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Thank yous and parting thoughts

My departure from Abuja is but a few hours away. Looking back at the past three weeks, I realize that my remarkable experiences in this town wouldn’t have been possible without the active support of many people.

Firstly, my wife Akila and the kids, who made do without me around. I owe you, big time.

My employer, IBM is a leader in corporate philanthropy and encourages IBMers to participate in programs such as the Corporate Service Corps (CSC) and the Smarter Cities Challenge (SCC), both of which I took advantage of. My manager Brian whole-heartedly supported my eagerness to participate.

My amazing SCC team members made the three weeks fun, and I learned from each of them.

IMG_5916Divine – boy, does she love white rice !

Divine, a quiet presence during our heated discussions, acted as the voice of calm and reason many a times when our patience would run out and tempers would rise. On more than one occasion, she played the peacemaker. She establishes an amazing connection with people in a short order. I am glad that I was able to help her on her Abuja Hash trek up to Asokoro – and I expect many more hiking stories from her.

IMG_5906The ultra-competitive Marvin

Marvin’s cool exterior hides a fiercely competitive spirit, evidenced by his swim challenge with the instructors at the pool. He took his time opening up, but once he gets going, he’s a hoot. As an African-American, his trip to Nigeria held special meaning to him, and his farewell speech rings in my head.

IMG_5917Maria – did someone say “wine” ?

Maria’s conscientious, meticulous preparation and initiative kept the team moving. Her fitness mania kept me on my toes. She’s a fun team mate and an adventurous person. Her love of spicy food was an eye opener. To get her animated, just get her some good wine.

IMG_5905Sameh loves nothing more that chilling with a hookah and talking politics

Sameh, though the youngest of the lot, has a quiet dignity of manner and gravity of thought that set him apart. As a multi-talented musician, he jammed with the piano players at hotel lobbies and drummed with the wedding musicians. His ultra-liberal word-view combined with his loquaciousness resulted in several memorable chats on global politics. His conversations with Uber drivers revealed a lot about his ability to connect with people.

IMG_5904Remi – Real-life Energizer bunny

Remi, the Corporate Citizenship manager for IBM West Africa, was critical to the success of the team. Her passion for the project and her energy levels were intimidating. To all observers, it was evident that she believed she was doing more than a job – she was helping Nigeria rise up to its potential.

IMG_5915Ann – always helpful, always cheerful

Ann, the Country Manager for Pyxera, was a quite presence in the background – she kept everything going smoothly. The notable lack of unpleasant surprises during our stay shows how well she did her job. The Pyxera team in the US, particularly Kotheid and Rachel, arranged our travel and prepped us during the pre-work flawlessly.

IMG_5882Dapper dude Israel

Israel was by our side everyday – an aide who provided local knowledge and color in our interactions with Abuja and Abujans. His stylish outfits were a daily treat, too.

IMG_5891Nasiru – natural-born hiker

Nasiru drove us around cheerfully, and on our Abuja Hash hike, led us back to civilization.

Allison (left), John & Judith (right)

Allison, John and Judith, from the Permanent Secretary’s office, were tremendously helpful in all or our dealings with the FCTA.

IBM Nigeria, particularly Judy, who pretty much acted as our local liaison and Dipo, the Country Manager, deserve my deep gratitude.

The IBM Corporate Citizenship team in charge of the Smarter Cities Challenge program, Celia and Anne, make this program work. They are primarily responsible for us being here.

My blogging career will go back to hibernation after this is posted. What I learned from my previous stint blogging was that while I enjoyed the act of writing, the pleasure of looking back and reliving my experiences were an unexpected bonus. I have no doubt that I will come back to relive my experiences in Abuja through this blog.

To those of you who followed me along on this blog, thank you.

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The final stretch – Week 3

The final week! We’re scheduled to present to the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Hon. Muhammad Musa Bello, on Thursday afternoon – we have a lot to do, and we’re running out of time. We ramp up our effort level several notches. Monday morning, we make progress in refining our recommendations and our storyline. Since we are presenting to a federal minister, we take pains to rein in the natural tendency to describe a lot of the detail behind our thinking and keep things as brief as possible. We make huge strides to getting to a crisply-summarized slide deck of about a dozen pages.  We head out to dinner at the Dunes Restaurant – good Lebanese fare and great wine.

