Monday, 19 July 2010

I’m not lazy...

Every day outside my office a policeman is stationed to guard, I know not what. Hopefully it is not an important task because I have never actually seen him awake. Every time I pass by he is sat in his chair head slumped on his chest and for all intents and purposes dead to the world. Indeed it may be that he is not actually alive at all, but is dragged out by his shoulders and placed on the chair every morning as some sort of ‘visible deterrent ...’ or it might be an exceptionally clever rouse to lull prospective wrongdoers into a false sense of security in order to catch them in some elaborate sting operation. I rather doubt it’s either, but every time I see him I long to plant a sign around his neck with the phrase I saw on someone’s T-shirt... I’m not lazy... I’m just saving energy...
However to call it lazy is being rather disingenuous to the Ghanaians... The day for most of these people starts before the sun has even thought of peering over the horizon. By the time you or I would be awake they would already have washed, cleaned, cooked, taken children to school and made their own way to work. Hawkers will stand on street corners or at traffic lights from rush hour to rush hour selling not much for very little in order to keep the family going for that tiny bit longer. Added to this, shop and office workers work long, boring shifts devoid of stimulus in over-staffed premises and in such oppressive temperatures it would make even the hardiest of us nod off every now and again. Really, being lazy is certainly not a characteristic that can be ascribed to the people here.
So if it’s not lazy, then what... I remember an incident not long after first arriving in Ghana when I found myself walking down a fairly busy shopping street in Accra where I noticed a man lying on the street. He lay motionless, half on the pavement half on the dusty verge, one arm stretched out across the path, the other slumped over his chest. His tattered rags barely covering an emaciated, filth encrusted body, broken and yellowing teeth protruded from a gaping mouth and long blackened fingernails and greasy matted hair all added to the impression of someone who had finally shed his ‘mortal coil’.
Because nobody seemed in the slightest bit interested in doing anything about the body, I remember wondering about what happened to people who were found dead on the streets in Ghana. Perhaps the police would come, cordon off the scene, check for foul play, snap a few photographs, draw a chalk line around the corpse, and eventually, once forensics had finished, cart the body off to the morgue.
An hour or so later when I passed by the spot once again our friend was no longer there. At the time I imagined he had indeed been hauled off somewhere, but then of course, I hadn’t been in the country long enough to appreciate that ‘This is Africa’ and he was more likely to have be having an afternoon nap rather than communing with the angels.
Indeed the ability to sleep is one trait, amongst many, that I have come to envy most in Ghanaians. This amazing capacity, as demonstrated above, can not only be performed at any time of day but also in absolutely any place. Whether it’s immigration officers, post office counter staff, shop assistants, market stall holders, the police at check-points, on the roadside or at the station... bar staff, waiters or waitresses, people on the street taking a break from hawking their wares to passing motorists... or just people who feel the need for forty-winks... they just set themselves down anywhere, on the street, under or in the branches trees, on walls, in their cars, in chairs or on benches... and doze.
This morning I came to work on a tro tro. Our driver, a young chap with no great consideration for the other road users let alone his passengers, stopped behind a few other vehicles at a set of traffic lights. When the lights changed the cars in front moved away but our tro tro stayed put. Being seated in the front I was able to look over to the young ‘Lewis Hamilton’ to see that he was sat with his eyes shut. Eventually under the ever increasing clamour of surrounding car horns he was roused from his meditation and we moved off.
Now apart from the obvious worry at our driver being that tired, I don’t actually know whether he was asleep, just resting his eyes or psyching himself for another assault on his fellow road-users, but experience tends me to favour the former. And as to my tramp friend on the street in Accra... I have since seen him ‘dead’ in a number of places, outside the post office, near the market, in the middle of a roundabout and on the... zzz zzz...

Monday, 28 June 2010

When it rains...

