Go Slow [Traffic Jam] (November 2011)

Every week we have a truck from Calabar that meets up with a truck from ourRhoko Field site. They meet at a village called Ibogo which is basically the turn off from the highway to reach our village. The road from Calabar to Ibogo is highway and very straightforward. It is actually a really dangerous road, ironically it is dangerous because it very well paved. People aren’t used to having such a well paved road and there are frequent deadly accidents, most of them involvingsemitrucks and buses. The worst part is that there is no ‘accident removal’ division of the public services so skeletons of massive wrecks lay strewn on the roadside. We have a policy in our organization that no one is allowed to drive at night because it’s also a common practice to drive without headlights. Making driving all the more tricky is people take 100CC motorcycles and drive them on the sides of the road at low speeds with massive loads that protrude off the sides. Sometimespeople are passing each other and they drive these motocycles off the roads into the bush. Either way, the road is pretty unsafe though I’ve never had a problem and passengers in public vehicles are quick to tell drivers to slow down. One of the funnier stories (don’t know if it’s actually funny but surely a ‘laugh or you’ll cry moment’) was when we were bringing a tourist up to our field site. There was a truck driver in the oncoming lane that was asleep and slowly drifting towards us. We decided the only way for him to avoid us is if we sped up and passed him before he took up the whole road. So we sped up and barely missed him, at which point he woke up, jerked the wheel, lost control and overturned his truck. This resulted in a hollywood-esque explosion that was viewed through the rearviewmirror of our truck.

I was in Calabar for the week helping out with things and was set to go up to IkoEsai today with the truck. There is a big junction about a half hour outside of town that divides the highway to northern and westernly routes. The entire highway is only two lanes and although there is not too much traffic, a small traffic jam can quickly turn into a large one. Now apparently there had been a traffic jam since yesterday though we hoped that it had cleared up. We decided to check it out and if it was bad we would turn back.

About 5km before the junction we realized that traffic had not yet cleared up. The most hilarious thing to me is that no one could give an explanation why there was a traffic jam, rather it was just assumed ‘something happened’. One time there was a traffic jam in this same spot that lasted five days. I told our driver that we should just turn back and the driver pulled the car off to the side of the road and began a U-turn. The only problem was we apparently had lodged ourselves into freshly dug and very moist soil. Now, due to our lack of road leading to the village, it’s not totally unique that we get stuck. We often have to hire guys from the village to help dig us out and source pieces of wood and stone to put under the wheels. And sure enough, in no time we were surrounded by men that were willing to help dig us out…for a price. We negotiated with them and said we would pay them all (about 6 of them) 2000 Naira (roughly $15US) to dig us out. It appeared to me that our positioning was very poor and we were far to stuck to get out by digging. But we didn’t really have much of an option.

Fast forward two hours of digging. Now the traffic jam had expanded and we were basically in the middle of it. Hawkers sold water, biscuits, packets of rum, fruit and other goods weaving in and out of cars. The one lane traffic jam had expanded to two lanes one way and somehow managed to jam itself going the opposite way as well. In fact, there were many cars that had managed to become horizontally aligned. I’ve been in some pretty bad traffic jams but this one proved to be the mother of all traffic jams. Some cars broke down and wouldn’t start when there was a little bit of space, prompting entire vehicles to empty out and push. There were trucks loaded with disgruntled and screaming cattle, police trying to stop people from using oncoming lanes, shouting matches over people being cut off and overall general chaos. Meanwhile the hours were passing and the sun was only getting hotter. I probably drank about 6L of water and my clothes were soaked through with sweat and mud. And we still weren’t getting anywhere. We had managed to get a driver of a pick up truck to try to tow us but our rope was not strong enough. Apparently you need a little more than a 1/2 inch nylon rope to tow a massive truck. As the traffic jam became worse it actually worried me that even if we were to get out, we wouldn’t be able to turn around. We would simply join the crowd of horizontally turned vehicles that was obstructing traffic. However, the traffic did allow us to more easily beg people to help tow us out. There was another pick up truck driver that said he would help us for 5,000 Naira. We agreed and he tied himself on and the rope promptly snapped. Just at that moment there was a break in traffic and the guy sped off with our rope still attached to his truck(luckily we hadn’t paid him).

I really thought we were going to be there all day. And we couldn’t leave our truck there to get help because in the past this has happened and people will steal the tires, smash the windows and take everything inside. But we couldn’t get a proper tow truck because there is no way they would be able to reach us. It looked like an a classic impossible Nigerian situation. But just as Nigeria provides you with ridiculous problems, it equally provides you with solutions, you just gotta be ready for them. We had found some even weaker rope but having no choice decided to ask people for assistance. We convinced a semitruck driver to help us, which is honestly the only vehicle I thought that could get our truck out. I began to set up road blocks so that the truck would have room to back up and tow us out. This caused a lot of shouting and even though everyone was obviously not going to be moving more than 10m in the next hour, people didn’t seem to like having empty road available in front of them. After I explained the situation to one especially angry driver he said, ‘Oh, I have a tow rope, you guys can use it, but if you break it you will pay me for it’. I was more than ecstatic and brought it over to the truck. I can’t underestimate how hard it was to get all the impatient drivers to stop and give the truck space to maneuver but eventually it happened. And of course, the first attempt ended with one of the tow rope’s hooks breaking off. At this point the driver of the semi was ready to leave us. Luckily there was a guy who convinced the driver to give us one more chance. We secured the rope and nothing short of a miracle…our truck was pulled onto the road.

We then ended up paying the guys 2,000 Naira, the semi driver 1,000 Naira and the guy who helped convince the semi truck driver 500 Naira. We had to make a quick exit because we began to block the road and honestly, both the driver and I were pretty exhausted. I felt bad for the guy with the tow rope because his money was apparently included in the 2,000 Naira given to the initial group of guys. Good luck getting money out of that group! If I had known I would have gladly paid him for the cost of his rope but I left all the bargaining to the driver since if a white man was involved the costs would have certainly been more. In fact, he initially claimed that he just saw me at the side of the road and picked me up randomly. Also, in the mad dash to get out of there, someone had stolen our car jack that was in the back of our truck! It was a pretty frustrating episode though I thought it was a classic example of how even the most simple situation here(turning around to get out of traffic) can lead to an all day event.

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