Letters from Nigeria
5th April 2019
I love being in Nigeria. Though I immediately missed Malawi so much more (four years have gone by and I have not missed it less than when I left) as soon as we landed in Abuja. I am not lumping a whole, wildly diverse continent into one experience (cue Phoebe’s stock rant about people who do so – “Africa is not a country. Africa is not broken. Africa is not your project”) but there are some minor visual similarities in a lot of the Sub-Saharan region at least. Like the colour of the dust; the slightly spiky shrubbery which appears verdant despite the 40-degree heat; the psychedelically stunning, beautifully tailored apparal, and the markets which just pop up everywhere, wherever people congregate. A friend got a little annoyed today as we got stuck behind one such impromptu magical market which coalesced into existence in the middle of Main Street, with no prior agreement, just as the major Mosque in town emptied. It takes a lot to test my patience and I was instead just curious by the things on sale and the people selling them. I spent a few minutes trying to work out what the odd cake was that looked like insulation – turned out it was insulation and the market vendor was just trying to fix his cool box. I got laughed at for asking about that. And the questionable fake medicine peddlers with megaphones “this one pill will cure all abdominal ailments!” – possibly including trust and living. And the fruit, piles of pastries and cakes, kebabs and hillocks of shoes. Tiny women with massive transparent buckets on their head, filled with little bags of fresh water, shining like cut-glass in the sunlight.
Markets, established and incidental, are one of my favourite things about travelling, from the artisanal cheese pocket paradises of little French country towns to sprawling city big markets in Mexico and Guatemala, they always fascinate me. Markets are where the essentials of life become a social event. I loved the markets in Malawi as well, though the country is so much less wealthy than Nigeria there was much more dried tiny fish and local fruit and far fewer dvds and doorbells. I remember the map of scents as I followed Moreen around Limbe market, a valley of stalls and blankets with things to sell – trying to keep up with her tiny and determined form, to go and buy some painted tin plates which I wanted for camping. I still have them and I am mostly sure the paint is not wildly toxic.
I’ve also remembered how impossible it is to be an annoying lefty vegetarian while travelling in a lot of the world. I have thus far managed to get by with a ‘background level’ of meat consumption (the unspecified lumps found in jollof rice and tuna salad being the vegan option). Disappointingly, Abuja also doesn’t seem to have much of a coffee fetish. At 4pm this afternoon I finally managed to pursade a kind young man to make me an espresso and the terrible caffeine withdrawal headache was cured. I know where he is now and hopefully he will see me through the next few days; for which I will probably offer him anything he asks for. There are loads of coffee machines around, it’s a modern financial capital, but people really like Nescafe and will try and give you that as actually a kindness to strangers. I’d happily eat any part of anything to avoid offending someone, but I’m struggling with the instant coffee. Abuja is a new town, the founding of which in the early 1990’s was the result of a mission to place the capital in a more central location, ease the popluation pressure in Lagos and to place the apparatus of state in a more neutral location between the diverse areas of Nigeria. As new towns go, it is significiantly more brilliant than Corby or Milton Keynes but it is odd to be in a place where all the buildings are new; it feels slightly unreal; like a film set perhaps. The life of the city is quickening though and like anything new it will mould itself to the shape of the souls who circulate around it’s vessels.
This morning we went to The Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative (PCNEI) to try and woo some supplies out of the scheme for our health centre. The area we are going to (North East) has been devastated by years of fundamentalist activity and was pretty neglected by the otherwise late-capitalist south to start with – being the furthest away from Lagos and very mountainous so infrastructure is scarce. So, the PCNEI was created in an enlightened move by the current president, to try and improve local services in the region. They were surprisingly glad to see us as apparently, they have a warehouse full of medical equipment in Jalingo which they need to be used. We came away, after a lot of shaking of hands in front of beautiful jewel coloured wallpaper, with rather a lot of kit.
Listening to Muhammed pitch the project to Dr Sidi, one of the big men (literally, he was very tall, but then I am tiny) at the PCNEI, I realised why I am here. I mean, I know why he asked me along, on a surface level I’m one of the lesser experts on global midwifery – not that it is intellectually difficult but it is more that midwifery is an incipient science and has not yet learnt to look far beyond the boundaries of its own national health services. Also, no one listens to us because we have breasts and so do the people we are working for. But that is why Muhammad asked me to be here, not why I came – I realised listening to him talk that a lot of his thinking about primary health service provision is currently where I am also at in terms of considering localism, community action and collectivisation as a path to follow to try and build something which isn’t hierarchical or industrialised. This is what Julia and I are experimenting on with the Sheffield Maternity Cooperative. I’m not sure if I have any new ideas about this or if I am just learning to engage with a different realm of established thought. I’m not sure I’m right. But this feels like the first path I’ve taken for a while which doesn’t end up right back where it started in terms of the battle for birth.
This afternoon I went to buy a sim card at a roadside stall which involved scanning my finger prints and producing my driving license, and I suddenly felt guilty like I always do when the State observes me. And at least 50% of the time I haven’t done anything wrong. Then I found a pool for a swim which was delightful. Although the other women there all laughed at me for both wearing goggles and doing lengths as pools are for relaxing and being beautiful in, which they did exquisitely.
We went to see a police commissioner this evening (the spouse of a family member of Muhammad’s) to try to get a police guard from the trip from Jalingo to Gembu on Monday. We went through this terribly austere, concreted cavern of a place into a corner office which had big pink sofas, rose candles and a fluffy carpet. A woman of about my age in a hijab was praying in front of the institutional desk, so we politely waited. Then she finished, pulled the hijab off over her head and turned out to be wearing a camouflage print uniform, with those very important looking epaulettes with stars and a holster which she then slipped her gun back into. There is probably a very poignant feminist emblematic message here, something about women never leaving the female role behind even when one is a tough police goddess, but I just loved it for the fantastic contrast. She was also extremely kind and inspirational.