Trip to Abuja (July 2011)

I recently got the opportunity to attend a workshop from one of our funders in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The funders received money from a Canadian agency and other foreign entities for research and pilot projects regarding climate change. The organization has a full Nigerian staff and I had no contact with them previous to me coming to Abuja. Upon my arrival to Nigeria I had to tie up loose ends for the grant so I was familiar with our implementation though I felt somewhat nervous about presenting the details of the formulation of the project and the early stages of the grant. I was told that I should prepare a 30 minute powerpoint presentation and anticipate a Q&A session at the end. I received the agenda a few days before and was a bit intimidated as pretty much every other name on the list had a “professor” or “dr.” before their name. I tried to calm my nervousness by reminding myself that I actually kinda like giving speeches, even if I’m not fully informed on the subject matter.

The trip to Abuja was an event in itself. The airport in Calabar is closed for runway repairs causing a huge inconvenience. Apparently they said it would take about two months and we’ve reached that point with no end in sight. I’ve been told that the airport in Port Harcourt had similar issues and was closed for over a year. As a result, there is a bus service that runs from Calabar to the nearest airport in Uyo, the capital of the neighboring state Akwa Ibom (pronounced A-kwai-bomb). This journey is supposed to take about two hours and because I was travelling on a Sunday I assumed that the traffic would be light and the trip uneventful. My first surprise was the absence of a bus. There were only four of us travelling on the shuttle service so the bus was replaced with a normal car. It was actually one of the nicer cars I have been in and the air conditioning was a welcome bonus, though I’ve found that air conditioning tends to make me a little too cold and stuffy. As we began our journey one of the women asked if she could lead us in a prayer. Everyone agreed and she began a very long and detailed prayer, making sure to say “thank you Jesus” every third word. “Oh blessed lord, thank you Jesus, we hope that you will bless this trip, thank you Jesus”….
I ended up falling asleep but was suddenly awakened when we hit a very isolated storm. It rained hurricane-esque sheets of rain for about two minutes and then the skies cleared and the sun resumed its position in the sky. I was happy to wake up because I planned to stay awake in anticipation that the landscape would somehow be dramatically different than the landscape between Calabar and Iko Esai. I don’t know why I thought that but I was obviously a bit over optimistic. The only interesting thing I saw was when we passed over a very large river and a make shift market area sold massive amounts of smoked and fresh fish. The scene looked awesome and very “proper Africa”, with baskets full of fresh fish and 3m long sticks with dried fish wrapped around them. Unfortunately the awesomeness of all the fish was overshadowed by the not so awesome pungent odor of raw and cooked fish that descended into my nose. The rain had come from the direction we were driving and the roads were unusually slick. This bit of road was also unusually well paved. Usually the roads are dotted with pot holes that require you to either swerve wildly into oncoming traffic or slow down to avoid damaging your vehicle; usually drivers opted for the former. The driver was driving at a very cautious speed when all the sudden we lost traction. We began to spin and did three full circles, smashing into the highway divider with each twist and turn. When we finally came to a stop in the middle of the road we were all speechless. Because we were driving so slow the spinning was slow enough that we could actually think about what was happening, and I’m not sure if it increased or decreasedthe anxiety. As you can imagine, a new chorus of perhaps slightly more deserved “thank you jesus’s” filled the air. We got out to examine the damage and discuss our good fortune. We couldn’t believe that no one else was around us on the road, as this would have certainly led to a much less favourable situation. I secretly couldn’t believe the driver was actually driving cautiously. Most Nigerian drivers tend to drive like maniacs and had this guy been one of them, we’d probably be toast. Then we all marvelled at the actual existence of a barrier in the middle of the highway. Seems like the stars aligned and we continued our journey to Uyo.
