Friday 23 November 2012

Lafia (3) - Obi Market - a photo diary

PB020340We took a trip to the weekly market in one of the neighbouring villages of Obi, still in Nassarawa State. Here are some of the sights of the village. A lovely day spent just walking around chatting with the locals, being asked to “Snap me” ie take my photo . I am always very careful about photographing people and always ask their permission, unless it is a crowd shot. Everyone was really friendly, including one old lady who stopped by me and when I said the usual Ina Kwana was rewarded with a long piece of Hausa which conveyed that she had never seen a white woman in this market before today.
A little later our guide from the YMCA came over with a local man who initially said he was interested in why we were here and taking pictures. I said the pictures were for family and friends back home so that they could appreciate where I was living as they had never been to Nigeria.  After much to-ing and fro-ing it became apparent that this interest was a rouse and he was angling for “ a complement”, in other words he wanted money to continue to let us take pictures. After much politeness, I gave up and simply said No to the complement and stopped taking pictures, leaving others to continue to haggle with him in Hausa. Leaving a bit of a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, we moved off to return to the market sellers who were selling fabric which a number of us were intending to buy. Much to the stall holder’s annoyance we said no more pictures when he said Snap me.
Otherwise the market and the stallholders were great – lots of life, colour, marvellous faces and displays. Small enough to be interesting, not too crowded. It sold everything – cosmetics, toiletries, shoes, clothes, fabric and food – your classic village market.
PB020325One item which interested me was the local soaps markets here alongside western style toiletries.

Market sellers

Market stalls
Market Life
High Street?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Lafia (2) –YMCA Farm school


PB030411_thumbTraditionally agriculture in Nigeria is subsistence agriculture and suffers from poor crop yields, a variety of crop pests, and post harvest losses of up to 40% because of inadequate storage facilities.  The farm school is trying to change this subsistence approach into a an agribusiness and wants to encourage its farmers to plant new varieties, try out new techniques and to plant a diverse range of crops to ensure a regular and continuing source of food and income.

PB030412_thumbTypical crops we saw when we were there in early November were oil palm (which gives the oil used for cooking in most of Nigeria), sesame, chilli pepper (which, as far as I can taste, is used in every Nigerian dish), guinea corn (dawa in Hausa) taller than a man, citrus (lemon and oranges (which we had each morning for breakfast) , enormous flouted pumpkins (goye ), okra/ladies fingers (kubewa), rice (shinkafa – and the first paddy field I have seen since India!) and the ubiquitous yam (doya). Everyone of the volunteers harvested a yam  - yes even me - which was then cooked for our evening meal, and I can tell you I wouldn’t want to be doing that all day! There is no yam harvester other than a human being with a large hand hoe – back breaking work as you have to hack away carefully so as not to damage the tuber.




They have a small but growing herbal business growing various herbs such as Artemesia which is drank as a malaria cure, Vinca rosacea for high blood pressure and something they called black stone which is a boiled thigh bone of a cow and which is used against snake bites.

Oil Palm
Digging for yam

Lafia (1) –Escape to the Country


2012-11-03 11.25.33Abuja is a very sanitized volunteer existence. It is after all a capital city and a purpose built one at that. So you don’t get to see much Nigerian life. Also it has all the usual stresses and strains of a city – too much traffic, to high costs, too many expats paying too much for basic things. So it was good to get away albeit only for 3 days.

We headed off to Lafia, in neighbouring Nassarawa State, where one of the VSO volunteers is based with the YMCA who have a farm school there. The journey to Lafia is done in stages: first we walked from our flat to the local market where you catch a bus ( which looks like a bus at home) to the outskirts of Abuja where there are a series of motor parks, each a terminus for long distance buses. These are not really buses but mini-busses, into which some 16 people are crammed and the bus doesn’t leave until it is full. We got an empty one PB010224which had the advantage that we could pick where we sat but the disadvantage of having to wait until it filled up in the 35C heat. One of our number really entered into the Nigerian  way and  tried to hassle and haggle with prospective clientele just like the driver! With 3 rows of 3 seats  holding 4 people each and the front seat another 2 plus the driver, we were finally full and the journey had begun. After 3 hours I was glad to get out and be able to stretch my legs.

The farm school about another 40 minutes drive from Lafia where trainee farmers are taught about farming techniques, new crops to diversify their small holding with and increase their income in an attempt to transform subsistence agriculture into an agribusiness. I was particularly interested in this since this is the dream of my previous NGO in India, Shakti Organisation. So a group of 6 volunteers , 4 based in Abuja and 2 temporarily in Abuja but based in Illorin joined other volunteers from Panyam, Akwanga and Lafia to stay for 2 nights up country at the YMCA hostel on their farm.


