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The Loneliness of a Long Distance Academy

The university is open, and the experience has been, somewhat predictably, a mixture of the shambolic, the absurd, the vaguely promising and the outright perplexing. 

We have a programme for the induction days, Thursday and Friday of the last week of April.  By early Thursday afternoon it’s clear that the timetable has gone out of the window, and whilst there are some people milling around, we don’t seem to have many actual students.  Lunch is due to be served at 12.30 and finally arrives at about 2.   No one but me seems especially concerned, however, although the one event that everyone is still very much determined to ensure takes place is my tour of the building.

Here is the Dean of Business Studies’ office….  We don’t actually have a Dean, but as you can see, there’s a lovely big desk,

Dr in africaAt 10am, when I’ve already been on campus for an hour, there is no one about except for the occasional gaggle of workmen standing around staring at a bucket or some such as if they’re trying to determine the metaphysical purpose of this strange object.  Most of the rooms aren’t even clean, never mind ready, and as I go from place to place I am starting to seriously wonder what the hell I am going to tell these people.  If I, as a student, turned up to a place in this state I would turn straight round and walk out again, viewing the N1.5 million fees lost as a small price to pay.  We are not ready.

But lunch is finished (with parents and young children outnumbering our 6 students about 4 to 1), and Mani is damn sure that I’m doing a tour.  So I do.  Fortunately, only the students want to come, and therefore I have only 6 people to persuade that this is actually a functioning university.  And, hopefully, being new to this, they don’t know any better.

The complete docile unresponsiveness of the group is slightly disconcerting, but it does at least allow me to deliver lines like, “Here is the Dean of Business Studies’ office….  We don’t actually have a Dean, but as you can see, there’s a lovely big desk,” with relative impunity.  Mainly just to see how far I can push things, but also because even my most high minded missives have no discernibly different effect. 

Abdul and Mani follow me as well, taking photos, telling me that I walk too fast even thought I’m barely moving, and occasionally chipping in with a variety of helpful and unhelpful comments.  One of the latter comes in the “Presentation Room”.  As the only space that actually looks ready to deliver some sort of education, I have chosen this as an example of the sort of space in which the students will be taught.  But Abdul nudges me and mutters,

“No, this is a presentation room.”
“OK, so what will this be used for?”
“Well, presentations.”
“But to who?  Students?”
“Then what’s it for?”

The only reply to this is a shrug, a gesture which the much put upon Abdul is excellent at, so I decide to leave this discussion for later and say brightly, “Well, anyway, this will give you a good idea of how things will look,” before moving on to the “Library”, which looks like it’s been stocked by a fascist regime that have just finished a particularly enthusiastic book burning.

But I get a long handshake from Mani and even a high five from Abdul after this little procession finishes, so I assume I’ve done something right.  It’s certainly actually the only “event” that has taken place during the first day, other than Thomas and David shouting at each other in full earshot of everyone because of an argument over internet dongles.

The next day goes a little better, although I’m slightly surprised to see no one turn up until about 9.50, given that students are supposed to be registering from 10.  And nothing is ready.  Again, doesn’t seem to be a major cause for anyone else’s concern, and so I leave them to it.  Whilst I can understand that we only have a few students that have actually turned up – again, about 6 out of the supposed 20-25 – this wasn’t actually part of the plan, and the complete lack of urgency seems to fly in the face of our stated aim to not allow “African Time” any house room.
We still don’t have a photocopier, clocks, bins, or paper.

George, another Dean who’s taking up post in July, has flown over for the opening, and I’ve put him up and started to fill him in on how things are going.  I feel like a right bastard given the number of bad things I have to pass on, but he seems reasonably chipper about it all, even after meeting Thomas for the first time.  Thomas, fresh from Donglegate, has reached a level of full plain chant whinge – which I fully understand, given that was he treated like shit the day before – but I do feel it’s possibly not the best way to welcome someone to a new place of work.
The long and short of it is that we stumble through, and we have six students that we’ve actually met.  I am assured that we’ll have more the next week, but again, I think it’s probably better to believe it when you see it.

That evening, over dinner, I have a long and extremely heated debate with Peter about politics – especially tuition fees and the NHS.  When he says that George Osborne has done a good job managing the economy and uses actions taken in 2009 as his justification (ie. when Alistair Darling was still in post) I think I might openly laugh.  Overall, though, I keep it on the right side of respectable, although George and I do so comprehensively and collectively rebut every assertion of Peter’s that I feel slightly guilty afterwards.  He doesn’t seem to hold it against us, although I still haven’t been paid, so perhaps I should keep my mouth shut in future.


The weekend is much more fun.  Josh, the Aussie guy whom I met the week before, is organising the route for this week’s “Hash House Harriers” meeting, and so I decide to go along, taking Gerard for the ride.  The “Hash House Harriers” were set up by some fantastically named British colonialists (Albert Stephen Ignatius “G” Gispert is my favourite) in the late 30s in Malaysia, and the original idea was to run off the excesses of the weekend on a Monday evening.  These clubs have now spread all over the world, but without any centralised organisation, and with variations on what actually goes on at the meetings.  They call themselves “drinking clubs with a running problem”.  Fortunately, on the one in Abuja, you don’t even have to run, so we sign up for the walking part.

