Thursday, August 1, 2013

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Nigeria

The truck, with about fifteen large men in the back, came whirling out of the chaotic roundabout and smashed into the back of our car, shunting us forward with rending and metallic noise. We pulled onto the side of the road. The truck stopped and all the occupants surrounded us at speed. One of them, with what I took to be odd logic, shouted out, "You crashed into us man! You will have to pay!" At the wheel of our car, Blessed tried to engage first gear and pump the accelerator to get us out of there. However, the truck guys jumped on the car and held it back easily with their bare hands. One of them jumped on the roof, another sat on the bonnet, the rest formed a scrum around the front bumper. It began to dawn on me this might be a life-threatening situation. Welcome to Kaduna! I thought to myself.

It was my second or third visit to Nigeria, but I remained a hopeless innocent about the country. I understood it had a big sky and red earth. That (as a journalist had explained to me) it had the agricultural potential to feed all of Africa, but was suffering rampant erosion and having to import its own food, because of a failure to rotate crops together with excessive use of fertiliser. That it was one of the world’s top crude oil producers, but there were petrol shortages. That the country’s two refineries regularly worked at less than 30% capacity because of sabotage and shortage of parts. That this benefited a petrol-importing mafia controlled by the army at the main port in Lagos. Having been brought up partly in Brazil, I got talking to a Nigerian and mentioned macumba: Brazilian black magic and Iemanja: the goddess of the sea. He considered this for a moment then observed laconically "She is one of ours." Of course, it was the slave trade that took West African gods and mysticism to the sugar plantations of Brazil.

This is the story of two drivers: a Muslim called K and a Christian called Blessed. A broadcasting company I worked for was doing a big educational project in Nigeria, intended to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. K and Blessed were employed by the bureau in Abuja, and had to meet the likes of me at the airport, and drive us to wherever we needed to go. In addition, their unstated mission was to keep us out of trouble and occasionaly save our lives.

K was tall, muscular, devout, and very serious. A strong man. He wore a long flowing gown and a small hat. Being a driver was one of his jobs: he was also a trade unionist and at other times a businessman. He looked after me and Karen, my fellow project manager.  He unflinchingly drove us through a roadblock where a drunken policeman demanded payment. K said a few hostile words to him in Hausa then roared through, while the policeman fumbled with his pistol as if he were going to shoot us. Once my heart rate had eased back down enough to allow speech, I asked whether it might have been better to pay the bribe and not risk being shot at? "No," said K, "if I paid him, all the other drunken policemen sitting in the hut would come out and want their own bribes. Better to drive through. Plus, you can tell whether someone is going to shoot just by looking deep into their eyes. I did and I knew he wasn’t going to shoot.  Just a drunken policeman."

K also saved Karen and I from a near riot that we caused. We had originally planned our project to be on religious freedom and the need for peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity in Nigeria. Eventually we were dissuaded from this, on the grounds that communal tensions were running so high that a well meaning but not fully thought-through workshop or round-table discussion on the subject might spark mayhem. So, instead the subject was women’s rights. We had persuaded a number of activists and organisations to script a play about women’s rights, which would be performed in the open air by local university students. The whole thing would be recorded for a radio series and discussions. It turned out to be a good plan and was reasonably successful. Yet, there was a wee flaw - we hadn’t thought enough about lunch.

At the time, it seemed fairly straightforward. We expected about 300 people to attend the event. We would offer them lunch – hot food and maybe cake for dessert. We had found a local Lebanese restaurant that was very happy to do lunch for 300, with payment in US dollars. The trouble began when the local street kids heard there was a free lunch going. At first, only one or two appeared, darting in and out grabbing food and drink. Then, there were 10 or 20. Later, about 40 swarming round like an ugly fighting mob, snatching the food. The restaurant owner’s car was overrun and its supply of cakes was devoured. I remember the driver desperately poking cakes out of a crack in the window in an attempt to hold back the surging masses. 