Accommodation was basic, but everyone had a bed (something you cannot take for granted in Nigerian hotels), a mosquito net, and even toilet roll provided. Toilet facilities was simple – squat with bucket and chuck it showering for which you have to collect your water from large bucket containers, which themselves are filled every morning by the staff of the farm who carted it from the on site dam, the only permanent year round water source for a considerable distance.

The farm was built some 30 years ago by a German organisation and has accommodation for up to 40 people and they had commission a company to excavate the dam. but in typical Nigerian style the company ran off with their money. However they did leave a very sizeable excavator on site which is still there. I can’t believe it isn’t worth more, but there it stands getting covered in climbing ground weeds and being overtaken by the jungle. Without the skills or resources to use it the staff of the farm and others dug this dam out by hand, it remains the areas water source to this day and at the right time of year one can catch fish in it.

The staff and trainees were great. Many live on site with their families and they were so welcoming. We paid for the food  but the women cooked our meals – some sort of goat’s meat stew and rice on the first night which wins the best dinner I have had in Nigeria prize,  but then it was back to the ever present egusi soup and pounded yam, to which all I can say is yuck! More another time about Nigerian cuisine but suffice to say I have tried everything and like nothing very much.

For our evening entertainment, we borrowed a projector and screen, paid for fuel for the generator and showed movies which everyone sat round and watched. We started with a children’s movie Alvin and the Chipmunks which had all the kids glued to the screen but I must say the choice went downhill from there with a collection of awful 300N cds of the typical fare of all action crap movies, something about a Preacher assassin and other I forget.

By way of thanks, we bought each of the women a small gift of “Ci” soap, a particular brand requested by the women which is reminiscent of the green bars of Fairy soap that were around when I was very small. We also had some fun times playing with their children, taking photos, trying to speak Hausa, visiting a local village and a weekly village market and actually I think everyone had a fun couple of days.

My fellow volunteers have also blogged about this trip. You can read my flatmate Candace’s account and if you read Dutch you can read Stefan and Miranda’s account


Tuesday 20 November 2012

Taking in some High Life at Blake’s

So I had to dispel this illusion people were getting of me not being a party girl and boy did I do it big time!

Every time the other volunteer’s had been going out dancing I made my excuses  - to be honest I can’t hear over the noise any more and the music is not really to my taste – too much hip hop , zip zap stuff I don’t really like. But I was rapidly getting a very undeserved reputation as a party pooper. I wasn’t consciously going out to change that but I most certainly did.

It all started  with a meeting at work when I noticed one of the external attendees. Then, myself and a colleague had to attended a related government shindig and were filmed in attended for Nigerian TV! After the symposium, there was a dinner and I ended up sitting next to my previous flat mate here in Abuja who was there representing VSO when who should sit down beside us but the aforementioned person. Amidst fuel shortages it was becoming to get tricky getting taxi’s and my ex flat mate suggested to this person that he run me home – nice touch B and much appreciated. We sat chatting waiting for his driver to arrive, and he ended up asking me out for dinner that weekend.

So I thought we were just going to eat typical Nigerian point and kill fish when we ended up walking into this nightclub restaurant. My heart sank and I was already beginning to think of excuses to leave early when I heard the music. High life! Just my sort of Afro-Latin beat. I must have been beaming from head to toe! For me, this has always been the music of West Africa and finally here I was amongst it – trumpets, trombones! It turns out that Blake’s is something of an Abuja institution and I am now a big fan.

Short of it was I had a great time! We did eat fish, we didn’t talk much because the music was too loud but that didn’t matter. The music was great, the dancers athletic, the beer was cold and it was costing me nothing! Next thing I knew we were heading home and it was 3:30AM!

Getting into the house proved to be a humourous problem. First I had to rouse our gate man. That was OK. Then I tried to get me key in the door only to find my flat mate had locked up and left her key in the lock. C had returned from her night out, assumed I was in bed as usual because my door was shut and went to bed. So I had to try and raise her by calling her mobile and waking her up at 3:30AM, but my phone provider was having an off day, so I ended up having to re-rouse our gate man, borrow his phone and raise C. A very drowsy and very surprised flatmate stumbled down the stairs to let me in. We did have a laugh about it the following day!

Monday 19 November 2012

A little interlude happened

Well I cannot believe it has been almost 2 months since I last posted! No excuses, but I have been busy.

