The university hostels back on to a slum. This is in the “Life Camp” area of Abuja.
I have no idea why it’s called that, but apparently it’s where all the workers lived when the city was being built. Because of this you’d expect it to be one of the best finished parts of town but in fact it’s completely the opposite. Untarred roads that are mostly single track, huge piles of rubbish and general chaos. It reminds me of a film set for something like Blood Diamond. Which you can take as a comment on the mediated nature of modern perception, or just a pithy description. Up to you.
He pointed out the new developments that were completely ringing it, slowly throttling it from the outside in.
The hostels themselves, when I viewed them, were nowhere near ready, and fitted into their surroundings pretty well. Datti has had them converted from a property he already owned but just a few days before the students were due to move in they were largely unfinshed, although a couple of flats looked close. Wandering round one of these I went out on to the fire escape to find a view across a shanty town that was almost invisible from the road. And unlike the residential bits that you see in the centre of Abuja, it was also teeming with life. Animal and human. Directly below was a small piece of open space almost completely filled with litter being investigated by the odd goat or chicken. Every where else, almost to the horizon, there was pretty much no gap between the haphazardly put together corrugated iron roofing.
Debare came out and started to tell me how this place would not last for long. He pointed out the new developments that were completely ringing it, slowly throttling it from the outside in. He pointed out a new building that was springing up nearby and said that it hadn’t been there two weeks before. All of this was said with pride – to suggest that Abuja was purging itself of this eyesore and striding towards its future.
I had, and have, deeply mixed feelings about this. I’m not trying to romanticise this place, or the way these people live. I’m not about to do a Shantaram and go and live amongst them, and seeing this squalour and poverty makes me angry. But I very much doubt that anything is being done to help these people once their homes are bulldozed, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the houses that are built on the land will lie empty because no one can afford the rents, or because the landlords don’t care, or that the buildings will never be finished in the first place. These people will be pushed further out into the margins where they’ll have to start over again. The ones who built the buildings will get a bit richer than they already are. And that’s it.
Does the thought count? I doubt it.
I’m not against slum clearances, far from it. But only if the reason behind them is to try and offer the people forced to live in them some chance at a better standard of existence. This is not that. If these people were farmers, or owned their land, there would be some provision in Nigerian law for compensating them (although god knows what or whether it would be observed). But that’s not the case here – I’m guessing that these people are trying to eke a living out of Abuja and the huge wealth that’s pooled here, spreading out from people like me and the aggregation of expats and rich Nigerians. But it’s so expensive to live here that I can barely afford it, so what chance do these guys have? Where else are they supposed to go?
Of course, all I did was take a photo with my phone and nod politely at what Debare was telling me. Does the thought count? I doubt it.
By chance, this was also the area in which last week’s hash took place. I’d volunteered to “hare”, although it has to be said that I didn’t realise when I did that it involved not only guiding people round the trail, but setting it in the first place. And so, after a week in which I had my first proper African lergie (of which the less said the better) I found myself, just about recovered, scouting out the borders of town, looking for somewhere to take a group of 50 or so on a Saturday afternoon run/walk.
It was good fun, and after a few false starts, my fellow hares and I settled on a hill near the Life Camp roundabout. Well, I call it a roundabout, but in fact it’s a huge circular section of road that operates on no coherent rules whatsoever. This was on the route from Parakou to campus, and it was my least favourite part of the drive every day. I’ve seen two burning cars on the side of the road there, and I’m amazed there haven’t been more.
The scouting walk was beautiful. A cool evening, fantastic views across Abuja and a mixture of steep rocks and light forest. The next morning we came back at 10ish to set the trail. I set off with Jackie and Jojo, two Tanzanian sisters, to lay the walkers’ route with a bag full of shredded paper from the US embassy, and an inadequate amount of sun cream. Clay and Duke, who you can probably tell from their names are American, went to set the run.
We got to the top, which we hadn’t seen the day before, and regrouped. This was a truly stunning spot – open rock, clear views in every direction and the highest point for miles. Along with the trail itself, there’s two things you need to place on the hash – the beer stop, and the “circle”, which is where you finish. We’d decided the night before to place the beer stop at a flat area very close to the start, as it was the only place the beer truck had a chance of getting to. But having seen the top, Clay and Duke said that they were willing to come back in the afternoon and porter up a couple of coolers so that we could do it up there. I was happy to agree, but glad they didn’t ask me to help.
