Bridging an African Crocodile River
This is an account of the building without machines of a 264 foot long bridge over the crocodile infested Eze River in West Africa, a near 3 month adventure.. A little over a year earlier, the Worldwide Organization for Women, International (WOW), based In Salt Lake City, Utah, in their search for an engineer volunteer, came upon me via the Internet. Lori Wilkinson had recalled encountering my name in some previous year as one that volunteers for humanitarian project assignments. In a moment of inspiration she in September 04 re-discovered my name on the Internet, reached me by e-mail and inquired if I would serve as WOW’s engineer for the design of the bridge.
Afton Beutler of WOW in Switzerland had a few years earlier been made aware of the need for this bridge by Carol Ugochukwu of WOW-Africa. In the spring of 2004, Nina Palmer, President of WOW, Afton and Carol traveled to Nigeria to decide if their organization should and could take on such a project. Heretofore, WOW’s focus had been on activities related to supporting women’s issues: education, health, skill development, micro business, and influencing policy statements created in international documents as at the UN that had an impact on women’s role in the world. While my engineering design and planning commenced in Sep 2004 and the bridge building could have begun by Feb 2005 the donations collected to that point were inadequate. Further, there was concern that the ideal time for building, would have passed as the rainy season and hence high water in the river might arrive by March.
It was not until Sep 05 that WOWs collection of donations for the project appeared sure enough, and the plan for beginning the bridge in Nov 2005, at the end of the rainy season, could lead to a full commitment. The project agreement was based on the villages to be served providing the labor, up to 50 men per day, and for WOW funding ($35,000) the materials, 40 tons of timber and 60 tons of concrete, plus WOW providing the engineer to design the bridge and direct its construction.
While the distance between river banks to be bridged and the price of timber doubled, plus the need for concrete nearly tripling due to the presence of a swamp instead of reported high ground, and the volunteer workforce being halved this bridge with a 50% increase in carrying capacity was completed in less than 70 days. Thus this feat may well be compared to another bridge over this river which took the government 3 years to build and cost 10 times as much.
Departing Pennsylvania for Nigeria
Throughout the year before leaving the USA, the bridge design underwent many revisions as varying site data (river width, height of banks, and mud depth under water) and material prices (100 to 500%) came in by email. In the latter months and weeks a visa and airline tickets were secured. An experiment was made in a Mennonite farmer’s pond with a rented 400 gal/min trash pump to test the feasibility of creating holes in the river bottom with the high pressure flow of water from such a pump. Also a search was launched for small tools (e.g. long drill bits and levels) needed for the project. Various items that might be used as gifts (e.g. shirts, watches, Swiss army knife, a compass, tools, small flags, snap links, eagles for a Colonel’s uniform, etc) for the workers and political leaders were purchased. Foremost among these gifts was the idea of creating a distinctive tee shirt that would be of a bright color and carry a logo that depicted the bridge project. It would be used as an incentive for the men to volunteer and a sign in their community that it was they who were building this bridge for their people. An elderly couple, about to terminate their business of printing shirts was found and they agreed to contribute the cost of placing the design into their computer and making the silk screen set up. To better link the minds of the key project people in Africa with mine, the last month before departure was committed to sending the bridge design report, now over 60 pages, in small increments so that the readers could digest the concepts, pose questions, offer ideas and once again firmed up data, especially the elusive cost of materials. This was particularly rewarding for I could sense for the first time the personalities and the energies of those young men that would become my hands and feet once in Nigeria.
While it had been requested that WOW move their funds to Nigeria by 15 Oct, they experienced both delays in collecting the committed funds and in discovering a safe way to transfer the actual money to a part of the world that did not enjoy a reputable banking climate. Wiring funds via a bank was discounted due to the protracted challenge of processing the funds through Nigeria’s central bank, anxious for dollars, and the very low exchange rate offered for their local currency, the Naira. Western Union posed a reliable way to move dollars to Nigeria, but its fees were a very hefty 5-6%. You also needed to be already in country to collect such money since their Nigerian Western Union operated offices might pay out funds to anyone who appeared with a photo ID, with any photo. I began to probe my contacts for ways to best send the funds. What I encountered was advice from both Americans and Nigerians to not go on with the project. They advised that it was too dangerous for a white man, who might automatically be perceived as wealthy, thus a ready target for kidnapping. To be alone in such a nation in chaos was judged too risky. As the time drew short it was agreed Carol Ugochukwu’s husband, Iyke, and I would begin by each carrying $5000 cash so we could start up the project while the remaining funds came later. As with a past trip to Africa, years earlier, I had my money in $100 bills sewed into my clothing to lessen the chance of its loss.
Given that I would be gone for near 3 months and there was a recognized risk, I prepared a 4 page paper for my family to define my last wishes, status of various papers and finances and advice for each should I not return. I then removed all financial files from the laptop computer I planned to take on this venture. Copies of passport and visa were placed in each suitcase and business cards were scattered about in my luggage so it would be easy to identify something if lost, given the finder wished to return it. By Monday afternoon, 31 Oct, I had driven the 3 hours to reach the Washington, DC area where I parked my car at the home of a 94 year old friend Alice Pierson. I placed a cover on my car to protect it from the weather, and then spent the night at the home of my son Ian. While there I picked up the project agreement paper which had been sent overnight by FedEx from NY by the Susan Dayton, the newly elected president of WOW. I also pulled off an e-mailed letter prepared by Nina Palmer, past president of WOW. This letter I was to hand carry to Lagos to the lady who was the Deputy Immigration Officer at the airport. She was to be one of several “helpers” to be prepositioned along the way.
I also had a letter from a Nigeria lady in the USA who needed to quickly deliver an appeal to her sister in Nigeria. Remarkably, the sister was from a town just 10 miles from where the bridge would be built! I had “by chance” met the sister in the USA while in the check-out line at Staples office supply store in Pennsylvania where I had gone to make copies of my documents. The Nigerian lady was there to send a fax to Washington to seek a visa for her sister so that she could come to the USA to help as this lady in Pennsylvania was to have a serious operation. In hearing her speak to the cashier, I asked if she might be from Nigeria. She was a bit shocked that I was able to recognize her voice as coming from that specific nation. She was further moved by the happenstance that I was about to leave for Nigeria, and more so to go to a place so close to her sister. I of course volunteered to see that her letter reached her sister in Nigeria in the next 2 days. Each of us in life experiences such meetings orchestrated from above.
The following day, Julie, Ian’s wife, checked for me the KLM airline luggage limits for carry on items. We found my carry-on bag met the total inches. Then there was this maximum 22 lbs weight while my bag weighed in at 55! But, I was to find later in Washington and Amsterdam that KLM meant these inches to be only so many as to width, length and height, not any combination that added up to the number they quoted. We also found that KLM had just 8 days before my ticket was purchased reduced its weight for checked bags from the 70 lbs, the international standard, to 50 lbs. I had the week previous made arrangements to pay KLM an extra $145 for a third bag, the space needed for the tools and the 60 lbs of tee shirts. Thus, when Julie would drop me off at 2 PM, about 3 hours before the flight time at Dulles Airport, I expected to have some concerns with all of my very heavy bags. While Julie was off from 10 to 1 for a dance class, I reworked the bags to try to bring the carry-on bag down to 22 lbs and the three checked bags down to 50 lbs. Not a chance. Despite pulling out over 40 lbs of my prized food cache carefully selected for this venture, my carry-on was only down to 32 lbs and the other three bags were all about 65. With 45 minutes to go before Julie came home I planned to take a shower that might need to last three days. It was also time for a change of clothes and a mental “pulling it all together exercise.” None of it was to happen for as I placed the bags outside the front door, so as to speed up the anticipated loading when Julie drove up, I heard the fatal slam of the front door. There I was barefoot on the front steps with no coat, no phone, no glasses, nothing to read or write with and no way to get back into the fortress, the natural state of Washington area homes. This was a living environment I had forgotten after the last 5 years in idyllic rural Pennsylvania! A seat in the sun on the warming asphalt driveway met the need and then I found an ancient newspaper whose headlines I could digest with dim eyes to fill the time I had not planned to relinquish.
At the KLM check-in counter a very nice attendant, Lili, noted the 50 lb limited and told me the expected that I would need to pay $25 for each bag over this weight. I asked her if she could help on those charges since this was a humanitarian project. Given little pressure on the line at this very early check in time, Lili accepted my business card for the bridge project and listen with real interest about what was to happen in the next few months. She then asked me for the $145 for the pre-arranged 3rd bag, smiled, gave me my boarding pass, wished me success, and left the $75 in overweight vanish for the cause.
While seated in the waiting area, despite many years of air travel, a wave of anxiety came over me as I considered the trip ahead. Why did I have such feelings? I soon recognized that it had been over 30 years since I had traveled alone overseas. My family often expressed a need to have me go with them on such ventures for their sense of security, but now I could see that I had unknowingly come to expect them to be with me and had in some way acquired a need also for that companionship. On my last trip to Africa I traveled with a native, and readily assumed he knew the ropes so I need not think at all! This time around, I had recall of the memories, and thus some apprehension over the airport arrival in Nigeria: pilfered luggage, immigration and customs shake down games for bribes, intimidation at every desk and door, and a sea of touts at the exit who claimed to help but could easily deliver a dozen kinds of grief when you were on their turf in a city of over 10 million with no law or honest police.
