Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Jump on the bandwagon; it’s there for the taking.

Imnakoya laments the fact that with so many talented African artists, such a dubious initiative by a non-African can gather so much funding.

The black looks site describes the project as a ‘highly offensive, disgusting exploitation of African women’

The only report on this that I can find in the international press (a cursory internet search I have to admit) was on the blog of Peter Walker, a Guardian on line correspondent, whose article, ‘A Travesty of Beauty?’, made no informed comment and ended with a lame: ‘Brave and liberating or appallingly misjudged? Surely the question remains open.’ Perhaps Mr. Walker was merely setting the scene for informed debate.

The latest resourcing update for the World Food Programme in Angola makes for depressing reading. The requirement is for some $90 million dollars over the next two years. The biggest donors so far are the USA with just over $4.5 million followed by France with $3.6 million (the two countries with the most valuable oil production and exploration concessions in Angola), followed by Japan, the UN and Angola itself with donations of around $2 million dollars. Portugal, the former colonial power in Angola came in with a generous $200,000 and Norway with half that. That leaves a shortfall of nearly $65 million, or precisely 71.84% of what is needed.

Visit the websites of GOAL and other worthy charities, and you will find the same thing. WFP hand out food. Nothing complicated, no hidden agendas; until something better and more sustainable comes along, they will try and put sustenance into starving bellies. GOAL, from my experience, do something similar, although not on such a grand and well funded scale. They will try and provide shelter for starving and abused orphans; will provide clean water and health education, at the very least a sympathetic Irish shoulder to cry on. They all, though, are trying to dip into a pot that very definitely has a bottom.

With funding never likely to meet demand, one would imagine that only the most deserving projects would benefit from the largesse of government development programmes or altruistic corporations and individuals. Although sometimes harsh and often crude, it would not be unreasonable to assume that each proposal would at least in part be measured on its ‘cost to beneficiary ratio’, the idea of helping as many as possible per limited dollar expended. Being humans, however, means that no matter how hard we try to remain objective and dispassionate, emotion will always play a part in our decision making process. Emotion is a good thing. It is what distinguishes us from animals and makes us more or less civilised. Without it we would not have the desire to achieve, compassion, or love. It is also the weakness that the less scrupulous can exploit.

Imagine if, as a morally bankrupt individual, a person was able to identify a highly emotive and topical cause. Imagine if that person went still further and connected the first with some other cause equally current and just as emotive, its emotional appeal would accelerate the project proposal straight to the top of the bureaucrat’s in-tray.

I have no idea what Norwegian artist Morten Traavik was on when he had his ‘Eureka’ moment but whatever it was, it must have been good stuff. I can imagine him sweating it out in his sauna, ice-cold aquavit in one hand, a huge spliff in the other. Some lissome young lady swatting hot coals with the branch of a fir tree, when all of a sudden it occurred to him to link the landmine issue with the ‘empowerment’ of African women.

Traavik has managed to persuade enough people and organizations to fund a beauty pageant for female landmine victims, 'Miss Landmine 2007'. He even managed to get the Angolans to donate $15,000. His stated intention was to select one girl from each of Angola’s 18 provinces. In the end, he managed just ten in spite of the fact that he paid them for their services.

His intention, after an exhibition of his work soon to take place in Oslo, is to create a Cosmopolitan style magazine featuring the lucky girls posing with a variety of specially designed clothes and prosthetics. For whose benefit, one wonders? I cannot see the average Angolan amputee rushing out to buy the magazine; they are lucky if they can beg enough on the streets to be able to eat. Even the future of the original ten Miss Landmine’s is not certain. Traavik’s website clearly states in reference to the sustainability of the project, ‘…for the project to grow and develop, with or without the assistance of the original Miss Landmine team’.

Whichever way you look at it, the project does smack of cynical exploitation.

What concerns me though, is not so much the moral indignation that this project arouses, as the sheer waste of valuable funding. The project may well do some good. It will help to spotlight the inhuman horror of landmines; it will raise awareness of the victims, albeit amongst a limited audience; it will undoubtedly have earned for the ten girls greater self-confidence and no-one should blame them for accepting money to take part. But please do not try and convince me that this was the wisest use of scarce funding. Look at it this way. Who gains the most from this project in the long term? The ten girls, or the artist?

Another thing that worries me is the standard of photography. A child with a disposable Kodak could take better composed and lit photographs than the examples that Traavik has displayed on his site. Even the quality of his work is questionable.

I have no idea what this project will cost in the long term but it will be a significant amount. With all the serious and well-conceived proposals out there begging for funding, how is it possible that presumably sane donors decided to fund this project, a project that benefits so few and offends so many?

Mr Walker charitably provides the alternative interpretation of 'brave and liberating'.

'Plain daft' is the expression that springs to my mind.

I have a good idea for a project. It appeals emotionally to those that are interested in oppressed minorities, animal rights, gender issues and rightful ownership. It is called, ‘Land Rights for Gay Whales’.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

La Guerre Oublié

Luanda, 1994

There were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing here. Tired, disillusioned, all I wanted to do was go home.

Then a Frenchman, Jean Charles Gutner took this photo and gave it to me. Every time I felt ready to give up in despair, I would look at the photo and I would remember what it was I had to do. Keep going. I was only one of countless thousands that all over the world give of themselves in an attempt to stop the further suffering of innocents like this tragic little boy.

"It is amazing what reserves you can call on if you only know how to dig deep enough."

(Company Seargent Major Everitt Welsh Guards, Normandy Company, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst addressing a group of Officer Cadets)

A pretty lonely job...

Don't mention the war...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

A different point of view

"That foolish wife who makes a slave of her husband, is after all known as the wife of a slave only! The wise wife makes a god of her husband and is herself called a goddess."

My girlfriend took a friend of hers to a play a couple of nights ago. She was very excited about it in the days leading up to the performance saying that it had been advertised on the radio and loads of people would be going. Apparently, it was all to do with the duties of a good wife. Could be a good plot for a satire, I thought.

She then went on to say that the play would illustrate a number of commandments to be observed by a good wife.

The commandments included such things as the requirement for the Good Wife to ensure that His clothes were all washed and pressed in time for His, presumably unpredictable, departure. That His food should be served on time (ready for His unpredictable return) and naturally be Haute Cuisine. A reminder that on the farm, it is the cockerel that crows; and also that in the case of an undisciplined mind, it is the body that suffers. That when He speaks, the Good Wife listens and obeys.

If this wasn't to be a satire, then I would positively encourage my girlfriend to go.

The last time I went to any sort of theatre in Africa was to a cinema in Quelimane, Mozambique. The film was about a group of Caucasians who were unfortunate enough to survive a plane crash in some Godforsaken jungle only to be subsequently roasted and eaten by the natives. So soon after the end of a bloody civil war widely acknowledged by the population as having been prosecuted by avaricious Caucasians, the film went down very well. As the only Caucasian in the audience, and well illuminated I might add by the reflected glow of the screen, I began to feel like one of those hobbled chickens I saw every day for sale by the roadside. Not an experience I would want to repeat by being the only male member of an outraged female audience if the play was not a satire. Instead I arranged to meet the girls at the Chinese restaurant afterwards.

Either way, satire or not, this play was going to be a window on Angolan society. If it were a satire, then it would mark a new step towards the emancipation of women in a male orientated society. If it weren’t, it would be a shocking endictement of the treatment of women in general. I was keen, therefore, to gauge the reaction of the girls.

My girlfriend thought it was brilliant.

‘But was it a serious play or a comedy?’

‘Oh, it was hilarious.’

‘But serious hilarious or just so stupid you had to laugh?’

‘It was funny, you know, funny.’

I turned to her friend.

‘They just roared.’


‘When the wife beating started, I couldn't believe it, the audience just roared with laughter.’ She continued, ‘It was bizarre.’

I should have gone myself, of course. Unless my girlfriend or her friend care to go into greater detail, I am still unsure of the real purpose of the play.

Still, it was great fun to see the pair of them, not outright feminists (but I am sure that had I said anything crass and sexist, one would have held me down while the other stabbed a chopstick in my eye), laughing about a play that graphically portrayed wife beating.

Odd isn’t it. If I had made light of wife beating, I would have suffered a particularly brutal form of acupuncture using any of the implements to hand on the restaurant table. Yet amongst themselves, the two girls were laughing. They could see the funny side of what to me is quite a dark and terrible thing. I did not see the play so don’t ask me what could possibly have been funny about it. Evidently, however, there must have been something that tickled them. Sitting at the table, though, and watching them chatter away, I realised that whites can joke about whites, blacks about blacks, homosexuals about gays and Catholics about Catholics and so on but if one was to cross out of his own group and laugh at a member of the other, he is a bigot, a racist, a homophobe. Angola may not yet have found anything to laugh about its colonial history and the horrors of the civil war but this, surely has to be a start. If they can laugh at what in Angolan society has always been set in stone, the right of the male to be master of his house, then maybe soon, they can start laughing at other things too. Culturally, that makes them more advanced than the old world. The life expectancy of a Frenchman walking into an Islington pub and taking the piss out of ‘Le Boefs’ would have been markedly less than that of a first world war fighter pilot. Would it have been possible to perform such a play in politically correct Britain?

It occurred to me that the march toward political correctness has done more to perpetuate the bigotry and resultant isolation of so many ‘marginalised’ groups than immigration quotas, the British National Party or neo Nazis ever could. Marginalised by whom? The very groups that through the legislation they have foisted upon us to protect ‘minorities’ mean that we will never see the likes of Dave Allen or Benny Hill again. When Lenny Henry spoke about ‘Snowflakes’ and ‘Honkies’, I was never offended, I laughed my cock off.

Rather than force us to like each other, which has always been a damn good way to ensure that we hate each other, why not encourage us to laugh at each other? If we can cross racial and cultural boundaries with tears of mirth in our eyes, who needs PC?

On Expats and Milton Keynes Man

I have to turn my attention to the Portofino Restaurant and adjoining Bush Bar.

