April 2008

Friends, family, miscellaneous readers (if any),

This is where we confess: we have another blog.

Okay, it’s not so dire. We’ll still blog for you as much as we can, and you may still get some of the rawer uncensored details that a more professional blog can’t handle. Part of our Kiva Fellowship requires us to blog for them, and of course, we’re already behind schedule there – just posted our introductory blog at the end of Week Three.

If you miss us, or want a break from the real life horror stories we’ve been posting of late, that’s the place to go. Here’s a teaser from the post that covers our trip from the Nigerian border up to Bamenda and our introduction to GHAPE and our new (temporary) home:

Our two room apartment was perfectly outfitted – tables and chairs, living room set, stove, dishes, pots, buckets for dish washing, broom, bed, wardrobe, radio, TV and DVD player. Within moments, we had guests in every chair of the apartment, were reviewing names for the second time, trying to guess just who-was-who and what role each played, and brewing a pot of tea on our stove. Learning that Dave loves eggs, a man named Michael (who we later learned is the brother of GHAPE founder Bernadette) practically snapped his fingers and two-dozen eggs miraculously appeared.

GHAPE sign, which Dave is offering to repaint...might also need a hammer.That was Friday night, and we quickly learned how hard-working GHAPE – and most of Cameroonians – are. Work began at 8:00 AM the next morning, with a meeting of all the staff: Loveline, field manager; Donald, Fointama, Mercy, Josephine, and Bridget, credit assistants; Calista, accountant; and two volunteer workers, Mr. Eric and Hostensia. At first we thought this meeting was specially called for us, but in fact GHAPE works not only a 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM week workday, but also a half-day on Saturday mornings.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday introduced us to our neighbors – the immediate, extended, and adopted family of GHAPE founder Bernadette, a mostly female family, led by “Mama,” a warm and hilarious septuagenarian. By the time we returned from the food market and Megan from the cyber, where she sent the requisite “we’re safely out of Nigeria and at home in Cameroon” email, the other ladies of the house were helping Dave to properly wash and prepare his vegetables for dinner-making. Pascaline then lent us a grinding-stone-cum-cutting-board and helped Megan to prepare dinner, including the new (for us) “bitter leaf.” By evening, we had 17-year-old Abigail and 10-year-old Fru (the only male in the house) sharing food with us in our room and watching The Gods Must be Crazy with us on bootleg DVD (thank you, Nigeria!).

Follow here for the rest of the post, including many more photos. Tease, tease, tease.


There is a dead body in front of our house.

Megan: I know, it seems like we are always writing when the shit hits the fan, but I am starting to believe that is just human nature. We have spent a beautiful first two weeks here in Bamenda, Cameroon, working in the office of our host organization GHAPE and heading out into the field to interview microcredit recipients. But, although we don’t subscribe to the “good news is bad news” principle, those stories may have to wait.

Dave: Like previous installments, and those yet-to-be-written, this takes place during a journey. This one is a tad like Stand By Me (based on Stephen King’s The Body), though, we weren’t actively searching for a corpse whilst wrangling with angst over being too fat, too blue-collar (RIP River Phoenix), too abused, or having a deceased John Cusack for a brother. No, we just wanted to come home in one piece after another 9-hour marathon bus ride, this time from Cameroon’s capital, Younde, where we got extra pages for our passports.

M: We got off the overnight bus this morning, around 7:30 am, the time our office is starting work. Late, we gave in and hopped a cab back to our house, which, yes, is right behind the GHAPE office. About halfway up the last hill before Rendez-vous Junction, where we live, the cab driver asked, “So, you people stay up this side?” We said, yes, and before we could say more, we saw a crowd gathered just in front of where the GHAPE sign should be and, the next second, Dave said, “There’s an accident. Oh no. There’s a body.” As we drove a wide girth around the body and I looked in vain for a smashed car or motorbike, it became apparent that something far less innocent had occurred.