First, there was the dreaded PC failure! Actually the power lead succumbed to the wear and tear of 2 Indian monsoons, a Nigerian rainy season, power surges, dust and all the other hazards of a volunteer’s life on the road. With the able assistance of one of my work colleagues we scoured Abuja for a replacement ASUS power lead, but none was to be found with the correct Voltage and Ampage. I ended up getting a friend to ship one from the UK for me along with a new battery, just in case it had blown as well. Exorbitant courier costs paid they arrived and I plugged in. My initial relief at seeing it charge was very soon knock flat by the realisation that it was residual charge on the new battery not new charge. Yes something more significant was wrong inside the netbook. I then proceeded to copy off my drive as much as I could before the battery completely emptied. Thank goodness for a large external drive. Needless to say I didn’t quite manage to get everything copied before it died completely.

Secondly, work has been incredibly busy. Yes I constantly describe this volunteer placement as more like having a real, full time, job. I have deadlines, a constant workload which luckily is interesting and worthwhile. We are constantly writing funding proposals which have strict submission deadlines, we have scheduled training classes for paying clients and our project work. On top of this I have conducted a competency assessment of all staff in Abuja, Sokoto and Bauchi offices in respect of IT, OD (Organisational Development) and management skills. It is a busy office, not one where people go to sleep as I have heard about other placements. My colleagues work long hours, outside of normal office hours, travel extensively and are a great team. I’m not painting a rosy picture it really is like that. Yes, they are going through a difficult spell as are many NGOs with money being very tight and new funding being difficult to get – the odds of a successful funding application? I dread to try and quantify, but a guestimate is it is less than 1 in 1000.

In addition to this I have been doing some work for VSO Nigeria as well – the first piece was assessing a request from one of their partners for assistance with collecting success stories from their projects. Unfortunately I didn’t end up doing this piece of work as it required too much time away from my placement which was not feasible. Then I helped out by providing some mentoring and guidance to a staff member writing a funding proposal. Although that particular proposal did not receive funding, I was asked to do the same with a second submission for which news is still awaited.

Finally on the work front, I have picked up a bit of desk based work from home which is great because it brings in much needed funds to me for when I get back to the UK.

But the time has not been all work and no play! so to wet your appetite

  • I have been dancing the night away in one of Abuja’s top night hot spots (INSERT CROSS LINK HERE TO FORTHCOMING POST)
  • A couple of days trip with some other volunteers to visit one of our colleagues in Lafia, about 3 hours drive out of Abuja was a great break (INSERT CROSS LINK HERE TO FORTHCOMING POST)
  • Finally I made it to the North for 2 days delivering training to some of our National Volunteers (INSERT CROSS LINK HERE TO FORTHCOMING POST)

Thursday 27 September 2012

Rewriting the great bedtime stories I remember from my childhood

Once upon a time in a land far away there lived a handsome rich prince. Everybody wanted to marry him but he was a shrewd young man, mature for his years and wise about the ways of the world. He wanted to marry a true princess yet none of the many girls sent to his court had stolen his heart and he remained unmarried. Indeed many of the girls who came to court him claimed to be princesses with vast realms and riches to match his, but in truth their story was all window dressing and sooner or later each had been exposed for the fraud they were. Of course the prince kept on devising new tests to weed out these fraudsters but the gold diggers were always keeping one step ahead, so the prince had to devise yet more tests for the candidates for his hand. This stalemate had gone on for many years and the young prince was most unhappy and most frustrated and in reality running out of ideas. He had always been very careful about these tests, knowing that if any girl passed his test he would be honour bound to marry her. Now he was getting really worried. There were more and more suitors, who were more and more desperate to succeed in the tests, by fair means or foul, and some very dubious characters were to be seen accompanying some of the young ladies to court. Stories abounded of midnight raids on the wardrobes of other suitors, poison being put into other suitor’s food to make them sick, and other underhand methods being employed to eliminate competition.

As he sat contemplating his predicament one day his steward came to say that there was a pleasant surprise guest waiting to see him. To his delight it was his old aya, who had nursed him and all his sisters when they were young children, but whom he had not seen for a great many years. As they sat reminiscing over tea and cake the young prince told his old friend of his dilemma. The night drew on and the prince insisted that the old lady stay in his apartments not in the local hotel, and so she came to be around when the next batch of likely spouses came the following day. At first the prince was his usual polite but uninterested self. This batch was the same as before. No one grabbed his attention, they all looked identical “babes”, their conversations were boring, and their chaperoning mothers were battleaxes. Then just as he was thinking he might try and slip quietly away to go riding, cupid’s arrow struck. Across the other side of the room was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, with golden locks and bright vivacious green eyes, standing quietly looking at the pictures on his castle walls. He went over to speak with her and no sooner had he sat down with her than his steward came to ask if they needed a candle for the evening. Time had just vanished during their conversation. The prince escorted the young woman to her suite in the castle and wondered back to his apartments in a state of total euphoria.