I came to work this morning in the rain. Not an unusual occurrence for most people I understand, but here in Africa the experience is not quite what we’re used to back home. For a start when it rains here, it really does know how to rain. Not that they’re not used to rain, indeed they name a whole season after it, rather here it doesn’t really seem to alter how people go about their everyday life.
The Rainy Season started in earnest back at the beginning of June. Unlike as in some other parts of the world where the rain confines itself to an hour or so of heavy showers sandwiched between glorious blue skies, here the rain can last all day. If this isn’t bad enough the night temperatures have dropped considerably. I no longer need to leave the balcony door open or use the ceiling fan in order to get a comfortable night’s sleep, on the contrary I’ve needed to resort to a sheet or even T-shirt to stave off the cold. As concerned as some of you are bound to be for my wellbeing in such inclement conditions, do not worry, thankfully we still have plenty of fantastic days in between.
Anyway, having neither an umbrella nor jacket, I have to admit to sitting a while on the balcony considering whether or not to go to work at all, before eventually donning my flip flops, a pair of shorts and T-shirt, packing a change of dry clothes, leaving my bike and setting off for work on the tro tro.
Already soaked when I took my seat, it mattered not, nor was it any surprise, that the window I found myself next to, was stuck open with no handle to wind it up... and that only the wiper on the passenger side worked... this is very much the norm for these mini-buses in Accra.
When it is wet, the traffic appears to speed up rather than slow and the roads become skid pans, so as result I invariably leave my bike at home in favour of the bus. This morning however this decision is made to look rather tame when a motor cyclist raced past us in his just flip flops, shorts, a vest and naturally... no helmet. As usual I spotted the same road sweeper I see every morning and even today she has no additional protection from the weather save for the giant orange traffic cone she always has balanced on her head.

At times the rain comes down so hard and fast that the water runs like rivers along the gutters, across the roads and over paths, covering everything with a fine red silt, small stones, plastic bags and other associated rubbish discarded on the streets. If you are lucky this waste is taken along the open sewers that skirt most roads, then via the rivers and streams, which, running freely for the first time in months, ferry this foul brown concoction to the sea. Later, much of this, especially the ubiquitous plastic bags which stain so many African cityscapes, will be seen washed up on nearby beaches or floating in the surf just off shore.
It appears that most people are oblivious to the adverse conditions changing neither their dress nor behaviour when it rains. As always those children not yet of school age play barefoot in the rain, wearing just their underwear, while their older brothers and sisters trudged to school in thin cotton uniforms and sandals their wet clothes clinging to their bodies. The adults seemed dressed as if the rain is only a minor inconvenience and which will pass at any minute. Very few have umbrellas, some have small towels over their heads to keep their hair dry, but most go without any protection. No water-proofs, no jackets, no boots, no hats.
Food cooked early every morning is already on sale out on the street. Freshly baked bread, rock cakes and doughnuts, whether on tables or balanced on heads may are covered in plastic sheets for protection. In the market stall holders continue as normal. Although clothing may remain in their sacks everything else, shoes, DVDs, electrical and household goods, toiletries etc are displayed under giant plastic sheets. The only exception to this are the fruits and vegetables which are left out in the open to acquire that dew-like splattering as you see in the all the best M&S adverts.
Although it’s raining women still do their laundry outside and hang the washing on the line to dry. In some cases this might be covered with plastic sheets... probably all ready to be whisked off if ever the sun makes an appearance. And if not washing then cooking. Women sit hunched over pots stirring their brew, the smoke from the fires mixing with the mist and rain to produce the murky illusion of Shakespearian witches around a cauldron.
When eventually I arrive at work I changed into my dry work clothes, grateful of having the good fortune to be able to do so, but angry with myself for ever having thought I had been dealt a bad lot. On such occasions it is always good to be reminded, that compared to some, just how fortunate I am...

Thursday, 24 June 2010

663 final...

