Monday, June 12, 2006
There's a special god just for travelers and she gives keeps track of good and bad experiences so she can be "The Great Equalizer" I guess (I'm tempted to make "The Great Equalizer" a quiz -- it's a character in my other favorite book -- it's fiction and it takes place in Los Angeles in 1963). Anyway she took care of me today -- even on the freeway journey home. A wonderful woman sitting behind me overheard me leaving a message for the contractor who was supposed to have my Burbank house fixed and painted when I got home. He left me messages that he had been sick. When he didn't answer his phone today, I left him a message suggesting that maybe he'd been kidnapped by a band of Trolls and couldn't escape.
The woman was amused and we chatted. She gave me a few lessons on how to deal with contractors. It was clear she knew her stuff. I asked her if she was a contractor and she said "No, I'm Tinkerbell."
She wasn't kidding. Her real name is Margaret Kerry and she was the model Walt Disney used for Tinkerbell when made the film "Peter Pan" back in 1951. She was returning from England where she was doing some personal appearances. She's been an actress since she was a kid. She's also done voice-overs for "Clutch Cargo" (Lips) and a lot more.
We were laughing about experiences with contractors who say they'll be somewhere and then don't show up. I thought about calling him and saying, "Sure. You were sick. Uh huh. And I drove home from the airport with Tinkerbell!"
She's a most charming woman. She has a Website: wwwtinkerbelltalks.com, but her links are not right. I wasn't able to get past the first page. I'll e-mail her and tell her about it. She lives only about two miles from me.
It just goes to show, however, that there are interesting people everywhere. You just have to strike up a conversation with them to unlock their stories.
In my last blog entry, I revealed the secret of the last "Mystery Photo" (see way below for the original photo I posted). I'm putting up some other shots of the new roof job atop an historic building the British built in about 1925.
It's at the top of the highest hill in the oh-so-massive city of Ibadan. I'm also including a shot that shows you the view from up there. In every direction there's an ocean of the reddish-brown roofs. Some of these houses were build of mud (similar to adobe) more than a hundred years ago.
I'm not retiring the blog. There are still a lot of things that are in my head that want to get out. If you have any suggestions for making it better, please let me know. I'm not a very good judge of what people like.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
I decided to memorialize Nigeria by including a photograph of a gigantic cumulous cloud over Yola. The cloud symbolizes the abundant supply of water in this part of the world. And if the photo could come to life for about 30 seconds, you would be able to see the evening electrical light show the cloud offers.
The lightening reminds me of the natural energy this beautiful country possesses. If they can't harness the static electricy in the air, they could certainly turn their rich supply of crude oil into enough juice to wire up every hut in every village.
But when I see the clouds filled with water and electricty, I will think about the corruption within government in Nigeria that bleeds the nation of its resources. It's more than the inconvience of staying in a hotel that lacks water and lights. That's just fodder for amusing anecdotes. It's about the most populous and riches African country that should be the cornerstone of the continent's economy, but instead stands as a model of how not to manage its resources, its brain power and its overall potential.
Maybe you shouldn't care. The truth is that you should. You must. Nigeria's impact on the United States is enormous. Nigeria has done its part in causing the gasoline prices in the U.S. to soar. There is no shortage of highly educated people in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the country is exporting them rather than offering them jobs at home. And way too many of these educated Nigerians are involved in credit card scams, identity theft and other white collar crimes in the U.S. Some of those who cannot find their way to America have learned how to use the Internet to steal from people in the U.S. And while Nigeria is not a major source of illegal drugs, it is a source of some of the biggest brokers of the drugs that ultimately end up on the streets of our cities.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not condemning all of the Nigerians. Given their lot, they are remarkable individuals who are as cordial and as welcoming as any group of people I've encountered. There are no able-bodied Nigerians standing by the roadside with signs that say, "Homeless," or "Will work for food." To survive, most of them seek jobs. When there are no jobs, they take to the roadside and sell things. They are the supermarkes and the malls of Nigeria. And a few are so desperate that the turn to crime -- inside and outside of Nigeria.
I'll choose to remember the cordial and welcoming majority and not the criminals. But I'll also remember the clouds.
On a final note, the mystery photo I posted earlier is of a man building a roof out of a strong, blue material. It's atop a large building the British built in the 1920s. It's under reconstruction.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
This flat, two-sided palm was outside our hotel in Ibadan.
This was an exciting discovery alongside the Benue River near Yola. It's a variation of the "Sensitive Plant" (maybe a Catclaw Mimosa [Giant Sensitive Plant], Mimosa pigra L.).