Considering that Intels, Integrated Logistics, have to cater for a truly multinational clientele, they haven’t done that bad. OK, so the prices are pretty extortionate, for Nigeria that is, but think of the poor sods sweating their lives out in the Smoke. At least 40% of their salaries overtly gobbled up by the taxman and, since the peoples party came to power, God only knows what percentage scoffed up covertly. Just a cup of coffee needs the crinkly stuff, not the shrapnel.

I have no idea which eloquent individual pointed out that most men live lives of quiet desperation but whoever he was (and I am in the Bush Bar now, therefore, devoid of an internet connection that would allow me to check), he was bang on the nail. So how come these guys here have the gall to complain about £1.70 for a large scotch or £5 for a decent pizza? Especially when, for a decent tip, you can get the waitress thrown in as well?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do not necessarily approve of everything that I see around me but I have been around long enough to accept certain things as they are. The point that I am making is that for a lot of these guys, this is paradise and still they complain. If they have no money by the time they get home, wherever that might be, then that is because they have drunk deeply from the cup (big tips needed for excessive quaffing) but at least they go home with a gutful if not a wallet full. The poor bastard creaking under the strain of unbearable financial commitments merely to survive in UK has no choice. Deep joy for him is risking his wife’s wrath (thankfully they haven’t discovered Wahala in Milton Keynes yet) by stopping off at the closest ale house to the office at Marble Arch and sinking a few illicit pints before walking across the park to catch the train (always assuming that it turns up), arriving home, hours later, to a cold dinner, kissing the dog and kicking the kids, reading the mail (all marked ‘URGENT’, ‘PERSONAL’ and addressed to First Name, Last Name, Esquire, i.e. bills or bank statements, the latter seemingly favouring red ink) and then being expected to be a ‘good father’ (read school report, council child #1, sympathise with hockey injury sustained by child #2, you arrived late which is why youngest, child #3 is still not in bed and hyper active, so bath the little git and read story) while darling wife is on her fourth G&T and you haven’t even had a whiff of the malt and the fire has gone out ‘cos the darling wife has already decided it is too late and besides, logs are expensive and we’re economizing. Oh, and by the way, she tried to use her Selfridges card and it didn’t go through. And yes, she has a headache.

No wonder London’s green areas are filled with lonely, bitter old men (in their early thirties) with plastic gloves and pooper scoopers following some bloody under exercised mutt around and wondering what life is all about. Milton Keynes must be a compost heap by now.

No, let’s face it. There are some serious disadvantages to being an expat and doing the type of work that we do but, on the whole, it’s not bad. Going back to the UK taxman, I’d rather have my head tapped with an overgrown walking stick and be sat upon by a flatulent native for a few days while mosquitoes drain my blood than be literally sucked dry by the vampires that profess to be ‘elected representatives’. At least when I finally get back, headache and all (not to UK, I’m talking about Port Harcourt, or Cape Town or Belize City, anywhere I happen to be calling home at the time), I know exactly where I can go to find some caring young thing who has never heard of Paracetamol’s effectiveness as a contraceptive and will make me feel like a million dollars (however briefly) rather than be somebody with a marginally acceptable post code yet reduced to shoveling dogshit off the sidewalk. And still these bastards complain. Unbelievable.

So here I am in the Bush Bar. OK, there are cheaper places in town and I am planning the next acquisition, this time in São Tomé, so I really do not want to be quaffing too deeply (there are too many wild pig and game fish in São Tomé that would look better dressed and on my dining table) so I am watching the expenditure, albeit not as hard as Milton Keynes man. Let’s face it, though, if I run out of money it’s because I have been bloody stupid. MK man only needs an official letter saying his poll tax band has been redefined and the council official dealing with the case is an ex-government press officer, and he is fucked. Or it will be the interest on the Selfridges card that sees to him. Either way, he’s looking at a transverse walk off Blackfriar’s bridge with his suit pockets stuffed full of bricks while at the worst, I will wake up with the mother of all hangovers and an ex wife who hates me because I am the one not answering emails now.

Two fingers, Harley style

I was unable to write at all last night, as the chaps, and especially the VIP visitors that have descended upon us for a few days, seemed out of sorts with a TV that wasn’t working. Odd that, for when it was working, the chaps at least seemed to prefer the attractions of the Mosquito Bar to the repetitive output of satellite TV. Perhaps they felt duty bound to keep the VIP’s company for not one of them suggested a run ashore.

I decided, therefore, that I would try and hook the laptop and the computer projector up to the stereo so that we could all watch a film. The first hurdle was the variety of power points, none of which seemed suitable for any of the cables I had. My projector was fitted with a South African plug, something I realised I probably would not need again, so I lopped off the plug in order to replace it with an English one. This was when I discovered that the wires inside were coloured brown, greeny blue and white. Impossible to check how they were connected up inside the plug as it was one of these moulded affairs that was clearly designed to stop people like me messing with it.

OK. Is the greeny blue wire more green than blue, in other words, could it be the neutral cable? Or was it more blue than green, which would make it the negative cable? Or did the combination of colours bear no relationship whatsoever to any internationally recognised system of colour coding? I decided that brown was definitely live. No idea why, for there was no logical thought process allowing me to arrive at that conclusion. That left me with a 50/50 chance of getting it right, if I wasn’t already wrong that is. Reluctant to test the cable wiring on an expensive and correspondingly fragile projector, I asked Akim the house boy, (not the HR Manager, sadly) to fetch the kettle. He duly returned with a large, shiny catering sized chrome kettle. I plugged it in and keen to help, Akim switched it on while resting his hand on the metal surface.

Now I had often warned Akim about his almost incessant habit of mopping the floors, presenting as it did a slip hazard for the house guests. I do not think that in this case the slipperiness of the floor contributed to him falling writhing to the ground like an Ox with its throat slit as much as its moistness which, in contact with his bare feet, provided the perfect conduit to earth for the thirteen or so amps that flashed unexpectedly through his body. The golden rule of first aid when dealing with a victim of electrocution is to isolate him from the electrical source. This Akim had done for himself to spectacular effect by clearing the coffee table in a single bound propelled by involuntarily galvanised muscles. I have no idea what the language was that he resorted to in extremis as he unsteadily picked himself up from the floor, but there was palpable awe in his mantra. Given that his eyes were like saucers when they lit upon the kettle again, I am certain that his relationship with it in the future will never be entirely comfortable.

Satisfied that apart from a few bruises and a tingling arm he was otherwise undamaged, I swapped the cables over. Akim, he really is a good sport, ran down to the junction box at the corner of the street to reconnect the neighbourhood to its electricity supply. On his return, however, he seemed reluctant to assist me by performing the quick test again so we had to wait until a pleasant sizzling noise reminded me that I had forgotten to refill the kettle after Akim had emptied it so stylishly. At least I knew the plug was now wired up correctly. I gave the kettle back to Akim who, I observed with interest, wore his flip-flops to traverse across the lounge.

Next problem was this awesome box that formed the major part of the stereo system. Apart from a myriad of very bright and highly distracting flashing lights and welcome messages, there was a confusing abundance of connectors, knobs and buttons all housed in a menacingly angular black and chrome case. Now I am not one normally intimidated by electronic equipment of any kind but on the only other occasion I used this device, to play a CD, it took me a good ten minutes to work out how to get the CD tray open. When it came to getting the CD out again, I have to confess I resorted to judicious use of a table knife. The malevolence of the object knew no bounds. Eventually I decided that only one type of cable would do. It required the same connector at both ends, the type of connector one finds on Walkman headphones, and I did not have one. I was ready to accept defeat at this stage but the rest of the chaps, having been royally entertained so far, were reluctant to let the lack of a cable end their fun so soon. It is astonishing what these VIP’s have in their briefcases. In no time I was faced with a bewildering array of cables matched only by an equal number of suggestions as to where I might connect them. Happily a suitable cable was found and the head VIP exercised his right to select the film.

The Rick Moranis version of the Little Shop of Horrors is, I think, the best film rendition of this famously amusing play. Projected as it was across the entire width of the lounge, the image was about eight feet high. The sight of a giant vegetable, taller than a man, consuming the mortal remains of a dismembered dentist evidently left quite an impression on the collection of house staff that had assembled on the patio to watch the film through the French windows. Glancing from the darkened room I saw a row of dumbstruck faces and popping eyes garishly illuminated by the reflected image on the wall. I suppose they look at plant life now with the same superstitious respect that I did as a young boy after seeing ‘Day of the Triffids’. At least ‘Audrey II’ was not as mobile as the Triffids even if it was far more voluble towards the end. ‘Feed me Seymour, feed me now! Must be Blood! Must be Fresh!’ and that classic song, ‘Sure looks like plant food to me’. I can think of a few people that look like plant food to me too.

It was seeing that film for the first time that made me go out and buy a Harley Davidson. The sight of Steve Martin hopping off his classic Harley and it parking itself by the kerb was just too cool. Even the fact that his character in the film was a sadistic maniac didn’t detract from the obvious rebellious connotations of black leather jackets, V Twin motorcycles and a disdain for helmets. Constrained by the etiquette and tradition of a British Army officer’s mess, I longed to let my hair down, even if at the time it was only two centimetres long and if left to its own devices would stick up rather than hang down. Snorting his own personal supply of Nitrous Oxide, he was always going to ‘have me a snort of Gaaas, I’m really going to enjoy this one….’ while Rick Moranis fumbled ineptly for his revolver. Well I had a gas on my Harley. The damn thing had no brakes worth a damn and on a wet road you could get through half a rosary before bringing the thing to a halt. It had the turning circle and manoeuvrability of a fully laden tanker and you could only lean it into a corner about three degrees before a shower of sparks reminded you that it had grounded again. At least it wasn’t like my Ducati. That would lean over so far that if you absent mindedly left your foot under the gear lever ready for the change up, the approaching road surface would force an unexpected, definitely frightening and, in one case, disastrous and very painful gear change. With the Harley, though, nothing happened quickly. Even losing control of it on an icy road in Germany and falling off it was a leisurely affair, the ‘bike signalling well in advance its inability to stay upright followed by an almost apologetic slow motion capitulation to gravity. Ample time for me to ensure that nothing vital to me, like a leg, was left in the way of over two hundred kilograms of Milwaukee steel on its way to crushing contact with unforgiving tarmac. That ‘bike was a hoot. Whereas on the Ducati, I would insert metal pegs into my knee sliders to leave a trail of incandescence as my friends and I clawed our way round the fast curves of the Harz mountains (such youthful hooliganism), the Harley, with a lot less sphincter constricting effort, would leave a far more impressive pyrotechnic wake as I steadily abraded the side stand kick tab on one side and the lower exhaust mounting bracket on the other. My old mate Dirk went one better. He fitted footplates to his Harley and in no time at all had them impressively chamfered to fifty per cent their former mass. Purists would decry such abuse of an American Icon but they’re missing the point. The very soul of a Harley was borne out of a refusal to buckle under an enforced adherence to rules, someone else’s idea of the norms and conventions of society. It gave a sense of freedom, of prison shackles cast asunder. An icon indeed, but one ridden by iconoclasts. A real gas.