I do have one final story from my travels. It involves our last journey of any significance and was from the border town of Bitam to Libreville. In order not to waste the day travelling we decided to take the overnight minibus which would get us to the capital early the following morning. As I’ve mentioned before, the Gabon we experienced, was essentially thick jungle with a few areas cleared to accommodate a village, town or city. As a result the perfectly maintained road cuts a black swathe through the lush green rainforest like a never ending mamba slithering through the grass.
The only other traffic on the roads at that time of night where colossal lorries carrying timber shorn, often illegally, from the surrounding forest. These giants ferrying ancient trunks, the size and weight that their age and majesty merit, labour like a rollercoaster to the crest before thundering down and around the hairpins and chicanes of the countless rises that line the route.
Of course this being Africa our route was punctuated with police and road blocks and we were regularly stopped for our now well worn papers to be checked. Ostensibly, this is to restrict entry for anyone trying to take advantage of Gabon’s oil rich prosperity, but is in effect the normal bribery and corruption associated with travel in Africa and just another way for the police and immigration officers to supplement their ‘supposed’ meagre wage packet. As a result, in what was tantamount to the sort of sleep deprivation the US jailers of Abu Ghraib would be proud, our sleep was interrupted at regular intervals on the near 12 hour journey.
By far the most memorable stop was around 4 in the morning in, literally, the middle of the African Jungle. I remember being roused, for the umpteenth time, from a fitful sleep and slowly making my way to the checkpoint. Those of you familiar with the painting by Gerard van Honshorst, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ might have some sense of the atmosphere and scene I came upon.
My fellow travellers were already arranged in front of an open window which perfectly framed a ‘fat controller’ of a man seated in a tiny hut barely big enough to accommodate the desk at which he sat. There were no electric lights or lamps instead he had his head tilted at a curious angle, the folds of his cheeks preventing the torch, that provided his only light, from toppling from his shoulder. Thus, his hands free, he was able to scrutinise every detail of our passports and papers whilst the warm glow of his feeble torch was just enough to reflect from the bright pages and bathe his face in a warm light, but fought to infringe on the grey shadowy corners of his hut, let alone the still, silent, purple darkness outside.
I would have given anything to have been able to photograph the scene but that would certainly have incurred his wrath and cost us, at the very least, a fine... and probably a lot worse. As it was he pored over our documents going back again and again to check stamps and dates, seemingly determined on finding something awry which would warrant some cause for recompense. The eventual slump of his shoulders, not only nearly lost him his torch but, signalled his eventual defeat and our freedom to continue on our way...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

663 the dream...

My eyes open slowly and in the distance they focus on the early morning sun shimmering off a cerulean sea. Around me I become aware of the muted clink of cups on saucers and the gentle whirring of a giant wooden ceiling fan. The air is rich with the aroma of fresh coffee and tobacco. For a moment I am unsure of where I am. I hear muffled voices and slowly become conscious that I cannot understand what is being said until, as my senses gradually tune-in to their new surroundings, I recognise those familiar melodic Gallic strains.
I notice a series of small round wicker tables and matching chairs on a terrace drenched in the cool, fresh glow of a youthful sun. At each table smartly dressed businessmen and women in crisply starched shirts or smart jackets pour over paperwork, tap away at laptops or hunch forward in earnest debate oblivious to the calm, unruffled surroundings they find themselves in. Between the tables wanders a burly waiter, black trousers, pristine white shirt and long drawn apron tied at his waist, his footsteps tapping almost incomprehensively on a polished wooden floor. In his hand a tray, two espressos, orange juice, water, croissants.

The snap and rustle of a broadsheet, on a neighbouring table, draws me further out of my slumber to an immaculately kept avenue where a man is walking past new, expensive European cars, baguette under his arm, small dog at his heel. I turn again to an almost imperceptible creak as a door swings open and I catch the faintest hint of pastries and freshly baked bread wafting in on its wake.
Everything suddenly seems absurd... Obviously I must be in France... Nice maybe... ? St Tropez... ? I’m not sure but if there’s sea it must certainly be the Riviera. But how did I get here... ? it must be a dream, vision, a nightmare... after punishing it constantly with too many interrupted sleeps, too many late nights and early, early mornings, too many long body-breaking bus, train, taxi and motor-cycle journeys, my tired, worn out 'old' carcass has finally cracked under the presure and is exacting it’s retribution by playing wicked tricks with my mind... I squeeze my eyes shut burying my knuckles deep into them. When I open them I know I’ll be back in Africa... back deep in the rain-forests of Gabon... back in Libreville...
But... ... open again and nothing has changed.
This was the reality of Libreville... a beautiful, clean, modern, ‘Franco-style’ city hewn out of the dense forests of Gabon and squashed up against the sea. A tiny bit of France in amidst the jungles of Africa... I loved it...