Well, soon I noted an elderly couple, Titus and Kristen from Africa seated nearby at our gate. They had been living in retirement in Prince George County, Maryland, like Houston, TX, a clustering place for Nigerians in the US. I asked them if they might be going on from Amsterdam via a later plane to Nigeria. They said they indeed were set to make the same connections as myself. Readily they took an interest in my story of the bridge project and told me about themselves. He noted that he had served in the Port Authority at Lagos for 17 years. Surely he thus knew the bribery games inside and out for ports of entry! Thus, I then enlisted their help in pulling me through possible challenges that might emerge with immigration and customs on coming into the Lagos airport, should my pre-arranged help not appear.
At boarding time I was suddenly stopped in the line and told my carry-on bag did not fit the KLM “box” and thus it would have to be checked through to Lagos. Why me? I had made it a point while waiting to observe how many others had bags of my type and size that seemed heavy. Would my carryon bag with the most key items for the trip: camera, camcorder, satellite positioning locator, and walkie-talkie radios make it to baggage claim in Lagos? My guess was never. I resisted giving up the bag. In an instant, out of the blue, the attendant was called away. After a silent count of three, I headed on to the plane and quickly placed that bag just fine in the overhead space. The attendant for some reason was inclined to not pursue me!
The 8 hour over night flight to Amsterdam was uneventful, a little choppy air over Newfoundland and Ireland. The plane, a month old 250 passenger European Air Bus, had very cramped seating, no individual air vents (a Dutch stewardess blew at me when I asked where the designer had concealed it), and it was not well insulated for engine noise. Three cheers for the Boeing 747 and the McDonald Douglas planes that compete with this latest challenge of the Common Market. Seated beside me was John Geiling, a freelance satellite communications consultant who had been working in Africa for perhaps a decade. He lived in Senegal for various reasons to include its relative peace, civility and moderate corruption. From there he traveled out to about 8 nations about Africa to fill needs that WE and European firms could not meet economically with home staff. The landing in Amsterdam was before dawn in a light rain and temperatures in the 50s.
Landing in Amsterdam was in the early morning of 02 Nov, Wednesday. The flight out to Africa was to be about noon. A Nigerian male nurse and a banker were met in the waiting lounge. They were added to my recruits to help me passed any stops when we came through the Lagos airport. While killing the long wait between planes I walked too much in my new boots and developed a heel blister that would drag on me for the next week. An attempt to call home required changing dollars to Euros so I bought a soda, but then the phone that wished the Euros would not take the US Global phone card! In time it was learned that the blue phones in the airport did not accept these 00800 call back US cards. Only a “Red” phone at some remote place in the airport took such a card. A search for that phone aggravated the blister and ended in a note that the sole red phone had been removed from the airport. Along the roaming in the airport I came on an Internet kiosk with connections but found they wished $16/hour to log on! That seemed quite steep after having worked such a link at $1/hour in Mexico and later at the same rate in Nigeria. When time came finally to board, my previously rushed past carry-on bag was snagged by an unseen advancing attack attendant. He in fact was quite nice, quite efficient on grabbing all bags that would challenge the KLM test box. He even agreed to affix a special handling tag that would see my bag instantly placed in the jet way, thus avoiding the notorious baggage handlers at Lagos. The neat tag later proved only to be a pacifier for my brain for there was no jet way in Lagos. My bag would go direct to the hounds! Well, the bridge over the Eze River might have to go on without that bag! It had too many costly goodies (GPS locator, walkie talkies, camcorder, and digital camera) to make it past the baggage handlers in Lagos if they opened it. My only hope was that my selection of ugly bags would allow mine to pass by.
Great, the plane going south 7 hours into Africa was a roomier American MD-11. We were on board by noon. Once past Europe the African coast popped up and soon the Atlas Mountains were in view. Then for it seemed four hours there was nothing but the driest Sahara Desert below. Yet, it was good again to not fly in the dark, to see something, even it if looked so bleak. Despite the overwhelming odds with the plane nearly filled by Africans, at boarding along came Kenny Laddie, a real “seasoned” US oil drilling manager to take the seat next to me. He had been in Nigeria for over 15 years with Noble Drilling of Houston. Seems the routine for such imported oil rig workers is 5 weeks in Nigeria on the offshore platforms and 5 weeks back home in the US, over and over and over again. The draw for life in such a bleak, hot and hazardous land is big pay and no US tax. Kenny spoke of his fish camp back home in Louisiana, 4 children, 5 more years to retirement, the building of a new home, and his keen interest in investing in real estate.
Landing in Nigeria
Landing in Lagos, Nigeria was in the early evening of Wednesday, 02 Nov, with light rain and lightning. Never have I seen so few lights at a major airport. How could the pilot find the taxiway? The plane really needed its headlights to find its way to the gate. Where was my critical carry-on bag that had to be checked? What about all the cheese and food in my now checked carryon bag? It was announced over the speakers in the moments just before landing that no food was to come in to the country. Who would guess food would be denied entry in a land where 1000s starved to death each year? Any and all such rules in a lawless land like this, while seldom intended to be enforced, do bestow excellent opportunities on legions of do nothings who seek bribes. How much would I need to pay to keep my prized food? Emeka Aluka (age 36) my planned contact was nowhere in sight. I might well need the assist of the Nigerian couple met in Dulles and the Nigerian fellows met at the Amsterdam airport. Where had they gotten to as the plane emptied out? Immigration was the first hurdle to make. As I was herded down one line I fumble about to find that letter for the head immigration lady, Mrs. Rebecca Ayuda. Just in time it was pulled from my case and handed to the passport desk officer. The reaction was instant. The supervisor was called, shown the letter, and I was swept away past all the lines. My passport was quickly stamped and I was led on into the baggage claim area. One down and one to go! Where was Emeka? I joined the herd, rented a trolley and pressed towards the luggage belt with little success. It mattered not for nothing came for quite some time. Perhaps the baggage handlers needed more time to look for goodies! Out of the corner of my eye I caught the gaze of a smiling fellow headed my way. He introduced himself as Samson and said he was sent in by Emeka who was outside. Should I believe him? Knowing the robbery and kidnapping reputation of this airport and sensing my reservations he quickly flashed a sheet that had the picture that I had sent to Emeka over email so he could identify me. Samson also told me that he had been send by Sonny Igiri, the official that Carol had previously contacted to assist me in clearing customs. In time my luggage came to include my carryon bag and the trolley was loaded. With my bag claims receipts in his hand, Samson broke through the crowd with my trolley and dashed me past his fellow customs inspectors. In moments we were out the door where Samson handed me off to Emeka. I was really pleased to see him. He, along with two more handlers surrounded my luggage trolley and we made the flight to the parking lot through a mass of “potential helpers,” the dreaded touts which are now kept outside the airport terminal. It was a 30 minute ride on to the “Maryland area” of Ikeja, Lagos to a high walled church complex where I would settle for the night, a Catholic monk’s guest house. (Sister of Our Lady of Apostles 080-6038-9796, N1800/night, about $13) This religious enclave was quite a cordial place for Lagos, where millions are moved to extremes to survive. This was surprise 4 since landing. Hadn’t we really planned this all out over email and the phone??? The planned stay at the home of Carol’s sister was off since she just went to South Africa. No immigration lady, Mrs. Ayuda was #1, no customs man, Mr. Igiri was #2 and no Emeka near the immigration, customs or baggage area was #3! Yet it all worked out so very very well because Another was making the real arrangements.
After perhaps 7 years of email exchanges I was for the first time to meet Bishop Amuzie Nwachukwu at LDS Church Headquarters here in Lagos. It was such a special visit for we had shared over hundreds of emails many thoughts for many years about many ways to help countless return missionaries in West Africa. For this special occasion his wife and 5 children also came to the office, which would have been normally closed, this being some sort of holiday. Amuzie had, based on my email request a month earlier, purchased a cell phone for me that he would buy back at the end of my time in Nigeria at 50%. My phone # was 080-6270-3555. This building where we met serves many purposes: meeting house, Church Headquarters for Nigeria, Institute, the Lagos Mission, etc. In time Sister Booth, the Mission President’s wife appeared. She offered a marvelous welcome to Emeka, his wife and her girl friend who was with us to help take the car home when we flew out of town. Sister Booth spoke on the beliefs of the church and did so much to make all feel welcome. President and Sister Booth are from the Mill Creek area of Salt Lake City, UT (firstname.lastname@example.org). Soon there appeared a missionary couple, Elder & Sister Gilmore of SLC, who are on a Humanitarian mission (water) 080-3535-1490.
In that our flight tickets had been bought early for the 1 PM flight to Enugu, its cancellation obliged us to face getting on the 5 PM flight. Thus a good number of empty hours had to be addressed. It was very hot and getting hotter in chaotic Lagos. The solution was obvious, we would bide the time at the church building where there was comfort and security, plus A/C! Thus, we had many hours to discuss the directions of the church and its programs, as well as our past efforts to help return missionaries begin small businesses. In that Emeka had been working on helping others with micro credit opportunities, there were some shared interests.