At the meet up in the Hilton car park at 3pm I end up being the voice of the hares because Clay and Duke are still off on their heroic effort to get beer to the top. I don’t do a very good job, of speaking or leading the convoy, which splits into two almost straight away, with 6 cars that stick with me, and another 20 or so that don’t. By the time I’ve got them all back together at the start point I’m already feeling like I’ve seriously fucked things up, but from what I gather later on that’s not the case at all. Thank god.
Duke is looking half dead, and I’m not surprised, because he’s now already done the walk 4 times in the last 18 hours. And now he has to hare the run. The last half of which is practically vertical. Good job the man’s a marine. Mike (the hashmaster) decides we don’t have enough refreshments up top so gets volunteers to carry more coolers up with us. I don’t think they realise what they’re getting themselves in for, but at this point I’m just hoping I can find our trail so I don’t get involved.
I’ve seen two burning cars on the side of the road there, and I’m amazed there haven’t been more.
The walk up goes pretty well – although I get a sound bollocking at the start from an Aussie guy who’s been doing this for 29 years because I’m not supposed to actually lead, I’m just supposed to make sure no one goes hideously off track. Which makes a lot of sense. Once I realise this I’m pretty relieved, and we get to the top just as the runners arrive. It’s a truly amazing spot to stop and have a beer, but I get a text to say the cooler-carriers are having trouble and are seriously unhappy.
To be fair, I don’t blame them. It must have been a hell of an effort, and they do finally get them all up there, and in order to make it worthwhile Mike decides that we’ll have the circle where we are. For all of us that didn’t have to carry things I think this seems like a great idea – I’m just hoping that those with aching arms weren’t too pissed off.
Somewhere amidst the ceremonies I get forced to sit in a cooler full of ice for “chatterboxing” whilst the religious leader’s talking, but after the initial shock, it’s actually kind of refreshing.
After the hash there was a party at the Shell compound called the “Orange party”. Unsurprisingly, hosted by the Dutch. Good fun, with all booze included in the ticket, lots of pool games and loads of people. The evening ends with 9 of us piling into one tiny car (3 in the front, 6 in the back) to go to a club, and by the end of it all I’ve met a load of new people and heard about all sorts of stuff going on in Abuja that I never would have found out about otherwise.
All this makes a very welcome distraction from the actual business of working at the university. The teaching is still going OK, and I like the kids. But organisation elsewhere doesn’t get any better. Peter’s gone away to Liberia for two weeks and in his absence the already scant discipline amongst half the staff has dipped right down to lax. We still don’t seem to know how many students we actually have, although I’ve been told that two have left and two have joined. The first part I can believe, because there’s a couple of faces that haven’t been seen for a while, but of the supposed new ones there is no sign.
We were told before we started that we had to go straight into the first term proper, as opposed to having the “pre-sessional” that the academic staff wanted, because otherwise the Nigerian parents would feel we were trying to swindle them. This now sounds even more like bullshit than it did at the time – as the first two weeks seem to have been regarded as optional by many of the students, the parents are nowhere to be seen, and wouldn’t have a clue about the difference between “semester one” and a pre-sessional anyway.
And we still have no clocks, bins or a proper photocopier. I was told yesterday that we’d run out of paper. I seriously hope this isn’t true, as otherwise my classes for the next few days are going to be a bit tricky. We’ve certainly run out of water and drinks of all kinds in the staff lounge, and this morning it took Thomas and I 15 minutes to find a clean mug.
We still don’t seem to know how many students we actually have, although I’ve been told that two have left and two have joined
Most impressively of all, the first proper daytime rains arrived yesterday, and it truly fucked it down for about three hours. Not only did this mean that lunch was stranded on the far side of a river, it also revealed that the roof leaks. A lot. Also, because there are no ceilings in the corridors, the noise is pretty deafening, wherever you are. If this happens during a lecture, I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. Send for the buckets and speak up, I suppose.
All part of the fun, but these things need to be sorted. Unfortunately, at the moment trying to change anything is like punching a cloud, or shouting at the sea. You tell it things that need to be done, and it just carries on as it wants.
Still, George is due back in July, and from his emails it sounds like he’s still intending to return so that’s a bonus. I just hope he gets back before I’ve descended into complete cynicism and professional despair. It’ll probably be a close run thing.