Nigerians are nice, shock...

What words are conjured in your mind when you hear the name Nigeria? Crime... corruption... ethnic violence or maybe colourful exuberance and excess? Whatever description you would choose, Nigeria is in every respect a country of contrast.
It has a land mass of nearly 100,000 square kilometres which is divided pretty much equally between the Muslim north and Christian south. Although impossible to count, its population is put in excess of 140 million (that’s 1 in 5 of every African) 15.5 million live in Lagos, the most populous city in Africa and bigger even than Cairo.
With such extremes it is understandable why the country has such a fearsome reputation and easy to see why the perception is so strong. Nigeria is awash with oil, and therefore dollars, yet the disparity between extreme wealth and abject poverty is stark. With both the country’s prosperity and inequality so evident to everyone, it is little wonder that the numerous power-cuts and water shortages, which take place on a regular basis, only fuel the feeling that misappropriation, corruption and criminal behaviour are responsible for the resentment felt by so many.
Meanwhile back here in Ghana my colleagues even tried to talk me out of travelling to Nigeria at all. As well as recounting a whole plethora of horror stories in support their advice they were also only too ready to blame all the ills to befall their country, from internet fraud and drug cartels to bad driving and potholes, on the ‘bad’ Nigerians who had found their way to this peace-loving’ nation in order to ply their illicit trade.
It was with some foreboding, therefore, that I began my travels through the country. However my trepidation could not have been further misplaced. When we finally arrived in Lagos around 11:30 that first night we had nowhere to stay and little idea in what sort of area we had found ourselves. However without any request one of the passengers on our bus took time to help us. He pointed out into which areas not to stray and then walked with one of us all around the area visiting a number of hotels to get us the best deal. Only once he had seen us safely to our rooms did he leave us to make his way home. In Abuja, we at least had a place to stay but on arrival found the place to be too expensive. Again someone who happened to be standing outside the hotel offered to help. He walked us to a guesthouse which turned out to be some 20 minutes away. Again he negotiated a price for our room and even called us the next day to check we were settled.
In a tiny place called Banki, on the border with Cameroon, we arrived late at night not having a room to stay having travelled further than we had planned. However, once again we were guided to a new hotel where the owner took us around the town to find a meal, sent his assistant out, across the border into Cameroon, to buy us beer and stayed up chatting with us till 1 in the morning. The next day he took us on a guided tour of the town and its sprawling market.
Without exception, everyone we met or engaged with went out of their way to help us. Nothing was too much for them and no inconvenience too great. It was almost as if they are aware of their nations reputation and were doing all they could to try and counter it. Because of its reputation we ploughed through the country as quickly as we could. However by the time we crossed in to Cameroon we, all three of us, wished we could have stayed longer... certainly not something I would have said only a few weeks previously...

Friday, 14 May 2010

Six 6000 three part 2...

