Thursday, September 25, 2008

Disbursement Day

One of the projects that I worked on for the Fantsuam Foundation was the development of a proposal for funding from the Friends of Nigeria, a group of former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in Nigeria in the 1960's and 1970's. Upon review of the proposal, the FON generously agreed to provide a grant to Fantsuam's Microfinance Department. For those of you unfamiliar with microfinance, it consists of very small loans (often $100 or less) provided to each member of a group of women needing support to start up their own businesses or expand their existing enterprises. These loans are repaid to the lender according to an agreed upon schedule, and the group members are responsible for ensuring that all members make this repayment. Upon successful repayment, the group may then qualify for a larger loan if desired. Though the amounts may not sound substantial to those of us accustomed to borrowing large sums for the purchase of homes or cars, these microfinance loans make a world of difference for people who need only very modest amounts to achieve much for themselves. For more on microfinance, check out the granddaddy of them all, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh:

After reviewing the potential groups who could receive the FON loan, it was decided that a group of women in the Zankan Marwa chiefdom, close to Kafanchan, would be the recipients. These women had previously received and repaid a loan to support themselves in the production and sale of maize and yam to their fellow villagers. On September 9th, I travelled with a group from Fantsuam as they made the disbursement of the loan to the women. After a series of discussions with the women regarding the loans, the leader of the group was presented with the loan, and she presided over the presentation of a share of the loan to each of the other women in the group.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Only Penguin in Nigeria (Part II)

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had just arrived in Bashu village after a harrowing bike ride that left bricks in the pants of one of them. What awaits them in the village? Read on, if you dare.........

By this time, the entire village was aware of our arrival. From the looks we were getting, we may as well have descended from the heavens in a shiny spaceship and demanded to see their leader. The children were especially curious, and a crowd soon assembled outside the office where we had been deposited by our drivers. The boldest of them gave us waves that we returned, something that the daredevils could boast about to their pals later on at the bar when they were doing shots of milk. Eventually, a delegation of clearly perplexed men arrived to let us into the office. After the exchange of greetings, the spokesman for the group politely asked us why we had come. Kristel explained that Joseph from the Obudu Cattle Ranch said we should visit, hoping the mention of our guide’s name would kickstart the welcome wagon. From the confused looks on the faces of our new hosts, we may as well have said we were sent by Darth Vader. Taking the lead, another of the group introduced himself as a representative of the Cross River National Park and he welcomed us to the Park. Now, if he could just have a look at our visitors’ permit? Uh oh. Looking at each other, Kristel and I played a mental game of rock-paper-scissors. Rock beats scissors. Kristel broke the bad news, “We don’t have a permit. Joseph didn’t tell us we needed one.” A murmur went through the delegation. Whoever this Joseph was, he was clearly a troublemaker, sending hopeless white people to them without the proper paperwork.

Explaining that a permit was necessary to visit the Park, the rep helpfully explained that we could get one from the Park office and then return. “And where’s the office?” I asked. “Near Ikom,” he replied. Ikom, as in Ikom-at-the-other-end-of-our-dirt-road-nightmare. “The Park is very wonderful,” the rep continued, ignoring the distressed look on our faces. “There are elephants and gorillas and chimpanzees and unicorns and leprechauns”. Well, OK, he didn’t mention the last two, but he may as well have, considering we wouldn’t be seeing any of the others, either. “We’re only here for a day,” Kristel replied, “Is there anything we can do without the permit?” “Of course!”, said the spokesman, seizing control of the conversation again, “You can sleep in our eco-lodges and visit the Picathartes Sanctuary.” “Sounds great!” Kristel and I exclaimed, neither one of us knowing what the hell a Picathartes was, though if forced to guess, I would have said it was either a dinosaur or an ancient Greek philosopher. Either way, the pictures would be interesting.