Finally it was time to let Amuzie have the day with his family and we get back to the airport. So here it was late Thursday afternoon and we were slated to fly to Enugu on Solsoniso Airline in a driving rainstorm. While at the airport earlier in the day to buy tickets I had an amusing, probing conversation with two “touts” who worked the airport area. Despite their intent on talking me out of some money for something, anything, their “profession,” they after 15 minutes excused themselves and faded. They had been frustrated as I overwhelmed them with enthused rhetoric on a wide range of topics from the bridge project, to family, to the future of Nigeria. Emeka’s wife and friend had backed away when these fellows approached and watched with some interest to see how I might survive. They too were amused.
At check in there was the challenge of the overweight bags. I climbed over the scale and went back to the man who was making the “off hand” calculation of what extra we were to pay. I told him of the bridge project, gave him my business card, and asked him to help. He cut the price by a third and then asked for a project shirt. I said sure as soon as he came to build the bridge. In the waiting area I met the CEO for the Tourist Board of Enugu State, Chijioke Agu 080-3568-1373 or 234-042-306864, (email@example.com). He was travelling with a contingent of four. He invited me to have a drink (soda) in exchange for my words on what I could do for water in poverty bound communities in his state. Despite the driving rain the pilot did well on takeoff and soon was beyond the storm. I was pleased this was a private airline, one that is maintained! The stewardess, a very tall young lady (5’ 11”) asked if I was a pilot. Perhaps she noted me timing the take off run of the plane, a good 31 seconds, so not overloaded. The planned daylight landing in Enugu ended in another after dark arrival. At the airport immediately on entering the terminal I was stopped by a medical doctor who wished me to advise on the rebuilding of two large box culverts that were washed out in his community. Apparently the tourism fellow that I briefed while waiting for this plane had phone ahead to this doctor to tell of my coming.
My welcome at the airport included Elder Chief Ike Ugochukwu (65+) and Chinedu Okeke (29). They would, with Emeka, define the key players, the real family to run with me each day to the end of this project. There is much to be said about each of these men and I will do that a bit further down the line. I was placed that first night by Ike in a local guest house thinking it would offer more reliable electric and A/C. I asked to remain with Ike and the others the next night for the value of the guesthouse was grossly overstated – no electric or A/C and a clogged shower. All of this despite payment for a good place. I wished for Ike to get his money back from these rascals, but I suspect he let it ride. His mild manner, gentlemanly ways are not a match for the very forward nature of Ebos! It was only the hotel sign before the place that had any class! Ike’s compound at the little village also had much more the feel like being home. As in Lagos with Emeka, Ike noted that people selling things in the street normally earned about 200-300 Naira/day ($1.40-$2.10).
Enugu on Friday began with a lovely breakfast with Ike. He has his personal cook, Nkege, who would spend the full time supporting his meals during the bridge project. At 10AM I met with a former LDS missionary (Krist Ihemeje) with whom I had exchanged several emails in recent years. He had by emails a few weeks earlier asked to meet me when he found I would be in Enugu. Next was a planning meeting with Ike, Emeka & Chinedu to set some common direction for us three. The bond with Ike and I is very natural for our life orientations are quite close. Chinedu and Emeka are like sons anyone would be very proud to have. I am grateful that they feel working with me will be to their benefit. I will do my most to make it a memorable and profitable time for them both. This day was a good break to catch up on rest with spare time and a working A/C, as well as a chance to reorganize my bags before going on to the river. I had planned to go direct to the site, but Ike’s setting of this day as a transition was just right. Ike’s daughter visiting from the USA is a doctor. She came in right handy in getting my blistered ankle treated and protected.
Descent to Ozubulu
Southwest to Ozubulu, planned for 0900 Saturday but left at noon due to car problems, an eternal plaque in Nigeria where all is used, old and few know how to really repair well. It was a two-hour trip that descended from the rolling hills about Enugu with its coal mines to the more tropical flood plain, “Yazoo” like waterways as found in Mississippi. On the way out of Enugu, I caught sight of some coal seams. Enugu’s fame is linked to its coal, now not worked, but much the thing in ages past. I understand there was little to Enugu until the British elected to develop a coal industry here, complete with a dedicated rail line to take it south to the coast. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and subsequent rein of corrupt governments, oppressive thugs who basically deposited annually the nation’s wealth into their personal overseas accounts, this industry and the rail line have just about vanished. Sadly that is the tale of so much of Nigeria. Most of what is left in Nigeria seems to be what remains of that created by the British or the grandfathers of those who now sit or mope in first gear as they seek some form of trickle down from the nation’s oil exports.
Due to the hilly nature of the Enugu area, much is not well suited to crops. But, from the obvious vigor of pine trees seen on the way this place could be made into a soft wood resource for lumber and paper industries. The soil and climate seem just right for pine. Weeks later I would come to know that this road to the southwest was the site of frequent armed robbery ambushes, mostly at night but some in the day. Both Chinedu and JP, later to be a labor leader, would be accosted by these gangs of fanatical men with machine guns. In weeks to come I would conclude that lawlessness here in Nigeria is far greater now than it was under the military dictatorship that I witnessed 9 years earlier when in this Ibo land for a water project. As a consequence, I soon resolved to confine my life to the bridge to be built and to the village where I would live. Any thought of seeing the sites beyond disappeared within two weeks of receiving continuous reports of a land that is in truth without any police.
We came through little Awka, the capital of Anambra State, and then passed through Nnewi, the industrial products trading town just to the south of the major city of Onitsha. It was then but a few more miles on to Ozubulu. I settled into the house this first night with Ike making preparation for the gala reception to come the following day. Soon the word was out in the village that Ike was home. Bit by bit visitors came, many to say hello, but just as many I think to seek something from the “big man.” From my view, Ike’s position brings not only praise, but, some perhaps with their hand out. Clearly, there are no bargain prices for the likes of Ike. I think he is charged more for everything because “they” view him not only as high but wealthy. It is hard to believe how much wealth one is perceived to have if they but touch the West. It is for this reason that many Nigerians, who make it to the USA, are either drained of their last drop of blood by pleading relatives, or they resolve to disappear and not come back. To have a relative in the USA or Britain may be for a villager, living off cassava tubers and 2-3 chickens a year, the equivalent of your father giving you a pre-paid Platinum VISA card.
Among the visitors were the local vigilante force. Given the state of the official police, little more than armed robbers in uniform who do little more than take bribes, the rural villages have informally elected to create their own security. In fact in this village, if one calls the police they must pay a fine to the village, a sum that is equivalent to about 2- to 4 days wages for the average poor man. This group of vigilantes, six or so in number, with shotguns and machetes, rolled into the compound in a minivan. Ike’s concern for security encouraged him to initially solicit their support. Yet within a week it was clear these fellows could put a major dent into the project budget. For those few days they served, they fired their shot guns throughout the night about Ike’s house and where I would soon moved nearby so as to alert the would be to keep away.
About 8 AM villagers began arrive in Ike’s compound. Chairs and benches were added throughout the morning to accommodate those that came, perhaps 150 by noon. It was Sunday and many were not to arrive until the 9 AM mass at the Catholic Church was over. While the ceremonies were to begin perhaps closer to noon, a goodly number of people just came and sat patiently. I went out about 9 to begin greeting them and finding what I could about each. In that this bridge project was being sponsored by WOW from the USA, it was their local chapter of women that began the festivities, the gala reception. In all there were about 15 women in traditional dress. Like unto a military unit they formed a group of two ranks with a leader to the left front. Forward they came with a chant and later emotion laden song. The voices were wonderful. The lead, Judith, a large woman of about age 30 with an even larger smile led the group in its singing. Her voice was superb. Gifts of fruit and nuts and palm wine were brought forth. Unique to Ibo land, next came the official welcoming ritual of the kola nut. These bitter nuts were presented, ceremonially broken and a solemn prayer was given in the Ibo language. Iyke began the speeches and I greeted the people and potential workers. Then it was time to signify the unity of the villages and the people by presenting to each of the key people one of our special shirts made for those who were to build the bridge. These shirts over the time of the project were to become highly sought by any who could claim some link to the bridge.
XX To be added. Visit (07 Nov, Monday) with the Honorable, Doctor Clement Ofoma, Chairman of Ekwusigo Government Area of Anambra State, handlers, anti rooms, briefing, presentation of project shirt, photos
XX Inspection of 5 other bridge sites (mostly failed bridges overcome by rushing high water) in the region that crossed the Eze River was accomplished in the morning of Tuesday, 08 Nov, and in the afternoon a land survey with a string and line level for the elevation changes along a 2000 ft path over the proposed river crossing was made.
Will the Crocodiles Sleep Through?
Wed, 09 Nov. Today began at 0800 with a meeting of over 50 volunteer workers. We then went to the river with machetes to clear more area on the south side of the river and to cut down about 10 trees. To the amazement of the villagers we used a few of these fallen trees to bridge the river at a narrow point now at its lowest water stage. You could almost hear their thoughts. “Why didn’t we think of that? Why have we been wading for years each winter through the low water and mud when we could have made such a simple bridge?”. We then dug 3 test holes to observe soil character and water level (2 ft down). In the late afternoon we compared 4 ways to judge the rainy season’s high water level (flood water marks on jungle trees and sediments along the rivers banks) so as to set the final height of the planned bridge above that. We then decided on the exact location for the bridge to cross the river and laid out the line for the bridge pillars along its west-side. Due to the apparent greater extent of the swamp along the line posed by the villagers I elected to rotate the bridge about 30 degrees clockwise to what seemed higher ground in this dense jungle based on what I could see of the tree heights.