Once we had entered Togo it was only an hour before we reached Benin and then a further four before we arrived at the border with Nigeria. However apart from being the longest, most involved and costly the Nigerian Immigration Service was also by far the friendliest. The officials seemed genuinely interested in were we had come from, what we were doing and where we were going and equally pleased that we were visiting their country. We eventually crossed the Border into Nigeria well after dark. We had been warned that although we were not that far from Lagos no one could predict the length of the journey because of the traffic heading to the city. This however was no great surprise to us being, as we were, ‘seasoned travellers’ on African roads and we immediately imagined the sheer weight of traffic, the atrocious road conditions or the usual African habit of exaggerating everything, especially when it’s bad, and more so when it’s bad and the Nigerians are concerned.
So we were not surprised to find a long queue of slow moving cars, lorries, vans, buses and bikes all vying for the best position on the road and the fastest moving lane. There was obviously a bottle-neck somewhere and it wasn’t long before we came across it. Just a few hundred metres and only minutes from the border we were stopped by a soldier waving his rifle to slow the traffic passing by him. He quickly checked the passengers in each vehicle before choosing the ones he wanted his colleagues to pull over and check. We being on a bus from ‘out of the country’ were prime suspects and so it was little surprise that we were stopped and our passport, visa and vaccination certificates sought.
Fortunately all our papers were in order and we were allowed to continue our journey. However we hadn’t even managed to pick up any great speed before we were stopped again, this time by the Drug Enforcement Authority. Despite their title they didn’t seem interested in our luggage but rather just ‘our papers’. Again we survived all the scrutiny and once again were soon on our way.
Now you have to remember that less than 10 minutes earlier we had just passed through the more than rigorous Nigerian Customs and Immigration Services, where all ‘our papers’ had already been checked and found to be in order. Now the Police and Drug Department and other agencies were checking us again. I’ll leave it to you to surmise why this might be... just on the off chance that I might ever want to visit this wonderful, beautiful, friendly, not at all over officious and incorruptible country again.
To cut a very long journey short, we were stopped like this over thirty times. I only started counting after the first half dozen or so and reached twenty odd before losing count again. Occasionally we were pulled over to the hard shoulder, but more often than not we just stopped in the middle of the road. Seldom was anything searched, and if it was, it was just a cursory glance at the boxes and bags in the boot. A quick note to anyone contemplating smuggling anything illicit into Nigeria, such as drugs, contraband or jam... firstly DON”T... but if you are determined, ensure that your yellow fever vaccination certificate is in order, this should allow you to pass with little hassle.
In all we were stopped by the Police, Drugs Authority, Immigration, Customs, Alcoholics Anonymous, Girl Guides, and the KKK. It seemed that anyone with a uniform, a torch and a gun had the authority to pull us over to check that our papers were in order. Most but not all carried guns some had long truncheons, a few baseball bats and one was armed with a particularly nasty looking golf club (not a joke !). Eventually we passed through this phalanx of officialdom and found ourselves on a clear road to Lagos.
You have to hand it to the Nigerians. To be able organise that every official employed in the region is there greet us personally is obviously some undertaking and one I wouldn’t have avoided it, even if I could.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Six 6000 three part 1...