I first encountered this wonderful "weed" when I was training my sentry dog in Okinawa. We were allowed to take a break, so we plopped down in a plush bush. When I got up, it appeared the bush was gone. The leaves quickly fold up when you touch them. I found them growing in Hawaii also.
Much of the drive from Abaju, in the center of the country, to the Gusau in the northeast, was through a seemingly never-ending savanah. At first glance, these trees appeared to have been recovering from fire damage or pruning or stripping, but it turns out this is what is is.
I want to believe that this is a baobab tree. I want to believe it because I've always dreamed of seeing a baobab tree. It if it is a baobab tree, then there are a lot of them around. Keep in mind that when we travel between cities, we move quickly -- not a lot of time to stop and ask people what kind of tree it is. Did you notice the people gathering beneath the big branches of this proud tree? If you don't know about the baobab tree, then it's clear that you never read Antoine de Saint Exupery's "The Little Prince." And if that's the case, you really must read it right away. You're likely to grow up and get all wrapped up in "matters of consequence."
If you get too wrapped up in "matters of consequence" you forget what's really essential. And if you forget what's really essential, then you're not likely to notice the beautiful things that grow all over the world -- even if some people refer to them as weeds.
There's a remedy. It's never to late to read or re-read "The Little Prince". If you've read this far, I'm certain you have the time to renew your youth and learn what's truly essential. You can read the book -- and see the great drawings -- at http://www.vsaint.com/prince/.
Send me an e-mail if you take the plunge.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
A local contact and one of the participants in the next day’s seminar met us and drove us to Yola International Hotel. It sounded like we were in for an experience that would be a cut or two above some of the other venues. But it would turn out to be and experience that would showcase the trickle-down effect of the election fraud and political corruption we were there to empower journalists to write about.
It’s funny how after only two weeks in Nigeria I had already jettisoned the expectation of so many of the little niceties that we all take for granted – you know, things such as continuous electricity, on-demand tap water and even towels and toilet paper. It wasn’t alarming, then when one of the employees led us up a maze of nearly pitch-black stairways and down equally dark hallways to our “diplomatic suites.”
It was clear that the hotel was massive in size – another reason for optimism.
He was able to find the right keys in the dark and quickly turn on a light in my room. At first glance, I thought of the once-luxury hotel I’d stayed at in
This one seemed to have been locked in a time warp for even longer. There was no was I was going to sit on the old sofa or the overstuffed armchairs – too many things could have taken up residence inside. There was a TV with rabbit ears that could hear nothing. There was water, but it was in two big plastic barrel tubs.
Murky, dirty water.
I had bought a couple of those submersible electrical elements that heat water, so I knew I would have hot water of some sort in the morning – even if the water didn’t start flowing from the taps.
Indeed, the shower was more of a sponge bath with a towel. I washed my hair by pouring the heated water over my head as I knelt by the tub. The only shower was the baby powder that cascaded down my back and legs.
It was light now, so I was able to retrace my steps and find the lobby. The woman at the front desk pointed me toward the restaurant. I found a dark room with a lot of tables, but no customers and no employees in sight. Back to the desk.
This time a young man accompanied me back to the same room and went in search of a waitress. He left me alone with her.
“Good morning. Can I buy some breakfast?”
I don’t like clichés, but the deer in the headlight really says it best. When she didn’t respond, I started giving examples.
“You know. Eggs maybe? Some bread? Maybe even butter?”
I think she muttered, “Let me check?” but I’m not sure. She returned just a moment later and spoke more clearly.
“No. I checked with the kitchen and we have no food.”
OK. I returned to the front desk and politely asked the women at the desk if there was an alternative to the restaurant. They said there wasn’t.
This is going to sound a lot more sarcastic than my actual tone, but I said, “Help me with this, please. When all the people who sleep in all of these rooms get up in the morning and they want to eat, where do they go?”
“They usually eat in the restaurant,” she said sort of proudly. Then she frowned a bit and said, “But it’s not working today.”
No time for explanations – I need something to fuel my energetic and flamboyant presentation today.
“Is there a way to get a bottle of Coke?”
She spoke in a local language to some of the other employees standing around.
“One of the men can ride to town and buy you a Coke, but only this time.”
With a “never mind” I strolled outside to ponder whether to consume my emergency half-can of processed potato chips or my emergency M&M Peanuts (covered with a thin candy shell) this early in what would be a six-day journey outside the capital.
When I walked around to the backside of the hotel, however, I was taken aback by the view of the river. It seemed to encircle the promontory on which I was standing on three sides. There were lush-looking islands and I could see men standing at rear of long boats or canoes. But they were just tiny specks.