D: I saw the body. The broken chair. A shirt saturated in a dark reddish color (away from the body), and beyond that, a red stain stretching down the street for one meter. Hair that looks red. Nike shoes, that look weighed down by rocks. A pile of leaves? Then the cabbie spoke, “Yes, it happened 2 a.m. last night. He was a thief.” This was no accident.

M: I hadn’t seen as much as Dave, and was still just trying to piece together information, while we tried to convince the cab driver to stop, yes, really, right here, where everyone is gathered. This is our stopping point. This is where we live. And, no, we really want all 300 francs worth of change; no, we aren’t giving you an extra 100 francs just because you pretend you can’t do the math… By the time we were out of the cab, with bags collected, and turned again to face the scene, we saw one of our coworkers at GHAPE standing in the front door of the office, also looking out at the scene.

D: Then we heard the details. The man on the street supposedly cut someone across the back of the neck while stealing a cell phone. The victim died in the hospital and, within hours, the public took matters into their own hands – finding the thief, beating him to death, and leaving his body on the street for all to see. Children were gathering. Our coworkers looked rather nonchalant – not embarrassed, or sad, or even surprised. I know the police aren’t trusted around Bamenda, but is this really how things are done here? Another coworker would later ask me in the office, “So, what do you think of our Jungle Justice?”
M: Sometime in the midst of all of this, Dave and I both realized, and admitted, that this was the first time either of us had seen a body – except for the prepared and laid out bodies of family members at their funerals. The raw physicality of the dead body is perhaps the part of all this that sticks with me the most. At first, we headed straight to the office, not wanting to see. Later, after hearing the details, a group of coworkers announced that someone was bringing the picture of the boy who died – the innocent one – and everyone poured out to see. Dave and I found ourselves following along, and suddenly, standing just across the street, staring through the living, moving bodies surrounding us at the still, deflated-looking one, lying bare-back up among a pile of debris. The way that his shoes hang, scarecrow-like off the end of his two legs. The way his shirtless back does not move up and down. The way that the debris seems arranged for public spectacle – a big stone, a broken chair, some dirt and weeds and unidentified rubble – while the rest of the road remains clear for cars to pass. Finally, his face turned to the side in the direction of passing traffic – I could only look for a moment – which did not betray good or evil, right or wrong, fear or anger.

D: Seeing the body feels tawdry, forbidden, even rude. And writing about it now – perhaps even more so. But why? Is it our prepackaged, sanitized Western notion? One that will never see the Death Penalty on public display again – which would surely mark the end of capital punishment. Or white washes victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we couldn’t handle the trauma after in Mogadishu (re: Black Hawk Down) or Vietnam (re: the 60s). Death is real. The need for justice in the form of an eye-for-an-eye is real. We as participants are real. For me, the most shocking thing wasn’t the body, but how normal this seemed for everyone. During breakfast of eggs and coffee, our neighbor said this happened before, in fact when someone tried to break into the house where we are living. And in the office, we continued along with the workday, 15 meters from the body. Occasionally someone would go to the window to see the incessant crowd, or step outside for news if the family would come to recover the body.

M: Which brings us to the next point: that the body is not disappearing, leaving behind only a white chalk line and a police barricade. The custom, as it was explained to us, dictates that the body will be left there, blocking half the road and the entrance to our office-house compound – between us and the rest of the world – until the family comes to recover it. If there is a family, that is, and if they want to claim this body as their own. If it still remains after two or three days, it will be collected by the same public that left it there, to be buried down the road.

D: Yes, this was explained by the guy in the nearby shack where I buy french bread, and who a few nights ago concurred after 10 p.m., that the Rendez-vous ‘hood is sketchy, “Oh yeah, I saw an armed robbery here last year. Got the guy across the street, then me.” He said the dead guy on the street was trying to steal cell phones all night until he lethally knifed the last victim – who the proprietor knew. But even he didn’t seem shaken.