As most of you will know I’ve been travelling once again. This time around West Africa. Myself, and two other volunteers, travelled across six countries Ghana obviously, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon a total of nearly 6000 km in only three weeks. If that sounds like madness to you, all I can say is that when planning the trip we must certainly have been overcome with some form of psychosis because, to be honest, it didn’t look that far on the map.
We set off for the bus station early one Saturday morning at the ungodly hour of 4:30 when even the cockerels were still asleep. Originally we had planned to fly to Lagos but couldn’t get a flight for a reason so ludicrous I can’t bring myself to repeat it. Anyway we arrived at the bus station at 5:00 am in order to leave at 5:30. I imagine that by now you’ve read enough of my scribbling’s to know what’s coming next and you’d probably be right... three hours later we finally left for Togo.
Fortunately we did have a ‘luxury’ bus... unfortunately in our particular case that didn’t necessarily mean one with more or better facilities but rather that it just cost more. The journey to Togo is around 4 hours and, as is fitting of the road which links the capital cities of two neighbouring countries, can only comfortably be negotiated in a tank. But when we did finally arrive at the border that was when the fun really started.
The only people who seem to need to worry about immigration, visas or customs are tourists. Everyone else wanders back and forth with relative impunity. While we, on the other hand, had to undergo the most comprehensive interrogation into our movements, destinations and intentions. It was however good to see that despite the obvious failings in their education, health and legal systems not to mention abysmal transport infrastructure the Ghanaians didn’t shirk away from the astronomical cost of introducing some of the most expensive and ‘state of the art’ immigration technology systems that even the likes Heathrow would envy.
The actual process of crossing the border is essentially this. First you complete an exit card to leave Country A. Your picture is taken and put on ‘the system’. You are questioned and if all is satisfactory you receive an exit stamp. You then progress to customs... more questions after which you pass into ‘no-man’s-land’ that strange area between two countries which belongs to neither.
Now you need to enter Country B. For this you need a visa (in our case just a transit visa) but it still involves an entry card, visa form and a not inconsiderable amount of money for the privilege of driving the hour across Country B to the border of Country C.
So you complete the card and the form... answer more questions... pay the money... get the stamp and proceed to customs... and if you make it through this whole process you find yourself in Country B about 30-40 minutes later.
However the relative simplicity of the process belies the actual experience of the West African Immigration Services. When we entered the barely lit Ghanaian Immigration Office we were confronted with three desks with a couple of immigration officers sat behind each of them. At any one time at least two of these officers will be asleep over their desks depending on whose turn it is to do so.  
It has long been believed that despite being against every international convention many African countries have secretly enacted what has come to be known as the ‘Inverse Laws’.
The BIRT Law (Ballpoint Inverse Red Tape) is a particularly pernicious piece of legislation most evident in many official departments but also in the likes of banks and post offices and which in effect states that the number of pens provided should be inversely proportional to the amount of paperwork any department expects the public to complete.
Hence an establishment where you have to walk out of your way to avoid the containers dispensing writing implements, will have no forms that need to be completed. Whereas in places like the Immigration Service and banks where the level of bureaucracy is monumental the law demands that no ink should have sullied the premises.
It is a worrying development that the all pervasive BIRT law has given rise to the DIRT Law (Desk Inverse Red Tape) which has considerably reduced the number of work surfaces provided on which to complete these cards, as well as the FLIRT Law (Form Length Inverse Red Tape) responsible for reducing the actual space on the form for your answers to the point where there is now only enough room left for your date of birth and inside leg measurement.
Fortunately the law hasn’t extended to removing the floor from these premises so you always have a hard, if not completely flat surface on which to rest. However unless you have your own pen or can buy, borrow or steal one the only alternative is to cut off the tip of your finger and complete the paperwork in your own blood.
Anyway getting back to where we were... a form needs to be collected from one of the ‘awake’ desks, completed as best one can then returned to anyone with their eyes open and a relatively friendly face. You will need to ensure you have chosen a friendly face because this person is responsible for ‘interrogating’ you. Although they will be holding your passport they will still ask where you are from... is this your name... is this your date of birth... have you spelt it correctly? Although you are at the border with Togo they will still check where you are going... or might throw in a couple of trick questions presumably to try and catch you out... will Rooney be fit for the World Cup... do you think the current global recession and specifically economic crisis in Greece will have a damaging effect on the price of jam... what colour socks does the Dali Lama wear ? (yes... no... and any colour except red... I replied).
Once this is finished your form will be stamped and scribbled on before you need to enter another room where someone will eventually put down his paper in order to finally put an exit stamp in your passport.
From Immigration you have to find your way to Customs. Although it’s no more than a few metres away the route is not always obvious. Stationed here will be the officer how drew the short straw that day because he is out in the baking sun sitting at a rickety old desk in a makeshift hut. He will have a towel in one hand to mop away the sweat, a pen in the other to note your leaving in a giant ledger and an automatic rifle propped up against his leg. Although this might be customs no baggage is searched, but a note will be made and maybe the odd question asked... Is this your name... Do you really think the price of jam will be unaffected ?
You have now left Ghana. You cross no-man’s-land, which is full of people selling everything from corn plasters and steering wheels to jam (obviously the Duty Free!) and enter Immigration in Togo. You now need to repeat the whole process again, only this time in French.