Driving Woes

I have a new driver. Actually, I have had two new drivers so far. Big Paul, my minder during my first tours in Nigeria has been reassigned to some other manager for fear that my final departure at the end of the contract will result in him being perceived as surplus to the manning requirement.

After Paul I had Cletus. An unfortunate name that, especially for a man, for no matter how careful one enunciates the word, it sounds unnervingly close to ‘clitoris’. Or perhaps that is just me. Anyway, Clitoris, I mean Cletus, has a heavy right foot. He thinks nothing of bowling the car along at eighty to a hundred clicks weaving his way from one side of the road to the other, threading the car through traffic as predictable as a menopausal woman. Cletus does not need to see daylight. The merest glimpse of dawn’s early morning half light is sign enough of the tiniest gap into which he launches his car. Visions of someone carelessly stepping into his line of fire and being catapaulted over the bonnet, roof and boot of the car leaving the inevitable one flip-flop lying in the road invaded my consciousness every time I rode with him. He never bumped into anything, however, and his vocabulary was extensive and varied enough to leave other road users no doubt as to where they fitted into the feeding chain; as well as supplying the distraction of seemingly endless entertainment for an otherwise nervous passenger.

Now I have Mba, pronounced ‘Oompah’. He is the complete opposite, and we are talking extremes here. The other day, a seemingly healthy Cletus developed a debilitating and, frankly, quite distasteful skin condition requiring his immediate relief from all duties. In other words, there was no way on earth that I was to be confined in close proximity with a man who appeared to be involuntarily divesting himself of his outer layer faster than a decomposing reptile.

We all know people who somehow or other have ended up in professions completely unsuited to them. I, for example, should have been an artist. A trendy lefty, yoghurt knitting extremist wearing pullovers made from recycled McDonalds cartons and daubing canvases with a variety of indescribable media and getting a government grant for doing so. Instead, I am in the security business. Mba is such a man. To end up a driver, he must have had an influential uncle who, deep down, really hated him. Let’s face it, if you want to get rid of someone, a hopelessly inept relative that your sister keeps bugging you to help, arrange for him to be a pilot. And if you hate him enough, you will still be able to sleep at night and not think of the ninety or so innocent souls who crashed into oblivion with him.

Well maybe Mba’s uncle didn’t hate him that much, or didn’t have enough influence to make him a pilot, so being a driver was the next best thing. Mba is never going to run anyone over. He isn’t going to lose control of the car at high speed and leave me smeared along the Aba Expressway. No. He, his car and anyone unfortunate enough to be in it, will one day become a bonnet mascot for some over-laden articulated lorry with no brakes that Mba, oblivious to his surroundings, has pottered in front of at twenty kilometres an hour while staring at something that everyone else would recognise as the speedometer and him wondering why the numbers go so far beyond the needle. Instead of visions of cart-wheeling roadside vendors, I now have nightmares of being borne screaming on the front of some bloody great truck all the way to Onne Port to be found lying face down on the dockside with ‘OVLOV’ stamped on my back. When I say ‘found’, I am assuming, of course, that someone would actually notice a partially dismembered and obviously discarded ‘Oyibo’ in a place like Onne.

Driving with Mba in traffic is rather like being on a boat in a fast moving and turbulent river. Only this boat has its engine running in reverse so even though the current is carrying us forwards, all the flotsam and jetsam sweeps past us around the stern and close along the sides before being swept ahead on the current. I have this unsettling feeling that I am going backwards relative to my immediate surroundings. This in itself is bad enough as it goes against the grain in the competition that driving in heavy traffic inevitably becomes, and increases the frustration of not being in control that every passenger feels. Worse is the fact that our sedate progress is accompanied by an almost incessant blaring of horns from behind. I used to like driving with the window open. I would gladly sacrifice the comfort of air-conditioning in order to avoid the sensation of being forced to ingest the foul biological output of an unwashed driver. With Mba, though, every angry road warrior that finally manages to squeeze by him hurls a variety of blood curdling abuse clearly culled from Cletus’ extensive repertoire through my open window. If they can emphasise their indignant rage by clopping me on the arm with a bit of hose or electrical flex, so much the better. Mba wisely keeps his window closed. I do the same now but go one stage further. I usually close my eyes as well.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Stab the Dealer

Warri is an interesting place by all accounts and it sits slap bang over the top of a huge reservoir of hydrocarbons. This should make it a very rich area. After all, the oil companies have been there pumping the stuff out for years so all that employment and money coming into the area should have done some good, right? Sadly, the answer is: no.

A long time ago when Nigeria was created by the casual stroke of a pencil on a map spread out on some regal dining table recently cleared of venison and quails eggs (or Paté de Fois Gras and Chablis, must read Thomas Pakenham again), the territories now collectively known as Nigeria were home to over a hundred distinct ethnic groups. Around Warri, there were three main groups. One were farmers, another group hunters and the last fisher-folk. Since actual ownership of land was as alien to them as having only one God (or wife, can’t remember which) until the British came along, apart from the occasional scuffle, there wasn’t too much trouble. Or perhaps there was but let’s face it, if it wasn’t reported in the Times, it never happened. When the Brits turned up, among other things (such as small pox, syphilis and religion) they brought education. Only one of these three groups took up the offer, the Itsekiri, oddly enough the smallest tribe, so hardly surprising they hooked up with Big Brother pretty damn quick. The long and the short of it was that being educated, they came to dominate the administration and, after independence in 1960, it was they who formed the state administration (and had higher than normal rates of skin lesions, venereal disease and were all Anglicans). Again, this wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem but for Oil. Or, more importantly, the filthy lucre that can be made anywhere where Oil is to be found.

Pretty soon, the companies recognized that they had no choice but to contribute to the local economy one way or another. In Warri, it was to the Itsekiri administrators that Development Aid and Social Help (DASH) was paid. Naturally, the Ijaws, the biggest tribe in the area and the fourth largest in Nigeria, and the Urhobos, a medium sized tribe but dominating the Warri mainland (the Ijaws are nomadic riverine folk), felt that they were losing out. The result? Ethnic clashes that were sparked by the tiniest little incident. If it were confined to the locals bashing each other’s heads in, then I suppose the oil companies would not be so concerned. Or they would be concerned, as individuals but, corporately, what could they do about it? The trouble is that the aggrieved groups, the Ijaws and the Urhobo, take it to the multi-nationals. Rig invasions and hostage taking are common. Rig managers joke that when it happens, they take them straight to the kitchens and let them gorge themselves. Ok, they were making light of a serious situation but the fact remains, some of these communities are starving. None of the development aid appears to filter down to their level. It seems to them (the starving ones, not the rig managers) that the only way that they can get even a little of what they see as their fair share is to extort it one way or another from the multi-nationals. If that means lifting the odd expat or two or holding a whole rig and its crew to ransom, then so be it. They (the multi nationals) all pay up in the end so I guess for the natives it’s a tactic worth employing.

For the expat whose head has just been introduced to the heavy end of a Mkpara (a sort of walking stick with a bloody huge knob on the end,) and then been dragged stunned into the bush to be sat upon for however long it takes his employer’s to decide to cough up, (bearing in mind, the persons doing the ‘sitting upon’ have just wolfed down a ton and a half of rations and so much rich food at once? Well, I leave it to your imagination) it must be a fairly traumatic experience and not one the average sane person would want to repeat. I mean, I know that they are all paid ridiculous salaries and it is all tax free but there are limits. Spend a few days contemplating the mysteries of the native digestive system while being eaten alive by mosquitoes and even the attention of a UK tax man (persons expelled from the Nigerian police force for being too extreme) would be a welcome alternative.

Just caused a little Wahala of my own. Chap can get jolly hungry hunched over a keyboard typing away and since I was in the middle of explaining Warri I didn’t want to lose the plot by spending more hours sitting in traffic on my way back to the canteen. So I decided I would try, for the first time, the culinary delights offered by Mr Bigg’s, a local and fairly widely spread chain of fast food emporiums. Technically, we are not supposed to walk for security reasons, why else go to all the trouble to give us cars and drivers? Actually, I am convinced that a significant proportion of expat managers have lost the use of their legs entirely. Shareholders should know that half of what is booked as Driver Overtime is for the luxury of having a driver and car sitting outside the manager’s house on the compound so that, when the moment he finally feels peckish arrives, he can climb into his car, be driven one hundred and twenty five yards to the Portofino Restaurant, eat his meal, book it to expenses and then be driven home again accompanied by the waitress (also a bookable expense) before some hours later finally releasing the driver (oh, and give this young lady a lift home as well, there’s a good chap). But as Mr Biggs is only a few hundred yards away from the office, I thought that a little fresh air would do me good so I decided to walk. Besides I would like to keep the use of my legs a little longer. I had Big Paul to keep an eye on me as well, don’t forget. Now if I tell you that the colours on which Mr Bigg has based his marketing strategy are bright red and yellow and that all the scripts used in his advertising material are in some cartoon font from Corel Draw you should get the idea on which famous catering company he has based his corporate identity.