And then I saw the village. Round huts made of straw or something – no roads or cars in sight. It was right up against the water. It was what I had dreamed of seeing and I knew I had to go there.
I reported to the conference room where my associate Jide and my fellow speaker, Marcin, had just discovered the “no food” situation. Jide was concerned about the lunch he had already paid for – a lunch for 20 participants. Marcin, like me, was concerned about breakfast.
Jide is a tall, friendly, mild-mannered and well-educated Nigerian. He has learned, however, to not take any guff off of hotel people who have already taken his organization’s money. Soon there was a manager there who apologized to all of us for the confusion and was able to find some eggs, bread, butter, hot tea and even some powdered milk for the cereal Marcin had brought with him from
As we ate, Marcin explained that he had just learned that the hotel was owned by the state and that it was supposed to close today to begin a year-long refurbishment. They decided at the last minute, however, to not pass up the chance to host one more conference, so the stayed open two days longer for our visit.
That explained a lot. There were no others in all of the other rooms. Any electricity they needed apparently came from generators that aimed their juice at whatever part of the hotel we were occupying at the moment.
We did the seminar in the sweltering heat of the big room they called their conference center and, for part of the time, enjoyed the air movement provided by a couple of fans. I didn’t expect to work sweat-free. Jide was relieved when lunch arrived and he could feed his participants.
After the conference, our local friends agreed to take us to see the city. I had made it clear several times that my journey here would be a complete success if I could go to that little village. Our local friend agreed to drive us there.
There was no beaten path – we walked down a natural stairway made up of the huge rocks that exposed their bald heads above the ground. As we descended, we met friendly but slightly curious people at work living their lives in and between their huts and the river below. Many employed fences of braided or woven straw or reeds or leaves.
At the river, we watched the children play in the water while their mothers washed metal pots and plastic bowls in the dirty water. A handful of mud seemed to be a good replacement for a scouring pad.
I had made friends with a man named Richard who was cutting his daughter’s hair as we passed. He later caught up with me and showed me how he uses poles sticking out of the water to catch fish. He waded into the murky water and pulled one of them out to reveal the fishing lines and hooks that await the river fish.
When I asked Richard about the boats I had seen, he took me to a little cove where there were three such boats resting. Two were locked down with a chain, so he rocked the other one back and forth to remove much of the water inside and invited me to join him on the river.
My associates watched with curiosity and a little bit anxiety – they’ve supposed to make sure I survive the
“Don! Tell me you know how to swim,” Marcin shouted to me.
After I returned safely, we interacted with the friendly residents some more and then went to see what everyone else wanted to see – the
Still no running water. The electricity was on for a while. I ate in my room – but I didn’t sit on the chairs or sofa.
In the morning, I decided that one towel wasn’t sufficient for the sponge bath, so I relied on the fact that we were the last guests there on the last day of our stay. I used one of the pillow cases as a wash cloth.
We had ordered (when I say “ordered” I man just that) breakfast the night before. It was awaiting us. Jide didn’t show up to eat, however. We found him at the front desk with a look of anger on his face that would scare away a
He had been careful the day before to make certain that the manager agreed that the hotel would refund about $80 because some of the participants didn’t show up. But this morning, last of the employees to remain at the dying hotel said they didn’t have the money and that the manager had already quit.
Jide wouldn’t accept it. Marcin knew that the manager had planned this theft all along and told them that if they didn’t find the money, he was going to take the television from his room.
I tried to explain to him how this dispute might have to be negotiated from a jail cell if he tried to take a television, but he said this is the only way to deal with these people.
He started up the stairs. The woman at the desk called for security. Of course, security had already been laid off, I think. Jide convinced Marcin to get in the car so we wouldn’t miss our plane to the next city.
Jide had managed to squeeze about $15 of local money out of the people at the hotel. That still left us in the hole, but we’d have to leave to cut our losses. As we were about to leave, the man from the restaurant came with the breakfast bill we hadn’t paid.
“You need to pay for your breakfast,” the woman a the desk said.
It was in the car that we talked about how we had just experienced the political corruption. The money that was supposed to be maintaining the state-owned hotel went into the pockets of the elected officials and to the godfathers who had funded the vote-buying that put the crooked politicians in office. The godfathers got their money before it went to the hotel and, even worse, before it went to the people of that village. It was a village with no running water. They were drinking the water I was gagging on when I used it to wash my hair. The had little or no electricity. They fed themselves from the river. And just 100 yards up the hill – on the road where we had parked – the rich politicians lived in grand estates that with high walls, metal gates and armed security guards.