M: When we left our house a couple of hours ago – ironically, to go to the police office, which doubles as the immigration office, to have our visas extended – the body was there. When we go back, well, we shall see. In the meantime, we walked into the police office, wondering, do they know what happened just up the road? How do they figure into this justice? Judging by the stacks of paper and fully occupied desks, they don’t. The incident may be reported on the news, just as we heard last week of an incident where police beat to death a man who had stolen a car. But, the lines dividing those that can wield “justice” from those who cannot are different from the world we are used to.

However, before this starts to sound very “us and them,” “civilized versus not,” I will say what I said after the third coworker sighed, cynically, something along the lines of, “Ah, Cameroon, mob justice.” The same – or a very similar thing – happened just a few summers ago in Chicago, when a van driver and his companion passing through a Southside neighborhood jumped a curb, hitting three young women – one later died. A mob pulled them out of the truck and beat both to death. The only difference, I imagine, is the reaction of the authorities whose role was circumnavigated:

Chicago police superintendent Terry Hillard denounced the attack as “senseless,” “cowardly” and “disgusting.” “This is not street justice, this is not vigilante justice, this is not justice of any kind,” Hillard said.

D: I’m sometimes a relativist, and I understand from almost everyone we’ve talked to that the police won’t do anything here in Bamenda. In last week’s interviews with GHAPE members, I’ve heard of the poorest of the poor being robbed – so I see the frustration.

I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the body won’t be there when we get back – that’s what I’m hoping. I turned my head the last time passing. In the end, we’ll see if every so-called “bad guy” has a mom who loves him. We’re truly living in strange times, where rule of law dovetails with vigilante justice. To quote Radiohead’s Kid A, “We’ve got heads on sticks. You’ve got ventriloquists.” Sometimes the lifeless speak the loudest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first post Dave and I have attempted to write ensemble…and, long-winded times two equals, well, eight pages or so. But, find a time when you have the patience and time, and enjoy a real adventure. While not for the faint of heart, note that we are still here to write the tale and laugh in retrospect.

On the other side of Nigeria, just arrived in Calabar, we must amend one point from my blog on Lagos. Our 27-hour journey (“saga,” says Dave) from Lagos to here taught us that not all Nigerians share “infinite patience.”

Dave: That includes two Americans, too. If the 30-some-odd auto wrecks and an equal number of police checkpoints didn’t somehow reflect the insanity of this downward spiral of a trek, one of the final propaganda posters in Uyo said it best. Somewhere after the warnings of imminent road robbery and before the military police surrounded our vehicle and scared off an angry mob of 50 with AK-47s, I caught a glance of a ubiquitous regional propaganda poster featuring a politician standing next to a giant torso: “Uyo is Proud of the Nigerian Nightmare.” One of our fellow passengers, who soon threatened to call her father, the local police commissioner, reminded Dave that that torso (the “Nigerian Nightmare”) is the world heavyweight champion. It could very well be the tagline for our most notorious adventure yet.

Megan: We’ll start from the beginning, which seemed like a good if expensive start to crossing Nigeria. Dave and I found ourselves paying the highest rate yet ($43 a person) for our first ride in an AIR-CONDITIONED, comfortable-seated van, which would presumably take us (one employee said) to Calabar – 600 kilometers away – before nightfall. Ha. I had a bowl of rice, beans, and plantains before we started the journey and listened in on the conversation between several fellow passengers comparing world religions – “You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person,” seemed to be the final conclusion. From our front-seat paradise, things initially looked good for Dave and me.

It was only 10 kilometers outside of town that Megan had her first panic attack and the situation began to look a bit less ideal. We have seen some crazy driving and some crazy roads in our travels – no less in Nigeria – but the driver of our vehicle was in a whole other category. The following are some quotes which Dave recorded in his journey over the first stage of our trip:

“Dave, get us out of this car right now. This man is going to kill us. I am serious.” (Megan, 10 minutes into the trip and not even out of Lagos yet.)