Nigerian’s I have decided, by the way, look upon queuing the same way as they do driving. It is a blood sport.

Mr Bigg’s may look like (you know who) but the service is even slower and the staff have honed contempt for the client to a fine art. At least Mr Bigg doesn’t waste time giving his staff stupid little badges with gold stars so that customers can instantly recognise those with a true gift for pissing off poor old Joe Public. There is no need, they are all equally adept. Mr Bigg has, however, succeeded where (you know who) hasn’t. He has discovered how to make rubber and cardboard taste nice and his meat and chicken pies are really quite outstanding. Now in Nigeria, it seems that it is perfectly OK to shit and piss in the street, throw your rubbish into it, including the wife and kids because of the Wahala she gave you last night, even torch your neighbour’s house simply because five miles away somebody you never knew (but was from the same tribe as you) was killed by somebody else you never knew (but came from the same tribe as your neighbour). But, stroll down the road eating a meat pie and strewth! Thought I’d caused a bloody riot! Apparently, it is just not done for a gentleman to eat in the street. OK, I know that holds for most other civilised countries as well, with the exception of the country where (you know who) comes from, but in a country where just about anything you can think of except safe driving goes on in the street I hardly expected to offend anyone by consuming one of Mr Bigg’s fine meat pies in public. All goes to show, if your driver says that you really should sit down inside Mr Bigg’s and eat yer meat pie, then that’s what you should do. You do need razor sharp senses, though, when these guys are trying, in their own inscrutable way, to give you some advice. Instead of telling me what would happen if I ate outside, all he did was suggest that it might be better for me to eat inside. The mistake I made was not to ask, ‘Why?’

Back to Warri. Just recently, the trouble flared up again. Somebody that nobody knew got slotted by somebody else that nobody knew only they were from different tribes, this time the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. Or was it the Urhobos and the Ijaws? Who knows, all that mattered was that everyone suddenly went around torching their neighbour’s houses (probably tossing a few wives onto the bonfires as well, after all, a big wahala is a big wahala and mustn’t be wasted), which meant there were more people that nobody knew killed by a lot more other people that nobody knew and more houses were torched and so it went on, the death toll steadily rising. And it would have carried on if President Obasanjo hadn’t become concerned at the loss of revenue as one multi-national after another cleared out pretty damn sharpish like (sorry, if His Excellency hadn’t become concerned at the appalling and unnecessary loss of life. Still haven’t got my work permit yet, got to be careful) and sent in a load of extra police and troops to really shoot the place up, causing even more loss of life until eventually they all ran out of ammunition. Or beer, I don’t know which but it stopped anyway. Now, in the affected areas, and I have to say, we really are only talking about highly localized patches spread around a huge area, you can’t move twenty yards before running into a police, then an army checkpoint. Given the piles of empty beer bottles and spent cartridge cases that you have to weave around, this makes for very slow progress. At least there is a form of peace at the moment. There is a curfew from 6pm to 6am during which time the security forces can practice their marksmanship skills on empty beer bottles or any soft objects desperate enough to venture into the open (usually husbands caught in the wrong bed by curfew and trying to get to the right bed to avoid Wahala, and expatriates who are recognizable not just because they light up well at night but because by that time they are definitely legless and being driven).

What this means for the companies that remain behind is that they have to employ ever more sophisticated security measures. What were already small armies of military and police units grow to battalions with more firepower than a medium sized state. All this costs money, vast amounts of it. What costs cannot be hoisted onto the company affected are, presumably, borne by the state although, believe me, companies are forced to pay the lion’s share. And still expatriates are kidnapped and production severely curtailed if not shut down altogether. Who loses? Everybody.

The companies are taxed to within an inch of the bottom of their purses as it is. With so much revenue going to the state, how can it reasonably be expected that a company must now provide all the infrastructure and social services that are normally the responsibility of the state? Surely it is enough that they employ a reasonable number of local workers under accepted terms and conditions and pay them on time? Why should the company be further taxed by having to provide a replacement for the host country’s social security, medical and welfare systems? They’re oil companies, not a national health service. They find and produce oil for profit, they are not civil engineering companies there to build roads and schools for free. Having entered into mutual exploration and production sharing agreements for which the host state receives its royalties, is it not the responsibility of the state to provide adequate security? Instead, companies do contribute and allow themselves to get involved in all sorts of local initiatives none of which would be available to the population of countries such as the UK or US of A, and certainly not in Russia. In any other country, if you get a job, your employer is not interested in how you get to work, just make sure you turn up on time. If you can’t, they’ll employ someone else who can. Here, unless transport is laid on, the offices and plants would be empty. And it is unbelievable trite to say that there is no effective public transport system so an employer is duty bound to provide the service. Rubbish. No Nigerian company does so. If they can get to church three times a week, the football match every Saturday and to all the bars and discos that burst with clientele every night, they can bloody well drag their carcasses to work under their own steam. Instead the companies provide the services required to improve the lot of their employees and indirectly the local community and provide much higher than average conditions of service. That is why everyone wants to work for them. So with all the fighting and banditry in an around Warri, the companies lose out as costs surge, production falls away and profit disappears.

Eventually, the effect on the bottom line is unbearable and the company pulls out or severely reduces the size of its operation. Its people are told to go home or are laid off. There are no more social projects, no more assistance. It is the people who suffer. Directly those who lose their jobs and, indirectly, all those who benefited from the significant proportion of the population who were employed and injected cash into the local economy. Not so long ago, a multi-national drilling company in desperation sold off its onshore drilling operations in the delta, the hardest to protect from the criminal activities of local community elements, to a Nigerian company which promptly laid off over half the bloated workforce and stopped paying the ‘ghost’ workers, those employees from the local communities that the multi had been forced to employ to maintain ‘quotas’ but who only ever turned up to work on pay day. Among those laid off will have been some good, honest and hardworking individuals whose only crime may have been to belong to the wrong tribe.

The state suffers too as revenues inevitably collapse. Although it tries to push off as much of its own responsibilities as it can upon the shoulders of the unfortunate multi-nationals, a tactic for which it gleefully accepts the support of bleeding heart liberals, it too faces rising costs for policing, not only the criminal activity but the rising discontent among its voters. As a result, it is not only the criminals who suffer under the blunt tool of state security, it is the population whose freedom of speech and right of assembly is curtailed under the jack boot of oppression.

A vicious circle, then, the blame for which can be laid firmly at the door of institutionalised corruption. The multi-nationals are an easy target. They are portrayed as rapacious conglomerates, conning the poor, ill educated leaders of developing countries into grossly unfair exploration and production agreements. Excuse me. Are these the same poor, ill educated leaders whose bank accounts have telephone number balances in their numerous offshore accounts? The same leaders who use state resources to brutalise their opposition and then go on holiday by private jet to their villas in Europe which are secured using host country security resources at the cost of the taxpayer? Those leaders? And if anyone suggests that the criminal activity in the Delta region is not institutionalised corruption, they are fooling themselves. A little while ago, an expatriate was kidnapped from a supply vessel anchored a couple of miles offshore. The security officer on board the security vessel went ashore to try and negotiate with the kidnappers. There being no mobile phone network there, he took a Thuraya phone with him and offered its use to the kidnappers so that they could seek guidance during the negotiations with whoever it was that was responsible for the kidnapping. Thuraya phones, as do all mobile phones nowadays, have a very useful function. It is called the ‘call register’. A check of the number dialled revealed it to be that of the Special Advisor on Oil and Gas of the State Governor’s office.

A suppressed population is in no position to clean up its government’s act. The world needs oil and all its by products if we are to continue to enjoy the standard of living to which we have become accustomed. We need the multi-nationals to push into these often awful areas, to find and produce the product. Given the salaries they need to pay ordinary, sane folk to abandon their families back home and risk being kidnapped and beaten up, even killed in some pretty inhospitable places; the enormous costs involved in developing the new technologies required to extract an ever dwindling resource; the enormous financial risks to which they are exposed, why can’t they be allowed to turn in a decent profit? Why should they suffer criticism from the foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol pushed out by so many different pressure groups? Organisations like Global Witness provide a valuable service in many instances. They do alert an otherwise lethargic and indifferent public to some pretty awful crimes against humanity but, occasionally, like Green Peace, they appear to go off the rails a bit.

The United States has, perhaps, the toughest anti-graft laws in the world. It is hard to understand, certainly by a casual observer such as myself, how such laws will fairly and equably be enforced when its own government, and state appointed, therefore, hardly impartial legislator, depends wholly on the patronage of the very organisations most likely to be tempted to resort to graft. How can the developed world criticise the apparent greed of third world leaders when scandals such as Oil for Food and the obscure process by which contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq were awarded plaster the broadsheets? It may surprise some, but these poor, ill-educated third world leaders can read and sit confident in the knowledge that most understand the moral of throwing stones in glass houses. While most of us are not so morally bankrupt as many high government officials and presidents of all nationalities, I defy anyone to put their hand on their heart and say, if there was no chance of retribution whatsoever, they would not be tempted to dip their hand in the till every now and again. It is just that these people have a very big till and are obviously using shovels rather than their hands.

With a playing field the surface of which resembles more the Mourne Mountains than a billiard table, any multi-national who hopes to provide a return on investment for its shareholders will inevitably, with so many corrupt players in the field, be faced with the choice of retiring from the game or indulging in a bit of creative accounting to cover those consultancy fees, facilitation payments and signature bonuses. Transparency is obviously a good thing. I for one, however, would not thank Transparency International or Global Witness for trashing my pension plan by persuading the multi-national in which I had invested to earn the ire of a country containing its significant investment by opening up its books to the scrutiny of the world, and, more importantly, its competitors. I would rather stick my head in the sand and just hope that the problem would go away of its own accord.