Next morning however he woke in a desperate state, was this love, could she be for real? How could he find out. He had no new test for this batch just the usual ones which of course by now were old ones and everyone passed. His steward brought in breakfast and the days mail and told him his old aya had asked to see him first thing. The old lady came all excited. She too had notice the young couple talking for hours, and wise old woman that she was had taken action to help her young ward in his time of need. To her delight she now came to report that only one of the batch had passed her test. the young prince was at the one time delighted and frightened as he realized this was either the end of his nightmare or the beginning of another, potentially, worse one. He was cornered, he would have to marry the woman who had passed the test. But who was it. Now the old lady was a right romantic and wanted to keep the moment extremely special and stubbornly refused to tell the prince unless he came straight to his grand hall where all the girls were waiting to make the announcement. The prince realized that much as he loved his old aya, and had always trusted her, he was fearful that the chosen girl would not be the one he had fallen for. What he thought would he do then? Break his word? Marry another? A very worried and concerned prince walked slowly to his fate in the great hall.

There in front of all the court, the lords, ladies, the suitor’s families and chaperones, the old aya stood up to all of her frail height and commanded attention as she told them that her young ward’s long , and arduous quest was at an end. His future wife had been chosen because only one had passed the latest test. As the old lady took a breather, partly because she was old and partly for effect as she knew how to work an audience: there was much muttering debate and questions flew around the room. Finally the old aya continued her story, she explained that she herself had made every one of the girls beds the night before. More muttering was heard. Curses were heard to rise telling of her incompetent bed making being the cause of a most disturbed night’s sleep, of nightmare interrupted sleep, of complete inability to get any sleep whatsoever during the past night, of endless tossing and turning.

No not everyone, retorted the old aya:  all but one. Eyes darted round the room trying to find the one girl who did not look, dishevelled, tired, baggy eyed, and incessantly scratching unseen itches. Within a few minutes it became clear that everyone was looking at one girl. She quietly stood up and when asked how she slept,  said she had had a beautiful, sound and very restful night’s sleep, thank you very much and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

By this time the prince was on his feet trying to see who this was and to his amazement and delight he found it his conversation partner of the previous night. How? his eyes asked his old aya? She clasped him tight and whispered in his ear, that only someone who was truly in love could sleep soundly with a itchy powder on her sheets. At this the prince kissed his old aya on both cheeks and raced across the room, fell down on bended knee and asked the girl if she would marry him . Of course, just as the old aya knew she would, she said yes, because she too had been struck by cupid’s dart the previous evening and had gone to bed in a state of total euphoria after taking her leave of the prince.

The couple married later that day with great pomp and ceremony and much music and dancing. The old aya was given pride of place at the head of the prince’s wedding feast table and her own private apartment in the royal household for the rest of her days. The couple lived happily together for a great many years and had lots of children. But they never forgot the old woman who had ensured their union and they took care of the old aya for the rest of her life.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The darkness outside, the darkness in

Dark Matter




Michelle Paver


I can't recommend this book enough! I hovered about buying it from Audible for ages as it had been Ian McKellan's superb reading of
Paver's Wolf Brother that started me listening to audio books (my review) and as a result reading the whole of her brilliant fantasy  novel for the young adult reader, Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness Series, I wondered if moving to an adult book, and a ghost story to boot, would work for her and for me. Haunting (pun intended), beautiful, epic, vivid, memorable.... the adjectives keep on coming. From the first word I absolutely loved it! 

The narrator’s voice is so realistic, authentic, so convincing as Jack, the office clerk who had dreamt of being a physicist, and who to escape loneliness and boredom in London takes up with some well to do gentlemen explorers for an Arctic expedition in 1937.  When he faces the long cold northern winter alone without sun, with only the occasionally visible moon and the superb green hue of the Northern Lights to break it, he has to come to terms with not only the practicalities of living alone and living in perpetual darkness but also of overcoming the darkness inside.

His encampment on a remote stretch of beach has a history but is it a true story or a myth, a legend? Is there anything or anyone out there? is it the rampant overworking of the human mind when severely stressed and  isolated?, or is there really something there?  I won't give anything away because I think Paver tells this tales exceptionally well - I listened to it in 2 sittings only because I started it late one work day evening, else I  suspect it would have been an all in one read.