Remi’s back in town on Tuesday and she’s got some big updates. The meeting with the minister has been moved ahead to Wednesday – so there goes a day of preparation! In addition to the meeting with the Minister, there’s a session on Thursday with the heads of all the Departments and their leadership team. All day, we work at a frenzied pace – and the summary presentation gets more and more polished and emerges late in the day ready for prime time. We are confident about our recommendations to improve FCTA revenue performance – it was built up from a rigorous on-the-ground understanding of the issues and validated quite extensively. The recommendations cover FCTA organizational culture, technology infrastructure, process improvement, policy reform and other strategic initiatives. We bolster our recommendations with success stories of other city and regional governments that have implemented programs similar to what we were recommending. Everyone’s exhausted, so we order in some Indian food from Wakkis.

Wednesday – D-day is nigh! We start work early. We have a talk with Remi and a call with Celia to clarify the team’s role and to ensure that we act within the strict bounds of conduct required of IBM’s corporate philanthropy efforts. We rehearse our message delivery. By noon, the team is showing hints of our nerves and a small flare-up results – fortunately, it is settled quickly. Finally, it is time to head out to meet the Minister. We are close to his office when a call comes, informing us that he has been called away on urgent business – and that our meeting has been rescheduled for tomorrow. We had been cautioned that this was a possibility, given the Minister’s position and responsibilities – so we head back with a mix of relief (at getting the additional time to prep better) and disappointment. We spend a fair bit of time rehearsing our sections and readying responses to questions we anticipated the audience might ask us.

IMG_6002Ready for showtime

 Thursday, and we have another early start. We do final-final edits, ready back-up material and head out to the presentation venue. Finally, it is time to start – and we take our seats. I lead off the presentation, expressing the team’s gratitude for the reception we received at each of the departments we visited, and the level of professionalism and preparedness that the FCTA employees displayed. I present our findings and recommendations, and Marvin takes over to present the roadmap and recommended next steps. Sam MC’s the Q&A session, and Divine and Maria respond to the audience questions. We finish in an hour, and are satisfied with the way the session went. Lunch is provided for the participants, and the caterers had thoughtfully provided take-away boxes for those observing Ramadan fasting.

On to the Minister’s office. We set up at his conference room and at 2 PM promptly, he walks in. All of the department heads are in attendance as well. We introduce ourselves to the minister, and Maria kick-offs the presentation. She smoothly hands off to each one of us in turn to present the details of each of the five key recommendations. Marvin closes with the roadmap and next steps. The Minister appears engaged throughout the meeting, and we see him taking notes. At the end, he asks several questions about the recommendations and wants to know more about the specifics of getting some of the recommendations off the ground. We finish the session in our allotted hour. The minister expresses his thanks to our team and the work –we are touched by his kind words. After photos with the team, he bids us farewell.

IMG_6005The ladies in their Nigerian outfits with the Head of the Road Traffic Department

Relief! This went well – our hard work paid off. Back at the hotel for a quick call with the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge leadership team to give them a summary of the day’s action. We let the SCC leaders know that Remy was an invaluable asset to the team –her dedication, connections and energy helped us immensely. We get a few brief moments of respite before we head out for a dinner arranged by the Permanent Secretary of FCTA for the team at the Obudu Grill at the Abuja Sheraton. All of the heads of the departments that we worked with were there, and we have a grand time. Coincidentally, the pianist who had entertained us at Nkoyo on our first weekend happened to be playing here!

Friday – We troop out of Room 107, our office for the past three weeks, one final time and head to the primary school we had visited the first week. This time, we bring them soccer balls – and spend an enjoyable half hour playing with the kids.