Pointing at a sketch on the wall, the spokesman told us that the Picathartes was a rare species of bird found in this region. A bird? I risked my life to see a bird? So much for making the cover of National Geographic or Philosophers Monthly. I tried to conceal my disappointment as he explained the project designed to ensure the preservation of this stupid bird. Asking if we wanted to go to the Sanctuary now, we said we preferred to settle in to our eco-lodge first. Before leaving the office, we were presented with their visitors’ register and we were amazed to find we were their first guests in over six months. Six months! Small wonder that we caused such a commotion.

Leading us down a path away from the village, the spokesman started up what would become a familiar refrain throughout our stay, “You really should have let us know you were coming. We aren’t prepared”. The tone wasn’t angry, more apologetic than anything else. Reaching the group of eco-lodges, we found a site that likely hadn’t been touched since the last visitors were here. “Eco-lodge” is a term in common use throughout the world and generally is applied to any inn that practices some form of ecologically responsible operation, whether it's recycling its waste water or running its systems off solar power. In this case, the best that could be said was that the site was producing very little waste of any kind. But the cabins were in a decent state of repair, and we had the pick of the lot. Settling on #5, we were ushered away by our entourage, who promised to do a radical makeover of the inside. Kristel and I were charmed by the effort that was being made and feeling somewhat guilty over the obvious disruption we had caused.

A tour of the village was the next item on the itinerary, and our walk revealed a community that was surprisingly large, given how remote it had seemed. A school with an attractive football field was the centrepiece of the village, and the shops and bars found in other places also made their presence known here. We were joined on the tour by practically every child in the village, so we began to feel like pied pipers. Two girls with albinism were pushed toward us by the other children, who obviously thought we should meet others like us. The girls seemed an accepted part of the community, but our visit seemed to aggravate the divide between them and the other children, resulting in much unwanted attention. “They call these girls ‘Oyibos’, just like you!” our tour guide said with a laugh. What a tough life they must lead, I thought.

Returning to our cabin, we found the delegation had been true to its word, and mattresses and floor mats now decorated our new home. Stretched out on the mattresses for a lunch of sardines and crackers, we soon heard the return of the delegation. A knock on the door was followed by shouted greetings, even though they were only five feet away from us. One by one, they entered and said hello, and soon our one-room cabin was filled. After another exchange of greetings, the room fell silent, and Kristel and I exchanged “What is this?” glances. Finally, one of the delegation identified himself as the Director of Tourism and introduced each of the others in turn, and we understood that this was our official welcoming ceremony. The Director apologized for the state of the cabin and seemed embarrassed that we had caught them so unprepared. We assured them that everything was more than fine and that we appreciated their efforts. Settling on a time of four o’clock for our visit to the Sanctuary, we said our goodbyes and the delegation departed, only to reassemble in front our cabin. After an intense discussion, another knock on the door and shouted greetings, as if they hadn’t just left five minutes ago. “What do you take for your dinner?” came the question through the screen door, “We will tell the cook lady to cook for you.” After some debate over why we didn’t want meat, we reached agreement with them on rice and stew (a sauce for the rice), and the delegation once again bid us farewell, leaving us to our sardines.

At four o’clock, we made our way up the path and found a new delegation waiting for us at the top of the hill. The leader this time was the Parks rep, who had apparently resigned himself to the fact that we were never going to visit his park. Walking along the same road that we had flown over with the bikes, we soon came to a stream that seemed bound to defeat my waterproof boots. “No problem. I will carry you.” offered the rep, crouching down. Given that my last piggyback ride was when I was five, I was somewhat reluctant, but it came down to my dignity versus my dry feet. So long, pride! With Kristel snapping pictures to capture the moment, I jumped on the rep’s back and he waded through the stream, carrying me like the world’s biggest toddler. Actually, I started to like being carried, so I was sad when I was dumped on the other side of the stream. We next tackled the hill leading to the Sanctuary, and this provided ample evidence of how badly out of shape I am. I was afraid my wheezing would scare away any Picathartes not accustomed to flabby birdwatchers, so I was glad to finally see the Sanctuary shack jutting out of the hillside.