Where were the crocodiles? “They have moved 500 meters up the river because of our much noise.” was the native reply. What a relief. I had arrived in country with a solution after speaking to an African over the phone in the US. I was to place meat in the river 100 meters above and below the bridge site to appease the crocs so they would not dine on us workers. Further, while in Lagos I spoke to a man who explained that in moving cattle over such rivers that it was common practice to kill one cow and place half the meat up stream and half downstream to attract the crocs as the herd was then driven across the river safely. Later in the week we saw a small crocodile cross the road more than a mile from the river. Thus, one is not sure where they are. What is clear is that no one wishes to walk in the high grass or the forest at night due to the many creatures that claim that time as theirs. By project end I came to yet another thought. In that not a mouse, rat, rabbit or any form of wild life had been seen in my three months, I concluded that the crocs were no match for these hungry people. Imagine 10 hungry men with spears and one crocodile with teeth.
An Inch Can Be Important
Thursday, 10 Nov (Day 2). A work force of 31 began digging the holes for the bridge pillars. By about 1 PM the work force was down to 15 persons but amazingly 18 holes had been completed, half in the drier soil (3 ft wide and 3 ft deep) on the south bank and the other half (4 ft wide and 4 ft deep) in the water logged soil, the mud of the north side. During the digging of the holes, Emeka and I laid out the line for the center point of each pillar on the east side of the bridge. Many times to come we would set up strings to make lines and to measure to hole centers, since it was inevitable that the men would lose sight of where the center was in digging the holes, in placing the reinforcing steel, in setting the forms for the pillars and finally in placing the steel pipes in the tops of the pillars. A 500 ft roll of heavy string from Wal-Mart was key to project control. Thus every point was to be re-found 5-10 times as work proceeded. Had we a transit this task might have been eased quite a bit. But the aim of this project was to not only show that the bridge could be built with native skills and native tools but that the engineering need only be guided by a measuring tape, a line of string and a simple line level. Yet if we were off by more than 2 inches anywhere along this 264 foot bridge the beams would come off the ends of their supports and fall into the river. Few of the men ever captured the real importance of precision in such things. Emeka, Chinedu and I understood this for we each night adjusted our designs. Soon we found in Austin, a 61 year old carpenter, the capacity to appreciate real dimensions. He quickly became the one to set the forms and in so doing adjust for the misplacement of the reinforcement steel at the bottom and to take our lead in how to best place the box that would leave a void in the top of each column for the subsequent placement of the steel pipe portion.
Christmas Money for Santa Claus
The truck load of stone coming from 100 miles to the east was stopped just 20 miles short of us by the police at Awka. Due to the trucks near half a day delay by these armed extortionists our men had to be sent home at noon rather than wait longer for a truck that would not reach us until dark. While the driver had all the required documents, the police under the pretense that the driver did not carry a bill of sale, extracted a Naira 10,000 ($72) bribe, the equivalent of 10 days wages for a common worker. Such unchecked armed robbery will surely push the poor over the edge in time and they will begin to kill these government sponsored vipers. I felt the impulse myself, but judged the bridge had to go on.
Under normal circumstances the police do not stop a vehicle carrying a Westerner, yet the hunger for added cash for the holidays makes the police stop anyone from which they can extract a gift. For the normal, poor Nigerian traveling on a dilapidated moped the shaking of hands at a police stop makes for the ready pass off of a Naira 20 note ($0.14). While the young federal police on motorcycles are the least likely to press for bribes, in fact often sympathetic and humorous to the poor, the corps of older men in black uniforms on the road near each town are often ravenous. Those at nearby Nnewi are ruthless.
Monday, police again in Nnewi stopped Emeka for a shakedown bribe. Trained as a priest for over 8 years, he on principle refused to pay such bribes to government armed robbers. The black uniform police detained him for hours at the roadside, and later took him to the station. One blessing of the cell phone, now in reach of many in Nigeria, is the opportunity to call for some help. I saw none of that in the days past of General Sani Abacha. Emeka called Ike who called the local police headquarters and asked for the release of Emeka. An hour or so later the word reached the old men in black and they reluctantly give up their rabbit. Emeka’s anger and his deep disappointment and embarrassment of his government cannot be hid.
The house where I was to live belongs to Ike’s brother who had not visited if for perhaps over a year. In that time an assortment of lizards, giant looking red geckoes, had taken up residence. I suppose in terms of ghetto time they had had this palace for ages. They were at the gate, on the courtyard walls and at the entrance portico. Inside the house, each room had been claimed by some further assortment of these ugly, slithering creatures. Being insect eaters they are in fact welcomed I suppose by the locals. It was about a week before the claimants to my room left in disgust. For days they ran under my bed or off to hide behind the window screens.
On Ike’s return from a trip to Enugu, 2 hours to the north, to buy more rock, we had him come over to our house for a project update and some bachelor cooking. We, I as the cook, enjoyed a banquet that began with the taste of chocolate milk (Danish powdered milked and American chocolate syrup), followed by fried plantain, and next potatoes with onions, with an iced beverages as the finale. Midway through this wonderful meal I was suddenly struck on my back by what seemed a two pound bean bag. Yes, it was a ghetto who had come out from behind a window screen, leaped upon me and then on to the floor to disappear into the pantry. Nothing can be left open in the kitchen at night for they take over once the lights are out. My baked goods first were kept in the fridge but that made them mushy. So I reverted to using the oven and as the haven without lizard breath on our food.
Monique and Innocent
Inside of our living compound, to the rear is a small house with a tin roof. The couple that rents there are obviously there to provide some security of this home which is left vacant for years at a time. The young couple, in their 30s, that lives there are absolutely delightful. Innocent is a wood carver of furniture and door maker. He has a shop in the local village where he works from 7 to 7 or so each day. In his shop he has two younger men as apprentices. From time to time his work takes him long distances from the village for days to do special carpentry work for the rich. His language reflects a rich education, and his mind suggests an affinity for knowledge. It is clear within moments of speaking to this very charming man that he could hold a much better paying job, if such existed, the void that plagues most younger Nigerian men.
Having investigated the potential for exporting carved doors from Nigeria, I spoke to him about the costs as he viewed them. The slab of wood for a solid, 30-36 inch wide, door was a prized piece of lumber and accordingly went for Naira 3500 ($25). His labor to cut and carve such a door from this slab would entail 3 days, from which he would seek to gain Naire 4500 ($32) after all other expenses. Those would include wood sealer and stain, sand paper and some tools. The end product would be sold locally for about Naira 9000 ($64). An American visiting Home Depot or Lowes readily finds that a hardwood door, decorated with machine cut molding, retails for $400-800. The idea of being able to buy a hand carved door seldom enters anyone’s mind in the US. Yet, as revealed by the Internet, there are a handful of Americans who will carve you such a special door for your home or office. Their price is typically in the $2000-4000 range. Thus, it remains by conviction from this trip and the last one 9 years ago that one of the best possible exports from Nigeria would be custom carved hardwood doors. The more through seasoning of wood, the tighter making of wood joints and the more precise control of dimensions would need to be added to assure acceptance in the USA. Such added requirements might raise the local price by but $20-40.
Monique, Innocent’s wife, is an equal surprise in her apparent education. Her English is very good and her vocabulary quite wide. While Innocent is of the Ibo tribe, Monique is of the Hausa tribe that rules the northern regions of Nigeria. Over 30 years ago, it was the Hausa tribe that led the attack on the Ibos’s when they sought independence. In that 3 year conflict, in which the Ibos would lose, 1 to 3 million Ibo men, women and children gave their lives. Monique has had two sets of twins, a marvel in itself. The first set, a boy and a girl are about age 4. Of the second set of twins born a few months ago, only one survived birth and she is a girl. Infant mortality in Nigeria is better than the average for Africa, but nearly 10 times higher than seen in the US. Monique is a tall woman, a characteristic I suppose of the Hausa people. Her carriage suggests strength and hardiness. Her face frequently carries a smile. On each cheek is a one inch vertical scar, a marking understood to be used by the Hausa to identify their own people in battle, commerce or a social setting. I do not think she will cut the faces of her daughters to make this distinction. For my relief from washing my clothes each day, all not too well, Monique has graciously offered to do that for me. She wished to do it for the price of soap and bleach, but after much harangue she agreed to take Naira 500 a week ($3.57). My whites are white again and the mud of the river is clearly released from the rest of my clothes. The soap I gave her the first week was not good. Chinedu had bought it at a local market. Monique suggested that those in the market love to see such single men come to buy for they can give them anything that will not sell otherwise at any price. The soap Chinedu had bought was, as Monique explained, very high in caustic soda, thus best formulated for washing floors. She noted further than such soap was much too hard on the hands for washing clothes.