It’s pretty funny how unifying situations like that can be. The passengers hadn’t said a word to each other aside from the obligatory greeting (and prayer) yet after this incident we all chatted it up for the hour left in our journey. It was interesting for me to be in the presence of seemingly highly educated Nigerians and obviously ones I could infer had some amount of money. We talked very passionately about the problems of the country: the lack of encouragement to develop the private sector, the problems of tribalism in local governments and of course the endless corruption that crippled development. I discovered that one of the women worked for the Forestry Department and was travelling to Abuja to have an interview with the Swedish consulate regarding a visa. She was doing her Ph.D examining the relationship between hunting pressure and forest health in the Cross River State. She said that she knew my director very well and they had in fact travelled together to attend a conference in Sierra Leone. As I’ve found to be expected with urban dwellers, she was totally intrigued by my living situation and we discussed the frequent question of “How do you cope?!”.
We arrived at the airport and it proved to be struggling with the challenge of handling the business of two airports. The airport basically had two rooms; one for ticketing, one for waiting. There were massive floods in Lagos that day so all flights going to Lagos had been delayed. This meant, for some reason or another, that our flight was also delayed. After I received my ticket and went through security, I was greeted with the warm body odour laced air that can only come from a room stuffed with people over capacity. All the seats were taken and people were sitting on the floor in nearly every available area. Luckily I saw my new Forestry friend who waved me over and offered to share her seat with me. Did I say luckily? Well, I didn’t mean that because although we engaged in relatively nice small talk, she then began to ask me if she heard her cries for Jesus after our accident and if I have a relationship with him. I politely explained that I consider myself Buddhist while being careful to also inform her that I was very well informed on world religions, in particular Christianity. Apparently she didn’t trust me previous lessons about Jesus and what was already a rather uncomfortable layover transitioned into a nails-on-chalkboard excruciatingly painful layover. I mean, this wasn’t just any old proselytizing random person, rather it was someone who had a working relationship with my organization and I had just seemingly become friends with. The last thing I wanted was a condescending speech about my poor spiritual path. Times like these I think of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Jesus, protect me from your followers”.
The hour layover turned into two hours and we finally boarded our plane after three. The way the day was going (what we refer to here as being Nigeria’d), I half expected to be lodged between a 300 pound women breathing like Darth Vadar and a Muslim fanatic with a crying baby. So you can imagine my delight when I found a stately looking gentlemen calmly reading the paper. We began to chat and soon found each other to be equally interesting. He was a political science professor at Calabar University and had just finished studying at the University of Iowa on a Fulbright Scholarship. He was very interested in rural development and I was very interested in his perspective on the Nigerian political climate and regional development. He made me feel remarkably comfortable talking about issues that he was obviously very informed on and I was just learning. I always feel a bit strange being critical of the government when in reality I am very new to the country and Nigeria is complex beyond the grasp of even most Nigerians. But I was delighted to be learning more about he history of Nigeria and inspired by his cautious optimism for the country’s future.
In our conservation he informed me that he used to be the Minister of Education before he took his Fulbright Scholarship. He said a major issue was the managing of rural schools. None of the state workers wanted to live in the district of their schools (too bush) and so they all lived in Calabar and claimed to go on monthly “examination” tours. This led to wide scale corruption in the rural schools that exists today. He said that when students finish secondary school they must take examinations for college. These examinations can be taken anywhere so most students go to a rural area and bribe the proctors. He said that there is a biology examine that is a maximum 400 points. In the past students would score about 200-250 and have their choice of any of the top schools. Now students are suddenly showing up scoring in the 300’s, yet when they are retested at university they barely score 100. I’ll write more about the education system in a later entry but let’s just say Nigeria is not the most credible place to receive a degree. He also said that prior to democratic reform in 1998 during Sani Abacha’s rule, the professors at universities received only 9,000 Naira a month( about $60 US), contributing to massive brain drain that the country is still recovering from.
The actual conference I attended was really cool. We were lodged in a hotel and the conference was held at another hotel about 25 minutes away. Abuja, being the capital, is a hotspot for conferences and meetings so it makes no sense that our accommodation is arranged in a separate place than our conference as there are hundreds of hotels with conference areas. One of the conference members told me that this is one of the corrupt practices that even an international aid organization participates in; booking hotels of relatives or friends and receiving some percentage of profits.