The problem with today’s litigious society is that there must always be a guilty party. For someone to be guilty, there must be a weight of compelling evidence sufficient to condemn them. The compilation of this evidence will require, especially in this case, some pretty skilled investigation the course of which will be impeded at every step or, some fortuitous disclosure. If someone is found guilty then, naturally, punishment follows. Knowing this, anyone even remotely implicated in such questionable business practices, either directly, indirectly or merely by association will most likely do what any other, normal person would do. Keep their mouths shut. In the meantime, the game carries on and tyrants can continue to subject their citizens to awful privation in between European holidays, the population around Warri will continue to be subjugated to the will of the warlords and I can sleep at night knowing that I can fill my car in the morning and my pension will pay out.

Rather than try and expose what is already, to anyone with a bit of common sense, a self-evident fact; rather than waste a lot of time trying to put shackled bodies in the dock; why not have a go at a system that requires a political party to sell its soul to any devil with spare cash and an agenda in order to survive?

No one likes to play with a stacked deck of cards. Rather than attack the multi-nationals, direct a bit of attention towards exposing the hypocrisy of the governments involved. It is their foreign and domestic policies that force the game and dictate the rules. Don’t dig at the players who cheat a bit. Stab the dealer.

Mills and Boon present...

Hot Luanda Nights! (Part I)

I was sitting at my desk, bored as hell when the call came through. After hours of watching rain course down the glass fronted façade of the goldfish bowl they called an office, lethargy had really set in and I let the phone ring for a bit.

Probably only a demand for an overdue time-write sheet and I certainly wasn't in the mood for accounting for what the hell I'd been up to all last month. Mind you, if I didn't do something, I wouldn't get paid. Avarice rinsed away idleness and I stabbed the speaker button.

'It's about that crap you wrote last week,' the threatening gravel of the editor's voice was unmistakable.

'Er, what crap?' I enquired tentatively.

'Berk! How much of your drivel have I printed recently? The stuff about expats in Africa.'

Ah, I remembered that piece......

'More and more expatriate fun seekers than ever are flocking to Luanda's sun kissed white beaches to enjoy tequila clear waters and no tax codes. Ears ringing with promises of idyllic lifestyles, hot and cold running maids, luxury transport and duty free everything, new arrivals, eyes bright with anticipation, sweep through the brash modernity of Luanda's plush International Airport eager to immerse themselves in paradise.....'

One of my better pieces that. A rehash of an old article I'd found in some US rag, a dose of imagination..... sorry, 'artistic licence' and five minutes scribble in the saloon of the Jolly Farmer and I'd got the boss off my back.

Until now.

'What about it then?' I demanded.

If the bugger was going to give me a hard time I'd go down fighting.

'I want you to go there'

'Go to Angola! You must be effin' mad, there's a bloody war on in case you hadn't noticed,' I was bolt upright in my chair by now, 'and besides, I haven't had me jabs,' I was beginning to sound petulant.

'Bollocks to yer jabs, it's them that'll need the jabs after you've been there. The war is over and I want you out there fast,' and he went on to explain how my five minutes of beery literary output had provoked a bit of consternation in some circles, the idea that overpaid expats were living it up while all around them kids were starving to death and getting shot and bombed and suchlike. Apparently there were British companies out there and I was to find them and expose their lack of social awareness and appalling absence of humanity.

'Oh that's nice', I mustered as much sarcasm as my fluttering stomach would allow, 'I have to go and risk my neck so you can be seen as the editor of the rag that made the multi's feel suddenly all guilty and change their ways!'

As usual, he demonstrated a complete disregard for my feelings and two days later I flew Aeroflot, via Moscow, to Luanda.

Four days later I actually arrived.

'I had the chance to join an American Multinational' said one lotus eater when I finally caught up with him sitting on the terrace of his luxury villa in the residential complex next to the airport, 'but when I applied to join this company and got the job it was, well, you know, a lifetime's dreams fulfilled.'

He smiled wistfully as the window panes shook and an Antonov hauled itself slowly into the sky, gentle plumes of kerosene fumes competing with the sweet smell of the quaint little bairro just visible beyond the barbed wire security fence.

'No,' he sighed, 'I wouldn't have it any other way' and he motioned to his almond eyed maid for another gin and tonic. I flapped my hand in response to her enquiring look to decline yet another of these monstrously potent mixtures, after all, it was only ten in the morning.

As she gracefully manoeuvred her lithe torso in through the French windows and between the expensive furniture beyond, her small feet made no sound on the lush Persian carpet. The effect of her gliding was enhanced as her diaphanous dress pressed against her body and appeared almost transparent when dappled by the rays of sunlight that penetrated the lush green foliage surrounding the terrace. Was there a hint of something more in his gaze as his eyes tracked her form until she disappeared into the large and airy drawing room?

Dressed in a Thai silk shirt, colours redolent of the tropics, linen slacks and Gucci loafers worn without socks, he looked every inch the young man made good. Nice to see they employed ethnic minorities as well, I thought. Aware that his furtive interest had been noted, he grinned disarmingly and replaced his Ray-ban aviator sunglasses to confound the frankness of his dark eyes.

'Look,' he suddenly leaned forward, 'A chance like this comes along once in a lifetime and I'm jolly well going to enjoy it to the full'. He reclined luxuriously into the soft cushions of his planter's chair, 'It's just a pity the job's only for five years, a man could get used to this!'

His English was good, very good, but I could not place the accent. I'd heard that the company, although English, had trawled round the world looking for applicants.

The driveway was dominated by the massive bulk of a top-of-the-range Toyota Land-Cruiser, its metallic maroon paintwork reflecting the warmth of the surrounding countryside. From the just visible headrests I could see that the interior was all soft leather and I could imagine the comforting warmth of wood veneer finishes and tactile switchgear. The stereo was probably awesome.

His maid returned bearing a tall crystal glass. Ice clinked gently as slim fingers, moist with condensation delicately placed the drink within his reach. She was, I have to admit, breathtakingly beautiful with artificial hair cascading around smooth, ebony shoulders. With a little dental work she would be perfect.

The Antonov returned, one of its propellers wind-milling uselessly. It was so low that I could clearly see the pilot waving. I waved back and then the moment was gone.

Antonov? Didn't I read somewhere that they had been banned? Must be one of those exemptions people keep talking about. I shrugged and turned back to my new friend.

The Antonov nearly made it across the thresh-hold of the runway. The resounding cacophony of aluminium being torn by red, heat baked earth made further speech temporarily impossible. Reaching into his glass he plucked an ice cube and gently lobbed it into the sapphire blue of the swimming pool. Like memories of London smog it dissolved quickly in the blood warmth of the water, expanding ripples the only evidence of its existence.

'What about the family?' I continued when the sound of screaming had subsided to just the soothing crackle of flames consuming grass roofs. I didn't know if he had a family or where they were but I imagined them sitting in lonely isolation somewhere called home.

'Yeah, the family.' He absentmindedly twisted his gold signet ring, a large logo tastefully engraved on an inch wide disk of black onyx. 'It would've been nice to have them here but, she has her job and the kids are at school.'

He fell silent and I imagined him considering the one downside to his enviable existence. Brightening quickly, he shook himself out of his reverie and gave me a flash of perfectly even teeth, 'But I'm lucky see, 'cause my wife's happy when I'm happy!'

I took in all around me and tried to imagine his spouse jumping for joy in Home Counties traffic. Couldn't see it myself.

'Isn't it time you went to work?' I enquired, feeling slightly uncomfortable as the maid, having slowly unwound her dress within my field of vision now lay basking in the sun next to the pool.

'Relax, I don't do my shift 'til next week, I think I'm doing the TAAG flight on Thursday but can't be sure. The interpreter will let me know, now there's a doll!'

He winked at me knowingly before taking a long, luxurious pull at his drink.

The maid was now pouring suntan lotion between her breasts, and a small pool of amber liquid glistened like honey in the sun. Slowly she smoothed it into her skin, fingers tracing under the flimsy material of her top. A bead of sweat gathered momentum down my back. My mouth was suddenly very dry, I wished I'd taken the offer of another drink.

'Wait 'til you see her friend!' He murmured provocatively. I started and tried to regain my composure, certain that I looked guilty as hell.

'It's OK, you can look as much as you want, that's what they're there for!' He chuckled, 'You English are so stiff but you soon change. They all do.'

This was more like the stuff the boss wanted but I would explore that later.

'So the money's good then?' I continued.

It's a good company to work for,' he admitted, 'they really know how to look after their people, they're not cheap like some of the companies here. I get three, no four times what I used to get. I've bought one house and rented it out and now I'm buying another one.'

Christ! I thought, I can't even manage the mortgage payments on a grotty flat in Brixton and some bloody ex Cummins bloke is rolling in it. This was starting to look better and better.

'Anyway,' he levered his body out of the cushions, 'it's been nice talking to you but I promised my wife that I would take her to lunch.'

Now I was confused.

'Wife? I thought she was, well, back in England or wherever you come from!'

'England?' he looked at me strangely, 'my wife isn't in England!'

'You said that it would be nice to have the family here but couldn't because your wife worked and the kids were at school!'


'But don't they live here?'

'Of course not, this is the boss's house!'

'Well who are you?'

'Me? I'm his driver!'

To be continued.....

Friday, 16 March 2007

Right man for the Job?

There are literally thousands of travel guides for just about every destination in the world. Just go into Smith’s in UK or Exclusive Books in South Africa and you’ll see shelves groaning with them. There are Fodor’s Guides, Michelin Guides, Rough Guides and they cover all the known haunts and even obscure Pacific islands and towns and cities. There isn’t one though, not one for São Tomé & Principe that I could find.

It is possible, I suppose, that sitting in some dusty bookshop in Lisbon, there is one produced around the time that STP was still a province of Portugal and the country’s only export, cocoa was still dependant on indentured labour but there appears to be nothing in English and nothing widely available. Let’s face it, if it isn’t available at Amazon.com, 95% of those that could afford to go there are not going to know it exists. I would really like to write the first internationally available and widely distributed guide to São Tomé. I would imagine, though, that writing a country guide, especially the first one is a serious business. It would require a high degree of open-mindedness to allow for all tastes and highly responsible reporting to transmit a balanced and objective view. The first guide on a place would be disproportionately influential for it could easily impact such a fragile and tiny economy.