The book is written as the entries in Jack’s journal. In this way Paver’s writing builds the suspense, the characters, the story as you’d expect from such a format, but moreover she gives it an incredible sense of place and I mean that in both the external and internal sense and their interconnectedness :  a geographical sense of place in her depiction of the landscape of the northern wastes, the snow, the ice, the cold, the remoteness, its emptiness and its life, the monochromatic vastness, black and white with a significant splash or two of colour, the beauty of it all - pure cinematography in words, and a sense of the psychological  space of Jack  - the landscape of his emotions, his hate/love relationship with the husky dogs, his relationship with other people both before, during and after the expedition, his realisation of himself, of the breadth, depth and type of his emotions, of loneliness and of being alone, of the need for the bond of companionship with fellow man and dog and yet the horrid things men do to both. Imagination runs riot and has its consequences.

The fear of the dark, the "what's at the back of the cave?" conundrum that is as old as human history itself is the core of the story, it is what Jack has to handle. His stumblings on his journey are oftimes funny, sometimes sad, scary, simultaneously realistic and eerie. Just which are real and which imagined, decide for yourself when you read this excellent book.

 ashramblings verdict: Not to be missed. an accomplished, gripping ghost story (5*)

Sunday 16 September 2012

High life in Abuja

Braving the wet season downpours I headed out of Friday evening with new friend B ostensibly to have dinner. I knew we were going to eat fish, but little did I know we’d end up at one of Abuja’s hot night life spots, Blakes. At a 1000N entrance fee, it is way outside my volunteer budget. The younger vols often go to some of the city’s many clubs (usually the one’s with free entry) and bop the night away to the wee small hours to the latest hip-hop and other modern dance music genres which are not really to my taste. So as we approached I was already having second thoughts about the evening and trying to think up reasons for going home early :) So imagine my delight when we get sat down after picking our fish and ordering it to be cooked, when I hear the dulcet tones of a trumpet and the latin rhythms of high life wafting across the room to my ears. Oh heaven. If there is any music I associate with sub-saharan West Africa this is it.

We had got there relatively early at around 9:30PM in order to get a seat under cover as the seats nearer the stage are open to the elements, but the weather gods favoured us and he rain stopped and kept away. In the end the meal was Ok, nothing special but the atmosphere was great, not overly crowded by either ex-pats nor by 20-somethings. A number of acts took the stage during the evening beginning with a warm up compare rabbitting on about red devils in the usual pigeon English I fail miserably to understand until I  heard the words Arsenal and Chelsea – yes, football, the universally loved sport for all Nigerian who avidly follow the English Premier League! Ok so back to the night’s line up… 2 or perhaps 3 bands, and assorted individual performers, along with various dancers and acrobats, jugglers etc. The dancers, who were on stage for the vast part of the night , were 2 girls and 1 guy – oh gosh eye candy and they all knew it! And such energy. Pure showmanship. The young man dancer was perhaps one of the  strongest, fittest dancers I have ever seen. Late in the night’s events he and one of the vocalists did a staged act which I will try to describe. The dancer is down low on the floor, as if limbo-ing, and then raises his whole torso up and down, with the singer emphasising the motion with his hands and in time to the music. I lost count after 10 and he must have done 20! 

Of course all these “acts” are to engage the audience to give of their cash :) I assume that’s how the performers get paid . You see people go up on stage to dance with them and flash notes around and at the end of each set the artists come round the tables hats in hand. For the most part it is tastefully done, but there are times when performing for money this still makes me feel uncomfortable.  I know performers get paid, but do I need to see the money change hands? I know people pay for the experience be it paying to take a helicopter up over a glacier, paying an entry fee to a football ground, and even paying to be one of the passengers on the first commercial space flight. The last one of these we all know costs a huge amount of money, but for some reason I just don’t see the person who pays for this as doing it just to flaunt his or her money. Loads of people dropped notes to the singers, musicians, dancers etc but there was one guy who happen to be sitting on the table next to us, with a couple. She and I exchanged a few pleasantries but this man, on two occasions, went up on stage to dance, and instead of slipping the singer some notes either into his hand of shirt pocket etc had a handful of clearly new notes and was wafting them about, one after the other , confetti like around the singer and then one of the dancers. Grotesque! One of the stage hands had to come and scoop them all up for the band :)

A curio from the night – white handkerchiefs! Everyone takes out a (clean) white hanky and waves it around when dancing, some people even have 2!