The conference brought together 13 different groups that received funding to address climate change with some projects focusing on research and others focusing on pilot projects. There were 19 different states that were involved and I loved the opportunity to see the progress of work in different areas of the country. Meetings are very formal here and always begin and end with a prayer. As an interesting compromise the morning prayer was Islam and the closing prayer was Christianity (no one asked for a Buddhist blessing). My anxiety was alleviated when the first presenter had “acknowledgements” misspelled in her opening slide and had very poor formatting and capitalization throughout. She was one of those people with “professor” in her title and I thought quite a bit of my conversation with the gentlemen on the plane.

Most of the people who presented had some good things to say but I couldn’t help but think my friend was correct in suggesting the titles “Professor” and “Dr.” had been watered down. My thoughts were all but confirmed when I presented and received overwhelming praise for what I thought was a mediocre presentation. I was then presented with questions that were all clearly stated (obviously not clearly enough) in my presentation. We had an objective where we wanted to raise awareness of climate change in the community by 10%. I stated that we had a survey instrument we used in the community and one in a control community that was not part of the grant. One of the professors made sure to state that our workshops may not have contributed to the change of knowledge and there could have been other confounding variables. Well, yes, thanks for your contribution of basic research theory but that’s where you have to assume that we are credible researchers using sound methodology. The moderator then went on to say that he disliked the terminology of “raise the standard of living by 10%”, which I slightly agree with but still didn’t appreciate his shot that the government of Nigeria has been trying to do this for years so what makes us think that we can? Well, our NGO doesn’t siphon off money and we actually have the best interests of the community in mind so perhaps that’s why we think we can. Of course I didn’t actually say that, just smiled nicely. When I brought up issues of gender and the difficulty of working with women due to deep seeded cultural gender roles, I inadvertently kicked off a firestorm. There were a few ministries that sent representatives and two just so happened to be from women’s affairs. Luckily, the attention was drawn off of me by overly anxious men who didn’t understand the difference between gender and sex so I just quietly backed away.
I couldn’t tell initially whether they approved or disapproved of our work but in the end they stated their pleasure with our organization and our work. I’m not sure if they did this because I was the only non-Nigerian there but they did seem genuinely happy with our project and I got several handshakes and congratulations after the conference. One of my favourite moments came when a presenter was speaking about intense flooding in a region and presented a picture of several hundred pounds of spoiled yam and one of the participants shouted, “It’s like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart”, at which point everyone laughed as if sharing in an age old inside joke. I definitely felt validated for shamelessly promoting the book in my blog.

Another rather special moment was when a professor was speaking of climate change and he said that in some villages you have people who can predict rain and even make it rain. He said that unfortunately, these people are perceived negatively. One women said that there is a need to quantify these things scientifically to gain widespread acceptance at which point we embarked in another tense conservation about juju, “faith” and scientific proof.
Overall I had a really great time. I thought it was really cool how the food was a buffet of nearly all the traditional food in Nigeria. With so many representatives from such a wide range of states, they obviously put time into preparing food that everyone would enjoy. I tested out some dishes that are popular in the north and also enjoyed more western food as well.

As if the experience wasn’t interesting enough, on the last day we received some troubling news. Due to the proposed minimum wage increase, government workers were planning to go on a three day warning strike beginning the day following our conference. This of course is when we all planned to return to our respective states and we were left scrambling. True to Nigerian fashion, no one quite knew what was going on. Even the Ministry representatives said, “Well, we hear there will be a strike so we packed our things today but we’re not sure. I suppose we will have to listen to the news.” When we returned to our hotel we all discussed the options. For me, a one hour flight would turn into a 8-10 hour bus ride through dangerous territory and crappy roads. Staying in Abuja would be very expensive and I wouldn’t even guarantee my return on Saturday because of the massive influx of travellers waiting to return. When the 9 o’clock news rolled around the message was inconclusive. The government was saying they were still holding meetings with labor representatives and they urged people to not go on strike. Finally, at 12AM, the news stated that the issues had been resolved, at least resolved enough to delay a work stoppage. What a trip!
-Part II-
I should have known better than to tempt fate by posting a happy ending to my Abuja trip before I actually reached home. This is, afterall, Nigeria. Whether you are taking a crap or trying to travel, nothing comes easy or goes as planned.