Our Very Best Purchase
Chinedu’s significant experience with mechanical equipment, especially motors, pumps and generators, has been most prized. We knew on arrival at the house that we might only have electrical power for a few hours a day, with much of that being after midnight. Nigeria is ruled by the Muslim Hausa tribal people of the north. The Ebo people, mostly Christian who occupy the southeast corner of the nation, are oppressed by the government and thus most often only get electric late at night when the rest of the nation needs it less. Thus, with quick action Chinedu bought a new 0.5 KW generator. The price of Naira 9000 ($64) was unbelievably low as compared to the US. In the USA, low quality generators (Coleman) may run $300 to 500 for about 3 KW capacity. By contrast a high quality Onan of 3-5 KW might cost $2000-3000. A 1 KW, long life, ultra quiet, Honda generator runs about $700 in the USA. Indeed our new prize was a Chinese product, with brand name Tiger. Its life span is expected to be up to 6 months as per Chinedu. It is amazing how the potential for productivity wanes when the lights go out. Lights at night make for review of the day’s work, advancing plans to face the daily challenges at the site, reading, writing, use of this laptop computer, playing of music, and having the social life that comes only from being able to see one another’s face. Candles and kerosene lanterns are the local response, but they equate to little more than social survival. They allow you to avoid tripping and they give some sense of who is in the room but little more.
One morning I awoke at 5 with an intense desire to calculate what might be our actual cost of doing the unplanned concrete work at the site. The plan as made in the USA had envisioned wooden posts to support the bridge, but once on site at the river it was clear due to the soft mud we would need to go to concrete. Could the budget afford that drastic change? A few minutes of calculations, using uncertain price data for rock to come from 100 miles, plus local sand, cement and steel reinforcing rods, suggested a somewhat higher total cost. This morning my mind had better unit cost data for the components of reinforced concrete so a recalculation was in order. I lit a candle, and held my hand calculator close to the flame so its solar cell might power up this marvel. By the light of the candle I proceeded though 3 pages of calculations. In the end I was about to feel sick over the answer. The price of the wooden posts, as reflected in email messages from Chinedu, had inflated by a factor 5 (500%) in the two weeks before boarding the plane for Africa. Given the newest price of the posts ($126 each) and the need for a concrete base under each the cost of the bridge foundation was adjusted upward to about $6000. Yet, now on page three I was faced with the calculated number $24,600 for a concrete solution! There was no way I could build this entire bridge for $35,000. Had I been talked too easily into using concrete, the preferred native solution? Had I made a mistake in the calculations? Working backwards through the pages I found all in order. Then near the beginning came the revelation. Under the dim light of the candle I had mistakenly used one ton rather than 7 tons as the weight of the trial mixture of 1 cement, 2 sand and 4 rock, each placed in terms of proportional tons for the estimating. Adjusting the $24,500 by the factor 7 bought the project back to earth with an estimated cost then of about $3500. My original estimate, based on data of Feb-Jun, had been $3000 for this part of the work using timber posts. Imagine what else must be lost when one must try to read or write by candle.
Our Tiger generator is a real friend. It starts easily, not normal for small engines. Fuel use is 4 liters, Naira 280 ($1.90) for 6-8 hours operations. That cost then is about $60/month to live in Africa as if you were still in some part of the West. Of particular importance to me these first few weeks is having a fan at night to allow sleep. Without the fan I am a mass of perspiration with soaked sheets in less than 2 hours each night if that fan is not turning. Chinedu after two weeks here brought in a music player along with a collection of his African pop tunes. In short order my old country western favorites were flowing out our windows. My what a lift music can give. I am presently paying some Russian Balalaika tunes. Most of the CDs that ended up in my suitcase are old time country music works.
This Sunday (27 Nov) I had planned to attend a local small church today, perhaps a Pentecostal type. But the pain of my swollen foot demanded I agree to go to a doctor. It is after midnight right now, prime time to write since the electric power is on. It is also time to take my 3rd dose of the 7 different pills prescribed today by Dr Kadura for my swollen foot/ache. It is day 4 of the swelling, the effects of the bite of what apparently was due to an army ant that got into my boot during Thursday at the river and waited until about 5 PM to bite me. The first night’s swelling was viewed as a passing. But by morning it was worse. I got on my boot and worked Friday. By night it was suggested I try a traditional remedy, use of the “black stone.” Chinedu went to the local monastery to purchase a packet of this stone, made in Israel. A packet the size of a harmonica sells for about $0.60. It is promoted as a remedy for snake bites, pig bites, and similar bites. With a new razor, Chinedu made a slit in my foot at the point of the bite to promote a good bleed. He then immediately applied a piece of this black stone the size of a half a dime. The blood flow stopped and the stone held tight to my swollen foot. Chinedu assured me it need not be held by a bandage, but would break free once it had pulled all the poison out of my foot. Some relief of the pain quickly came and the swelling eased during the night. At about 5 AM the stone fell off and I washed the foot with antiseptic, dressed and went on to work for Saturday.
By evening the swelling was worse. Chinese balm was the next remedy sought. Chinedu made the purchase, about $0.80 for a small jar. It was a Vicks vapor rub like mixture (camphor, peppermint oil, cajuput oil, menthol and clove oil) that was to be worked into the swollen area. By morning the next morning it was clear the swelling was moving up to include the calf. Could I lose this foot while working through these village remedies? We called for Dr Kadura who I “happened” to meet a few days earlier at the cyber café. He was assigned to the Joint Hospital Ozubulu. He said he would come to the hospital to see me. The hospital appeared to be a collection of dilapidated one story masonry buildings with rusted tin roofs. There was also the feel of a ghost town since nobody seemed to be present. In time Chinedu found the nurse on duty and called to Dr Kadura to tell him we were there. He heard my story of the past 4 days and began to write for about 10 minutes. He then used three different solutions to clean the raised bite area near the small toe on my right foot. I expected him to cut into the foot to press out the infection, but he judged that there was nothing to push out, that antibiotics would be the best road ahead. He wrote another 10 minutes on the paper and called for a lady to go to a pharmacy to check on available drugs and their price. On her return he directed her to go back and buy the 7 medications (an aerobic bacteria antibiotic, an anaerobic bacteria antibiotic, a pain killer, some vitamin C, and some other things). I gave her the Naira 1000 ($7) requested and she came back in 10 minutes with the drugs plus Naira 80 in change which I asked her to accept. Dr. Kadura examine the drugs to assure they were not counterfeit, a major problem in Africa.
During this meeting we talked quite a bit, exploring each’s world. By chance he had gone to the same school in Enugu as Chinedu and Emeka. He was from Imo State, same as Emeka, and his wife of a year and a half was from Ozubulu. They had a 4 month old baby. He was in his 2nd year in practice. The first year out of university is a year of volunteer service for all graduates across Nigeria. Chinedu with a degree in marketing worked his volunteer time in a port authority office in Calabar. Emeka, with his business administration degree worked at _________. Dr Kadura spoke of the poor pay provided doctors and how an aggressive truck driver could earn more in a year. He noted that it normally took 5 years before a doctor could buy an auto. I told him of my past ties to Dr Eni Kalu who faced with the poor prospects of doctoring went into the assembly and sale of computers, based on parts I would shipped to him from the US.
Malaria seems to be a part of life for all here. Once contracted it apparently can return at will, or perhaps whenever a person becomes weak. Two weeks ago Chinedu came down with it and was quite fatigued. There was no hint of it coming. He seemed fine until it hit. After medication ($1-2) for 4 days he was in recovery. Last week Emeka had the Malaria, but the medication seemed to not be as effective. This weekend he is to seek a test to see what variant of Malaria he may have so a better match to medication may be found. By contrast I am on my one pill a week “preventative” for Malaria, a regimen begun a week before I left the US and to be continued for a week or two after I go home. The lady who lives in the back with 3 children is down with Malaria this week so she asked to stop washing my clothes for a bit. Henry, the care taker for Ike, came by one night recently to “asked for a gift.” Nigerians are quite open to asking you for a gift, believing that all white men must be rich and ready to offload gifts. I must say that this is the case for about 80% of those who I have come in contact with on more than a handshake basis! We fed Henry my newly developed combination of fried peanuts, raisins, bananas, onions and tomatoes sauce over rice. He and Emeka liked it a lot and we all felt fuller than any time in the past few weeks due to the large portions that resulted from the expanded rice. I was dismayed to learn as we were eating that Henry’s wife and 2 of his children dried of Malaria just two years ago. He at age 46 is yet raising his remaining child a 5 year old girl. Apparently, the idea of a cure is not routine as I was thinking. As per the newspaper, while Africa has over 40% of the world’s cases of AIDS and sees 10s of million die, it is yet Malaria that takes the lives of most in Africa.
Two of the workers have taken ill. Innocent out chief carpenter was sick nearly all week with Malaria. He came to work on Wednesday and I asked him to return home and stay in bed, assuring him that Austin was handling the concrete forming work well enough. I do not know the name of the other ill worker. I will ask his name and try to visit both soon. I am told that illness is frequent among the poor and few can afford even the lowest priced medications. It is typical for a relative of the sick person to come to a pharmacy with Naira 20 ($0.14) or Naira 50 ($0.35) and seek whatever might be given for that meager price. Understandably many die. No doubt this lack of money for medicine is part of the reason that 45 years is the average longevity of a Nigerian. I was telling Dr. Kadura that we in the US had such longevity in 1900, but by the year 2000 had pushed that up to 75 years due to better sanitation and improved medicines. Only 3% of Nigerians reach age 65. In the US our numbers of such people are 12%, 4 times that of Nigeria.