Perhaps I am not the right man for the job for no matter how hard I try, for example, I cannot think of one good thing to say about Nigeria. That’s not quite true. I can think of something. The emigration queue at the departure terminal of Mohammed Murtala moves along quite quickly and the officials were always very polite. I can honestly say though, that I cannot think of any possible reason why anyone in their right mind would come here unless they were being paid to do so. Sure, there must be some interesting places in Nigeria, some Sehenswürdichkeiten and most Nigerians you meet are nice people, but, when you think of all the hassle and expense it would take to get there, never mind the risk, there are millions of other places in the world one should go to first. Iraq for example.

When I first arrived in Nigeria some seven months ago, I was consulting to two clients. The contract with one client has now drawn to its inevitable conclusion and unless I find something else to do, I am faced with the prospect of only working one month out of every three. Now in any other country of the world that I have worked in, this would have left me sleepless with worry. What the hell would I do with myself? How would I meet my commitments without depleting jealously guarded yet still woefully inadequate reserves? Where would I stay now that the house is sold in Cape Town? Yet the prospect of having two months clear before having to return to Nigeria, even with the attendant financial uncertainty has left me strangely quiescent. I imagined myself being able to completely relax. I thought about fishing for Tarpon off São Tomé, of compiling a photo journal of the islands and exploring from dawn till dusk. And in the evenings, drinking Caipirinhas, watching the sun sink beneath the equator and writing that travel guide.

I have now been asked if I would consider working six weeks out of every nine in Nigeria. Coming so soon after dreams of extended relaxation in unspoilt São Tomé, the thought is alarming, even if it does mean a heck of a sight more money. I would much rather see a little guide that I had spent months putting together sitting on the shelves of airport bookshops or being able to submit ‘author’s notes’ to Amazon, even if the return didn’t cover the investment to produce the draft.

Thinking about it, maybe I am exactly the sort of person who should write the guide. Things are not perfect in São Tomé by any means. Apart from it being awkward to get to, there is little electricity outside the capital, few properly surfaced roads and everything has to be imported. Coming straight from Nigeria to São Tomé, though, absolutely everything is bound to be far more enchanting and less chaotic by comparison. The guide would be a eulogy to paradise. I guess there is only one way to find out.

A night of Bliss with the Possessed

There has just been another traffic accident outside my office. Nothing remarkable about that, there are at least two or three per day and they are only interesting if the matter cannot be amicably resolved. Then there is real wahala and the outcome is anything but predictable and usually highly entertaining. This time a police car was at fault for making an illegal U-turn into the path of oncoming traffic. No wahala this time as the police have two things on their side. Firstly, as upholders of the law, they can never be wrong and secondly, they have guns and as upholders of the law they have a God given right to use them. What caught my eye this time, though, was a man running by the roadside, presumably hurrying so as not to miss first blood should there be any. He wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Where the possessed go to mingle’. Well what the hell does that mean?

It was like the stickers announcing, ‘A Night of Bliss’ that suddenly appeared all round the office. Now I had to be careful lest a simple desire to prevent the building being defaced offended some deity so far unknown to me and I found myself the subject of a Jihad. This ‘night of bliss’ was the religious equivalent of a marathon jam session but instead of all night reggae, armfuls of writhing girls and as many spliffs as you could choke down, this was a two day sermon by some unheard of preacher where the only relief would be fainting from the heat. I have no objection to people suffering for their faith, if it is self inflicted. To each his own. In fact I can think of a few faithful where the thought of them suffering would warm my heart but I’ll be buggered if I have to put up with my nice, bland office environment being turned into a bill post board. The no smoking signs are offensive enough. I am sure they knew that there would be objections and had thought it through in advance. These stickers would adhere to the hull of a nuclear submarine. Ripping them off doesn’t merely pull the paint off underneath, usually you’ll dislodge a couple of breeze blocks as well.

48 hours of oppressive heat and some zealot convincing everyone that we are all going to hell unless we repent and that true evidence of remorse is to donate to the ‘church’? I would have been convinced I was in Hell already and would gladly have paid to get out. A night of bliss has other connotations for me and my wife would send me to hell soon enough just for thinking about it. I guess by the definition of these zealots, I am possessed. So maybe this unknown place where the possessed go to mingle is exactly the place for me. Maybe it is an all night jam session, loads of reggae, girls and intoxicants. Next time I see the guy in the t-shirt I’ll ask him.

Wahala Man

I have just passed the two week point, halfway through my first tour with the client and I can now say that I am no longer an Eleme Junction virgin. Last Tuesday night my cherry was well and truly plucked. My wife is driving me to frustration as I at least try to sort out the administrative details of our separation and the impact it will have on the children’s education and general well being. Difficult enough by email, damn near impossible if she doesn’t answer any of my messages. Anyway, it is very important to leave the office by 4.30 pm so that you at least stand half a chance of clearing the notorious Eleme junction by 5 pm. Failure to do so on some days, sadly unpredictable, can leave you trapped the wrong side of the roundabout from home.

Downed bridges and the general layout of a town squeezed in on dry bits (or dryish bits) between the countless waterways that characterise the delta region, mean that there is literally only one way in and out of the whole city. This is a metropolis with 40 square kilometers of construction spread over an area of over 80 square kilometers. And only one road in or out. Where does all the traffic in and out collide, all too often literally? Eleme junction. A mud patch with a decaying concrete tower in the middle where five major roads meet and everyone needs to get across. For police and traffic wardens, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to augment their meager official salaries. Infractions are not only tolerated, they are encouraged. Traffic all socked in on your side of the dual carriageway? No problem. Jump over to the opposite carriageway, switch on Lucas Force Fields and drive up to the junction on the wrong side of the road. Have 20 - 30 Naira ready and when the policeman jumps you at the other end say, ‘Please Man, I beg you’, give him the crumpled Naira and he will cheerfully allow you to cut in ahead of the legitimate queue. Since everyman and his dog is doing it, all that’s left in the legal lane is a carpark full of those that cannot afford to pay and those few law abiding citizens left. I am afraid that expats fall into that category as well, the law abiding ones, not the poor ones (well, at least at the beginning of the month). Imagine what would happen, immediately to the expat, and later to the reputation of his company if a car with a foreigner in it was involved in a head on collision with a Nigerian while the foreigner was doing something illegal. There wouldn’t be enough left to scrape into buckets. So, knowing that the next day I was off to that peaceful enclave called Warri, (more on that later), where I would be unable to access a working telephone, never mind the internet, I waited and waited and waited for an important email from my wife. Did it come? Did it hell. At ten past five, my driver, Big Paul, (more on him later too) did a little agitated dance in my office and did his ‘I beg of you, man’, in an effort to get me going. Tooo late, sucker. Me I mean, not him. He did his best.
Normally, if you make it to the MTN building before grinding to a halt, you’ll be OK. Perhaps an hour later the driver will finally be able to manoeuvre the car over a ditch, between a broken down truck and a wooden shack selling CD’s and dodgy booze (more about this, too) and finally squeeze his way across Eleme and take you, head throbbing with diesel fumes, back to the Intels camp. Hit the traffic before Rumoukwurisi Junction, however, and you are doomed. This, of course, was exactly what happened last Tuesday. Ok, Woumoukrushi Junction is only one kilometer further away from Eleme than the MTN building.

‘Hey Paul, we’re only one kilometer further away, how much longer can it take?’, I say in my optimistic voice.

With a face already a perfect picture of gloom having resigned himself to an unavoidable and ghastly fate, he said with disturbing sincerity, ‘Be locky to see de camp before 10’.

Ten pm! No, he’s kidding, it can’t be possible. Well it bloody well was possible.

Most people reckon that they have been in traffic jams. Anyone faced with the misery of having to use the M25 on a regular basis will have experienced something approaching traffic jams. I say ‘something approaching’ because unless you have really experienced a true jam, as in everything well and truly jammed up, what happens on the M25 doesn’t even come close. On the M25, it is possible to be stationary for a while, but it usually is only a while and by ‘while’, I mean time measured in minutes or tens of minutes, not hours. The traffic is always edging forwards in the right direction a few yards at a time so it is possible to calculate an average speed, even if it is only walking pace. The sort of Jam I am talking about is the kind where your car devalues by 30% in the time you have been stuck in it and when you finally get out the other side Bristol motors have already brought out two new models and UK has had a change of government (Italy, eight changes of Government). I mean, I have heard of guys who have finally made it home to find that their wives have successfully sued and divorced them for abandonment and obtained a court order allowing them to dispose of all their joint assets in absentia. These are the mother’s of all traffic jams. Nothing moves. Everyone switches their engines off (which at least means the bloody horns stop). Passengers give up and start to walk. The road, already clogged with bumper to bumper and door handle to door handle traffic becomes a seething mass of humanity, a river of people squeezing like soldier ants around leaf litter in a rain forest. This giant millipede of steaming vehicles stretches all the way to Emele junction and does battle with four more giant millipedes coming in from all the other routes that unite there. No quarter is given or received and even the traffic wardens realize that if nothing is moving, there is no passing trade anymore so they give up and go home. Or lie about in groups smoking and drinking the day’s takings. The sun sets slowly on the carnage and the pall of exhaust fumes hanging over everything like a shroud is illuminated eerily by countless sidelights. The shapes and shadows of trucks and cars are amplified into monstrous leviathans by the yellow glow of nearby gas flares, which turn the city skyline into a scene from the blitz. All around are scurrying shadows, and the Wahala men move in. This is the dodgier part of Middle World and I am sat right in it with no escape.