So after hearing the strike was cancelled I decided to go to the airport by 9 for my 11 o’clock flight. On the way out I saw one of the fellow conference attendees who also lived in Calabar and I suggested we travel to the airport together to share costs. I had not had a chance to talk with her much at the conference but knew she was a consultant for some gender themed NGO. She had actually struck me as a bit rude and emitted the kind of arrogance that comes with having received higher education abroad. But as I said, I didn’t really get to talk to her much and having contacts in Calabar with like minded organizations is never a bad thing. Plus, I was in a very happy mood thinking that my flight back saved me the stress of a bus trip.
We got to chatting in the taxi and the more we revealed about ourselves and development, the more we gained mutual respect for each other. Yes, she was foreign educated but she was committed to building a better Nigeria as opposed to contributing to brain drain by taking a highr paying job abroad. We shared similar views on the status of Nigeria and by the end of the ride she had offered me a ride back to Calabar from Uyo as her husband was going to pick her up.
Unlike most Nigerians, we had actually purchased our tickets in advance. Most Nigerians just go to the airport the day of and hope there is a flight. I met a young women that was waiting for six hours because she claimed there was no reliable way to find accurate flight information. I could relate to that as I had spent the entire morning trying to phone the airline company and the airport to find if my flight was still scheduled. Even though the strike was called off, it was called off at midnight the night before seemingly giving people a good excuse not to turn up to work anyway.
When we approached the ticket counter we were informed that the flight would not be operating. Well, actually, they were not sure, could we check back in a half hour? As we waited my traveling companion ran into a fellow friend from Calabar and I began to chat with a man sitting next to me who was also from Calabar. We all discussed our strategy for travel as none of us really expected the flight to go through as planned. The women said that her husband was on his way to the airport and would attempt to book flights for us on a different airline carrier later in the day. This carrier was located in a different airport a short distance away and we knew that a massive scramble would occur as people tried to secure the remaining tickets. We waited 15 minutes and the airline informed us the flight had been cancelled. We waited in a different line for a refund though I was worried because I did not have my receipt. The people who organized the conference had collected our receipts and reimbursed us with cash. Since we bought the ticket with cash I was a bit worried and my fears were soon realized.
When I asked for a refund I was informed that with no receipt I could either reschedule a flight for the following day (though she could not guarantee one was operating) or I could seek a refund at a later date whenever I obtained a receipt. Apparently I would have to return to Abuja to receive my refund but I thought we may possibly find a way around that. Either way, I was actually happy to have received an answer other than , “Sorry, nothing we can do”. I returned to join our team of four and we proceeded to the other airport.
On the way there we got confirmation that our flights had been booked but one of the traveling companions quickly informed us that this was no guarantee we would actually get tickets. When we got to the airport we rushed the ticket counter. The scene in the airport was chaotic and we did our best to join the shoving masses waving money and doing anything to attract the people behind the counter. I’m not proud of how rude and pushy I had to be, but at the same time I am damn proud I got a ticket. I waited for everyone in our crew to get a ticket and soon after the flight sold out.
When we finally entered through security we all shared a good laugh and a drink. We discussed our respective jobs and business in Abuja and agreed that we would travel back to Calabar together from Uyo. The man I had met said he would arrange a vehicle and we were all grateful. This man was an architecht and shared some interesting feelings about how the government fails to respect and follow the expertise of many architechts and planners.
Our flight was delayed an hour and unlike most airports there were no announcements of delay nor was there any concern from passengers. We finally boarded and the flight was uneventful, apart from our descent into Uyo which gave spectacular views of the Cross River and the undisturbed mangroves and tributaries. When we arrived in Uyo, as promised we had transport waiting. It was a bus alongside a police truck that would serve as our escort. This is quite common here in Nigeria where highway robbery and kidnapping are risks in some areas but I honestly felt more nervous with the escort. I felt like it attracted attention to us but in reality, it is so common for people to have these escorts that it is not just something reserved for the presidents and elites.
So in the end I made it to Calabar. And when I think back to what actually occured it seems simple. Flight was cancelled and I had to rebook. But like I said, nothing here is easy!
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