The only way to get ahead in
In Nigeria, people grab what they can.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Also, I’m not sure how up-to-date the information is about the woman sentenced to death by stoning. Again, I did a quick search and didn’t find an update right away. Since I’m awaiting a ride to the airport, I’m not going to do extensive research. (You've seen this Gusau woman and her child before -- I think she remembers you.)
Seeing its popularity, the other northern states were not far behind in implementing similar laws, and Zamfara was followed by
Saturday, June 03, 2006
I've been in
Why am I here? I'm doing consulting for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that exists to promote fair elections around the world. For much of the trip I'm traveling with a brilliant and dedicated elections expert from
Our mission is to empower journalists from each of the 37 states of
Where folks in the western world are quick to tip someone for a kind gesture or a job well done, the Nigerians know to pay first and worry about service later -- if at all.
From the very start, around 1900, the British had to somehow maintain control of the three distinctively different areas that were populated by people equally as distinctive. Even today, people refer to the areas as the Southwest, the Southeast and the North. Even though there are maybe 400 dialects people in
The southwest, Yorubaland, is where the de-facto capital of
"Dice are rolling. Would-be presidents are all around. I don't say they mean harm, but they'd each give an arm to see us six feet underground."
or "We have ways of making you vote for us -- or at least for making you abstain."
The way they make people vote for a particular candidate is by outright buying the vote. The poor people have come to expect something for their promise to vote a certain way. They might get cash, they might get a new mattress or they might even get a nifty motorcycle. What they don't get are campaign slogans that promise improved infrastructure or better schools or healthcare for the poor. The elite, it seems, don't even bother voting because the elections are won in the poor areas.
So where does all of the money come from to buy all of these votes (maybe the most expensive elections in the world)? Often times wealthy power brokers they call godfathers here will finance a campaign -- of course with an expectation of the favor being returned in some manner.
While much of the population is suffering with the medical version of AIDS, the godfathers are said to have a different king of AIDS -- Additional Income Deposited in
When the candidate gets elected, he goes about paying off everyone who helped him -- after all, they expect it. He hands out government jobs, grants big contracts to the companies run by the godfathers and maybe even looks the other way when multinational corporations want access to
Where does the office holder get the money? He takes it out of the government coffers. It's a sound economical system, except that the money he siphons off cannot be used for those things that people really need: education, healthcare, clean water, electricity, etc.
It's most apparent to a newcomer to the area. Why is it that the 6th or 8th largest producer of oil in the world can't keep the lights on most of the country? Why should the goal of most poor people to be able to afford a gas-powered generator? What's wrong with this picture?
With that minimal background, I'll tell you a little about my journeys here.
The day I arrived in the Abuja, the capital (Lagos used to be the capital, but 15 years ago the government officials decided they had to get the heck out the place -- too much traffic, too many crooks, too many desperate people), we immediately packed up the blue Ford pickup and drove north to Gusau. The plight of the people became immediately obvious as we headed out of the fairly modern and quite clean capital. The road is a magnet for commerce -- for survival.
People with no other way of feeding themselves or their families gather on the roadways to make money any way they can. It seems that there isn't anything you can't buy along the roadway from people with makeshift, three-sided huts to vendors who artfully display their products on the edge of the asphalt to the women and girls who are constantly in transit while balancing containers of just about anything on their heads.
They'll offer fruit, drinks, bread, dental products and clothing -- all in baskets or boxes or big bottles that are balanced on their heads. Or they might be carrying fire wood they collected in the nearby brush area -- wood for the fires just about everyone needs to cook the food.
When we had car trouble, our driver, Emmanuel, knew exactly where to stop. Before we turned off the motor, five or six guys came out of the crowd of commerce to remove the fan, move the alternator and install new (at least new to that truck) belts. At the same time, two more guys noticed that the canvas cover over the bed of the truck had torn. Without tools, they were re-securing it to the metal tubes there to support it.
When the job was done, each got what was equal to about three or four dollars and was happy.
In the six-hour drive, I doubt that we drove more than a half mile without passing someone selling something No need for fast food -- if you need a bunch of bananas or some peanuts or bottle water or Coke, you just pull over.
The terrain was mostly flat -- rolling hills at time. Most of the land was being farmed, but we'd see very few tractors or other motorized equipment. The cows that weren't grazing were paired up with yokes and were pulling plows.