Apart from that the night was great fun, Lovely music – old style highlife, modern highlife, some old pop, some rock and roll, some reggae, some Niaja pop and some modern African beat music I would not be able to put a genre to. Perhaps the  place for the 60th?:)  I finally arrived home about 3AM! and that was after having told out gate man when I left I expected not to be very late! This was so unusual for me that my flat mate had returned home from her night out, our house guest was in bed, and she thought I was as well, locked the door and left the key in the lock - consequently when I tried to open the door I couldn’t,  so I had to phone C, wake her up and get her to come and let me in. Oh dear what a way to end the evening! Nice one!

It's all in the tone!

First, some interesting facts about Nigerian Languages…..There are over 520 languages of them! Only Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have more. Over 1/4 of all African languages are spoken in Nigeria.  Hausa is spoken as a first language by over 25 million people, and as the second by a further 18 million.  (If you are interested to see where your language falls in the world rankings check out Ethnologue's website.) It is not surprising therefore that most Nigerians in addition to their own native tongue and English, speak or understand at least one other of their country’s languages. The languages with the most speakers are Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo.

Nigeria Sprachfamilien

All Nigerian languages are tonal. Yoruba, I am told, is amongst the most tonal languages in the world. For adult language learners tones can be difficult to master: the subtle rise and falls, the multitude of alterations to vowel sounds that tones make,  often sound very strange compared to the syllabic stress patterns of English. But as I found out last week, even native Nigerians have difficulty.

Last week one of my colleagues, A, was on the phone talking to someone in Igbo, not his native tongue, not even his second languages, actually more like his 4th after English. Next thing I knew my other colleague, F, sitting on the desk between A and me burst out laughing. It turns out A had fallen foul of a classic tonal pattern mishap, which in English sounds really unfortunately funny. He had meant to say Bawo ni isé? (Note the rising tone accent on the final 'e' which has nothing to do with the fact that it is a question, and which translates as How is work? But he had said Bawo ni ìsé ? (Note the additional falling tone on the initial 'i' of the final word) and this means How is poverty?  What a faux pas!

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Great finds on the web (1) – Lost Crops of Africa

I posted recently about eating Eritrean food for the first time. During my search for the botanical name for the grain used to make this I stumbled across an amazing book available  on the net. Lost Crops of Africa is an incredible compendium about the various crops and plants from different African countries. It is packed full of botanical, cultural, socio-political, historical and nutritional detail it is a proverbial encyclopaedia of native African food stuffs,Volume 1 covers Grains – the staples of much of Africa, Volume 2 Vegetables and Volume 3 Fruits”.

Browsing it took me back to university days, studying Economic Botany as it was then called, looking at edible plants for the Green revolution and diversifying the gene pool of hybrid species productivity. Did you know for example that rice, commonly associated with Asia, is also a African plant?

A different species has been cultivated in West Africa for at least 1,500 years. Some West African countries have, since ancient times, been just as rice-oriented as any Asian one. For all that, however, almost no one else has ever heard of their species.

Asia's rice is so advanced, so productive, and so well known that its rustic relative has been relegated to obscurity even in Africa itself. Today, most of the rice cultivated in Africa is of the Asian species. In fact, the "great red rice of the hook of the Niger" is declining so rapidly in importance and area that in most locations it lingers only as a weed in fields of its foreign relative. Soon it may be gone.

This should not be allowed to happen. The rice of Africa (Oryza glaberrima ) has a long and noteworthy history. It was selected and established in West Africa centuries before any organized expeditions could have introduced its Asian cousin (Oryza sativa). It probably arose in the flood basin of the central Niger and prehistoric Africans carried it westward to Senegal, southward to the Guinea coast, and eastward as far as Lake Chad. In these new homes, diligent people developed it further.”

The book is produced by National Academies Press and is available in full text on the web.

Monday 3 September 2012

Eating Eritrean food


Taita and shiro

A bit back my flatmate C and I took a walkover to our VSO staff colleague’s house close to where I used to stay. Y is originally from Eritrea and it was an opportunity for me to taste a new cuisine, although I skipped out from final course, the coffee, and instead had Arabic style tea served with cardamom and clove which I have had before. the main meal however was all new tastes.

The main staple is injera. Looking very similar to a think pancake or an Indian dhosa, injera is made from a flour of Teff grains (great for celiacs by the way) Botanically is a very old species, Eragostis tef, and highly nutritious. Taste wise I’d liken the resultant dough to a thin flat unrisen sourdough. I liked it, its sour taste compliments the spicy food really well. It is finger food, eaten by breaking of a piece of the injera and using it to soak up the various sauces. Y served two sauces: one made with chickpeas called shiro and the other a meat sauce called zigni . Yum yum / tu’um tu’um . A cooking lessons has been promised and if/when it materialises recipe instructions will follow

Sunday 26 August 2012

Groundnut soup

groundnut soupThis week’s Sunday lunch was at B’s flat just below ours. B is from Mali originally and he cooked us a traditional dish from across most of West Africa, groundnut soup , which we ate with and ram meat stew with rice and plantains, all yummy. It is strange that here in Nigeria stews are called soups, and soups don’t really exist – but then what is a soup but a watered down stew!