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Next stop – the African Hair Convention at the Abuja Sheraton. Several attendees were staying at our hotel, and they’d asked us to check it out. We check out the products for sale. They have a hair braiding station and I ask the owner, Philip, whether he could braid my hair. He thinks I am pulling his leg – but I assure him I’m dead serious. He claims he can do magic with any hair type – but he’s full up now, and asks me to come back at 3 PM. We head to the poolside restaurant at the Sheraton for lunch, where Sam, Marvin and I shoot some pool while waiting for the food to arrive. I head back to see Philip at 3 PM – and he’s surprised that I am back – he wasn’t expecting it. He’s profusely sweating now– and pulls me aside to say that he really doesn’t know how to handle my hair. Alas – my plan to shock the wife and kids by showing up home in dreadlocks is dashed.

IMG_6057That’s famed Nollywood actress Kate Henshaw – the Angelina Jolie of Nigeria. At the African Hair Summit

Our final event in Abuja is a farewell reception arranged by Judy at an art gallery. Judy’s invited all the FCTA department heads, and several young professionals to the “mixer”. The art gallery is really nice, and I spend a fair bit of time walking around. There’s live music, and wine and canapes. Lots of pictures are taken. I chit-chat with the guests. There’s a cultural music and dance performance. Remi asks each of us from the IBM SCC team to say a few parting words about our time in Abuja, and the great time we had is reflected in the sincerity of our words of thanks. The DJ gets some of us dancing. A birthday cake is then brought in for Marvin – and we all sing him Happy Birthday. He sets out for the airport – he’s the first one of our team to head back home.

Music at the reception (YouTube link)

Cultural dance at the reception (YouTube link)

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IMG_6083Last of the SCC team snaps – at the reception at the art gallery 

Amidst all of this, I hear talk of a pub trivia event taking place in the adjoining restaurant later that night. Nothing’s going to stand between me and some pub trivia, so I make my way in and insert myself into a team. The questions start and they’re a pretty interesting mix – there’s a visual pun round, a karaoke round, an audio round and a movie dialogs round. We were sitting in second place when Remi and I decide that its time to head back.

IMG_6077With my pub trivia team 

Saturday we do our final breakfast at the BluCabana. It is Maria’s birthday – and we get a card and a small cake for her.

IMG_6079Happy Birthday, Maria

 I say my goodbyes to Sam and Divine who head out to the airport at 11 AM and to Remi who leaves at noon. I finish up a few blog posts and head out for a workout at the gym. All that’s left to do is to pack up, head to the airport and trade my home of the past three weeks for my home.

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Pics from here and there…

IMG_2855Colorful agama at the hotel

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 Church group at the Millennium Park

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Aso Rock looming – Millennium Park

IMG_2895Millennium Park

IMG_5710Newspaper story about the Danish owner of the Nordic Hotel 

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Abuja’s at roughly the same latitude as Kerala …at Masala Wahala restaurant

IMG_5756Cost of doing (your) business

IMG_5929 The National Mosque

IMG_3009Oh hi there !

IMG_3120 Serious armor – but how many cup holders does it have ? On display at the Transcorp Hilton
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At the Obudu Grill, Sheraton Abuja

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The weekend

Friday couldn’t roll around soon enough for me, after the week I’d had. After a few debatable experiences with what passed for pizza, we decided to head out to Secret Garden, which came highly touted as a cool hangout spot that served good pizzas and pastas. The restaurant was inside the River Plate Park, which was our rendezvous point for the Abuja Hash outing the previous week.

The restaurant is packed with what looked like an expat-heavy crowd. The menu lists two pages of pizzas and has a long cocktail list. We get a bunch of pizzas and pastas – they’re good! The discussion around the dinner table veers wildly from topic to topic – plans for the weekend, updates from back home, President Trump’s first foreign trip – but we stay away from work talk.

IMG_5921.jpgSam gets Divine to massage bug spray on his scalp

By now, we are reasonably confident of our bearings and our way around town. We’ve been depending on Uber to move about – and it’s been safe, reliable and cheap.