“The music is too much for you. Off it now!” (A woman from the backseat calls to the driver, who may have ADD or be a coke addict, and swapped CDs and tapes every 2 or 4 songs. When finding something he liked, he would start dancing in his seat, singing along, and speeding just a bit more.)

David: I got one. Due to the man’s penchant for honking the horn 20% of the time (this is no exaggeration, and it felt like 50%) as he compulsively passed every vehicle, I said, “I think this guy dreams of honking his horn at night, one arm clenching the air, and the other arm doing this” (I press a palm in the air incessantly). Indeed, the jerky juts of uncontrolled honking, Mario Andretti speed-demon driving, the first van-to-truck scrape when merging (prompting Megan to say her wisest words “get us out”), and the eerie glassy-eyed look of a mad man … well, all these indicators could have been quite normal by Nigerian standards, so I kept trying to suspend any nervousness. Still, those car carcasses scattered along and on the road – most burned out and one of which was no later than 5 minutes before we passed, with boxes all over the road and a woman bleeding in the ditch – couldn’t have been a good sign. But there was no major accident for us. Instead, there was a little bit of a “419” possibility: an infamous reference to the spam you get from Nigeria asking for your bank details, we would soon wonder if we were all going to be ripped off. And it would be a battle of pilot vs. passengers not seen since Flight 94.

Megan: Our driver, who had done nothing to instill trust in his passengers, faced his first major insurrection about two-thirds of the way to our destination when, at about 8:45 in the evening he announced, in an inarticulate mumbling way, that he was going to stop and we would continue tomorrow. Dave and I, sitting right next to him, only picked this information up from the shouting in the back. We had no idea why he wanted to stop – Dave suspected the driver was tired, offered to open a can of coke for him, and attempted to shout back into the screaming masses behind us that he, for one, “didn’t want a sleepy driver.” The back of the van was a near riot: “You can’t do this to us. You just try. You don’t know who you are dealing with.” Our fellow passengers began to reveal various identities that ought to command respect: the daughter of a police commissioner, a “man of the cloth,” and another man with connections “high in government.” We were used as key figures in the protest as well, “What about these white people? These diplomats? What are you showing them about Nigeria?”

None of this had any deterrent effect on the driver, who, we were learning, has one of those fragile egos that cannot handle any insult or provocation. As the most riled-up of the passengers began to make it personal (“You are a stupid man.” “I will see to it personally that this car is impounded; it will never drive again in Nigeria!”), he drove faster and more determinedly to the motor park in town. It was at this point that Dave turned to me and begged me not to get involved.

By the time we pulled into the motor park, half the back of the van was standing up, waving fists and shouting insults and threats. Our obstinate driver, still with no explanation, turned off the car, got out, slammed the door, and the next thing we knew, the side door of the van was pulled open (Dave and stayed wide-eyed in the front seat) and seven or eight men, mostly other drivers who apparently “had our drivers’ back” jumped into the car, waving fists back at the most uppity of passengers. The driver had apparently told them that one female passenger had slapped him (not true, so far as we had seen) and they were after her most of all.

David: I think the driver had a face-slapping premonition, but I digress …

Megan: In the midst of the screaming, Dave slid out the front door and started talking with a bystander, trying to get the facts that were so missing from this crazy scene. He came back to me, explaining that there were apparently other vans that had stopped mid-journey, because of reports that the “road ahead was bad” – meaning, high chance of armed robbery.

David: It was some semi-believable story about a robbery, a confrontation with the police, and some gunfire. My take: all these people aren’t on the road for a reason, and Nigeria does have a reputation for kidnappings and violence near the Niger Delta, so why risk it? I could have also been fed a line of bull, but my nauseous gut said different. Plus, the sanity level and relative calm outside the van was like manna. That, and the lukewarm Sprite I found to settle my stomach from the earlier puking incident (the result of the last throes from my lone Africa illness episode in Lagos, and not the roller-coaster driving, though it probably didn’t help).

