We’d been invited to PRESCO’s plantation for New Year, and as it was only 400km away, we thought we’d easily make it in the 2 days remaining. We left Calabar on Sunday evening, Sampson having finally managed to interview Peter Jenkins at the Drill Ranch, in between anti-logging manoeuvres. Security concerns don’t allow me to reveal lurid details, but mark my words, when Hollywood – or Nollywood – comes to write the movie of ‘Mad Max the climate change hero’, it will be Peter Jenkins’ life story they base it on.
The road to Benin City wasn’t quite the bold red highway marked on the maps. There were so many big potholes, I couldn’t get above 40kph and the lunatic overtaking continued. There was a barrier between the lanes of the dual carriageway, presumably to limit accidents. However, all this does is a) make it impossible for women in straight skirts to cross the road with dignity and b) encourage others, who can’t be bothered to drive to the next exit and return, to cross over at the nearest gap and DRIVE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD FOR A FEW KILOMETRES – AGAINST TRAFFIC, IN THE FAST LANE – before pulling off. I witnessed this several times between Calabar and Uyo and was continuously yelping in shock but no one else on the road seemed to bat an eyelid.
Towards Aba the road deteriorated until we were back on dirt. At the last road block, a senior officer kept repeating “You know this road? This road?”. I wondered why he seemed so perturbed that we were attempting it, until 200m later a lake appeared in front of me. Sampson got off the bed, watched a couple of vehicles cross, sussed the shallow patch and went for it. Two kilometres further on, there was a bigger one. We watched two lorries wobble through, but Sampson was pessimistic and everyone was saying different things: go left; go round; go through the village; no, not possible, the truck’s too tall to get through the trees…
At last, we were approached by a young university student called Godfrey who offered quiet insistent help amidst all the blathering. He and his mate Bestman (could there be a better name for a friend?) took us over an hour out of their way on his scooter, along a bumpy but sound back road through several villages, stopping to lift low wires up over the roof rack with a bamboo pole where necessary. Bless them for their heroic gesture, we’d never have made it without them.
Going through Aba rather than round it took us another hour. We took it in turns to hold the electric fan. On these long days in the cab, you’re so hot and sweaty, your shorts get soggy. An ice-cold can of bitter lemon from the fridge shared between us as a 3pm pick-me-up was becoming a daily ritual; to get into the shower at the end of the day for your 60 seconds’ share of water was complete bliss.
Signs along the road in Nigeria are very revealing of social mores. There were dozens of huge billboards advertising spectacles that at a glance you might assume to be blockbuster action movies, but turn out to be evangelical services. The level of entertainment involved seems on a par; the New Year ones were offering the chance to “Pray your way into 2014: Featuring salvation, deliverance, miracles etc.”. I was dying to know what might be included in the “etc.”
Other slogans offered further insights: “Police sponsored by 7Up” was less disturbing than “Caro White, 100% clarifying skin care.” Female models featured in adverts were distinctly pale, and always a shade lighter than their male counterparts. The portrayal of this ‘aspirational’ desire to be whiter, to add to the contemporary young woman’s burden of always having to be thinner and ever-silkier-haired, made me increasingly sad and angry. I’ve since read in The Africa Report about the contentious launch of Nigerian-Cameroonian star Dencia’s “Whitenicious” range. Pernicious more like.
I was surprised there weren’t an abundance of big chain brand petrol stations. The road was lined with hundreds of scruffy-looking independents with random or even hand-drawn names and no sense of irony: Planet Oil, Heritage Oil, Glory Oil – often lined up next to each other, struggling to make a living. Ubiquitous “Food Is Ready” signs outside every ‘chop shop’ summed up Nigeria’s welcoming impetus to anticipate your every need.
The next day, 31st Dec, the road improved but the traffic got worse. It took us 90 mins to drive 2km down Owerri’s main drag and I began to think we’d be spending New Year by the side of the road somewhere. The yellow and black ‘keke-napeps’ (3 wheeled taxis) were like bees buzzing through the traffic. Sampson was agape at how they weaved and bounced round Big Reg like dodgems; he really wants one for nipping round Noordhoek.
(I had to do some research to find the correct term ‘keke-napeps’ as opposed to the word ‘okadas’ for motorbike taxis like the ones that swarmed round Ikom. This site http://www.nairaland.com/1076145/reasons-okada-ban-lagos-wont led me to this: http://www.nairaland.com/1232104/picture-man-transporting-cow-okada Bonus!)
The sloughs of litter got more spectacular, rising to a 2m high drift along the central reservation right in the middle of town. The neverending relentless inescapable doom of the plastic bag bog was beginning to get to me – how can we humans be happy to sit in our own shit? And be sure, all of us are deeply in it, just some of it is more visible than others. I was really quite sickened by my species and no longer sorry that Mother Nature is about to kick us into touch.
We were doing alternate shifts driving as the concentration required was so intense. As we reached the highway, it was Sampson’s turn to squeeze a car as I had squeezed Grace. The affected driver was very reasonable – he phoned his mechanic, argued with him, got the charge for 2 panels down from N15000 to N10000 and only asked us for N8000 (R530). Most kind in the circumstances. From the hard shoulder, we watched an off duty soldier holding up traffic on the four lane motorway in a random roadblock. Sampson calls it “Begging with heavy artillery”. Gotta love Nigerian contradictions.