Saturday morning, Marvin, Maria and I head to the US embassy annex for our weekly dose of pain aka CrossFit. The session is brutal, mainly because of the burning sun beating down on us. We finish the session with a celebratory selfie with Col. Baker, who was leading the cool-down session for the last time, as he was heading back to England. While waiting for our Uber back, we chatted with a few fellow punishment seekers. They were here in Abuja “with the USAID”, “Clinton Global Initiative”, “teaching at the American School” and so on. Mostly Americans, but I also hear a few British accents and a smattering of French and Spanish.

IMG_3185Selfie with Col. Baker. Notice the photo-bomber in the back

Back at the Nordic Hotel, the sight of the pool proves irresistible – so the three of us head there (to dispel any doubt, after we’d showered and changed out of the sweaty workout gear). This was my first time at the pool, though I’ve been tempted by the sight every time I’d worked out at the gym (BTW, I’m proud to report that I’ve been maintaining my 30 miles per week running average, despite the work load and the weather conditions).

The pool is refreshing as all get out. The pina colada hits the right spot. The torture of the past hour is a distant memory – I’m living the dream. I swim a few leisurely laps and lounge on the deck chair with my book. Meanwhile, Marvin challenges the two swim instructors to a 4 x 25 m individual medley. The swim instructors look like they are carved out of granite, with huge pecs and 0% body fat – but they don’t suspect that Marvin, a former collegiate swimmer, is hustling them. I stand by, ready to record the action. Maria flags the swimmers off. Marvin is slow coming off the blocks. At the end of the first lap, Marvin’s a bit behind – but then he turns the jets on and beats Instructor # 1 by two body lengths. Yay, Marvin!

(Click on the captions to see the hyperlinked YouTube videos)

Marvin Phelps

That afternoon, the team meets up to do the touristy things that we hadn’t had time to do yet. Our first stop is at the Bwari pottery village, some 30 kms from town. The ride to the place takes us through several bustling villages, where we see people selling everything from sofas to tires to clothes out in the open air. I note the high density of churches. When we turn into the pottery village, we see a crowd and hear loud music. Our guide leads us into the first of a series of “workshop huts” and starts explaining the process of making pottery. Each stage of the process is explained – and several are demoed. He takes the pottery wheel and expertly whips up a small vase (Unchained Melody is playing in the background – at least, in my head). While we were admiring his handiwork, a man dressed in a suit enters the hut and introduces himself as the owner of the place, and says that it is his wedding day today! He graciously invites us to attend, and we are touched by his hospitality. We take in the baking, glazing and final finishing processes and finish the tour at their showroom, picking up some keepsake pieces.

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IMG_5959Charcoal-fired kiln 

Bwari pottery

We hurry on over to the “shamiana” where the festivities are taking place. There’s a band playing and several spectacularly attired guests are grooving. We are invited to take seats by the MC, introduced to the assemblage and asked to speak. We all manage to come up with impromptu speeches congratulating the bride and groom, Charity and Stephen, and offer them our best wishes. We witness the bride and groom step out for their first dance and the guests showering them with money. We have to be torn away from the delights of this unexpected event – but it is getting late, and we have other places to see.

The little drummer boy can’t hold it back – busting out his moves

Impromptu felicitations to the couple !

 Sameh can’t stay away from the music

Dancing and gifts at the wedding

IMG_5990Charity  & Stephen, the happy couple

Next stop – Lower Usuma dam, which supplies water to the denizens of Abuja. Our van is stopped by security folks at the entrance. Negotiations continue for a while, but ultimately, we fail to convince them to let us through. There’s some discussion whether we should pay their “security escort fee” of 2000 Naira – but we decide not to and head out. We get lunch at a Nigerian restaurant, Jevinik. The menu is unfamiliar – most restaurants we’d been to had explanations for the Nigerian menu items that we could understand, but this one just stated the options and left it at that – so extended interrogations with the waiter were required to figure out what each one of us wanted to try. The food arrives – it is tasty, but fiery.

