I have now been in Nigeria for over 7 months, and things are going pretty well. The depression of the first few weeks are now but a distant memory and time is passing quickly. Like in all hardship postings, you need to quickly get into a routine to get through the days and stop time dragging, and that’s pretty much what I have done. In case anyone is wondering what a typical day in the Nigerian oil business looks like, here it is.
I am woken up at stupid o’clock by some b*stard cockerel which lives on the undeveloped plot beside by apartment building. It belongs to a family of somewhere between 10 and 15 members who have built themelves a shack for sleeping in but conduct pretty much the rest of their lives outside on the dirt ground. Dawn breaks in Lagos at about 6am, whereas this damned bird kicks off its racket at about 4:30am, every single morning. It’s the only thing I’ve seen in Nigeria that is early. I have not seen any shop selling air rifles in Lagos, and an AK-47 is too inaccurate, so I have been unable to silence it. Instead, I have taken to putting in ear-plugs for the last hour or so of sleep after I’ve been woken up. So really, my day starts at 4:30am.
At 6am I leap out of bed, remove the ear-plugs, and jump in the shower. Fortunately, the water is reliable and hot, which makes a change from Sakhalin in two aspects. Having squashed any ants which are wandering around my wash basin, making off with the soap, I have a shave and get dressed. Fortunately you don’t need to dress too smartly here. Working amongst the French, you soon realise that wearing anything Lacoste is considered smart (or at least patriotic), and no Frenchman will ever tell a Brit to go home and change out of his Lacoste polo shirt. So, getting dressed isn’t half as fiddly as it sounds.
I eat breakfast, which consists of cereal mixed with ants (for added protein). I then go downstairs past the snoozing halfwit who doubles as a security guard and hand the keys of my car to my driver, who lives in another time zone and had to get up an hour before he went to bed in order to be at my place at 6:45am. Having a driver in Lagos is not a sign of wealth or class, it is a sign that you are not insane enough to try to negotiate traffic which is more dense and less organised than a cattle stampede in which local miscreants ram the cars of white drivers in order to extort compensation monies. Besides, timewise, your driver is not paid to drive. He is paid to snooze in your vehicle once he has found a parking space – which is usually in the playground of a nearby school, or on a pavement somewhere – and wait 10 hours for you to go home. Anyway, I leave the compound (yes, we live in compounds. For those who think this is something we shouldn’t be doing, try living wherever you do without a front door for a year. This would be an act of equivalent stupidity.) at 6:45am and settle down in the back seat to read a book for the next half an hour, during which we will cover the 4km between my residence and the office. I try to concentrate on the pages and ignore the blaring horns, suicidal motorcyle taxis drivers with their unfortunately non-suicidal passengers, and the constant jerking of the vehicle. There are two movements to vehicles negotiating Lagos traffic: sudden acceleration and violent juddering halt. Half the problem is that there is no right of way at intersections: whoever can get their nose in front of the oncoming traffic far enough to persuade the drivers it is in everybody’s best interests to slow down or stop is the one who gets to proceed three metres. As a result, it is possible for as few as four cars to result in a traffic jam. The other half of the problem is a combination of drivers’ determination to switch lanes as often as possible for no discernible reason, and the ego of those same drivers. Once somebody has managed to get into one lane it is imperitive that he tries to re-enter the lane he has just left, usually having travelled no more than ten metres in the meantime. A gap of more than a metre is sufficient to try to squeeze your 3m car into, something which is made easier if the driver you are carving up doesn’t object and accelerate to close the gap, which he always does. In fact, drivers in Lagos react to somebody trying to enter a lane in front of them as if they’d just come home and found their daughters raped and the perpetrator still standing there. I’ll go into the reasons why some cultures’ inability to concede anything or compromise whatsoever leaves them shit poor in another post, but the same applies on Nigeria’s roads. Remove the egos and you’d have half a chance of free-flowing traffic. When you look around, the actual number of cars is not that high.
