Friday, December 21, 2007

A Yankee in the Niger Delta

Well, the thing I tried to avoid has finally happened - an all expenses paid trip to a tropical paradise called Lagos, Nigeria. I guess I had it coming after spending several months in the luxury of London. But an engineer working in the oil industry has to go where the oil is, and in this case, it’s West Africa. As Americans, we take our freedoms, our way of life and our economy for granted. We don’t have a clue about how the rest of the world gets by.

I arrived Monday evening on a KLM flight with its business class full of oil company personnel. Some of them are staying a few days, others are coming in on a month long work rotation and then there are those like me, there for a couple of weeks. My first impression during the hour long drive to the hotel is that Lagos reminds me of Mexico - but a POOR Mexico. Hell, I bet Lagos is where Mexico sends its discards. Imagine roads with more pot holes than New Orleans while trying to dodge traffic with drivers worse than Parisian Taxi Drivers and you might get an idea of what the streets are like. And the streets are crowded with people, day and night, that do not seem to have any purpose except to mill about in a disorganized fashion and think nothing of walking into and among traffic.

Lagos has a population of about 13 million people. Nobody really knows because most of the people live in shanty towns that pop up wherever there is land available. The average life expectancy for a Nigerian is 51. By these statistics, if I were Nigerian, I would be dead already. The average income is less than $300 per year. That’s right – per year. A government employee earns about $100 per month but most of the population gets by on a subsistence existence.Let me use a typical trip to the office to show the extreme economic contrasts in this country. My hotel is probably one of the best in the city. It is managed by a European hotel chain. Although it is showing its age and is a little run down, you can see that improvements are being done. Albeit slowly. But leave the front gates and everything changes. The streets are crowded with people with no visible means of support. Street vendors set up shop wherever they can find space. It is common to see fires built on the street corner and a vendor grilling meat of the mystery variety for sale. As western oil men, we ride in buses, complete with an escort vehicle and armed guards from the hotel to sanctuary behind another gate where we catch a boat for the 15 minute ride to the office. Boat transport was chosen because it was the fastest and it prevented longer road trips and exposure to traffic jams and other potential trouble, like car jackings. (The children of diplomats also use a boat to go to school for that reason) It was also necessary because the office is located on the colorfully named, but accessible only by water, Snake Island. Along the way we see a nude man lying beside the road. He might be dead as he in the same spot for several days before disappearing. Another sight is a human skull hanging from an overpass with a sign with an anti-muslim slogan writtenon it.

The boat is a fiberglass hull with twin 115 HP Yamaha outboards. It's probably the safest vessel on the river because we all have personal flotation devices although no one wants to test the effectiveness of their immunizations by actually swimming in this river. There is so much trash in the river that the driver has to stop several times during our trip and reverse engines to get plastic bags out of the props or cooling intakes.

Lagos is built on a series of islands in the middle of a river delta. Every inch of the "coastline" has a deep pile of trash, mostly made up of plastic, lining the river banks. There is no garbage collection. Once or twice a week, the trash piles are burned which sends the aroma of a smoldering dump to the entire city. Set back a little from the trash lines are shanty towns. A movie director would probably reject these as locations because the poverty is too exaggerated to be real. But these are. They are one room shacks, made of anything you can find and nailed together any way they can. The best ones are made out of the reject boards of a sawmill that were too uneven to make a full board. They all have thatched roofs. In these shanty towns is usually a small structure on stilts out in the river. I wondered what this was until I realized they were the communal toilets. Drop it straight into the river – where you swim and fish. Yes, that’s a good idea. Where there isn't a shanty town, there is usually some sort of sunken hulk of a ship that was beached long ago and forgotten about. Greenpeace doesn’t dare show their face here.

River traffic is a mix of oceangoing vessels, small boats like us and wooden pirogues. The richer guys have outboard motors. The others paddle. Rules of the road seem to be pretty basic. You're on your own and don't eventhink about having the right of way.

In the middle of all this you can find rather nice concretebuildings that belong to businesses or wealthy individuals. So within afew feet you can go from the utmost poverty with people sleeping on the street to a grand hacienda or hotel. No zoning laws here to interfere with progress. But the buildings are all protected with a high fence topped with barbed wire and armed guards protecting the only entrance.

Armed robbery is a way of life here. Everyone who has an email address has received the plea to provide a bank account number and share in a percentage of some ill gotten bounty. But if you are in country, the robbery is up close and personal. Most foreigners shrug it off but a recent daylight armed robbery of a popular bar frequented by expats got everyone’s attention.

Needless to say, I was most happy to complete my assignment and leave, but leaving was the scariest part of the trip. I was in the company bus and followed by a security SUV with armed guards and lights on the roof. Nothing says, “Here is a rich American” better than that! Although we were on a 4 lane highway, people were milling about and wandering around in traffic hawking whatever they had to sell. My driver was exhibiting the typically rude driving manners of someone who had an important mission and was blowing his horn and cutting off other cars. As I looked out the window, all I could see was thousands of Nigerians and the thought passed through my head that if they wanted at me, there was nothing to stop them. I was never so happy to see the inside of the airport lounge.

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