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 The IBM SCC team –  at a fortuitous roadside sign

On to Abuja Arts & Crafts Market – our third visit there. I’d scoped out a few things to take back home, and I pick them up, but not before some entertaining price negotiations. I offer up my honed-in India bargaining skills to my team mates – but I soon realize that Divine and Maria have raised price haggling to an exalted level.

Back to the hotel. After our late lunch, no one was really in the mood for dinner, so we settle for a glass of wine at the hotel lobby and deconstruct the happenings of the day.

Marvin and Sameh head out to Lagos on Sunday morning for a day trip. I decide to take it easy, and spend the entire day in my room, getting some much-needed alone time to restore the balance after all of the group socializing over the past couple of weeks. In a frenzy of blogging, I post two updates. I take care of some video and photo processing. By the evening, after my run, I am ready to re-establish contact with humanity. I coax people to join me at the BluCabana for dinner. Marvin and Sam are back from Lagos, and tell us about their trip, the highlight of which was their visit to the Badagry Slave Museum, which stands as a stark reminder of the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We are joined at the table by the Lebanese manager of the restaurant, Johnny – he has some funny stories. We are treated to some birthday cake from a nearby table where a group of young women were celebrating – delicious! We head back to our rooms ready to nod off, to no doubt emerge re-energized and ready to face our final week in Abuja !

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Week 2 action

After driving all over Abuja for meetings with the ten FCTA departments during the first week of our project, the locus of the action for our second week moved to the “team room” at our hotel. The team room was a regular hotel room, converted into a working space. We had all the necessities for collaboration there – speakerphones, white boards, flipcharts, walls that would become covered with “sticky notes” with our observations and a projection TV for us to jointly edit slides. Ann and Israel had stocked plenty of snacks and drinks there as well, so we had no excuses for slacking!

Monday was largely spent in distilling the observations from our meetings into themes for each agency. We split up the work such that each of us had two departments each – I had the Department of Outdoor Advertising and Signage and the Internal Revenue Service. At the end of the workday, we had a concise view of the current revenue recovery situation, obstacles and a series of ideas for tackling the obstacles across all the ten departments.

IMG_5869Sausage being made

After work, I headed out downtown to the Transcorp Hilton hotel to meet my batchmate from my engineering school in India (IIT Kharagpur), Anurag. Anurag has been living in Lagos for over five years, managing operations for a multinational agribusiness company, and he happened to be in Abuja on work. We caught up over a drink at the poolside restaurant, and he regaled me with stories of his experiences doing business in Nigeria.

IMG_5874 Old pals catching up

Tuesday’s pretty much like Monday – discussing, debating, writing, rewriting. After a full day of work, we head out for dinner. The place we chose comes highly recommended by TripAdvisor, has posh décor and an inviting (and pricey) menu – alas, the food left a lot to be desired. Divine’s medium rare steak came out well done, the calamari was rubbery and so on. Our complaints about the food to the waiter resulted in him bringing us a plate of appetizers – after we had finished our meal! One lives and learns.

Wednesday morning, we head to the FCTA office. We split up into two groups, with one group in charge of conducting FCTA employee surveys and focus groups, while Marvin and I meet with selected leaders to sound out our findings and recommendations. We get really good inputs from the survey and the feedback meetings also help us a lot in adjusting our course.

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IMG_5901FCTA employee survey and focus groups

Back to the “office” on Thursday – and inevitably, tensions surface over differences in our thinking and direction. It was to be expected – a team of five strong-willed individuals, who had never worked together previously, with very different backgrounds and without a designated leader. By the middle of the day, the tension is palpable and becoming counter-productive. The leaderless nature of our team meant someone had to volunteer to take on the unpleasant and unrewarding task of orchestrating a team soul-baring session, get things out in the open and attempt to forge an acceptable work environment and path forward – else the project would suffer. Leaving matters unresolved, we head out to what was meant to be a “thank you” dinner from the team to members of the extended SCC team, including Remi, the IBM Nigeria Community Affairs leader, Ann, the Pyxera Nigeria leader, Israel, our able “Man Friday”, Nasiru, our driver and members of the FCTA support team who had been working closely with us. Due to a miscommunication, the FCTA support team couldn’t make it to Masala Wahala for dinner – but that didn’t stop the rest from enjoying time outside the pressure cooker atmosphere of the “office”.