Polio while eradicated from most of the world is yet prevalent in Nigeria (300 cases /yr), Niger, Pakistan, India and Egypt. The common denominator across these nations may be Muslim resistance to accepting use of the oral polio vaccine, which is the key issue in Nigeria. That is the high risk areas in Nigeria are among the Hausa states in the north.
Cast of Characters
Here it is 1:30 AM, the electric is yet on, the fan blows the cool and I feel moved to press on with writing something that may capture the life of Nigeria. The tricky bit is that with ungrounded electrical circuits I from time to time receive a jolt of juice from the case of this computer. Thus I try most often to set it on a towel over my knees as I type. The lives of the individual people seem to say it rather well when you try to understand what Nigeria is all about. Let us begin at the top with the President and work our way down to the lowest labor on this bridge project.
President of Nigeria: O. Obasanjo – This former Yorubu army general is about to complete his 2nd term as president. He may have fooled Clinton on his visit here a few years ago, but it is clear to the people that their nation has sunk deeper into decay during his time and that corruption is more widespread than ever. Getting back to the President Obansanjo, the Ibos (Christians) here are far from being fond of him. They see him as holding back on what share of the national budget should come to this part of Nigeria because the memory of their revolt and the Biafra War remains. In that Obansanjo joined the Hausa (Muslims) in the 60’s in the Biafra War, that left over a million Ibos dead, the Ibos view him as not even neutral. If there is good in a dictatorship it is its capacity for quick and direct action with no debate. Under General Sani Abacha, when I was here 9 years ago, there was less corruption. In those times all empowered to take bribes directed their take to him. To skim much off otherwise could end in death. However, under Obasanjo, it seems there has come about an open season for corruption by any and all government bodies at all levels. The worse offenders now are the police who prey on the poor. The Nigerians see it as simple armed robbery, but view it as a product of the people’s cowardliness. As reported in a local paper, “ .. they are there not to control traffic, but purposely to extort money from innocent victims. These policemen are wicked, nefarious, and dastardly. Most of the time these policemen confiscate five to six motorcycles belonging to innocent riders and accuse them of various traffic offenses and so extort money from them.” Overall the country is in a shambles, with most every aspect of infrastructure broken and in the late stages of decay. Projects abound to do the new. As with Communism, and its aim to cut ribbons, little is done to maintain things built in the past. The focus is always on the next hollow promise, the starting of a new project, the cutting of a ribbon for a token effort that may look complete. In nearly all cases such ventures produce very poor products as the flow of money back to the government officials and to contractors rather than the job results in paper thin asphalt roads, elaborate uncompleted concrete works, failed electrical systems, little water supply, and no public transport system.
Anambra State Governor Dr. Chris Ngige – If there is a politician in Nigeria with more than 50% honesty it may be this man. Since taking office a year or two ago, he has been in conflict with President Obansanjo over sending locally collected funds to the federal treasury, given the well known corruption that is based there. On his entry to office, Ngigi was faced with schoolteachers who had not had any pay for near a year and children who had not been able to attend school for over a year. He immediately paid up all the back pay and got the children back to school. It appears that Obansanjo has attempted in the past (May 2004) to drive Ngigi out by lending support to Nigge’s challenger, ChrisUbah, in Nigge’s own Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The federally accepted slate of officials posed last year for the next 21 Local Area Chairmen included 18 that were for Ubah. Additionally, it seems that President Obansanjo has been using his control over the federal police forces to pressure Ngige in various ways. For our bridge project, which he was told began over a month before I arrived, by the Local Government Area (LGA) Chairman (county chief), he has allocated Naira 1.5 million ($11,000). None of that money however has gotten past the LGA (update pay out). PS: With much “encouragement” we were able to have the LGA Chairaman payout about 80% of the money to our men. Within 6 months of our completing the bridge, President Obasanjo was successful via his Supreme Court in ousting Governor Ngige from office.
Leader of the Anambra State Assembly, Prince H.C. Nsofor – A glad-handing aspiring politician, age 35+, 4 children, with the best automobile seen so far in country, possibly rich and moderately well connected, seemingly anxious to not support Ofoma at the LGA, was introduced to me by the Secretary to Ofoma after being led to that office by Val Dozie. He is a Civil Engineer by education with some fascination for the simple methods we are using at the bridge project. He may be a possible promoter of our team next being given a contract to build another bridge on the Eze River from Ezoria to Enugwu. We was ready to take me to see the Governor to talk on this 2nd bridge, but I pulled off wishing to initially make the right impression on the Governor by his seeing first hand our project. He also wishes me to make a design for a local water system. He is moderately keen on my ideas for using dump truck pulled steel beam drags to keep highly rutted, unpaved roads dressed better at lowest cost. This is what I did in Vietnam in the face of many miles of roads and only a few real road graders.
Chairman of the Ekwusigo Local Government Area, Dr. Clement Ofoma – While I have yet to meet Governor Ngige, I have had several visits with Chairman Ofoma. From the books in his home he appears to have had a background in accounting (these turned out to be his wife’s books). His home is in Port Harcourt, perhaps 3 hours to the south where his wife and younger children remain while he serves here, living with his two older daughters. While he is most cordial and talks much of support for our project and it was he who issued the July 05 letter of support, the actions from his staff have produced nothing to date. It seems he told Ngige that our three-month long project was to start in October and thus Dr Ofoma may have had in hand all or part of our Naira 1.5 million for some time, a token wage for the men. After two weeks of rather frustrating waiting, promise after promise, all we have seen is a grader that came to the top of the hill, looked down, and asked us to buy it fuel, before turning tail and heading away. A week later an ancient Fiat-Allis dozer was slated to come to our site. It took 4 hours to come the 2 miles to the river!. When I met it 1000 foot before the river what I saw was heavy smoke coming out the exhaust, great volumes of steam blowing out the uncapped radiator and a strong flow of oil leaking from the engine. While the assistant added over 15 gallons of water to the radiator to little avail I noted that the accelerator linkage then fell off when a make shift bolt vibrated out. This, exhausted beast after 15 minutes of attempted digging in the road, an easy push down the hill, quit, and the driver left saying repairmen would come later. None came that day nor the next nor the next….. Ike Ugochukwu, our community liaison lead is the man designated to work these “political” issues. Ike’s gain to this point has been to have Ofoma agree that the Governor approved the now missing money for our project support, a token wage to the men. John, Ofoma’s personal assistant, has come to the site several times bringing these empty promises and tales of paying exorbitant sums to the equipment operators who in the end have never performed. A bribe offered by Ofmoa to me and refused was later delivered to the site by John, where upon I accepted it and to his dismay directly lined up my men and distributed the money to the overjoyed men. PS: On my return to the USA I checked and found that the Doctor’s degree is a buy by mail paper or an honorary type from a Christian school in South Carolina, that closed a few years before it was said to have been granted to him.
Senior Ozubulu Chief (Iche Omeokachie) Iyke Ugochukwu – my host, area sage, patriarch, historian, former electrical engineer for Shell oil, former business owner for supply of construction machinery, in process last 10 yrs writing a book about Ibo culture past and present, 30 year promoter of this bridge, age 73, 4 grown, well educated children (One son served in Iraq war, now in law school) all living in US, his is a mixed life spent in the US, in Enugu and here for past decade, while challenged by Nigeria’s present state has hopes for a better future and his children’s preservation of his significant property assets, which are readily encroached upon by false agents those that pose as the land owner to sell such to others when you are absent
Urumabiam Village Chairman John Ukatu – leads the people south of the bridge, astute, cordial, easy to talk, early retired former import/export trader with experience traveling and doing business in Europe and Asia, last child is in university at Enugu, age 61, troubled by blood pressure, wife is a leader in local girls secondary school
Enugwu Village Chairman Cyril Adulua – age 63, born in his present village, leads the people in the village north of the bridge, across the river, the past 5 years, humble, very likeable, a cassava and cocoa yam farmer with 4 helpers on his large land holdings, land rich/cash poor. Land to be used to create a road from the village down to the bridge is freely coming from him. He has a family of 11 children, 3 girls (9,16, 19) still in public school, with the older children, 5 boys mostly in trading. His wife is from the neighboring Ezoria village. They have 3 grandchildren. He is a retired carpenter with 14 years past with Lumber Nigeria at Warri maintaining boats and caravans. I presented him a watch. He is very involved in motivating his entire village and has their following. His home is inviting and charming, with the signs of modest but relative wealth. PS: I gave him one of my jumpsuits at time of my departure.
Emeka Aluka – Deputy Project Manager/Body Guard, a 36 year old ambitious man from Imo State, 2 borthers/4 sisters, a graduate school business major (2004) with wife of one year with a similar Masters Degree (statistics/computers), former decade plus aspirant of the Catholic priesthood, past dealer in sale of goods, past farmer of cassava and vegetables, present developer of a fish farming venture with many good ideas for promoting aquaculture and chicken raising to include schooling/consulting for others, energy to foster growth and independence in multi direction, significantly burdened emotionally with the corruption that presently reins in the nation, an eager seeker of knowledge, a good planner, morally driven, father deceased, mother in Orlu, Imo State. Due to our living and eating together we became the closest of friends. PS: I created a business plan for his founding the Institute of Commercial Aquaculture. I gave him his cash bonus.