Arriving inside, the rep flipped down one of the sideboards and motioned for us to follow his lead and look outside. And there we sat, for the next hour. Every once in a while, the rep would stir and point with quiet excitement up in the trees and his companions would make noises indicating their awe. I started to think they were having us on, because I couldn’t see a thing, so every once in a while, I would point up in the trees as well, even if it was just my imagination playing tricks on me. Maybe I watched too many music videos in my youth, but my attention span isn’t what it used to be, so after twenty minutes of staring at leaves, I started to get restless and walked around the inside of the shack, mindful of every creak and snap I was causing. On one of my strolls, I looked up through a crack in the roof and there it was! A Picathartes! Its great grey head bobbed up and down on a branch not twenty feet away. I tried to get people’s attention through a series of whimpers and coughs, and finally Kristel turned around to see what was wrong with me. Pointing up through the roof, I tried to get my message across, but my attempt was in vain, for by the time that Kristel looked up, the bird was gone. But I had seen the damn thing, so my march up the mountain was not for nothing. After another forty minutes of watching the rain fall on the leaves, the rep gave the signal and we started down the hill. “So, I saw one of them”, I said proudly to the rep as we descended. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he replied, “Especially that brilliant red head”. Red head? What the %$*$ did I see? “Yeah, it was pretty spectacular,” I lied. Stupid Picathartes.

As we headed down the hill, Kristel and one of the guides carried on ahead of the rest of us and soon disappeared from view. Suddenly, there was a series of shouts coming from their direction. At last! I thought. A Picathartes! Or maybe at least a pretty crow! Rushing to catch up to them, we found Kristel spinning around and swatting at her legs while the guide stood to one side and watched her. Poor girl, I thought. She’s finally snapped. Travelling with me has finally sent her over the edge. “Ants! Ants are biting me!” she yelled as she continued her solo dance. Seeing her in distress, I sprang into action and immediately tried to find another path for myself. Soon, I started to feel things crawling up my legs as well, and Kristel and I began grooving together to a silent beat. Watching us with a mixture of sympathy and amusement, our companions seemed curiously unaffected by the ants. Finally, the rep said, “Maybe we will walk on and leave you to….” he mimed dropping his pants. Once the delegation was out of sight, we did just that, any sense of embarrassment being overshadowed by the need to get to the ants before they got to our naughty bits. The ants were nothing if not tenacious, and once they latched on to the skin, they refused to let go. Taking our cue from the chimps at Afi Mountain, Kristel and I did a good job of inspecting each other and picking off the offending insects one by one. Finally, when no more could be found, we pulled up our pants and joined the others at the base of the hill, our dignity in tatters but our private parts intact.

With the sun dropping below the mountains, I retired to our cabin while Kristel went to settle our account and take another look at the sketch of the bird we never saw. Arriving shortly after me, she entered the cabin to find me cleaning off the remaining dead ants clinging to me. I barely had time to cover up before the delegation paid us another visit to check on us and drop off our dinner. Bidding us a good night, they walked up the path and stopped within earshot. Another intense discussion. “What do you suppose they’re talking about this time?” Kristel asked. “My guess is they’re trying to figure out how to get us some light.” I replied. Sure enough, twenty minutes later, the delegation returned with a battery operated nightlight for us, just in time to save us from the encroaching gloom. Confirming our departure time of six a.m. with them, we wished them a good night once more and settled in to fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and probably a few Picathartes. Bastards.