Wahala in Nigeria means ‘trouble’. You have a row with the missus? She gave you Wahala last night. Give the waitress at a restaurant a hard time and she will curse you in the kitchen and spit in your chips and let all her colleagues know that you are a Wahala Man so that they will all spit in every meal you order henceforth. The community invade your facilities? Big Wahala at the compound, Boss. And then there are the opportunistic thugs riding around on 125cc motorcycles who know, they just know, that most people will not be able to take sitting five hours under these conditions before finally cracking and starting to walk. Their drivers will beg them to reconsider. Will beg them to take care, will beg them not to carry anything with them, to leave everything in the car. This last piece of advice seems to be taken literally as those that do decide to walk generally do leave everything behind. Including, obviously, their common sense. These are rich pickings. It is dark, there are no police in sight (none sober, anyway) and there is no way on earth that a security team can get to them. Easy. Hold ‘em up, quick shake down, guaranteed to get a mobile phone at least, and then away on the only form of transport that has a chance to get through the melee, a motorcycle. These then, are the Emele Junction Wahala Men. But how to tell the difference? The thicker the jam, the more wasps around it and like wasps, the motorcycles descend on the clogged artery for, paradoxically, even though among them will be the Wahala men, the majority become the only functioning taxi service offering an alternative to slow asphyxiation and a sweaty and cramped night in the car. If you walk, the Wahala men might see you. After all, it will take at least 45 minutes and expatriates, who are generally Caucasian, do tend to stand out a bit. On the other hand, try and find a bike boy that is a lot smaller than you (just in case he is a Wahala man, you might get lucky and snot him before he can pull anything off) and for 200 Naira, he will give you the most terrifying ride of your life back to the camp. If you double the amount, he might ride marginally slower.

In Luanda, the streets were filled with street boys who, like an army of willing flunkeys were happy to take orders for, and supply anything from, a can of Coke to a tall, slim mulatta (with her own hair if you can manage it mate!). Here, no such luck. Apart from all the dodgy stuff I have already described, there is nothing available out there to ease the pain of being slowly smoked to death like a breakfast kipper folded in half in a tiny Japanese tin box with a driver that, no matter how much you like him, makes you really appreciate how difficult it is for them to find clean water to wash in. I mean, there are not many cars, even with a full tank, that can sit there for five or six hours and keep the aircon going without turning their engine oil to sludge and running the bearings or at least overheating and dumping all their coolant out onto the road. Anyway, I could not believe that it was simply impossible to buy a bottle of whiskey in the street. In desperation (be reasonable, I was by then three hours past my customary top up time) I walked (yes, alone, I told you I was desperate) up to Emele Junction where there was a collection of stalls built up in the most inconvenient, traffic flow impeding places. All I could find was something purporting to be brandy. Of the golden elixir, not a drop to be had. So I bought the brandy and carried it back to the car. Getting the top off was the first hurdle. It had one of those soft metal screw caps with perforations that are supposed to separate when twisted. Not this one. Twisting the cap rounded off all the thread and the perforations held together like the Mafia. Once open (well, they don’t call him ‘Big Paul’ for nothing, hands like shovels that guy) a quick swig had me gasping and fumbling for my glasses so that, with the aid of the car headlight (sorry, force field projector), I could read the label. Examination of the label revealed that it was a ‘distillate of agricultural origin’ and contained colouring (caramel) and flavourants (none specified, but having tasted the vile concoction, the mind boggles). I have drunk some hooch in my time but this one took the biscuit (as well as the roof of my mouth, my tonsils and the lining of my stomach). My pecker, having been warned by those already affected organs immediately curled up and went on strike.

That then, was the last straw for me and at 10.30pm I finally cracked. I dumped everything of value in the car with Paul, carefully unhooked and folded up my common sense and hailed a bike boy. Three pulled up on the opposite carriageway, facing the wrong way for the traffic but the right way for me, if you see what I mean, and I could see more doing U Turns between the trucks so I picked the smallest of the bunch, got on the back and closed my eyes. I thought that closing the eyes would be a good tactic to avoid another coronary but a stunning blow to my elbow alerted me to my mistake. This kid was shooting for gaps that even octopi couldn’t slither through and I always understood that when it came to slithering, only octopi and lawyers couldn’t be beaten. Oh, and government press officers. Trouble was, the gaps might be sufficient for a malnourished kid on a wafer thin Fizzy, but put a middle aged portly expat on the back and something is going to bang against something else, that something else invariably being hard and unforgiving. Like the corner of a truck trailer (right on the collar bone that one), load of steel piping hanging off the back of a pick up (just above the right eye), or a rusty old bull bar (knee), or a sticky out even rustier exhaust (ankle, got the tetanus and stitches the day after). I finally crawled into the camp, very battered, even wearier and trudged round to my house with jackhammers pounding my head from the inside out and a bladder desperately trying to make a deal with an unresponding willie. It was only when I was standing in front of the door, mouth already watering at the prospect of a tumbler full of malt, only then that I realized that my keys were in my computer bag. My computer bag was with Big Paul and Big Paul was on the wrong side of Emele Junction. I could have cried. Maybe the Wahala man got me after all.

A Man's World?

While I was in Lagos I was warned against going to the Mosquito Bar in Port Harcourt, not its real name of course but one with which the expats have christened it, so obviously it was the first place I went to. Now with a name like that, one would imagine that it lies in some mosquito infested swamp, and indeed it does, but happily that was not why the club gained its nickname. In spite of the fact that Port Harcourt has enough expats to fill a telephone directory, Nigerian girls, and especially the professional kind, know each and every one of them. Which are players, which aren't and the tendencies and preferences of those that do. Play I mean. Naturally, they can also recognise a 'new listing' at 200 paces. Walking into the Mosquito bar by one’s self was like being dropped into a cave full of malnourished vampire bats. If spandex hot pants and tight tops could rustle, I am sure that the apparent sound of fluttering wings would have further enhanced this impression as these avaricious creatures emerged from the shadows and closed in on the kill. I agree, however, that ‘Mosquito Bar’ is a catchier name than 'Vampire Cave' and is also kinder to the girls. Alright, I suppose metaphorically speaking they do suck blood out of you one way or another but at 3,000 Naira ($20) a shot, it really is only a mosquito bite compared to a vampire’s appetite. I am sure you get the picture.

Survival, therefore, depends on quick wits if one is not to disappear beneath a feeding frenzy. The trick, it seems (and it worked for me), is to grab any one of them quickly, plonk her down in a chair, buy her a drink and spend five minutes in earnest conversation with her. Evidently having made my choice the others, through some professional code of conduct refined over time, retire a barely discreet distance and prowl the edges of the newly created space like hungry lionesses waiting for a campfire to die down before nipping in for a quick kill. Consisting as the club does of a large enclosed courtyard with mature trees in well watered health the impression of being alone amongst hungry predators on the Serengeti is all the greater. If your new companion leaves you for whatever reason, to powder her nose for example, these carnivores will nip in and grab a chunk of flesh (usually a cigarette or two, perhaps a drink). Chat nicely to her, however, and keep buying her drinks and she will be your best friend (and not risk leaving you alone too often). Even better, with breathtaking maturity/professional co-operation, she will concede that all men have different tastes so if I did not want to ‘carry’ her (from pidgin English, ‘carry de gel home’, I guess), she would help me select wisely from the stable. OK, maybe not the entire stable, just those that belong to the same worker’s co-operative union that she does.

Outstanding! Glass of scotch in one hand, puffing luxuriously on a genuine Romeo y Juliette (from Lagos, not the ones from Havana), I could sit in comfort while my elegant ring master invited her selection one at a time to join us at the table. It was entertaining to say the least and the atmosphere, I must confess, surprisingly agreeable. Even the music wasn’t too loud, remarkable considering that at first I mistook the disco speakers to be two black armoured cars with their rear doors wide open (well, I don’t know how much profit these places make). Better still, and unusually for a joint like this, and believe me, in the course of my duties (honestly, duties) I’ve been in a few around the world, the lighting is half decent so there is even a chance that a chap can avoid the near cardiac arrest that switching the bedroom light on when finally getting home can sometimes cause, especially if the selection had been made in wartime lighting and under the fug of alcohol.

I once tried to take a few photographs of the place in an effort to capture something of its indescribable merits but within seconds all the girls were vying with each other to throw the most erotic poses conceivable (in a public place anyway), at which point my bipod became a tripod and I suddenly lost interest in photography.

A few words of caution, though, (apart from the usual hazards of casual congress, especially in Africa). Now it is not my intention to belittle, insult or in any way denigrate these fine young ladies. I am merely pointing out the facts as they are. I am not commenting on the socio-economic factors that have encouraged these girls to take up their chosen profession nor am I moralizing. So all the tree hugging yoghurt knitters about to leap all over me frothing with riotous indignation can all please sit down again. Or leave the room. I did mean riotous not righteous, by the way, I’ve seen enough of these buggers outside embassies, abortion clinics and vivisection laboratories to know what I am talking about (we security men get invited to all the best parties). And I am also not going to suggest that the virtue of young Nigerian maidens is protected by their brothers with the manic intensity of Greek farmers even though I have noticed that generally the more attractive the bait, the severer the penalty. Some Afghani girls are gorgeous but messing with them is really akin to pushing your tool into a bacon slicer. This rule, however, doesn’t seem to apply to girls in Nigeria. Not to say that there aren’t any breathtakingly repulsive ones around (remember the bedroom light switch? Heart attack? Never mind). But there are some stunningly beautiful girls here and no religious police or shotgun toting relatives. Unfortunately, (for me anyway, call me old fashioned but I kind of like natural, as God intended sort of stuff) not one has her own hair. This in itself is not a problem as there are some fine bone structures out there that are best displayed rather than hidden by a Sunsilk controlled mop, but here ‘European’ hair is considered a must, so the variety of Axminster hair do's is bewildering. And it gets better. Committing themselves whole heartedly to the idea that man really can improve on God's creation (or woman can in this case), they even shave their eyebrows off and draw new ones in with an erratic stroke of a half inch paint brush dipped in pitch. I always said that I liked them (girls, that is) with a touch of the tar brush but I prefer the kind that doesn’t come off on pillow cases. You must be getting the idea, though. These girls have a 70’s Bronx notion of what men find attractive. I blame the Hustler Corporation for dumping all their old unsold stock into third world markets.