Chinedu Okeke – Deputy Project Engineer/Body Guard, a 29 year old single, multi-talented, aspiring to independent greatness, university degree in marketing, mechanically inclined super young man from a family of machinery vendors (pumps, small engines), born in local Ozubulu area where his father has a senior title (Union president) in the area while they both live for the most part in Enugu two hours to the NE, mother deceased, wide job experience that includes much with machinery repair and well drilling, aspires to create various businesses to include an auto center for washing/lube and alignment, palm oil processing, import/export, and now perhaps privatized water supply to high-end housing developments, …. street wise to corruption and strained business practices, thorough, detailed, dependable, very confident and effective in taking individual action, has faced very challenging and dangerous actions needed to procure the heavy timber (4 days away) and bolts, often needing to carry large amounts of cash in places where crime is rampant. PS: I created a business plan for him for processing palm nut oil. I also arranged for him to lead the proposed next project of constructing a water system for a 13 building Catholic church complex in a nearby village. I regretted very much not having as much time in the evening with him to discuss life, as done with Emeka, since Chinedu was for so many days out on the road searching for our building materials. PS: Gave him on my departure a laser level, a set of walkie-talkies and some tools, plus a cash bonus.
Val Dozie – Project Materials Manager, local proprietor of a small retail shop in Urumabiam Village (his wife has another shop up near the main road, political leader in one quadrant of Ozubulu Town under the LGA, quite dedicated to the project, energetic, thoughtful, diplomatic, friendly, enthusiastic, inclined to please, politically minded, super intent on representing his people. father of 4, mother recently hospitalized for significant injuries incurred in a mini bus crash in Eboni State(N4000 borrowed in past and N10000 more from me today to address her needs), O’Diga is his nickname, has brought me pineapple and other gifts of food over the past weeks, has provided much more service than expected from my concept of his position while yet in the US. PS: Gave him his cash bonus and my gray dress jump suit at time of my departure. Later found he was embezzling project funds in making our procurements, but his relative Ike, kept it hidden due to family pride.
JP (Jerusalem Pislgrim) – A sturdy man of short stature in his 50s who traveled from another state where he worked as a truck driver. He came here wishing to become a part of this project. At the opening meeting he introduced himself and stated his commitment to work, noting that he had his family home in this village. From day one on the job he showed a willingness to work hard and steady at any task given. He showed an ability to have others follow him in such tasks. By day 3 it was clear that he was our best choice for a leader of the labor force. He served as a Sergeant in the Infantry during the Biafra War where over a million of his tribe were killed by the Hausa (Muslims). (Interview him more about his life and family). PS: Gave new white shirt, $100 for house building, red vest as labor leader, and a cash bonus.
Austin – A man in his 60s from Urumabiam who in more recent times has worked as a carpenter, perhaps with Innocent. In past times he has worked in a variety of construction trades. He is quite versatile, but most important is his ability and his desire to mentally take on the entire job, to understand its parts and to plan/think just was we. Thus, it became apparent very early that he was able and willing to think as we and thus to be counted upon for diligence in checking the work as per the plan, dimension by dimension, procedure by procedure. Most in the Developing World only think a day or so ahead if any. His interest in all aspects of work at times makes him look as if his nose is into others areas, thus miffing some of the team. I nevertheless appreciate much someone to check on me to make sure I do not mis-measure or make some other move that will be bad for the job. When Innocent took very sick with malaria, Austin automatically stepped up to make and place the concrete forms. In recent times he has aided Alex in understanding the more complicated iron r-bar work related to the abutment walls and making the transition from iron worker tasks to concrete forms carpenter. PS: On my departure I gave him my red level.
Innocent – A carpenter, furniture maker from Urumabiam of perhaps 55 years, very careful in his planning and measurements, steady in the work, ever diligent, to be counted on for 100% effort, smokes, has been taken sick for near a week by malaria, likes my laser level which I recently said would go to him at job’s end. PS: Gave him my laser level and my blue line device
Hillary – An especially intelligent, articulate man in his 40s who has directed the concrete production efforts. Additionally he has taken upon himself the responsibility to each day inventory the materials on the site and to assure that all the tools are collected and taken home so none is lost. He is perceptive and anxious for all learning. He is open to redirection as in agreeing to mix concrete with less water, the key to best strength. Family challenges as his stepmother seems to be trying to evict him from the house so her eldest son will then be in line instead of him for the family property. PS: I gave him a watch
Richard – rider (carries people on rented motor bike for hire ($0.30, 0.50, 0.80/trip), age 35, tech lead on iron bar bending, very good at finding solutions and knowing where things are to be found in the community due to his extensive bike riding, has 2 other bikes he rents out to other riders, very inclined to do the hard/heavy work as digging far down in a water filled hole. Brother to Chairman Cyril Adula. He takes me on my trips to other villages.
Emeka the Rider – good worker for hard/heavy tasks, age 30+, Jewish, wants me to get him to the Europe while he has little clue of the difficulty of seeking a visa, support papers, funds for travel, plan on how to survive in a new land. He rents his motor bike for N300 a day and thus does some rides in the morning before work to earn that fee to cover the bike before coming to work . PS: Gave him some cash and my new work boots being sough by most of the team.
Donatus – about 65, plaster, in green uniform daily, also does well with soil cement, quick to note new things being introduced, ready smile, pleasant, intelligent. PS: Gave him a compass on my deparure.
Charles (“DeGaul”) – Brother to Domitus, Sec to Chairman Ukata, about 60, good insight, smart, quiet, steady worker, pleasant, 2 wives. He is able to help compact concrete in forms, does a lot of bailing of water from coffer dams, and does other light work. Does not shy away from work.
Clement – Perhaps in 60s, just married off a daughter, may have been the village chairman in the past, steady, good mature judgement. PS: Gave him my gray lightweight jump suit on my departure.
Theophulis – steady, about 30, head pan carrier of concrete, quiet, has missed a number of days of work with no explanation, seems now we learn he has had much pressure from home with unpaid loans and most recently heavy bills from a caesarian birth by his wife, shunned some by other workers due to his unsteady attendance (actually at other jobs to earn cash money) and his not being born in this village
Nobert – Plumber by trade who has lead the plaster work in dressing up raw concrete surfaces
Celestin – young, natural leader from Enugwu village, able to learn any job, in top 10% of men for work value, has initiative and a very pleasant attitude, wishes to please, looks for work that needs doing rather than going into the shadows, very proud owner of a motor bike now based on recently received wages. He will be a future leader in this area.
Alex (Bull Dog) – very combative, former boxer, one of very few smokers on team, learning to do r-bar bending, has taken over leadership of that group, works best alone or over very young co-workers, After a month it is clear he is taking pride in what he is learning about cutting, bending and connecting iron reinforcement bars for use in concrete. He demonstrates also that he can very much to my surprise understand to some degree a construction drawing so as to go from paper to the real thing.
Lazarus – slight, short old man from Enugwu, steady, polite, works as a tailor in his village
Enfani – slight, thin old man from Enugwu, steady, polite, always ready to work. PS: Gave one of my suitcases at time of my departure.
Eche – great worker from Enugwu, loyal, strong, mental handicapped, been sick with Malaria for near a week and yet refuses to stop work, gave N200 to buy some pain medication, gave a tee shirt and my blue jeans during the progress of the project.
Lotanda – youngest worker, perhaps 18, from Enugwu, son of old John, slight but willing to do any job with a smile. Wants to be an engineer. Likes to have some flash in clothing as a teen. Gave a watch.
PS: In Oct 06 he sent me a message telling of the good performance of the bridge in the face of the rainy season floods. This is the only message received from any of the workforce since I left Nigeria.
John Chukwuma– older man (60+) from Enugwu, former brick layer, father of Lotonda, slow, steady, able to only do light work, mostly cuts pieces of binding wire for use by the metal workers, brings food to job to encourage workers, likes to observe as a wise old owe, he loved going with Cyril and I to do survey of the Ezoria bridge project, likes to see novel ideas, has his wife supporting our job with food
Okdidi (John) (Izuchukwu) the younger from Urumabiam, average worker, likes to run with Lotonda, perhaps more immature than others his age, about age 19,
Daniel – young man from Enugwu who carries head pans of concrete, digs and does general work as tasked, Likes to dance and be a teen. Nice personality
Samuel – House boy and cousin to Ike, very likeable young man of about 25 who lives at Ikes’s home in Enugu. Very smiley, willing to do any work, very strong
Joshua – Hands down this young man of about 25 is the choice by all leaders to drop if we gain the next bridge construction job. His father is the fellow initially recommended to me to be the labor leader, the man we “released in the night” after about 2 days of observed shameless indolence. The son evidenced the same aversion to work.
Izuchukwa – Strong, hardworking, young man from Enugwu Village. Very nice. Does the digging, lifting, and carrying of concrete by headpan. His father works as the fire woodman for a bakery in nearby Nnewi.
Linus – He is a man of about 40 from another village where the Local Government Area Chairman lives (Dr Ofoma). He is #2 on the list for release due to his aversion to work. Many in the force believe he is a spy directed by Ofoma to join us so he could make daily reports. Yet, there seems mixed emotions, for this fellow, for it is clear he has taken on some pride in being part of our force. He loves to wear his bridge building shirt about town and he is quite overjoyed in seeing me should I appear in the market square when he is there. If he is a plant, I am sure he has mixed loyalties. Our team is very tight and loyal each other.