Megan: While Dave remained firmly outside the van, settling into conversation with others in the park about Nigerian corruption, and postcard writing on the same subject, the confrontation in the back died down without injury to anyone, and slowly, the information about the “bad road ahead” sifted amongst the passengers. Some seemed to accept our fate and one-by-one climbed out to get some food, but the most outraged of the bunch remained in the van and the theories abounded. The most common theory was that this was a scam to get us –particularly the white folk – to stay in the hometown of our driver or the company, presumably for financial reasons. We were told, “Do not follow these people anyplace, to any hotel or lodging.” I was inclined to stay right where I was, having no idea at all what the reality was, and as a rain and windstorm kicked up, all the passengers piled back in the van, passing around loaves of bread, gossiping, complaining, and settling in to spend the night in the van parked in the motor park.

When we flipped off the lights and were about to go to bed, the resident minister and fellow passengers began to sing Christian hymns. Hymn after hymn rocked the van, a – powerful and somewhat chilling expression of mass sentiment despite my non-participation. Then a man’s voice from the back began a mini-sermon, exhorting everyone to pray to Jesus (which they did, out loud) to keep us safe and bring vengeance upon evildoers (which presumably included our driver). Our van was repeatedly “washed in the blood of Jesus” and thus protected from all evil outside. I pulled the earphones out of Dave’s ears so that he could hear this.

David: Yes, I did wake up to a surreal stream of pronouncements that would make a Pentecostal blush: “Jesus protect this car … Jesus Christ be with us … Jesus avenge us for our tribulation.” I had a feeling this had been going on for some time. I whispered to Megan, “Did this Christian just call out for revenge against our driver?” Clearly, a disconnect of my understanding of Christianity – grace, withholding judgment, peace – and reality was taking place. Or maybe I was just naive. Megan thought I was judging the passengers. Possibly true, but a few chill pills wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Megan: Despite all premonitions, the night passed without incident – except discomfort of sleeping sitting up, mosquitoes, anxiety, and sleep talkers in the van – and we made it to the early morning. Our driver was wise enough to spend the night outside of the van.

We woke up to another uproar, again one that took a little while to unravel. One woman was screaming and crying, shouting that “This is armed robbery” and “We are going to have to live here in this park.” Some asking around among the calmer passengers and a few drivers who were there once again to back up our driver (who was nowhere to be seen through most of this) revealed that we had an empty fuel tank, our driver had no more money to buy fuel, and was asking to collect another 200 Naira (about $2) from each passenger to buy fuel to get us to the destination. It was suggested (with no apparent guarantee) that this money would be repaid when we reached the office of the bus company.

Long story short, a lot of screaming and crying and arguing later, Dave had had enough. “Not one person is trying to propose a solution,” he said to me, before diving into the fray. His solution: he takes the risk, pays for the petrol, and we get to our destination and see what happens. Note, my amendment to this plan: do not hand any money directly to the unreliable driver; find out how much petrol should be to get to destination, pay for petrol directly, and get receipt. Unfortunately, my patience was running fairly low by the time we got to the gas station, and when the driver starting complaining to the gas station employees about his “abroni” (white folks), I lost it, screaming, “If you want the abroni to pay for your petrol, you don’t go insulting the abroni, okay? We can leave you here with your passengers at any moment.” Needless to say, after that, we had Dave take my previous middle front seat next to the driver.

Dave: Apparently this guy was complaining about us the whole time, but I somehow missed these accusations – in fact, I sometimes felt like the only person giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. Sure, I thought he had problems – his eyes were like a crazed truck driver on hour #36 – and my guess was he had:

a drinking problem

a drug problem

a gambling problem

or simply can’t communicate OR estimate his gas use with his pedal to the metal.