(YouTube link) The talented Sameh playing Be-Sameh Mucho in an unusual duet

Friday morning, Remi, who has been with us from the start, leaves for some downtime at her home in Lagos. Divine steps up and starts our work day by calling on everyone to address the elephant in the room. We each talk about our take on the situation – airing things out help a lot in easing the atmosphere, and we emerge from the session with much of the positive team vibes of the initial days restored. We plough through the task of distilling and refining our findings and recommendations into a crisp presentation to the Minister and a more detailed report that we would leave behind. At the end of Friday, we are at a much better place work-wise, with our thinking synched into a semblance of unison. We also tick off a number of secondary items from our to-do list, including prepping the IBM external relations people about our project and creating visual collateral for the final presentation. The day concludes with a status update call with the SCC leadership team in the US and the UK. Anne and Celia from the SCC team have been supportive all the way, and give us pointers on how to finesse the critical last week and the final presentation.

A tough but ultimately, productive week. I’m looking forward to the weekend to clear my head and get ready for the final dash to the finish line. The presentation to the Minister is on Thursday – so three more workdays remain to get everything ship-shape.

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Nigeria – my observations

Nation, economy & governance

Nigeria recently overtook South Africa as the largest economy in Africa. With a population of 184+ mn and plentiful natural resources – particularly, oil and gas – that is no surprise. However, most Nigerians I have talked to express their frustration at the pace of development, and point to the endemic corruption as possibly the single biggest deterrent to Nigeria’s ambitions.

I suspect the true pulse of the nation can best be felt in Lagos. Abuja, being focused on public administration, my interactions have been mainly with civil servants. The organs of the nation’s government are an overwhelming presence here. Abuja is not one of the 36 states of Nigeria, but is a federally-administered area.

When I told people about my upcoming Nigeria trip, many wanted to know if I was concerned about the Boko Haram terror group. They appear to be active mainly in the North, though they have struck the capital and points south. The military presence and high levels of private security at workplaces and establishments that I encountered is probably in response to the Boko Haram presence.

As a fledgling democracy that transitioned from a long spell of military rule, Nigeria is a beacon of hope for democracy movements in Africa and the rest of the world. Prognosticators believe the country is poised to raise its stature within Africa and internationally, and lead the way for the next cohort (after BRICS) of emerging economies.

People & languages

Abuja is pretty much at the midpoint of the country. To the North, the majority of the population is ethnically of the Hausa tribe and Muslim. To the South, the two dominant tribes, Igbo and Yoruba, are predominantly Christian. These three tribes have distinct languages, clothing and customs, as have the many other smaller tribes. There are an estimated 500 languages spoken in Nigeria. Through a gentleman’s agreement, the Presidency of Nigeria alternates between a Muslim and a Christian. I see many similarities with the nation of my birth, India – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, many religions. Religion runs deep in the fabric of Nigerian society – as evidenced by the number of churches and billboards for pastors, and the near-complete observation of fasting by the Muslim population during the month of Ramadan.

Everyone speaks English – so communication was no problem at all. I heard a few phrases that reminded me of Indian English – such as the use of “like that, like that” to mean “et cetera” and the query “you understand?” after someone had explained something to you. A few phrases stood out as distinctively Nigerian – such as asking someone in the morning “how was your night?” and saying “you are welcome” not as a response to “thank you”, but to mean “welcome to my home/office”.

I asked my Nigerian colleagues how they identified the ethnic backgrounds of other Nigerians – their answers included “from their clothing”, “from their English accent” and “from their names”. I guess the markers of identity are universal.

Clothing

Women here dress colorfully! At our work meetings with the various FCTA departments, I saw a multitude of brightly colored dresses and matching hair wraps.

