old song (not from Toto, thankfully), so the first harvest will soon take place and the ground quickly replanted in an effort to make the most of the growing season, due to end in the early Fall with the final drop of rain.

The odd thing about the rain at the beginning of the season was its regularity. In Canada, storms blow in and out with little predictability. An early morning shower might not repeat itself for a week or a month. Here, I could set my watch by the approaching clouds. Almost invariably, the morning offered no clue to what would happen in the afternoon, with bright sunshine and warm temperatures befitting a brilliant summer’s day. By mid-afternoon, the clouds would slide in as though they were punching a clock and by four, one would swear the apocalypse had descended. Thunder, lightning, torrential rain and wind blowing like a hurricane’s nasty little brother. And within an hour, it was all over; any birds not blown to Cameroon tentatively resumed their songs and the storm was reduced to a memory to be replayed as déjà vu the following day.

Now that the rainy season is fully underway, that predictability is gone, replaced by a simple likelihood that the rain will fall at least once during the course of the day. This consistency has turned the dirt roads to muddy wallows, and the dampness in the air has people running to their closets to dig out the same jackets they wore during the height of the Harmattan. Perhaps it’s a sign of my adjustment to life here that I’ve also been favouring my waterproof coat lately, much to the amusement of my coworkers, who call me fully Nigerian now. The worst of the rain is still expected, as August tends to produce days of unrelenting drizzle, broken only by the occasional downpour. This makes everyday living a different kind of challenge, as even a quick trip to the store on the back of a motorbike will leave one soggy and sad. A planned trip to the South in a couple of weeks will likely exhaust my supply of garbage bags to keep everything dry. If Toto ever reunites for a tour of Nigeria, my guess is they’ll be seeking our solitary company during the dry season. It’s much easier to bless the rains when they’re not soaking you through to the skin.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Pie Nazi

The menu at the Crystal Palace in Abuja comes with the following warning: “Beware the food at roadside stands. You may be putting your life in danger!” A bit extreme, perhaps, but experience has shown that menus in Nigeria should at least come with a warning label that the food you receive may not resemble the order you placed. In some cases, this may be a good thing. Sitting at a roadside eatery in Gusau, Kristel and I examined the extensive list of breakfast options and debated whether we should take a chance on the “cock out with custard” before deciding that it was a dish best left unexplored.

On another occasion, we did make the mistake of placing an order for breakfast. It seemed safe enough. The Suhljuiced Breakfast Bar in Abuja was bright and clean, its staff apparently wide awake and ready to please. So my order of waffles with butter and syrup appeared to be bland and uncomplicated, especially compared to Kristel’s banana and Nutella challenge. When she opened up her breakfast box and found only a thin Nutella coating on her waffle and her banana MIA, I gave a supportive shake of the head while secretly thanking the breakfast gods for smiling on me, since the odds of lightning striking twice and both of our orders being screwed up was surely on par with picking the right numbers in the 6/49.

Sure enough, my waffle arrived in perfect condition, with a pat of butter melting leisurely in the centre and syrup running in all directions to provide a flawless coating. As the staff dusted off a banana from a back cupboard that they had apparently been saving for a special occasion, I smugly dug into my waffle. The first bite met expectations, the second one decidedly less so. Kristel noticed my grimace and asked what was wrong. “I think there’s something wrong with this butter,” I said, “I think it’s a little off”. The strength of our relationship was then put to the test, as I speared another square of waffle and said, “Here, try this.”, which is the gastronomical equivalent of asking, “Does this look infected?” Gamely putting the suspect piece in her mouth, Kristel chewed for a moment with that faraway look in her eyes that one gets when trying to identify a taste that defies recognition. Brightening suddenly, she said triumphantly, “No, it’s not off," she said, “It’s mayonnaise!”

It’s a true sign of my experience in Nigeria that this really came as no surprise and even more indicative of my time here that my gag reflex wasn’t triggered. Instead, I calmly walked over to our waitress and mentioned the curiosity that my breakfast had become. She shrugged and said it might have had something to do with using the same knife that had previously rested in the mayonnaise container. When I suggested that the combination of mayonnaise and syrup was best left to haute cuisine and requested a replacement, I received the blank stare that is apparently the universally recommended response for service providers faced with a demanding customer, followed by the inevitable sigh and a muttered comment that clearly translated to “Like, whatever”. Waving off the butter this time, I chose to go with the syrup straight up, and Kristel watched with amusement as I waited and fumed, her own Nutella and banana creation long ago consumed.