Getting up the next morning before dawn, we stumbled out of the cabin to wash up and brush our teeth, hoping that we made enough noise to scare away anything big enough to eat us. The delegation awaited us at the office in the village and we met the director of the Sanctuary project for the first time. “You really should have let us know you were coming,” he said. But we assured him that everything was great, and we meant it. The effort made by the villagers was touching and we appreciated everything they did for us. Refusing to let us leave before taking a few pictures, the director posed us on either side of the sign for the Sanctuary and snapped away. Considering how I looked, I doubted I would merit consideration as their poster child. Twin barking coughs down the road signaled the return of our bikes and I resisted the urge to embrace my driver, sensing this might spike the cost of the return trip. Handing me a piece of paper with contact information on it, the director made me promise to tell others about them so that they could expect more visitors like us. And one last time: “But please tell them to contact us before they come.”

On the road once again, we sped along at an even faster clip than the day before, our drivers obviously in a hurry to return to their beds or maybe meet their Maker. A bridge proved insurmountable for two of us on the bike, so my driver reluctantly asked me to get off, as though this diminished his reputation for good service. Stopping short of the main road to clean his legs in a stream, my driver asked me what I could give him. “Like what?” I asked, fearing the worst. “How about a book?” he replied, “Or maybe a shirt?” “You want one of my shirts?” I asked incredulously. Having smelled the inside of my backpack over the past two days, I wasn’t sure I wanted any of my shirts, but I agreed to give him one when we arrived at the main road. Handing him one of the shirts, he said, “No, I want the red one you wore yesterday”. My Antarctica shirt. The one emblazoned with the name of the ship that took me there and a picture of one of the penguins that greeted me when I arrived. A collector’s item now, considering that the ship was now sitting at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean, the victim of an undetected iceberg. But I thought of the conversations bound to be sparked in the village by a shirt bearing a penguin and the name of a continent a world away, and I realized it probably had more value for him than for me. Tossing it to him, I told him it needed a good wash and he proudly unfurled it across his chest for all to see, a smelly souvenir of the two Oyibos who came to visit without calling first.

Bashu Village and Picathartes Sanctuary

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Only Penguin in Nigeria (Part I)

The network of VSO volunteers in Nigeria has covered the country like a spy ring, minus the nifty gadgets and femmes fatales. Few groups have travelled as extensively as this hardy group of expats, and the information they have gathered could fill a guidebook. And has, in fact. The most recent version of the Bradt guide contains extensive submissions from Kevin O’Rourke, a volunteer stationed in Kaduna for two years. His output was legendary, extending even to the design of a transit map for the local buses. Of course, the amount of exploration undertaken by the VSO gang does lend itself to a kind of healthy competition. Mention a weekend outing to a fellow volunteer and one is likely to receive a slight smile in return, followed by a long-winded tale that begins “You should have been there with me in ’06 when I was robbed by a cross-eyed pirate with a wooden nose. Now, that was interesting.” Travel to such famous locations as the Wikki Warm Springs is usually only mentioned in passing to avoid the embarrassment of being outed as some kind of tourist virgin. So, discovering an area as yet unexplored by fellow VSO’ers is a bit like finding the Fountain of Youth in the middle of the Lost City of Gold. And that’s just what Kristel and I did on the last leg of our visit to Cross River State.

The discovery almost didn’t happen, thanks to my rapid transformation into a crotchety old man. As I’ve said before, travel in this country is not for the faint of heart or the prone of bitchiness. A week on the road here is the equivalent of 87 years in Canada. So, on what I thought was our final stop on our tour through the state, I was less than enthusiastic when our nature reserve guide leaned in and, in a low voice that could easily have been mistaken for a conspiratorial whisper, told us of a place that was relatively unknown and difficult to find. I acknowledged his directions with a quick nod of the head and a “Uh huh. Yup. Got it”, only to look over and see Kristel carefully writing down every last dirt road and police station. Fuckaduck, I thought. But at this point, our choices were to head back a day early to face a premature return to our respective offices or to press on into the unknown, so I gave my head a shake and opted for a new adventure.