Oh, I didn't see a lot of dogs among all of the people by the roadside -- maybe two. Instead, there were goats and cattle everywhere. Many times we had to swerve or brake to avoid the animals that seemed to be on their own to wander where they wanted. There were a lot of chickens also. It was sad to realize there seemed to be no organized system for dealing with trash. It piled up where it wanted to. When there was enough of it, people apparently declared it as official dump site.
It seems that all developing countries are the same in some ways. Trucks spew out black or gray smoke and try to compete with the un-muffled motorcycles in decibel duals. There are few taxis -- at least the way we know them. Many people pay for rides on motorcycles -- sometimes you'll see the driver scrunched up against the handlebars, a man behind him, the man's wife behind him and the baby tied to the mother's back. The motorcycles are small -- the size of the small Hondas and Yamahas we used to play on back in the 1960s. There are brands I've never heard of -- some made in
Other people -- usually men -- will hitch rides on the big trucks that traverse the terrain. It doesn't matter what they're carrying or how tall the load is, there's always room for a rider or a dozen riders. The driver picks up some extra cash and the riders get a wonderful view of the constantly honking cars that are alerting the truck driver that they're passing on the right. For some reason, the trucks seem to stay in the left lane and the cars pass on the right.
Toward the end of our journey, we had turned in a westerly direction for a while and were able to see the tropical sun's rays breaking through the gathering clouds and forming picket fences of light. We were racing the sun, you see, because we didn't want to experience the highway at night. Much too dangerous. Everybody knows that.
During the day, there were numerous times when armed police would wave us to stop for some kind of inspection. I always sort of do what people carrying automatic weapons tell me to do, but Emmanuel would just tap the horn a couple of times, wave back at the young men and speed on by. I would try to shrink down in the front seat to avoid the 7.62 mm rounds I was sure would be trying to catch up with us. But nobody ever opened fire. Later I learned that our blue truck with the canvas cover was a perfect match for the trucks the police drive. Yes, Emmanuel was pretending to be one of them, and it apparently worked.
There was one time in a fairly rural area where young thugs with big sticks tried to make us stop for an unofficial tax collection, but Emmanuel was ready for them. One was on the left and the other was on the right. The one on the right held his five-foot-long stick as if he was about to belt a fastball out of the park. Emmanuel threw him a curve instead and headed straight toward him. After a few you-wouldn't-dare moments, the batter dove for the side of the road. At that moment, Emmanuel swerved to the left just a bit. The other guy was already retreating.
We had to drive for about an hour in the dark -- all because the time it took to fix the truck -- but we made it to the city of
The next morning I was delighted to share my experiences and resources with about 20 of the most dedicated and brave journalists I'd ever met. They were mostly Muslims -- most all of the men dressed in colorful, traditional garb while. The women's clothes were even more colorful. Of course, like in any Islamic area, they were appropriately covered (check out the group photo I sent last week -- it's down below).
I found out that the state we were in, Zamfara, was the first state to adopt Islamic law as the official legal system there. Muslim women cannot ride in vehicles or on motorcycles with men, unless it's their husband or brother. The laws are the same ones that have been around for centuries. You may recall the woman a few years back who the Islamic courts found guilty of adultery. They sentenced her to death by stoning. Only after a lot of publicity and a lot of pressure from the outside did they finally stay the execution.
I wanted to tell you more now -- knowing that I might not get access to the Internet for the next few days -- but it's late and I need sleep. If I had more time, I'd go into great detail telling you about one of the most difficult situations the journalist face as they try to expose candidates who take and give bribes. In brief, most of the reporters do not make enough money to get to and from news conferences or interviews. So the Nigerian tradition takes over. When they're done with the news conference or interview, someone will give them a brown envelope filled with "transportation money" so they can get home. If they don't accept it, they tell me, the person they're interviewing will call them ungrateful and refuse to speak with them again. The publishers and television news directors apparently justify the low wages they pay by reminding the reporters that the people they're interviewing will pay them.
I'll be writing an article about this for the NGO's newsletter. If you're interested, I'll provide a link to the story.
On my next installment, I'll take you to
Friday, June 02, 2006
I was never one to sleep in the car -- I was always afraid I'd miss something. We don't have the time to stop very often for pictures. The schedule is tight and it's never wise to drive at night.
So, as they say here in Nigeria, I "snap" as the images race past my window.
If these signs make you laugh, keep in mind that it's our own view of things that make them funny. When you think about it, which is more silly: A trunk or a boot? A hood or a bonnet? A tush or a bum?
"How am I driving?" What's wrong with "Pleased with my driving"? It's certainly more polite -- just like the people here.
The sign to the right is at the entrance to an Internet cafe in Ibadan. Indeed, there have been arrests there.