Back on the Home Front

After my fabulous vacation in England, I returned via the overnight flight to Abuja, where I sat around the terminal for a couple hours while waiting for my connection down to Owerri. I could tell immediately that the drier winter weather had blown in, and it felt rather nice. In this sunrise shot from the Abuja airport, note the striped painting on the curbs – this is really a sweet thing I’ve noticed in several cities: green & white striped curbs (the national colors). It’s rather nice, don’t you think?


…and below are a few shots of me and various colleagues taken around the hospital compound during October & November. The final shot is an overview of the closest market to our hospital. In fact, a portion of the hospital is visible in the background but you have to know what you’re looking for…

Slices of (Real?) Life

OK, peeps: these are they: the first thought-out blog entries from Nigeria. Nearly a week in the making, nearly that much in the posting…amazing, huh? Enjoy! Lord only knows when I’ll muster the patience to try so many uploads again… As you’ll maybe be able to tell, it was all written nearly a week ago, and I’ve been back in PHC for a while now. So happy to get back to my fabulous project and excellent colleagues. 🙂

It’s roughly 3:00 on a quiet and lazy Sunday afternoon, October 14th to be quite precise. I’m sitting alone in the living room of the MSF expat house in the suburbs of Abuja, listening to some music and pondering the meaning of life and other imponderables. (The music, I feel moderately embarrassed to admit, is The Return of the King soundtrack…but after that I’ve got some jazz and some blues cued up.) A mere two hours ago I gave up any hope of uploading all the photos I’d hoped to post on here – all the nice photos I broke up my jog yesterday morning to take, that jog and those photos that spurred the rambling philosophical exegesis you shall find below under the heading “Aspirational Abuja.”

That’s the Hilton in question.

Why did we have to break off our upload? Wherefore uploadus interruptus, you ask? so much world, so little time ran out of time – did I name my blog well or what? So many photos, so little bandwidth – even on what the Hilton’s ‘business center’ advertised as dsl broadband! Without an internet cable, we found ourselves (split personalities: another benefit to the African lifestyle – buy one, get several more for free!) unable to connect to the net in the room even if we’d chosen to pay the $25 fee for 24 hours of in-room access. The additional $5 to buy the cable was just over the top: being able to post then and there was simply not worth it, when added to the slings and arrows of the (otherwise comfortable and generally acceptable) Hilton’s highway-robbery room rates and fees. (Examples, you require? My best negotiating skills, honed over two tough years in the hardscrabble Middle Kingdom, gleaned me only a $150-per-night standard room right next to the cleaners’ storage room in which, it seemed, they enjoyed many conversations over the course of the day. When the hotel room offered neither filtered water nor even a comp’d bottle or two of water to get me rehydrated sans amoebas, I splurged on the $3.00, 750-ml bottle {yes: $3 for less than a quart of water}, figuring I’d find a store on the premises to stock up on bigger bottles at a better price later. NOT! Elsewhere in the hotel, the same bottles could be found for the reasonable fee of $3.50! And nowhere was a full liter, let alone 1.5 liter bottle to be found. H-i-g-h-w-a-y r-o-b-b-e-r-y. Can I afford it, yes. But it’s the principal, darn it! Nigeria is expensive, but get real.)

But getting back to our frayed narrative thread: we were talking about interrupted uploads. We later attempted to pull off plan B: write the notes offline, store them to a USB key, and then log on for one quick hour of highly-efficient uploading of photos, etc. And rest assured, it has been the experience of this smw, slt correspondent that one hour can be more than sufficient for a highly enjoyable and successful uploading session. An hour has more than sufficed for the planned volume, in our experience – experience gleaned on three continents, no less!

I’m pretty sure that’s Aso Rock, after which the presidential house in named in common parlance here; the tall concrete thing in the background before the mountain is probably the house of parliament. Don’t ask me why, in a city where I was allowed to run or walk freely, I did not walk closer to inspect. I have no answer other than laziness.

But said gleaning had not yet taken place in Africa, and yes, it seems Africa still is something else altogether at least when it comes to communications and the internet. Had it been only the slow connection, I’d still have gotten deeper into the upload than I did. But nooooooo. The working hypothesis du moment is that the computer in the ‘business center’ at which I had set up shop didn’t like my USB key. While it accepted the photos you see below under the headings “Frustrated in Abuja” and “Mile Three Market, Port Harcourt,” multiple attempts to transfer the photos from my laptop to the ‘business center’ desktop came to naught – despite a complete erasure and reformatting of said USB key followed by reloading of selected critical photos, all while the clock ticked away on my 40-cent per minute block of internet time.