The meeting point is the Hilton car park at 3pm.  We arrive early, after a truly horrific drive where at one point the car is trapped between a bewlidering array of vehicles, all of which are completely unwilling to give an inch, even though this means no one’s going anywhere.  I get in arguments with two taxi drivers, one of whom I call a “fucking idiot” (this seems to do the trick), and another of whom is mollified by a nearby gate guard.  A stressful beginning, then, but as the group starts to build up to around 50 people and we meet some nice folk I’m beginning to forget about it.

After a long convoy out into the sticks, we find ourselves at the route.  We’re going to climb the “Twin Peaks” that overlook the National Stadium.  These have, ever since I arrived, reminded me of the mountains that look like breasts (H. Rider Haggard’s description, not mine) in King Solomon’s Mines, and every time I see them I expect Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone to appear out of the undergrowth.  Alas not, and the group splits into runners and walkers (far more of the latter) with the odd red shirted “hare” to guide us.

Expat in AfricaThe walk’s pretty strenuous, and the heat is ferocious, but it’s good fun.  The “peaks” aren’t that high, but they’re steep, and the view from the top is incredible.  Since the rains have started, the air’s become a lot clearer around the city, and from this vantage point you can see all the way to the mountains on the horizon.  The way back takes us through the fish ponds where they farm catfish on an incredibly rough and ready basis, but it’s pretty picturesque, and not far from the nearby villages we get to the “beer stop” – by now incredibly welcome.  Unfortunately we’re last in, so the stop lasts about 2 minutes before everyone buggers off, and we’re on our way again.

At the end of the hash, everyone gathers in a circle and various ceremonies take place.  Transgressions are punished (by being forced to down a beer and/or sit on a toilet full of ice), “virgins” are welcomed (by being forced to down a beer), hares are thanked for leading (by being forced to down a beer) and members of the group that have performed some sort of service are issued with an official name (by being forced to down a beer, having beer poured over their head, and being forced to sit on a toilet full of ice).  All pretty infantile, but done in a good spirit and very funny at points.  The group of kids from the nearby village who’ve been following us all day look even more confused at this behaviour than they did at a group of sweating oyibos appearing on their doorsteps earlier in the day.  But we buy some of their peanuts, so they go away happy.

Everyone decamps to a “garden” – basically, a big outdoor restaurant where they serve barbecued fish, and more drinking ensues.  I can join in unhindered by now, because I’ve decided the car’s staying where it is (a decision I will regret in the morning), and it’s a really nice thing to be a part of.  There’s a huge range of people there – from young families, to sixty-year olds, and with a good mixture of Nigerians and every ex-pat nationality you can think of.  The diplomatic community figure heavily, but there’s also a lot of people who’ve lived in Africa for years and have now pretty much gone native.  One of these tries to teach me pidgin English but I can’t do it without feeling like I sound like Prince Philip doing an impression of a West Indian, so I don’t remember much of it the next day.

I attach myself to a group of people – “pretty obvious, late 20s, early 30s, up for a good time,” as Josh puts it – and the rest of the night goes by in a blur of nightclubs, Scandinavians and confusion.  Highlights include riding in the back of a pick-up driven insanely by a guy named Vlad (we made sure we didn’t do that twice) and a night club that opened just for us when we rolled into the car park.  We didn’t stay long, but it was pretty surreal while it lasted, with 15 or so of us randomly taking over and seemingly able to do whatever we wanted. 

Earlier in the evening, I was chatting to a guy called George who works for the Irish embassy.  He told me that when you first arrived the fact that everything is possible in Nigeria (like having nightclubs that open when you walk up) outweighs the fact that everything here is also incredibly difficult.  But after a while, if you don’t get a break, it’s the other way round, and things will start to get on top of you.  Variations on this advice are offered by different people throughout the day – don’t stay too long, it’ll get you down, or you’ll never leave – and I think they’ve got a point.  Although for the moment I’m enjoying the possibilities side, and I hope that gets me through until the end of term.

The next day I feel like death, but for once I’m not woken up by a domestic in the early hours.  Joy and Julius seem to have resolved whatever marital crisis was going on, but I still don’t know what it was about.  Julius seems to be in some sort of trouble, because David’s car has done 2,000km in the 10 days that David was back in the UK, and there’s no good explanation as to why.  I’m definitely not getting involved in that one.

George seems to have had a good time, and I’m glad, because I’ve done my best to host him as well as I can, and I think the hash day was a godsend.  Even after an hour in a taxi trying to find my damn car on Sunday morning, he seems pretty keen on the whole idea of Abuja, and he also seems happy to step into the shoes vacated by Keith in terms of getting the university working. I hope so, because the last Dean I waved off to the airport never came back. 

We shall see.

Main image: Rosen Georgiev. Article images by freeimages.co.uk


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