Eventually I get dropped at my office which is an impressive looking, glass fronted building. Well, it’s impressive provided you are looking at only the outside, and then preferably from a distance of not less than a mile. There is an underground car park which nobody is allowed to park in, so everyone parks on the nearby pavements instead, meaning the pedestrians have to take their chances in the road. The road at that point is covered in an inch of brown slime. I go into the building, through the lobby featuring marble panels fitted by somebody who had neither a spirit level or plumb line, and wait for the lift. There are three lifts, only two of which ever work at any given time, and often it is just the one. The lift has no logic system whatsoever, they don’t communicate with each other meaning both lifts are often on the same floor (there are ten), and they have an overide system meaning the owners of the building, who have offices at the top, can bypass all other floors should they so desire, and they often do. So it is not uncommon to be waiting three or four minutes for a lift and watch it sail gaily past you. Once you’re in the lift, and assuming you have been in Lagos long enough to have gotten used to the appalling stench of unwashed bodies and grease marks on the glass walls, you have to tell some cretin, who lives on a stool placed in the lift, which floor you want to go to. Half the time he is not listening because, the attention span in this city averaging at around two seconds, he is busy talking to somebody else or playing with his phone, and so you have to ask him a few times. If you lose patience and press the button yourself he will grumble as if you’ve tried to fly an Apache helicopter without the necessary training, presumably thinking if word got out people could press lift buttons all on their own he’d be out of a job. Actually, he is needed, because the lift buttons all reset themselves randomly and they need to be re-pressed or the lift just stops. Sometimes the lift just stops anyway and the whole system has to be reset. I heard a story about one bloke being whisked to the very top whereupon it whacked into the buffers then dropped like a stone for a floor or two before the emergency brake came on and it descended, at a snail’s pace, to the basement. The whole cycle repeated itself twice more before he could escape.
On my floor I am squawked at by somebody who is simultaneously the security guard and the weakest link in the floor security system. Like in Sakhalin, the prime suspect in any office theft is the security guard. Unlike in Russia, they security guards don’t dress up in Spetznaz uniforms all ready for massacring a Chechen village; instead they wear slightly gay gendarme uniforms, complete with Foreign Legion style hats. I guess it makes the French feel more comfortable. The security guard on my floor doesn’t like me much, because I don’t bother signing in on the sheet of paper he keeps on his desk. I don’t bother because when I go to leave, he asserts his minimal authority by hiding the piece of paper and making me ask for it, and I’m not playing this sort of game with anyone dressed like a gay gendarme.
My office isn’t too bad, except it is miles too hot, we have 6-8 power cuts each day, the toilets resemble those of a Salford nightclub, and we are not allowed to store paper copies of anything because the weight might cause the floor to collapse (seriously). The view is not too bad though, not least because I can see amusing instances of extreme idiocy on the street outside my window at regular intervals, and the transformer mounted on the pole outside often blows up with a satisfying bang, a bright orange flash, and a puff of blue smoke whenever it rains heavily enough.
I start my work day by checking my emails and deleting those which all oil companies send out warning of IT issues on random servers located in other countries. I then spend the day…well, I’m not going to go into this. There is enough material here to write a book, and that’s without using anything that could be considered company confidential. Some of the stuff you encounter in the Nigerian oil business would make Catch-22 seem like a serious tome of philosophical discussion. I witness daily instances of personal and organisational buffoonery which would be impressive even for the army. But all told, I rather like my job and I’m doing rather well by most accounts, and I’m not about to jeopardise that by writing something which will incur the wrath of anybody that could see me unseated. So, with that, I work as well as I can without murdering anybody or laughing loudly in people’s faces until lunchtime.
We take lunch in a building 200m down the road from our own, a journey which is more perilous than any undertaken on this continent by Henry Stanley. Because the cars are all parked on the pavement, you have to walk in the road, which is full of maniacal motorcylists and impatient, retarded motorists. The closer you get to the building where we eat, the deeper the water gets to the point where, even in the middle of a drought, you have to cross the road to avoid a huge lake of stinking brown water with stuff floating in it which would be kicked out of an open sewer for breaching the dress code. Yes, they built the road beneath the water table. Darting between the cars, you hop over a little rivulet, a tributary of the huge brown lake, and mount the pavement, hopping over a log which has been blocking the path since I arrived and nobody has bothered moving. Maybe it’s considered sacred? I did notice teeth marks on it. You jump over a tyre, squeeze between the bonnet of a car and an abandoned stall, walk five metres, drop off the pavement into some filth to skirt round some concrete thing which has been built in the middle of the pavement with no obvious purpose, taking care not to disturb the bloke sleeping on the cardboard at your feet. When mounting the pavement a metre or so further on, you need to dodge the stack of knock-off DVDs being sold under the tree, patiently waiting for customers to clear the way before proceeding. You go past a bin of rotting plantains, situated beside a drainage hole which looks like that thing in the desert Jabba the Hut tried to push the goodies into in The Return of the Jedi. It is honking. You cross the entrance to the school, which doubles as a car park and hang-out joint for all manner of weirdos, and squeeze past the fat cow selling plantains from a stall which blocks the whole pavement save for six inches. You get to the corner of the street where a restaurant is doing a merry trade, consisting as it does of half a dozen breezeblocks turned on their ends to serve as chairs and a woman putting crap into a wok over an open fire and selling it to the diners as crap which has been heated up a bit. It’s not the most relaxing setting for a meal, and I cannot recommend taking your loved one there for your anniversary meal, because the corner is packed full of phone card salesmen, an outdoor barber salon, crates of soft drinks being picked up and put back down, and a few dozen blokes doing what blokes do best in Lagos: standing around doing nothing. By now the pavement consists of mud with some random blocks sticking out of it, but even this is better than the street which is at this point covered in an inch or two of black sludge with all manner of detrius in it. You have no choice but to step into it and cross over. All of this you do in sweltering heat with tropical humidity. If the smell hasn’t put you off eating for life, you carry on.