Karen and I were having a nightmare crisis of liberal conscience. The street kids were destroying our event and squabbling over food, but what to do? Call the police? The only police we’d met were drunk and threatening. Defend the food supply with a big stick? We’d be slaughtered, but even if we weren’t, how would we justify clubbing poor and clearly very hungry children? It was left to K to take the situation in hand. He strode in, barked out a few commands, and suddenly the storm abated. The street kids in their ragged clothes started lining up, a few of them giggling. I asked K what he had told them. "I said nobody gets a Coca Cola or a plate of food unless you form a single line in absolute silence and wait your turn." So they did. Simple.

Blessed too was a saviour. The first time he met me at Abuja airport, his job was to drive me North to Kaduna. We rode in silence under the big blue sky on a modern motorway. Every half hour or so, as if responding to a hidden signal, Blessed would suddenly slow down and drive more cautiously. Eventually, we’d come to a massive, unmarked hole in the road, like a small crater. Blessed would carefully drive around it, then pick up speed. Soon, the whole procedure would be repeated again. After a while, Blessed broke the silence, "I suppose you’ll be wondering about these holes." I agreed they did seem strange. "Well you see, when the motorway was built, there was a syndicate that wanted a government contract to maintain and repair it. The government didn’t want to give them a contract, because the road didn’t need repairing. So, the syndicate organised these holes to show there really was a need for its services. Now, I think they’ve got the contract."

This time, however, on the roundabout in the dusty outskirts of Kaduna, I thought Blessed and I were in deep trouble. I had become dimly aware of the fact that the truck guys were Muslims and Blessed was a Christian. And that I was the only white person there. "Why are you trying to escape?" said one of our captors holding the car. Blessed answered, "We are not trying to escape. I am trying to get to that disused petrol station, away from the traffic, so that we can discuss this matter there." I looked with horror at the old petrol station. It was dark, some way off the road, dusty and in disrepair. I felt it was a killing ground, the place where our corpses would eventually be discovered.  So we drove there, closely surrounded by our captors, the truck coming up behind. "You say nothing," Blessed hissed at me.

Once there, Blessed opened the door and climbed out, facing the guys from the truck who gathered round us in a semi-circle. He then began his speech. "I am driving my distinguished visitor (hand waving in my direction) to Air Force Base Number One in Kaduna, where he has a meeting with the Commanding Officer (a little bit of awkward shuffling among our captors with weight shifting from one foot to another). Now (voice louder as Blessed warms to his theme), regarding our small accident, if you would like to drive with us to the Air Force Base Number One, we can resolve the matter with the officers there (carefully times a pause as one, two, three seconds slip by). Or perhaps 100 Naira might resolve this problem right now?" Like a magician, Blessed somehow made a crisp 100 naira bill appear instantly in his outstretched right hand. The gesture seemed the very embodiment of reasonableness and diplomacy.

There was a pause. Almost nothing was said. The 100 Naira bill quickly changed hands with a slap on Blessed’s shoulder. Before I knew it, the tough guys had piled back into the truck and driven off. I stuttered out a lot of questions. Is there an Air Force base?  Does Blessed know anyone there? What would he have done if they had wanted to go there? Turns out there is a base and Blessed does know someone there – a distant cousin who has a job in the kitchen.  If they had wanted to go to the base, well, he would have thought of something.  

Andrew Thompson grew up in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. He works as a freelance journalist, management coach, and travel specialist at www.sumak-travel.org. He worked for BBC World Service as Commissioning Editor for Education and Development Manager for marketing BBC radio programmes in English, Spanish, and Portuguese throughout the Americas. Andrew read Politics, Economics, and Philosophy at Oxford. He served as a journalist in London and Rome, as a correspondent for The Guardian in Mexico City, and reported for The Times in Buenos Aires. Andrew won the 1994 King of Spain Journalism Prize, as editor of the team that produced a radio documentary on social reform in Latin America.

2 comments:

  1. Are beautiful and interesting images.
    Marisela Zamora Soto

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