But all of these misadventures pale in comparison to my encounter with the Pie Nazi. With Kristel’s birthday coming up soon, I decided to find her an apple pie, her dessert of choice. Apples don’t exist in abundance in Nigeria; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to recall seeing any apple trees in the country since I’ve been here. As it turned out, her birthday coincided with the start of our stay in Abuja to facilitate the in-country training for VSO rookies, so this would hopefully make my search somewhat easier. If any place was going to have apple pies, surely it would be the capital city of the country. I was given the name and number for an upscale bakery by one of our VSO comrades. She said she had received instructions from the owner of the bakery that orders for special items like apple pies must be received at least a week in advance. “Or he may have said ordering a week in advance is too early," she said, “ I couldn’t really understand him. Anyway, good luck and save me a pie!” This is what’s known as foreshadowing.

On the designated day for ordering, ominously enough being Friday the 13th, I called the number:

“Hello? Is this Cherry’s?”
“Is this Cherry’s?”
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“I want to order an apple pie, please”
“OK. OK. You come in and place order.”
“I can’t come in. I’m in Kafanchan, I’m two hours away from you”
“OK. OK. You send someone in to order pie.”
“I can’t do that. I’ll be there to buy the pie on June 20th, next Friday”
“OK. OK. How many pies you want?”
“Just one.”
“You want just one pie?”
“Yes, I want only one…..Phone disconnects.


“Hi, I just called about the apple pie.”
“So, I want to come in and buy one apple pie. Only one pie. Next Friday, June 20th”
“Yeah. OK. OK. Bye bye.”

Not exactly bursting with confidence at this point, I followed up the calls with a text message to confirm my order and hoped for the best. The following week, I arrived in Abuja on the Thursday and decided it might be a good idea to visit my friend to make sure everything was set for the next day. Arriving at the bakery, I found it to be very upscale, the type of store that would fit in among the chichi shops of Bloor Street. I approached the counter and said I was there to confirm my order for tomorrow. Receiving the familiar blank stare, I asked if the owner was available, and the cashier rushed to the side of the store and whispered something to a man with his back to me. With an annoyed shrug of his shoulder, he brushed the cashier back to her post and turned to deal with me:

“Hi, I called you last week. I ordered a pie for tomorrow.”
“Ummm, I just wanted to make sure the order was OK and will be ready tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure. Tomorrow, you come and buy a pie, like this one.”

He pointed at the display case, where a lonely apple turnover sat forlornly on a plate.

“Right, but I want a whole apple pie, not just one piece.”
“That is apple pie.”
“Right, but I want many pieces of pie. Not just one.”
“That is apple pie.”
“But I want a big, BIG pie!” I helpfully gestured with my arms in a circle in front of me.
“That is only pie.”
“So, you’re telling me that is the only size of pie you have?”
“Can you make a big pie?”

Visions of the six people attending Kristel’s birthday dinner having to divvy up one apple turnover started to dance in my head.

“OK, so can I have six apple pies tomorrow?”
“Maybe, lemme check”

At this point, he stormed off to the back of the store, likely for his smoke break. Returning minutes later, he placed HIS order:

“Tomorrow, you come in the morning. You may get six pies. You may get five. I dunno.”

He shrugged his shoulders to indicate the end of the conversation.

In Canada, I would have told him how many pies he could shove in his pie-hole, but in Nigeria, he remained my best hope for apple pie, so I smiled and wished him a good day and said I would see him tomorrow.

The next day, I kept one eye on my watch as a full morning of preparation for the in-country training rolled by. I was sure that if I arrived one minute past noon, the Pie Nazi would refuse to sell me any pies. Likely, he would stand there and eat all six of them in front of me. So, by 11, I made the flimsiest of excuses to leave Kristel in the VSO office and dashed to Cherry’s to meet my deadline. Rushing in through the front door, I found him standing behind the counter in the same location as the day before. I resisted the urge to point to my watch and declare, “I’m here! I’m here!”. Turning around, he greeted me with a nod of his head. Or maybe it was just a twitch.

“Hello, I’m here to pick up my pies.”
“Yeah, today, you get four pies. That’s all.”

And that was all. Service with a snarl. Resigning myself to the fact that I would never see the two remaining pies, I boosted my order with the addition of two chocolate éclairs and left the store muttering a curse that his éclair would always be limp.

In the end, the effort was worth it. Kristel loved her apple pie and the rest of the dinner guests enjoyed their desserts as well. And I had a great story to tell as we finished off our meal. But I hope this will also serve as a cautionary tale for all of those seeking pastry in Abuja. Beware the Pie Nazi. His creations may be sweet, but he is definitely not a treat.