But despite these hypotheticals, I just didn’t know what was going on. I did know that everyone in our van would have punctured this guy’s lung if a knife was on hand, and I did comment to Megan, “If there were more guns readily available to civilians, someone would’ve been shot by now, there’s no doubt.” Tensions remained high, and after securing a petrol receipt to ensure repayment of the $25 in gas (Enough to get us to our destination? We’ll soon see!), we were back on the Highway to Hell. Periodic shouts to slow down or not to hit a passerby came from Megan, and I would add, “Please, could you drive more slowly.” Those went unheeded. We were on a psychotic Disneyland ride with no end. Then, I noticed the gas tank arrow getting closer to “E” – empty – still more than 80 kilometers from our destination.

We were pulling into the city of Uyo where Jimmy Carter-era gas lines of vehicles stretched down the road and the poster about the “Nigerian Nightmare” that started this story offered an ominous sign. This was the town where supposedly we’d find the van headquarters and get my money back. But, it appeared our driver was lost, aimlessly causing havoc in already crazy city traffic, and claiming not to know the address of his company’s office. The passengers who had been just barely under wraps began to scream again, “You stupid man,” “Crazy,” and “You’re an idiot, you don’t know where you’re going?” followed by mocking laughter. The final Mutiny on the Bounty-Nigeria was at hand. It’s all too much to live through again. Megan, take it…

Megan: As readers will pick up from Dave’s commentary, throughout this adventure, I wavered somewhere between Dave’s model of enlightened nonchalance and the hysteria, anger, and panic of the rest of the passengers. Before the last leg of the journey, I took one of the more hysterical passengers (the police commissioner’s daughter, who we will meet again) aside and asked her please to try to keep calm because shouting and insults made our driver all the more reckless. Yet, I could not help but utter a shout or five as we barreled down the road, alternately threatening our own lives and those of everyone else around us.

As we circled Uyo, and under pressure, our driver hopped out to ask for directions to his company’s office, I turned to Dave and told him we were done with this: “When we get to the motor park, we are getting out and finding another ride to Calabar.”

Barely did the words leave my mouth then hell (version 4.0) broke loose. The police commissioner’s daughter had somehow followed the driver out of the van and, shouting insults about his intelligence, punched his shoulder from behind as he returned to the vehicle. Before we knew what we were doing, passengers jumped in to hold her back and do the same with the driver. Somehow, everyone got back in the van and the driver was reestablished in his driver’s seat, swearing madly under his breath as he pulled back onto the road. Then, he turned up the volume on his ranting and shouted some insult about the father of the woman who had slapped him. She responded, with much shouting, by reaching forward across another row of passengers and slapping the driver upside the head with a resounding smack. All I remember in the fury that erupted is shouting for the driver to pull over, and somehow, thankfully, it happening. We tumbled out of the van, most screaming, the driver heading like an angry bull for the woman who so boldly waved the red flag, muttering something like, “Let me at her; I must hit her.”

Dave: Though a smallish man, it took me and another woman from the back of the van all our strength to hold the driver in his seat. This African peacekeeping mission wouldn’t hold, and he escaped out his door to the gathering masses.

Megan: Naturally, we drew a crowd of spectators as quickly as a boxing match on the street would. I went straight for a couple of men standing nearby, saying, “Please, we need you to help hold this man.” About five men got on the task, Dave managed to grab the keys from the ignition, I went around to try to calm the screaming, crying, hysterical police chief’s daughter, and before our eyes, all the ingredients for a riot materialized. About 50 men surrounded our van, while a few enraged passengers attempted to explain the situation (embellishing the already dramatic series of events). The driver was held by a group of relatively calm men, while more and more of the surrounding crowd began to shout, “You are a criminal,” etc. In that amazing mix of black humor and bitter truth, I watched two men successively pick up first a log and then a cinder block and come running at our former-driver-turned-mob-meat with the object raised overhead, stopping just short of bashing his head in, and then freeze-framing and turning away with a bizarre laugh.

David: I wasn’t laughing.