It didn’t begin well. The rainy season was on full display as our car splashed its way down the road. Public transport is always a novel experience, and this time was no exception, as there were actually two people sitting in the driver’s seat. Not sure whose foot was on the gas pedal, but my money was on the guy who had more interest in the radio than the road. As we reached our destination, Kristel asked that we be dropped at the police station. “What? Back there?” one of our drivers said, as we sailed on down the highway. “No, this is just as good”, he said, stopping the car by a lonely lean-to that was currently sheltering a dozen people from the monsoon. Dragging our sodden bags under cover, we joined the others and listened to their discussion that likely centred on building an ark. When the rain finally eased to a downpour, Kristel began the negotiations for our bike ride to the village. Told by our guide a day earlier that the cost should be no more than 500 naira each, we were less than impressed by the opening demand of four times that much. This was soon halved by Kristel’s persistence and my supportive frowning. The deal hit a stalemate at this point and we considered abandoning the whole trip, going so far as to stand by the side of the road to try to flag down another overcrowded vehicle.

But Kristel refused to quit, so while I stood by the road, she continued to talk to the drivers. At one point, one of the villagers came out to join me by the roadside. Expecting some camaraderie, I instead found him staring at me. “You have something here”, he said, pointing at my face. “Where?” I said, imagining some bug about to suck my brains out through my nose. Apparently, my question was taken as an invitation, because before I could stop him, he jammed his finger in the corner of my eye. “Still there” he said, coming in for another try. “No, I’ve got it, thanks”, I said, waving him off, my watering eye surely drowning anything that posed a threat. Our intimate encounter did not go unnoticed by the rest of the villagers, who now formed an appreciative audience by the roadside. Wading through them, Kristel gave me a smile that showed she had enjoyed the performance as well.

Getting down to business, she said the drivers wouldn’t accept our final offer of 700 naira, so we were finished with them. We had resigned ourselves to a long ride home when a miracle happened. Breaking solidarity with his biker brethren, one of the drivers drove up to us and said he would take us for 700 naira. With the wall now torn down, the others jumped to get a piece of the action and we soon had a half-dozen bikes circling around us like raspy vultures. My bag bounced from one bike to the next before I finally yelled, “SOMEBODY TAKE US!” I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at a group of complete strangers before, and as a first effort, it came across a bit more needy than I would have liked. But it was effective, and two drivers finally broke from the pack and asserted their right to take us. With my backpack nestled between the handlebars, my driver and I took the lead on the dirt road, with Kristel and her man in close pursuit.

And what a road it was. If our previous ride to Afi Mountain was risky, this one was downright dangerous. The rains had turned the road into a treacherous slick, with huge ruts in the road giving way to mounds of mud topped by a track no wider than the tires on the bikes. Zooming along these precipices with the precision of a tightrope walker, the drivers hit them as fast as they could, fearing a stall that would surrender their bikes to a boggy end. The stretches of road that were relatively solid were seen as a way to make up for lost time, so we took them at top speed. I began to pray that the next corner would reveal another wallow, so we could at least stop breaking the sound barrier, Along the way, we passed through villages whose inhabitants clearly weren’t expecting white people to be making an appearance that morning. “Oyibo!” yelled the children as we flew past. “Help meeeeee!” I tried to yell in return. At the forty-five minute mark, we reached a river that I thought signaled the end of the road, but our drivers refused to give in, and we forded it like pioneers on a cattle drive. Finally, we reached the village of Bashu and I clambered off the bike on very shaky legs. Pulling up behind me, Kristel jumped off her bike, showing no signs of our near-death experience. “Maybe we should give them 1000 naira,” she whispered to me and I nodded my wholehearted agreement, recognizing that a small bonus payment might be the only way to ensure that the drivers would return to take us back to the outside world.

Will Kristel and Glenn make it back to the outside world? Will they still be talking to each other by the end of this trip? And where's the penguin? For answers to these questions and more, tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of “The Only Penguin in Nigeria”.