IMG_5971Rocking the agbada, at a wedding

IMG_5922Ugo, the receptionist at our hotel, confident in his multicolored dashiki  

IMG_6016.jpgMercy & Gbenga – hotel staff members

IMG_5887Fashion shoot at our hotel lobby. They begged me to pose – I declined. Maria’s photo-bombing

Men measure up quite well to the women in terms of color of their outfits and style. Traditional outfits (agbada) are very common in office settings. Riotously colorful dashiki-style tops are everywhere; I was inspired to try a few on, but came to the conclusion that I sorely lacked the panache to carry it off.

Food

Nigerian cuisine has a variety of soups and stews with meat, fish or veggies in it. Jollof rice is a matter of national pride and of good-natured rivalry between Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria as to who makes the best version. Yam seems to be the other popular starch – pounded yam, which you roll up into small balls and dip into your soup, showed up on several restaurant menus.

Our experiences with food in Abuja has been a mixed bag – some great meals mixed in with some not-so-memorable ones. In a previous edition, I’d reported on the memorable grilled whole fish “joint” at the Mogadishu barracks. I had good pizza and pasta at Secret Garden, nice Nigerian / South Indian food at Masala Wahala, seafood stew at Argungu (Jabi Lake Mall) and a couple of good lunches at the newly-opened Cafeteria at the Grand Square Mall. The places I didn’t care about either had super slow service (I am looking at you, Hilton poolside!) and/or poorly cooked or mind-numbingly spicy food. Though I haven’t had an upset tummy to date, some of my teammates have, despite sticking to the precautions around drinking bottled water and avoiding dodgy street-food stalls.

pounded yamPounded yam

Soups and stew JevinikSoups at a Nigerian restaurant

Quite a few Indian and Lebanese restaurants here, and many restaurants feature a few Lebanese or Indian items on the menu – which must be an indicator of the makeup of the immigrant population here. As a pescatarian / part-time vegetarian, I have had no lack of menu choices. I found it curious that among the “US mega-chain restaurants”, only KFC and Johnny Rockets seemed to have a presence here – no Subway or McD. Not that we went looking for them…

Writers & Music

I am ashamed to confess that before heading to Abuja, the sum total of my experience reading works by Nigerian authors was zero. On my flight in, I’d looked up prominent Nigerian writers, and Chinua Achebe figured pretty much at the head of the list. I am happy to report now that I have finished reading Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – which also happens to be my reintroduction to fiction after many years. I found the work powerfully moving – the way he describes Igbo tribal life in the village and the portends of doom for a way of life that loom with the arrival of the British missionaries and colonial poobahs.

achebeChinua Achebe

chimamanda Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Right now, I am tackling “Half of a Yellow Sun”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s been in the limelight of late as the voice of a new generation of Nigerians and at the vanguard of a new crop of talented African writers. Very promising start.

Realistically, I doubt whether I will have the time while I’m here to dip into the other greats of Nigerian literature like Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri or Buchi Emecheta –but they’ve been added to my reading list.

Music on the radio seems mostly hip-hop influenced. I don’t know where the Fela Kutis of today are hiding. An Uber driver played some modern Hausa music – heavily auto-tuned. From my sampling of music played by the drivers over about a dozen Uber rides, reggae seemed to have a widespread following here.

Fela Kuti Fela Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer

Nigeria produces loads of movies – though they don’t seem to have much of an audience outside the country. Indian movies and music came up in a few discussions – our driver Nasiru told me he loved “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam” and “Kal Ho Na Ho” (!!!) and I saw employees at an FCTA office watching Hindi songs on a TV that apparently stayed permanently tuned into Zee TV, a Bollywood/Hindi channel.

 Sports

Football (soccer) is king here – of the ten TV channels at the hotel, two are dedicated to EPL / La Liga / Bundesliga games. The newspaper sports pages cover the Nigerian National Team (Super Eagles) and the action in European leagues and the Nigerian league. Over the past two weeks, I read a bit of coverage on track and field, tennis and basketball – but I can safely say that 80% of the sports page column-inches are dedicated to football.