As I was saying, the facts. All these girls would make outstanding wives. They said so. They would honour and obey (their husbands, of course) and would never, NEVER cause any Wahala. They would dress as their husband wished, wear their hair as he liked (so long as he bought it from the market for them), would work like dogs to keep the house, garden, farm, whatever, tidy, and would make themselves anything from skinny to obese as required and, of course, they LOVE kids, (and nice clothes, and jewels, and big cars, and a big house in UK so that all the relatives can come and stay. Forever). They all want to open hair salons so that they can contribute to the family income (allowing Ideal Man to consume as much Star as he likes with a clear conscience) by weaving more nylon into even more girls heads so that they in turn could become Best Wives in the World to other Ideal Men and open more hair salons and not only are they all happy so are Dupont and all its share holders. And they are ALL excellent cooks, assuming you like pounded yam, fried rice, garri (a sort of congealed wallpaper paste made from cassava), stewed goat’s meat and fried chicken. I have not, you will notice, mentioned their sexual prowess, I would have thought that self evident. Which reminds me, you will not find a single bottle of aspirin in the house. Nigerian wives NEVER suffer from headaches.

So, I hear you ask, how does a chap win the heart of what surely must be one of the finest wives available anywhere in the world? The process is actually quite simple and is broken down into easy stages so that even the Tool Pushers can understand. No, not the clients of the Mosquito Bar in general or those that have just had their tools pushed into a bacon slicer by some Mullah’s apprentice. I mean ‘Tool Pushers’, those hardy folk, the back bone of the oil industry who do most of the hard work. Well, they aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the box, are they? Enough of tools.

Being drunk on first acquaintance is not a requirement but, all things considered, being drunk does not appear to be a hindrance. In fact, potential wives (these ones anyway) seem to feel it their duty to sit out the whole evening drinking that vile, sweet, non alcoholic malt concoction, Maltina, because it is dirt cheap thereby leaving their future husbands at liberty to lay out wads drinking huge quantities of beer or whisky. Well, he has earned it, the dear. Honestly, such selflessness. Wouldn’t see it in an Islington wine bar, would you? Come to think of it, you wouldn’t see it in Luanda either where the girls can consume even more whisky than their client, or in Berlin where they drink champagne or the Zona Rosa in Mexico City where they drink the most fantastic and expensive cocktails I have ever seen. I can’t tell you the drinking habits of Brazilian girls because I have never been there. My ex once told me that if I ever went there by myself, I needn’t bother coming back. Pity I didn’t go, that kind of deal would have been a damn sight cheaper than the one I finally got. Let’s face it, the unused portion of a return ticket to Rio is a lot easier to swallow than half a house in Cape Town and maintenance until the kids are twenty one.

Now we’ve all heard those jokes how in a Man’s World being able to consume sixteen pints of Pedigree in one sitting would be sexually provocative, but in the Mosquito Bar it actually seems to work. The more signs of inebriation that a chap exhibits, the more eligible young spinsters seem to flock around him. And they’re just so damn considerate. Recognising that a good, honest, hardworking man is likely to get a little unsteady on the pins after an evening de-stressing by imbibing one Star after another, they carefully support him with strategically placed hands, and help him to perambulate from table to bar, bar to table, table to urinal, nothing is too much trouble for these kind souls. They even go so far as to assist in delicately adjusting strategic bits of anatomy so that Ideal Man has a good seat. Thinking about it, they seem to spend a fair bit of time doing that. Well, let’s face it, there is nothing more gut churning than accidentally sitting on one of your own testicles, is there?

So what about behaviour? Or rather what in middle England would be considered bad behaviour? Doesn’t seem to be a problem. Nigerian wives expect their men to relax and enjoy themselves. Not for them the shrinking violet who behaves with the utmost decorum and keeps his eyes firmly locked on his wife ignoring the fillies cantering around him. A roving eye that anywhere else would be met by a swift kick under the table or a three day long headache is greeted here with, ‘You like her? She’s a good girl, you want me to call her over?’ Unreal.

Now I don’t care what they say, white men cannot dance. It is as simple as that. When it came to making whites, along with melanin, God missed out that in built metronome that all other races have (with the possible exception of Eskimos, but then I have never been to an Eskimo night club so I could be wrong). What is significant in this case is that white men think they can dance. Not only that, they think that they are so good, that people enjoy watching them dance. I know that this is a huge generalization (and there will be more, this isn’t a thesis after all) but try watching a bunch of drillers that have just spent a celibate and alcohol free month on a rig let their hair down in a place like the Mosquito bar, or the Blues Club or anywhere else that they can kill a few hours before being poured on the plane to Lagos and then off to Europe, the States or Australia. I mean, they don’t even bother to get changed. The bus pitches up straight from the heli-pad and out they tumble, all clad in bright orange or red boiler suits and footwear appropriate to the industrial environment in which they work.

Nevertheless, the girls greet each arriving shift with the same warmth and affection as they did the last and seem genuinely pleased to see the lads enjoying themselves, and cluster in groups giggling (with delight I presume) when the mob takes to the dance floor. No doubt encouraged by the enthusiasm of the audience, cavorting does not remain restricted to the dance floor but spills across the courtyard and into the bar, and some, with true gladiatorial spirit climb up onto the bar, drop their trousers and wave their parts around while singing, ‘Wee Willy Wonker’ or some other catchy tune (they are usually Scottish, I have no idea why). Incidentally, it always amazes me what alcohol does to the memory circuits. Drunk or sober, every chap knows that it is impossible to shuffle across a hotel bedroom floor with trousers around ankles let alone the top of a rickety bar well lathered with beer and mined with a variety of glasses, bottles and handbags. The result is always the same, tackle in hand, their little Sambas end with flailing limbs and a little squeal as they crash into an equally drunk group of tool pushers who, with the aid of sturdy rig boots demonstrate to the hapless fellow just why they are called ‘tool pushers’ and have an undeniably awful reputation. All this, the girls take in their stride and whoever it was lucky enough to be with Samba Charlie will recover what is left of him and sympathetically massage him back to good humour.

So where is the note of caution, then? Expats have a reputation, perhaps thoroughly undeserved given the number of divorcees running around, for making caring family men. Nothing would please these girls more than to score a decent husband. You carry a girl and you assume it is business, and indeed it is. In part. The girl, though, assumes that having chosen her you are making a commitment. See the same girl again and the impression that a lifelong romance is blooming is reinforced, and you’re setting off over the edge of a slope as steep as income tax and as slippery as a government press officer. Let her move in with you and you’re off down that slope so fast the pounding in your ears won’t be love’s heart beating, it will be the sound barrier breaking. I’ve heard of guys who, their ardour somewhat cooled, have tried to quietly finish with their girlfriends (it was all getting a bit obvious and we don’t want the boss to find out, do we?) only to have her appear in the office lobby wailing at the top of her voice about heartless rejection and the injustice of it after all she had done for the guy whereupon she proceeds to list to a by now very interested audience of soon to be (for the Romeo anyway) ex work colleagues just what sort of things he asked her to do in bed and with which household implements.

If it gets to that stage, and it not too infrequently does, the only way out (apart from the fire escape) is to pay compensation for the time she wasted with you immediately followed by a fast jet out of the country. One guy was too stupid for words. Having reached a settlement he went for one more bonk for old times sake before he pushed off on leave. She got him at the airport. Cost him another 100,000 Naira. Yet there are guys who do not want to ride every mount in the stable so what’s chap to do? Be very careful, that’s what. And then there’s the other note of caution. It is business, at least to start with. Everyone knows that the going rate is 3-4,000 Naira. The punters do and so do the girls. Don’t, whatever you do, no matter how many Star’s are swilling around your insides, forget to confirm that before she carries you back to your place. Camp security, along with your neighbours, are only too willing to attend an early morning matinee performance of ‘he made me do this and I’m a good girl and don’t normally do that ‘cos it’s illegal and that’s why he agreed to pay more’ etc. and that’s if you’re lucky. Yet another expat, really drunk by the end of a Saturday spent in the Portofino restaurant bar, persuaded one of the waitresses to come home with him. He thought he’d already closed the deal but I know this guy, once he’s had his customary gutful, he’s pretty much incomprehensible even to a fellow Englishman, never mind a pidgin English speaking local so all the seeds of a ‘misunderstanding’ had been sown. Services having been rendered the girl held out her hand and politely asked for the one hundred US dollars that she had been promised (about 14 thousand Naira). There are various accounts of the verbal exchange that followed suffice to say that he wasn’t exactly nimble on his feet and the frying pans in the houses here are bloody great lumps of cast iron that not even Le Creuset can match for weight and destructive power. I have seen mob hits that looked tamer by comparison.

One final piece of advice before we drop this subject. Be careful with mobile phones. A survey published by Italy's largest private investigation company said that in nearly 90% of cases, it is mobile phones, or rather careless use of them, that betray extra marital activities. As an expat, and especially in the oil industry, it is very likely that you’ll be using the same mobile as your back to back, the guy that does your job when you are on leave. No real problem if you both have similar interests and get on well. Tragic if he’s a backstabbing git. Under no circumstances, if you have any desire whatsoever to maintain a discreet relationship, should you hand out your phone number. Do that and it’s another sign of commitment and the inherent right for them to phone at any time of day or night. And watch that dreaded giveaway, the caller ID function. I know, at work you want the people you call to know that it is you calling (and not a recently dumped concubine hell bent on revenge) so that they will answer, so of course you must have your caller ID activated. Get a few pints down your neck and start feeling a bit lonely, however, and I guarantee that you’ll hit the one key dial without thinking and as soon as you’ve hung up having arranged a meet, she’s pressing ‘list calls’, ‘last call’, ‘options’, ‘save’, ‘[your name]’ on her mobile and you’re doomed.