Toch – Known as “Little Head” is from Enugwu, a well natured fair worker, slight of build, often carrying concrete with headpan.
Innocent & Monique – Young family which lives in the caretakers house behind us. Innocent is a carpenter and wood carver. His specialty is carving doors for the homes of rich people. He is often obliged to travel hours beyond our village to do some of his jobs. I hope to visit his shop to see how he does his work. Monique has had two sets of twins, a marvel in itself. The first set, a boy and a girl are about age 4. Of the second set of twins born a few months ago, only one survived birth and she is a girl. Infant mortality in Nigeria is less than the average for Africa, but nearly 10 times higher than seen in the US. Monique is a tall, sturdy woman, a characteristic I suppose of those more from the north. She and Innocent are from Benue State about mid country to the east, a tribe that is neither Muslim nor Christian. She and Innocent may be Christian but she feels she is not comfortable in the local Pentecostal churches that are so bent on seeking offering without end. Her carriage suggests strength and hardiness. Her face frequently carries a smile. On each cheek is a one-inch vertical scar, a marking understood to be used by her tribe to identify their own people in battle, commerce or a social setting. I do not think she will cut the faces of her daughters to make this distinction. For my relief from washing my clothes each day, all not too well, Monique has graciously offered to do that for me. She wished to do it for the price of soap and bleach, but after much harangue she agreed to take Naira 500 a week ($3.57). My whites are white again and the mud of the river is clearly released from the rest of my clothes. The soap I gave her the first week was not good. Chinedu had bought it at a local market. Monique suggested that those in the market love to see such single men come to buy for they can give them anything that will not sell otherwise at any price. The soap Chinedu had bought was, as Monique explained, very high in caustic soda, thus best formulated for washing floors. She noted further than such soap is much to hard on the hands for washing clothes.
Innocent nearly died from Malaria after I was there two months. We had to rush him to a hospital after the local medicines did not bring relief. PS: Gave the family cash on departure, and have since sent some more funds by Western Union as they have moved 200 miles to the north.
Kola Nut Ceremony
In the Ibo areas of Nigeria, it is by ancient traditional their practice to welcome visitors with Kola nuts. As progress of the bridge building has reached the ears of many in the area, people have come down daily to the river with gifts of food for the workers and to present their ceremony of the Kola nut. In most cases the conduct of this ceremony with prayers of thanks has been relegated to senior men in the villages. Yet, many times humble couples and even women have arrived with what they can give and the Kola nut greeting.
“Thief, thief, thief,” were the cries suddenly heard from the cassava fields above our job site. It was about 10 AM and we were working on the concrete for the last set of pillars on the north side of the river. . As if a bee nest had been hit with a stick our workers exploded into an unbelievable frenzy. Some with machetes immediately in hand began to run up the hill towards the direction of the cries. Others, with nostrils flared and the appearance of Dobermans, looked to Emeka and I to release them. After a short discussion with my body guard, I agreed to let them go on and help whoever was in trouble. Probably, if I had said no they might have gone anyway given their very agitated state. This instant response of a village to the cry of thief apparently is understood to almost be innate.
It was market day in our village and well known that woman headed in that direction from their homes would likely have money. On a trail through the cassava fields above our work site the thief hid by the side until a lady came walking by. Quickly he approached from behind, pushed a gun into her back and told her to drop her bag. She immediately complied. The thief, instead of ordering her to run off and get some distance, promptly began to dig into the lady’s bag. She turned, saw his face and then saw that his gun was in reality an umbrella handle. With that she began her scream “thief, thief, thief.” While seldom seen from the road, there are woman all day long deep in these cassava fields tending their plants. Thus, within seconds of the robbed woman’s screams, a 20 fold cry of alarm rose and rippled through the fields in all directions. It was this rolling alarm with the near the speed of sound that reached down to us at the river seconds later.
Within minutes, 15 of our men were up the hill, across the fields and by the side of the woman who had just been robbed. They asked her to describe the thief and tell which way he ran. The men spread out over several trails and went near two miles before giving up. Apparently, the thief had gone in to the thick brush along the way and been thus passed. However, about 30 minutes later, Hillary, our lead concrete man, still at our site saw a man suddenly running westward in the field above. Hillary let out a cry to the other men who were just returning from the search. They turned tail, broke into tree groups and converged on the running man. In minutes he was caught about a quarter of a mile down the river .
A few minutes the thief was pulled from the river, pushed and beaten back to our site and then stomped on the ground. Some of the men began to kick and beat him with shovels and iron rods. His clothes were pulled off and he was pinned to the ground naked. Emeka, jumped in to dissuade them from killing him and explained that he would use my cell phone to call the vigilante group of the village who would come and take away this man. The men with some reluctance, gave up their prey, but they accepted the call from Emeka and I. As they pulled back I told one man to be the guard to watch the thief until the vigilantes arrived. The men then crossed the thief’s ankles and tied then with the wire. In going through the pockets of the clothes taken from the thief a roll of bills was found, about N700, which included 4-N100 bills and many smaller denomination bills. Each bill matched what the robbed lady declared.
Emeka, for fear the men might kill the wrong man went off to find the woman who had been robbed to seek details of what she saw the man wearing and what he exactly took from her. To his surprise, it was the very gracious lady who had been in past weeks bringing food to our site each morning to sell to the workers. She described the thief’s clothing and then noted she had 4-Naira 100 bills from a neighbor to take to the market to buy her food along with about Naira 350 she had made from her sales that morning of food to our work crew. Emeka then asked her to come back to the site to identify the man caught as the thief. Indeed the man when caught by our men readily admitted to be being the thief. But Emeka feared any man would admit to anything in the face of a dozen machetes raised over your head. The thief under duress also noted his village as one to the east of ours and his family name. The men recognized the name, and recalled quickly that this man’s father had been caught as a thief and killed some time in the past by that village’s vigilante group.
When the woman came to the site she looked at the man on the ground and said it was him. Moments later the vigilante group came down the hill, six grim men with machetes and shotguns.They took the thief away. Emeka, suggests they may take him to the sacred forest for evil spirits and kill him. The village knows that criminals turned over to the police can easily flee by paying a bribe. In turn such released criminals can later come back with others and take revenge on their captors. Thus immediate capital punishment is often the solution when an outsider comes into a village and commits a crime.
Emeka, trained for many years to be a priest, labels this “Jungle Justice.” He can not condone it, but admits that such rural villages are very safe places due to the expectation of such justice. He also noted that had such a thief been caught in the town market place that there would be a good chance he would be killed there. “Typically, the mob will push a rubber tire down over the head and shoulders of such a thief, pour on gasoline and set him afire.” Should the village vigilante group take such a thief, “They may take him to the woods, cut off his head with a single swing of the machete and burn his body.”
Two days later I asked what was the status of the thief. I was told that the vigilantes had interrogated him and he admitted to being part of a gang of thieves. The vigilante have been rounding up those others named by this thief. All were taken in days to the sacred forest.
From an arm chair in the USA in 2005 it may seem that the days of our “Wild West” in say the 1850s were glamorous. No doubt our movies have created an image of Jesse James benevolent bank robbers and those that held up the stage to grab the gold shipment, while begging the pardon of Miss Kate for the delay. Perhaps it never comes to our mind that more likely the passengers on the robbed stages were terrorized by such holdups by men on horseback that might shot anyone. Then too, in the movies there was always the “good guys” the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Eurp, Hoppolong Cassidy, …. Nigeria, while 50-100 years behind the world in many things is also yet in that age of the wildwest. Too often, lawlessness seems just over the next rise. Unlike the American West in those ages past, there are no “good guys” to be seen here. The people will readily tell you that they suspect the robbers are not only “renting” their guns from the police or the military, but that they divide their take with these same people.
Chinedu and Ike were to come back from Enugu two days ago. Where were they? What was up. The tale told when they rolled in reminded me that while we live peaceful lives in our off the path village, that the Wild West can be just miles away. Recall the note earlier of the bank robbery in the next town, the gang with machine guns who shot all the guards and then went on to shot up the police station on the way out of town Well, Chinedu was making a side trip to Onitsha to see if he could buy very long bolts for our bridge project. One thing led to another and he found himself past dark and yet needing to go the 2 hours back to Enugu. Yes, the clear advice is that one should never travel at night in Nigeria. Yet, here was Chinedu and a friend driving about 8 PM towards Enugu when they saw traffic stopped up head at the 9 mile point outside Enugu. While police checks may plaque drivers all day with road stops to seek bribes, the police never venture out at night. So what’s up? Chinedu, quite street savvy, recognized immediately that a mass robbery of about 50 stopped vehicles was in progressed. With a quick U-turn he came around and raced back towards Onitsha, but the robber’s trap had that out covered too. As Chinedu describes it, “There must have been 30-50 robbers with machine guns, so we quickly drove off the side of the road into the brush, knocking down trees as far as he could go, and then leaped from the car and ran like crazy. He said, “It was pitch dark and we were falling in holes and getting caught by bushes, but we escaped. From our hiding place in the brush we watched as these robbers stopped cars for the next 5 hours before they had enough.” Afraid to show themselves, Chinedu and his friend slept that night on the ground in the deep woods. Fortunately, when they ran from their car, Chinedu held the keys. The next day they slowly came out of the bush, found their car, and drove the next 9 miles into Enugu without further incident.
Todd D Stong