Thankfully, the second two-thirds of the journey went twice as fast as the first, and just before 4pm, we trundled into the PRESCO Obaretin plantation. It took us 15 mins to drive from the Sapele Road to the settlement at the centre. I experienced a kind of Matrix-like zooming perspective: the rows of giant palms stretching away on all sides suddenly made Big Reg feel like a toy truck pushed by Zola over the tabletop. We finally pulled into the carpark next to a vast boma shading a wide bar and the kids whooped when they saw the size of the pool. We’d made it!
COO Pieter Van Dessel, a supremely capable and loquacious Belgian, plied us with cold orange juice (you’ve no idea how delicious it tasted after that journey) and some fascinating insider facts about the Nigerian palm industry before we were shown to the guest house. After 2 weeks’ living in a car park we suddenly had a lounge! Talk about landing with our bums in the butter (or the palm oil).
Not only was there a pool, but a former CEO’s wife had founded a mini zoo: there were ostriches, rabbits, duiker, ducks, geese, chickens, bok, pelicans, peacocks, cranes, a tortoise and even horses. How happy were these children?
Better than the pool and the cool and the big beds and the roomy showers were the people: the kids were absolutely thrilled to have a whole load of friends to play with. Ruby quickly bonded with Mauritian sisters Tessa and Roman, and Zola was having a whale of a time on the table football with Nigerians Ezra and Joanna.
That night, The Dress got it’s third outing. Sampson got his jolling groove back thanks to PRESCO’s party animals and some vrai champagne! There was a fabulous meal, I got quite carried away with some seriously competitive table football, and suddenly it was 11.30pm. We’d offered to do a show for these fine people, so we quickly dipped our wicks…
Sampson did a classic Walk of Death over the hapless Steve, and I was so proud of the kids who performed our Parafina fire finale with no rehearsal whatsoever. We finished on the dot of 12 and celebrated with Moet and stylish dance moves demonstrated by the irrepressible Ever and Jagdish. Thanks to the most impromptu bunch of friends from Nigeria, Mauritius, Belgium, Honduras, Madagascar, Benin, Ghana and India provided by PRESCO, it was a New Year to remember.
Thanks to Godwill the chef who cooked so I didn’t have to (and treated me to delicious gluten-free casseroles), I spent the next 2 days taking advantage of PRESCO’s internet access to load overdue blogs from Cameroon. In the strange lull of post-New Year’s Eve limbo, I also spent several hours hijacked by the ghosts of conservative England lurking in old copies of Spectator magazine lying around the guest house, and marvelling at all the time old Tories have to pursue increasingly irrelevant ‘high art’ and the high art of whingeing. The kids swam and played and hung out and watched cartoons and we are incredibly grateful to all the welcoming families of PRESCO PLC.
Belgian couple Steve and Sophie Stoop were particularly fun and kind. As well as being Mum to 6 month old Lucy, Sophie is health, safety and environment coordinator at PRESCO; she says life on the plantation is good, if a bit like living in Melrose Place at times!
I found it fascinating that Sophie and her husband communicate with each other in English because he is Flemish-speaking and she Francophone; Steve did share that they fight in English and make love in French, which makes perfect sense to me! Many thanks Sophie, for the companionable cup of tea and the limes, avocados and coconut from your garden. Many thanks Nathalie for the bottle of cashew nuts – all these things turned out to be vital to sustain us on the next leg!
I can’t say this interlude improved my kids’ manners or appreciation though. Once again, despite all the luxuries of space and spoiling, I couldn’t wait to get back in the truck, back to the simplicity of our life there together. Time and again, breaks from truck life seem to show that comfort corrupts and absolute comfort corrupts absolutely…
Meanwhile, Sampson was busy supervising truck repairs – PRESCO generously gave Big Reg a thorough 2 day service as well as donating 900L of oil – and taking a plantation tour with Pieter. We weren’t wrong about the scope of it: with a gap of 9m required between each plant, there are only 143 plants per hectare, but 7000 hectares in this estate. Sampson was fascinated to find out that all harvesting of palm fruit is done by hand and by women. Each bunch is cut down with a sickle on a pole, and each 20-50kg palm fruit bundle is carried to the road. The men then lift them with a pitchfork onto the back of a lorry carrying 5-10 tonnes at a time. This is a supremely labour intensive process: PRESCO PLC employs more than 3500 people.
They are currently clearing a new plantation for research and development with a revolutionary Tenera species, which was cross bred (not genetically modified) by French research company CIRAD in Benin. It has been developed to give an extra oil yield, potentially increasing production by up to 30-40%. PRESCO hope their investment in this super fruit with a super yield will give a huge boost to African development, providing more oil for a rapidly growing population and more revenue for the states involved.
PRESCO PLC is committed to environmentally sound practices (see http://www.presco-plc.com/environment/) and is also making organic palm oil products. They already have invested in a state of the art solar powered water pump for irrigation. Most impressive of all, is the biodigester that Honduran Ever had come to install: decomposing plant husks produce bacteria which cause fermentation to produce methane. This infamous ‘cow-fart gas’ balloons up under football-pitch-sized tarpaulins and is currently providing a megawatt of power. The electricity this generates is used to process the oil.
Within a few years, PRESCO will be 95% independent of fossil fuels; by substituting with waste conversion they will make a huge saving in diesel costs.
Sophie explained to me that everyone was feeling concerned about travelling unaccompanied since a colleague from a sister plantation was kidnapped last year. Pieter and his security chief Phillipe insisted we accept an armed escort from Benin City into Lagos. So on Saturday morning, we set off with two uniformed guys holding machine guns riding alongside us in a bakkie…
Drafted around 4th Jan