Getting there is half the battle

The first couple weeks I was here the Ambassador was out of town. The Consul General from Lagos came up to cover for him, as there always has to be someone in charge of the mission (that’s why he’s called a Chargé).  He had a trip to Kafanchan scheduled and in line with general policy of encouraging new officers to have as many experiences as possible, offered a seat to me my second weekend here.  I was pretty stoked at the opportunity to both see more of the country as well as spend some time with a senior Foreign Service officer, so come my second Saturday, I was ready to roll.

The embassy vehicles aren’t always the most comfortable and while I’m not even close to being considered a big guy by US standards, my head was rubbing the ceiling.  In and of itself not that big of a deal but the seat belt was too short to really let me slouch down much and the “always wear your seatbelt” policy is strictly enforced. Even if it wasn’t, I wasn’t about to take it off because Nigerian roads can be a little hairy.

In some places, the highway is beautiful but then it will hit a rough spot. I’d call them potholes but that brings to mind something maybe the size of a dinner plate.  There were places where I could lay down in the exposed dirt, more like a sinkhole than a pothole.  They weren’t necessarily all that deep but deep enough you don’t want to run through them at 65 miles an hour, so drivers are constantly swerving around them, trying to avoid breaking an axle or messing up your rims.

Outside my window were two extremes. On the beautiful side was the raw Nigerian countryside. Spindly, curvy trees right out of my imagination of what Africa looks like sprouted from a lush green underbrush. It’s the rainy season now and green foliage is broken up by roads and curbs of dark red soil.  The land isn’t flat or mountainous but there are massive rock faces that erupt out of the landscape randomly scattered over the countryside. I don’t know if they are basalt or granite or what, but they are quite steep and smooth, barren of all plant life, and overall quite impressive.

Outside the city proper was a long road of third world life, for lack of a better description.  Masses of motorbikes (I saw at least 10,000 bikes on my two trips out of the city and only 3 helmets, no exaggeration) with all sorts of people and goods stacked on them dominate the roads. Bikes with women passengers in bright, beautiful African clothes, with mothers with a 5 year old between them and the driver with an infant swaddled to her back, with stacks of kindling, bags of grain, and towers of plastic chairs. Two guys with a huge pig slung between them passed us.

And all the time access to the road is completely uncontrolled. People just stroll across, cutting the gaps in traffic.

There were miles of roadside stands and markets, selling everything from tinsel wrapped motorcycle tires to recycled bottles of palm oil, fruits and veg, or plastic wrapped upholstered furniture.  The first time I saw a pristine looking living room set it felt surreal just sitting there in the dirt by the road but later I realized that its quite common.

Everything is built from mud-brick or cinder block. There are cinderblock foundries (what do you call a cinder block maker?) all over the place too. It’s hard for me to see the equipment clearly but there’s always just a small shed with some apparatus surrounded by drying cinder blocks lined up in open space. Some are so shoddily made you can see them dissolve in the rain.

In places were traffic stops (at intersections in the city or at security checkpoints, crossroads, or just really rough stretches where everyone has to slow to a crawl), there are the ubiquitous street vendors, walking around with bags of food (nuts, apples, veg, etc), newspapers, gum, and even windshield wipers and plastic space guns. They walk up to the window and just stare at you, holding the good close in the hope that you’ll buy something just to make them leave.

I’d never seen anything like it.  In populated areas its pretty rough. I suppose I can imagine worse poverty but this seemed pretty serious to me.  I didn’t take any pictures partly because I was trapped inside the car with bad angles to see out the window and partly just because I was so fascinated by what I was seeing, I didn’t know where to start. I did get some pictures on my trip to Jos last week that I’ll eventually share, once I get my cable for the camera.

So that’s just the ride. I’ll talk more about Kafanchan soon.

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