Basically it is onions and tomatoes, tomato paste cooked in water with lots of  different seasonings – black pepper, salt, celery slat, ground bay leaves, dried fermented onion spice, sumbala and of course chilli or pepe as they call it here in Nigeria. No  oil is used . The vegetables or meat if you are using it are then boiled in this and finally the ground groundnuts are added or peanut butter is you shortcut the nut grinding stage and then cooked until it thickens. I first encountered this in Mali but didn’t get a chance to taste it until later. If you love groundnuts you’ll love this. If you’ve tasted SE Asian peanut dishes like Satay, then you should try this.

Friday 24 August 2012

Shortages in the land of plenty

Abuja has been in the grips of a fuel shortage now for just over one week. Long lines of 50 or so cars queue every morning at the filling station at the end of our road waiting to see if there is any fuel, while black marketeers tout round large yellow plastic containers with tubing to dispense their liquid gold. The crisis started just before the Eid Sallah holiday weekend and has continued all through the week with no sign of let up. Lots of rumour and conspiracy theories abound but meanwhile ordinary folks are hit hard. Last Friday when the crisis broke saw people stranded in town trying to get home at a reasonable fare. With what fuel there is being sold at 3 times its normal rate, taxi drivers have soared their prices, making it prohibitively expensive and blowing volunteers travel allowance. Luckily a colleague has come to the rescue and is driving  me to and from work: it means going in later than normal and leaving later but that’s OK for now.

Lots of rumour and conspiracy theories abound as to reasons, cause , resolution and normal service resumption dates – read  more from the Reuters news report. Unfortunately, such shortages are not uncommon in a country which is  produces 2.7 million barrels of crude oil per day and exports over 2.3 million barrels of that, making it the 14th largest producer worldwide and the largest on the African continent and the 6th largest exporter of oil worldwide.

Oil - exports - Ranking

Thursday 23 August 2012

La musique du desert


Just giving a blatant plug to the first album from a young Tuareg group, Dèran, which includes my friend Boubaker from Djanet. I first met him as a young lad who came to cook for us as we travelled in the Tadrart region of south east Algeria. As I discovered he played guitar and kept us entertained in the evening with Tinariwen songs and stories of wanting to make music to “welcome everyone to the desert”. He comes from a long line of Tuareg musicians including his mother who is an imzad player. Now as a young man his band have cut their first album I hope they can get it played and release through one of the internet agencies that specialises in this type of music such as Re-aktion. In the meantime here is a taster for you all to enjoy.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Fruit tasting

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I feel a series of posts on Nigerian food coming on!

One of my flatmates, Abbe, brought home an interesting fruit from the market. I’d seen these before but this was my first opportunity to eat it. The locals call them “sour sop”, although they are in fact very sweet and very juicy. The skins look horrid, avocado greenish in colour, with soft darkish spikes pitting the surface, but the inside the fruit is white with large black seeds, which I assume should not be eaten. My other flat mate< Candace,  decided she liked this fruit but for me it has the same ingredient of taste that many tropical fruits have, and which I don’t like. Guavas have it, noni have it, and sour sops have it. I can drink guava juice once processed so there must be some chemical reaction that takes place when the juice is processed that eliminates the taste. As with all new foods I always give them a try, and I can understand why folks love them, they are so juicy and in such a hot climate a sweet juicy fruit is a lovely thing to have.

Having tasted it and disliked it, the botanist in me then comes out and I have to find out what the proper botanical name is. My botanical skills are clearly still in  tact as I felt sure upon seeing the inside of the sour sop that it was like a custard apple. With a bit of investigation I find they are the same genus Annona. The sour sop is Annona Muricata, and the custard apple is Annona Reticulata, and the sugar pineapple, which I called a custard apple for want of its proper name all through my time in India, is Annona Squamosa . Small world!

Further investigation indicates there is definitely something about this botanical family, the Annonaceae,  as pawpaw which I also do not like belong here in the genus Asimina and perfumery uses another member Cananga odorata (ylang-ylang) which I also do not like.

