Friday, 16 March 2007

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.

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