The upside? I get some extra time to vent my spleen in this extra text that no one will ever read. (Haha! comment on that, if you dare!) The downside? Now I can only cross my fingers and hope it’s not the key itself. Hope that this text I’ve taken such pains to make at least moderately entertaining won’t itself vanish down the sinkhole of corrupted filedom. Hope that whenever I next find myself in front of a computer with something that passes for an internet connection – which, most likely, will be Wednesday when I get back to PHC and our lovely dialup wifi connection that might, just might, be the source of the frequent crashes we experience on our computers – I shall find not only those selfsame photos, but also this very text, intact for posting onto our beloved smw, slt blog site so you all can chuckle over the foibles of an expat lost in the communications wilderness that is Nigeria. Hope: a good word, a lovely notion, and purrrrrfect segue to our next heading…
Love ya, mean it.

Aspirational Abuja

Abuja is the Nigeria’s capital. It is neither Nigeria’s most important (population, business, international connections, etc.) city, nor its best-known city; both of those honors belong to Lagos, the “metropolis of Africa.” An article in some American newspaper talked about how many Lagosians refer to Lagos at “the New York City of Africa.” From all I’ve heard, Lagos is big, brash, loud, full of life and energy, business and crime, reality and potential. Lagos was also the capital of the Federal Republic of Nigeria until some time in the 1990s, when Abuja was deemed complete enough for the government to relocate itself here.

Abuja, I think, is rather like the idea of Nigerian nationhood: as much an aspiration as a reality. The dominant view when one enters the city from the west – where the airport is; also, it happens, where both MSF’s office and its expat residence are located – is of two large and dramatic religious structures: the National Mosque, and the National Christian Center. These two elegant and dramatic buildings, situated in line with each other on the central axis through what will (one hopes) some day be downtown Abuja, strike me as quite emblematic of that which is Nigeria, that which is Abuja. As much aspiration as reality, they seem to say that these two great monotheistic religions do – or is it can? or might? or should? – cohabit peacefully in this nation. As these photos will attest, though, Abuja is a city very much under construction, very much still in planning. One could imagine signs saying “pardon our dust while we reconstruct the national nerve centre and create a symbolic capital with which all our multidudinous ethnicities, tribes and regions can feel comfortable, of which they can all be proud.”

The highlight, so far, of the two days I’ve now spent on my R&R weekend here in Abuja was the jog I was free to take around town yesterday morning, from which all of these photos of Abuja come. While my life in Port Harcourt is very rewarding on the professional level – I enjoy my colleagues both national and expatriate very much, I find the work both challenging and rewarding, and I am relieved and proud to see that I’ve regained my MSF sea-legs quite rapidly after a summer of sloth in LA – it does become a bit constraining on the personal front. We work six day weeks, our movements are pretty limited so as to reduce risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even without those restrictions it’s not like there’s really a lot to see and do in Port Harcourt – though were the situation different, I ca imagine it would be great fun to kayak or canoe around the creeks and mangroves south of the city proper. That being a total pipe dream, we longer-term expats get every sixth weekend or so off for total R&R. We can check into a hotel in town for a two-day weekend, or head to Abuja, or one or two other stable and relaxing places around Nigeria. This time I chose Abuja, so I can spend some time after the weekend in our coordination office up here, to which I had only the briefest introduction on my arrival in early September.

So I ran around town on a Saturday morning, just after the second day of Id al Fitr, the most important (?) festival in the Muslim calendar, marking as it does the end of Ramadan. And Abuja reminds me of the new parts of Nanning, where I lived more than two years ago: wide, grandiose boulevards empty of cars and nearly devoid of people. Imposing government buildings, with nary a restaurant, hardware store, supermarket or shoe shine stand in sight. Gazing from the fourth-floor window of my room at the Hilton, where I’ve enjoyed room service and a fabulous hexagonal pool for the past two days, I see hills and residential compounds, lush greenery…and no sign of people on the streets. I hope Abuja can get it together. I hope Nigeria can get it together. It’s two years older than me; on October 1 they celebrated their 47th anniversary. For something like half of those years the country was under military dictatorship. This spring it managed the first transition from one civilian government to another, albeit after an election which international observers found utterly flawed.