I remember many years ago getting a freebie from a perfumery company client. It was a cluster map of the various woman’s perfumes, grouping them according to like perfume notes and constituents.  I need to find a similar one for tastes! A very similar fruit ,which was popular on some of the South Pacific islands we visited on the Soren Larsen, was noni. I didn't like that one either. I checked its botanical classification out thinking it might be within the same grouping, but it is not. However, I am shocked to learn that it is related to coffee, both members of the Rubiaceae! No wonder my body says yuck!

Sunday 22 July 2012

Our house - is a very very very nice house….

27LinguCr So no “two cats in the yard”, but still my new home in Abuja is worthy of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young singing its praises. A couple of weeks ago I moved from the apartment I had been sharing with another volunteer in Zone 2 to this one in Wuse2. Wuse 2 is probably a bit more “up market” with not so many blocks of flats more houses of multiple occupancy type structures and more trees. I have already seen, but  failed to photograph a quite large, parrot type bird (African grey? – much bigger than a pigeon anyways, and certainly with a parrot like beak) eating fruit from a tree in our back yard.  I digress, back to the house move. No big reason, my ex flat mate finished her placement although she is staying on as an interim programme manager, providing cover for the programme manager who is on a year’s secondment to VSO Sierra Leone. At the same time there was a shuffle of continuing volunteers merging us into fewer houses in Abuja where rents are very high. I am now sharing with existing volunteer A from Uganda and new volunteer C from the USA.

Our entranceThe apartment is a 3 bed upper floor of a house. On the ground floor there is another 1 bed apartment which also houses a VSO Volunteer, B, from Mali/Canada, our apartment share the same outside door. Round the rear of the house is a completely separate entrance to a third flat, the residents of which I have not met yet. 

gateman's hut


As is typical of this area of town,  the houses all have what is commonly referred to ass the “BQ”, the boy’s quarters, where Godswell, our gatekeeper stays. He keeps the yard clean and tidy, lets cars in and out, provides security cover when no one is at home and through the night.




Inside, the apartment is huge: by far the biggest VSO apartment I have ever seen. We rattle around in it. Our lounge is big enough for table and chairs, two sofas and armchairs with space to spare.  2 of the 3 bedrooms have en suite: with water heaters that work; with shower attachments that work. So although we dutifully keep large water buckets full in case the water goes off, so far we have not needed this supply. I hope I am not tempting fate :)  Likewise 2 of the 3 bedrooms, and the sitting room have balconies, just big enough for a chair and for standing laundry out to dry, although we are also spoiled by having lines already provided in our yard, albeit that we share them with the two other apartments.

My room My room is simple: it has built in hanging space and shelves – in fact too much space for my small Nigerian wardrobe. I have a nice new desk which arrived last week and is heavily used as I do quite a bit of work in the evenings and weekends for my placement organisation. 

My bathroom, although not ensuite is adjacent, I picked this room thinking it could be the quieter of the rooms being one of two at the back of the house away from the road, and because it had the balcony. 

Kitchen1The kitchen is where one gets one’s exercise – walking back and forth between the gas rings, fridge, shelves and cupboard which are scattered along opposite walls. With little the way of other furniture it always seems really empty. Kitchen2

Again as volunteer accommodation goes it a enormous, plenty of room for a kitchen table if we had one. It does have cupboard space, and we are using our bookshelves as open shared storage space because unfortunately we have a cockroach problem which we are having to spray the cupboards to try and eliminate.

The local area is different than where I was previously, there are shops 5 mins walk up onto the main road, including a reasonable sized local bigger then mini- but not a super-market. There are restaurants and beer gardens. In fact the nearest beer garden, AfroAsia, is almost immediate across our street, just round the corner. A very pleasant place to sit out with a drink, although food there is too expensive. A much better bet is newly opened “Dreams” up on the man road about a 10 minutes walk away. There, a number of vendors share a seating area. One I have found sells “suya”, the local delicacy – very spicy, flattened pieces of meat, flamed on skewers, the Niaja kebab in effect. Often suya is too full of pepe, the local chilli,, for me, but this guys seems OK. Moreover  he does a mean “hanta” and “koda” one i.e. liver and kidney respectfully in Hausa, for 200N each, compared to 700-800 as the going rate for “schwrama” – like a donor kebab – and meat of chicken suya.  I’ve had one so far and it was delightful, beautifully cooked, tender pieces of liver – not everyone's taste but definitely mine, lips smackingly good, so I’ll be back. Makes a change having these type of things on your doorstep.

The downside is you don’t see your neighbours because they arrive home by their cars and go behind their gates, never to be seen till their car leaves in the morning. I want to  meet our neighbours to the side, one of the men and one of the women there sing and they have beautiful melodic voices.

So this is my home now through the rest of my placement.