Megan: By now, most of the women had been pushed back into the van to keep them away from whatever might be about to happen. Some of the wiser members of the crowd pushed the driver back into the front seat of the van, where he could be kept both confined and safe. Then, the driver realized that his keys were missing and started screaming for them to be given back to him. Luckily, I think Dave and I were the only people who knew where the keys were. I turned to the police chief’s daughter and told her to call her father or the police, which she did. There was no other way to resolve the situation. Another man in the crowd, a voice of reason who at some point had his thumb bashed in by the driver slamming the van door, had already called the police. Apparently Dave was put on the phone to convince the police of the urgency of the matter, playing the ultimate trump card: “Yes, my name is David, and I’m an American.”

David: I rue the day I had to namedrop The Land of the Free, Home of the (not-so) Brave and call for police intervention, but violence was brewing. In crisis, there’s no idealism: I know being white, male, and Western gets results. I can’t tell you the times men just don’t listen to Megan …

Megan: … And David has to say, “Talk to her, not me.” It rarely works; in fact, it only works when the conversation is in French, and David is near useless.

David: Right, so Megan was marginalized as counselor for the hysterical, and I was handed the cell phone, I asked, “Is this the police?” Answer: Yes, “Ok, there’s a crowd that’s about to become a riot; do you know where we are? Did the man before tell you?” Answer: A vague affirmation. Exasperated, I say, “Something bad is going to happen. Please come now!” Like many conversations of mine in Anglophone Africa, I think the police understood nary a word, except maybe “American” and “riot.” But within 5 minutes, the cavalry showed up, guns and whips in hand, and the crowd parted – pardon the comparison – like gazelles before the lions. It was a surreal sight, but it’s the Darwinian dynamics: don’t mess with the guys with weapons, especially in Nigeria (this may have been our 100th AK-47 Kalashnikov sighting). The representative of the company had also arrived. After our Biblically named “leader” who I was gradually losing patience with for the past 16 hours, Savior (actual name), spewed the gamut of hyperbole of what happened (“This is a 419! This is illegal!” and “This man was smoking cigarettes in the vehicle!”) as well as demanding that “the foreigner” (me) be repaid immediately. Ok, I did appreciate the passengers sticking up for us for the sake of “justice,” but I didn’t feel it should be taken overboard. I also gave Savior the van keys at this point to lessen one burden off my shoulders, saying, “I’m letting you make the decision.”

To both police and company rep, I tried to stick to the facts which were calamitous enough – there’s an untenable rift between the passengers and driver, due mostly to the following: this driver’s behavior is erratic and his road skills the “craziest we’ve seen;” he’s not communicating; he drank beer (Guinness!) for lunch the previous day; he took us to an unknown motor park overnight; he suspiciously ran out of gas money and asked passengers for cash; and finally Mr. Popular got us lost in Uyo. All this was before he got smacked.

The police deferred to the rep, the rep suggested we take this matter back to his office and not the police station, and unbelievably (!), the keys were back in the driver’s hands. With half the passengers long gone, we drove off, with Megan and myself out of the front seat, being replaced by (middle seat) a random crowd-member who seemed sympathetic to the driver and (passenger side) a stern, gun-toting police escort. It was nice touch. The driving didn’t get much better for the next mile, but it was quieter in the back.

After intervention by wel-armed police; see our vehicle in background, driver in the yellow shirt, and the daughter of the police chief in pink...

Still reading? Megan can wrap up this warped adventure, but my thesis remains the same: I like Africa; I like traveling; but I have no idea about what happens around me in Africa, even while experiencing everything. At best I can observe, but the logic of each interaction and event is a complete mystery. For example, why road rage isn’t pandemic with drivers such as ours cutting others off by inches or grazing fenders – is that driving normal? The bus rep would later take responsibility for the decision not to drive the night before, so maybe it wasn’t a set-up to be robbed by fellow drivers. The rep also would say this was a first-time driver, who obviously wouldn’t know the route, nor the Uyo office – so maybe he wasn’t stalling so the white folks wouldn’t be repaid. The rep wouldn’t even admit this driver could be ripping off the company’s gas money. It’s so unclear…

Megan: What is clear is that Dave saved the day from several near disasters and should be given more credit for eventually getting us to destination Calabar than anyone else involved. Also clear is that communication is an uphill battle. No matter what anyone says about call centers in the U.S. (or offshore in India), we are incredibly fortunate when it comes to customer service.