In a highly unscientific poll, I posed the question “who is the greatest sportsman produced by Nigeria” – and got nothing close to an unanimous answer. My assumption going in was Hakeem Olajuwon would be it, hands down. But the NBA is not popular here – so Hakeem doesn’t seem to be getting the recognition he deserves. Jay Jay Okocha figured in a couple of responses. But I sense there is no single sportsman/woman who occupies the national psyche, like I imagine Emil Zatopek does for the Czechs or Sir Viv Richards for the Antiguans.

Hakeem Olajuwon Action PortraitHakeem Olajuwon

Jay-Jay_Okocha_bio_pic_1280-1018x726Jay Jay Okocha

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Decompression time – the weekend

After a week of long hours and intense, mentally taxing work, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to roll around. Friday evening, we all troop to a restaurant / lounge, where my dinner of prawns with jollof rice gave me an idea of how spicy Nigerian food could be (very!). A DJ was cranking out dance music while we were eating, and there was a fair bit of good-natured trash-talking around the table on the topic of who had the best dance moves – so naturally, the action soon moved over to the makeshift dance-floor. The dancers grooved to a mix of hip-hop, pop chart toppers and Nigerian songs. The jury’s still out on who has the flyest (fliest?) moves.

Saturday morning, I am up at “cock’s crow” on my quest for punishment – namely, CrossFit at the US Embassy. Our informant had told Maria and I to be there at 8:30 AM – so we find our way there, only to be met by perplexed security guards. After a bit of back and forth, they hauled out someone from inside, who informed us that the action was starting at 9:30 AM – so we had an hour to kill. So on to the nearby Hilton for some coffee and pastries. When we got back at 9:30 AM, the place was packed with other punishment-seekers – about 30 or so – all looking to work off their Friday night excesses.

The instructor explained the workout for the day – a complicated torture routine that involved 20 burpees, 30 box jumps, 60 toe touches, 20 weighted squats, 20 kettle bell swings, 20 lunge-twists and 20 mountain climbers. If you survive one round of this, then you get the reward of rinsing and repeating the routine all over again. After 45 minutes of this, we are ready to drop dead. To commemorate our surviving this session, we took some pics with the brave boys from the US Armed Forces who led the session. Warning – sweaty pics ahead!

IMG_5819.jpgWith our boys from the US Armed Forces

Post-lunch, we head out to nearby River Plate Park for the weekly meet-up of the Abuja Chapter of the Hash House Harriers. From the park, we set off in a convoy to the Asokoro suburb to the designated hiking start point – it is an improvised trail through the brush. We set off with gusto, but said gusto declines dramatically when we hit the first steep hill. I stay behind to help Divine, and soon, we are bringing up the rear of the 60-person group.

  IMG_5827.jpgBefore setting out on the Abuja Hash hike – all smiles !

IMG_5841.jpgSmiles have disappeared by this point

Eventually, the whole group reaches the top of a mini-plateau, where we are rewarded with dramatic, sweeping views of Abuja – and cold, cold beer. Much beering and bawdy singing later, we set off on our hike back – ahead of the crowd. Our driver, Nasiru, mentions that he’s a Fulani –a pastoral ethnic group – and proceeds to lead us back with great panache. He doesn’t need trail markings – his instincts tell him which way to go over the scrub and brush. We finish the hike bone-tired – but Nasiru’s barely broken a sweat – and he hiked the 5 km distance wearing sandals! Next stop – a well-earned dinner, at an Indian restaurant. The food was meh – but I wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of righteous gluttony, even finding room in my tummy for the “gulab jamun” dessert. Sated, we head back to our hotel for some shut-eye.

IMG_5859.jpg We made it ! Remi’s climbed Mt Kilimanjaro twice, so this was a walk in the park for her

IMG_5865Views at the summit

Sunday morning, I take care of some long-pending tasks – like updating my blog – and then head out for a run. A team meeting to discuss our progress and plan for the coming week consumes most of the afternoon. Dinner is at a nearby mall restaurant – Argungu – that specializes in Nigerian seafood. I get a spicy and delicious seafood stew, washed down with some wine. All is well with the world.

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