Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Chicken Republic

The Chicken Republic has no chicken. Welcome back to Nigeria.

“Could I have a chicken burger and a chicken-cheeseburger, please?”
“Sorry sir, we have no chicken-cheeseburgers any more.”
“Oh, well, could I have two chicken burgers please?”
“Sorry sir, we have no chicken burgers.”
“Oh... um, do you have any chicken?”
“Hmm, well what food do you have?”
“We have ice-cream and salad.”

Yes, after almost a three year break, I've found myself back in the mean streets of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where the pock-marked streets fill with unceasing, desperate traffic, where black-clad police with rusty guns swagger and shout (and guard us), where mounds of rubbish decay and slide into streams, where our hotel has two levels of security before we can enter, where goats ride on the back of motorcycles or hang dead from the back of trucks, where archaic vehicles defy all-known mechanical laws in the pursuit of impossible motion, where every morning invites a new day of humidity and sweat, and where – and I would have it no other way – the Chicken Republic has no chicken.

It has been three years since I last visited Nigeria, and in that time the days and weeks of frustrated fury that it bred in me have mellowed to a grim amusement bordering on fondness. Oh Nigeria, you naughty, cheeky boy, who throws tomatoes at the neighbours' windows. Oh Nigeria, you little rascal, who puts a potato deep into the exhaust of the headteacher's Volkswagen. Oh Nigeria, you awful rogue, who pesters the minister's daughter with obscene “sextexts”. Oh Nigeria, you scourge of my life, who sets fire to the local dog. Oh Nigeria, you brutal criminal, who deserves your life imprisonment for a series of violent attacks on old ladies. What I mean is that Nigeria, a vast country of 150 million people, is a mixed bag that invites multiple interpretations, but that these interpretations will invariably range from “cheeky” to “utterly evil”. It's not a country for the faint-hearted, or for minister's daughters; but approached from the right aspect it has a certain spirit that isn't entirely unappealing: approached from the wrong aspect and you might just wish your armed escort would lift up his battered gun and quickly end your misery.

That in Port Harcourt the local political rebels MEND have recently ended their ceasefire and have openly resumed hostilities and a policy of kidnapping foreigners is only the dainty cherry on a lovely pie.

Myself and my fellow beardy colleague, “The Mountie”, arrived here on Thursday, after an overnight in Paris (to puncture the bubble of glamour, our evening was spent at a Charles de Gaulle airport hotel; gosh, how I hate that airport). Our bags were lost in transit because they offloaded our bags in Lagos, but to our minor surprise they appeared 24 hours later, much to the relief of anyone with a sense of smell. Our first few days were spent in Port Harcourt, checking equipment, trying to buy chicken, and being very glad that the astonishing prices charged by the Novotel weren't billed to us. Previously, three years ago, I'd been under the wing of Halliburton, and stayed in the faded, jaded Presidential Hotel (now out of favour since stormed by armed rebels), and with this brought security in the form of an armed vehicle escort and lots of police with guns. Now we've gone solo, almost, and security comes in the form of Ezra, a tough but cuddly policeman, who sits in our car and smiles, and plays with his phone. He's far too nice to shoot, so I'm hoping the rebels will bypass us out of common courtesy.

For now though, our days of Ezra, the Novotel, chickenless chicken restaurants and Port Harcourt mania in general are over, as we today arrived at the sanitised freezone of Onne, just south of Port Harcourt, and where oil companies and fat old foreigners can rest safely and securely without having to indulge too much in local culture – except, of course, when it takes the form of a young and attractive female allowing a deeply unappealing and usually married man to have sex with her in exchange for money. Ah Port Harcourt, ah oil business, ah human civilisation for thousands of years.

The secure compound we're staying in, generally though, is decent, if anonymous in style, and certainly feels a lot more relaxed than the last compound I stayed in, in Malongo in Angola, which had every appearance of an army camp, had no bar, and a shop which forbade you to buy more than four small beers. Things here are clean, the accommodation is very comfortable and spacious, internet is easily accessible, and there's a bar without apparent alcohol limitations. Instead of Americans, the dominant species is French: I still have not decided my opinion on this. On the downside, the distance between accommodation and the work yard is large, and requires a driver, which causes logistical hassles and less daily freedom.

How long myself and The Mountie will be here is uncertain. Our immediate duties are to fit some stuff on some other stuff and makes sure it fits – a highly precise and technical operation, you can be sure. After that, we expected to dally a little before going offshore, but speaking to a French gentleman named Marco it seems that offshore could be many weeks away, in which case it's unlikely we'd be hanging around here until then. So we'll see.

Marco, I should quickly and quietly mention, and copy directly from an email sent to my boss, is a Frenchman who epitomises all that is bad about France. He's so high powered as to virtually be able to fly unassisted, but quite frankly is the rudest man I have ever met. When The Mountie shook his hand, Marco barely even registered his existence. He only registered mine because I'd been pestering him with phonecalls all day. Perhaps I should send sextexts. A nasal Gallic-nosed Frenchard with rigid, curly locks, in his 50s and without a smile, his deeply ill manners and total lack of help had myself and my good-hearted colleague firmly agree on one descriptive word: prick. Yes, Marco, if you read this, we think you are a prick. If I could press a button that would kill you, yes you Marco, after a week of pain, then I would press that button while staring into your piggy little eyes. Marco, I hate you.

With these sentiments I should probably leave you. But just be glad that after four days in Nigeria the nation I have now grown to resent most is not Nigerian, no not at all, but is French. Worryingly, it is the French I will be mostly dealing with in the next few days. Chicken Republic – you rumbustious imp - all is forgiven.

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Simon said...
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