You then go through a small reception room which is full of people who honk to high heaven and are standing about gormlessly for God knows what purpose. You squeeze past, get out the other side, and into the canteen where you join the queue for food. To be fair the food isn’t bad. I mean, those who went through the siege of Leningrad might have eaten it eventually, and who are we to be more fussy than they? It is free, after all. The menu is divided in two: local and continental. The local food consists of cow leg, sheeps innards, goat pepper soup (which would have justified the Iraq War twice over had Hans Blix discovered it in one of Saddam’s installations), fish in a curry sauce which looks as though it could be used to dissolve fire-bricks, mashed yam, polythene bags containing what looks like mud, turkey legs which would worry the dentist of a Rhodesian ridgeback, and a soya porridge which smells like the stuff you feed cows on a dairy farm back home. The continental food is made for us lot, and consists of a half decent soup with a main course of chicken with rice or spaghetti. I don’t like the rice much, so I tend to eat chicken and spaghetti, which I have done almost every day since I got here. Sometimes I have something different, such as spaghetti and chicken, but usually it’s chicken and spaghetti. This is washed down with some boiled fruit drink which, if they’ve remembered to make it the night before, is chilled. Otherwise it is still hot. This is eaten on rickety chairs opposite somebody who, if you’re lucky, is mannered enough to use cutlery and not spit bones out onto the table. There are several benefits to working where I do in Nigeria, but the staff canteen is not one of them.
Returning from lunch is the same pantomime as on the way, only in reverse. The afternoon is generally less hectic than the morning, a period of quiet reflection where half the company think of new and innovative ways to stop the other half getting anything done. By 5pm I’ve normally had enough and am outside calling my driver to untangle the car from the random pile of vehicles in which it is parked and pick me up. The way home takes a little longer, about 40 minutes, with the extra time used by dozens of street hawkers standing in traffic waving all manner of wares from knock-off watches to tumbler sets to shoe racks to bananas to bound volumes of the complete works of William Sheakespeare.
If the traffic isn’t too bad I’m home by 5:45pm or 6pm and within ten minutes of that I’m usually in the gym. Remember the fitness regime I entered into when I first came to Nigeria, and talked about here? Well, it’s still going strong, 4-5 times per week, and I look and feel quite a bit different than I did last August. It kills the time, tires me out, and enables me to loaf in front of the TV or computer without a nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. Most nights I’m cooking something, or else I’m eating what I cooked the night before, after which I try to do forty minutes of French study from a textbook at least three nights per week. That’s not going too badly, either. It’s an awful lot easier than Russian, and once you’ve learned Russian grammar a lot of French grammar makes sense. Je t’adore, Я тебя люблю, it’s all pretty much the same, isn’t it? I’m rubbish at speaking it though, preferring to nail the grammar before really trying to converse, although my French colleagues have to endure my mangled greetings and questions occasionally, something they seem not to mind one bit. I find French much easier to understand than speak, whereas with Russian, for me, it’s the other way around. And reading French is easy, it’s almost the same as English, again compared to a block of Russian text.
If I’m lucky my TV will be working and I can spend the last hour of the day watching something or other. As I said in my earlier post, self-disciplined lives tend to be pretty dull (and I am remarkably self-disciplined here save for an incident last weekend which involved a big Norwegian bloke, three bars, two nightclubs, Solichnaya vodka neat from the bottle, loss of memory, a 5am finish, and me being sick), but it’s the routine which makes things easier to manage and the time go more quickly. Fortunately, it’s hard for life to be dull when you live and work in the world’s largest and most populated lunatic asylum.