You might think that once we were in the hands of the bus company and the police, resolution and speedy departure to destination would be imminent. But, once we were repaid for petrol money, all complaints had been registered, the police departed, and we shook hands with all the bus companions who were staying in Uyo, it was another three hours or so before we were again on the road. We, the remaining passengers – Dave, me, and a Cameroonian woman who had been traveling with her two-year-old son overland from Algeria for over two weeks to get to her mother’s funeral – found ourselves mysteriously being shuffled back into the same van we came in while the same driver took the keys and prepared to drive. Dave and I looked at each other in disbelief and I believe I said something about how this was like regime change: a coup, some violence, and then the same actors resume their previous positions.

Before history could repeat itself, I nudged Dave to exert his white male might, and he dashed out to the representative, saying, “I’m sorry; did we not make it clear that we will not go anywhere with this driver.” The rep explained that he was coming with us to “monitor the driving.” Only somewhat relieved, we re-boarded, and began to drive around town. From our seats, we (with Dave as the mouthpiece) attempted to tell the rep that we had next to no petrol left. Hollow affirmation. Then, a few minutes later, sure enough, the van stops dead on the side of the road. Negotiations between the rep and driver and a few calls to some higher-up ensue to figure out who is going to pay for the next round of petrol. Finally, driver departs down the road to get some petrol on the black market, and the rep comes to us, saying, finally, “Just now, talking to the driver, I didn’t like the way he was talking or looking; I think he may have a problem – maybe drugs; I don’t think he should be driving.” We concurred, no longer trying to point out that this is what the last 24 hours of drama had been all about.

In quick time, once a liter of petrol was added to the tank, the rep had the driver take us to a motor park from which vans were departing for Calabar. He eyed one that clearly did not have space for our luggage and us, and sighed, saying that if it were up to him, he would like to put us into a private taxi to take us directly, quickly, and comfortably – but, he wondered whether we might be able to help with the extra cost. At this point, I could not shut my trap any longer and I gave my best, “This is ridiculous; do the right thing” speech – in short, “No, we will not pay another Naira; we will not go anywhere in a vehicle driven by this driver; we would like to get to our destination as quickly as possible; we have been en route for over 24 hours; we have not eaten in 18 hours or so; the right thing to do is to take us in THIS vehicle that we started in to the destination we paid for; find a driver, any driver that you trust, or drive us yourself.”

Dave: At this point, my fairness threshold was clearly crossed. I said something like, “Yeah! What she said,” interspersed with some less-than-elegant vocabulary. I also tried to talk to the driver one last time, saying, “I don’t know what is going on in your life. Gambling. Drinking. Drugs.” (Shockingly, he didn’t punch me, but I was trying to be sincere). “But I hope you get help. Hang in there.” He just looked at me … the look of someone who wanted to drive some more.

Megan: Finally, after cutting ahead in one of those 5-block-long gas station lines (where another near-riot was brewing), calling the higher-up for permission to buy more petrol, and waiting for a driver friend of the company rep to show up, we were on the road to Calabar. For the entire 80 remaining kilometers, we sat in the back seat, watching, listening, and occasionally chiming in, as our original driver sat wedged between the company rep and the professional driver friend, listening while the last 24 hours of Nigerian Nightmare were re-related and doses of driverly wisdom – mainly on handling customers – was disbursed.

At the end of the surreal experience, Dave and I dismounted, picked up our backpacks, and, most amazingly, shook hands with the driver. I said, for a loss of any other words, “Thank you,” and Dave, more sincerely, said, “Good luck, with everything. Really.” As we headed off down the road, we agreed that we had never before been so happy to have our 20-kilo bags on our backs and be on our own four feet.