This country is pivotal to Africa; it’s pivotal to the energy future of much of the world, being the largest exporter of oil in Africa. One in five Africans is Nigerian; but it’s not yet clear to me how many Nigerians identify first as Nigerian, and only second as a member of whatever religion, ethnicity or region they come from. The hope and beauty of the two religious centers that form the heart of Abuja are something I can agree with, whatever my objections to organized religion per se: the entire world will benefit if these and other religions can finally learn to coexist peacefully, within countries and within the world as a whole. It is perhaps fair to say that Nigeria’s first 47 years were a steady erosion of the promise and potential that seemed evident at independence from England. Still and all, there is reason to hope – despite flawed elections, the country has an active civil society, a flourishing press, and pretty good internet communications. It has abundant natural and human resources. I think we should all hope that Nigeria’s next 47 years will be a steady climb back up that ladder of hope and prosperity; that its regions, religions and ethnicities can agree on some core ideals and values that can define a meaningful Nigerian nationhood – and that none of those values will be the current national pastime of graft and corruption; and that the rest of the world will learn to take Nigeria – Africa’s superpower, such as it is – more seriously.

This is it: the only shot I managed to get that showed both the National Mosque and the National Christian Center. (Elsewhere, since I wrote all this, I believe I’ve seen it referred to as the National Ecumenical Center as well. But, as above sign from the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation shows, it’s also the NCC.)

Ok, I admit it, putting this up as my last photo from Abuja is a bit cynical. This building is the Nigerian Communications Commission. I don’t know what their mandate is, but I suppose it has – on paper and in theory at least? – something to do with…getting good communications going in Nigeria, maybe? HAH! See notes below about the “high-speed” internet at the Hilton “business center.” If that’s as good as it gets in this country, you can imagine what I’m living with down here in Port Harcourt. Then there’s the fact that basically no one I know has a landline…mostly because it seems the telephone companies periodically show up saying you owe them, like, a few jillion dollars for calls you pretty much never made. Or the fact that, despite their relatively small size (I think I’m gonna have to downsize them even more, though…), I have to load these photos up one at a time onto the blog, since dialup connections (wifi at that, for the above-mentioned reason about landlines…) are more or less nonexistant here. So anyhoo, memo to Nigerian Communications Commission: try putting more effort into your work product, and less into your nice-looking building. It is rather a nice-looking building, isn’t it? And just around the corner from the Hilton, hey!

Frustrated in Abuja

…two more images did make the transfer intact: above, an Owerri sunset taken from the hotel room in which I spent my first night in Nigeria, since my flight from Abuja to Owerri landed too late to make it down to Port Harcourt before dark. Below: me at dinner one evening recently. Don’t I look like the happy little guy I am? 🙂

…Well, friends, here we are at the Hilton in Abuja. 45 minutes of the $25-an-hour “high speed internet” time I invested in have been sucked into posting the paltry assembly of photos you see below. My USB key has gone back and forth between my laptop and the desktop I’m using at the ‘business center’ more times than I can count, and each time something or other has become corrupted. Somewhere in there, if I’m ever able to recover it all, are some photos of the dramatic and aspirational buildings of Abuja; somewhere in there is what I flatter myself is a rather poetic text about Abuja’s and Nigeria’s aspirations. All this on a day that also saw the ATM machine in the Hilton’s lobby steal my card and, so far, not return it…though security insists someone is coming from UBA any time now who will take the machine apart and find my card in its innards.

I’ll have to hope I can recover them somehow or other, tonight back at the MSF house here in town, or later back in PHC. Lord only knows how I’ll survive trying to upload that many photos on the dialup wifi down there, considering that using the “high speed” here has pretty much killed me. 🙂 But such are the challenges one expects when traveling in these places, and it’s not like I should be surprised by any of it. I just got so spoiled by the connections I had in Sri Lanka and China. Africa, it seems, at least in this regard, is truly another matter.

Much love to you all. I’m well and my thoughts are with you. Send up some thoughts for peace and goodwill towards our fellow travelers on this green and blue planet.