Archive for May, 2009

Our new home

We’re regally located in a Rivers State Government Guest House, with huge, shiny, Art Deco type furniture, VERY basic bathrooms, red-neck lizards and the most amazing hospitality! We are served three enormous meals a day and seem to have a personal waiter each. Everyone is almost embarrassingly kind to us and keep asking if there is anything we need.

We’ve had a setback in getting down to our working week. The marquee which is to be our workspace collapsed in the storm last night!  Initially they thought they would move us to a hall that was available, but that would have meant missing two days of the training as the room was already booked for Tuesday and Wednesday. Now we seem to be back toPlan A, but the marquee isn’t yet ready for us to go and set up – so tomorrow morning should be total chaos!

Never mind, we’ve had a relaxing day of reading, Tai Chi, singing practice (me) and walks around the compound (we’re strictly forbidden to leave the grounds and I wouldn’t want to argue with the armed guards!) And tonight we are invited to a State Banquet! Cue clothes panic! We can’t compete with the Nigerian ladies who look as if they’re going to a ball when they’re dressed for breakfast but I hope we won’t show ourselves up too much!

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The journey.

Friday May 29th

Eight “Savonnieres Intrepides” (as we were described in the renowned French news-sheet Tarn et Bearne Nerws are waiting patiently at the departure gate at Charles de Gaulle airport (having set off from our Heathrow hotel at 3.30) because “The cleaners are on strike”  Ah, La Belle France en greve … The plane to Port Harcourt looks, well, small, but since there are only about 20 passengers I guess it will be sufficient . We are told we will have more info in half an hour, so two of our party wander off in search of coffee and whatever entertainment is available at this time of the morning (i.e. shopping) … and after five minutes we get the call toboard.

With only 20 passengers boarding is VERY quick and after giving out two messages over the intercom, the ground staff are ready to close the flight. Maureen, the soapmaker/lawyer from Bristol pleads “But you don’t understand .. we’re on a soapmaking mission to Nigeria … Melinda is our leader, we can’t leave without her …”  but a flurry of Gallic shrugs makes it clear she’s mistaking the immaculately-coiffed Air France hostess for someone who actually gives a damn. Luckily at this precise moment our Beloved Leader and pal appear in the distance and the mission is saved!

Of course, once we board the plane sita on the tarmac for 70 minutes for a technical check … but finally we’re airborne. The best thing about Flying AF is, of course, the wine … and the champagne … and the cognac … though I retained a sense of self-preservation and and declined the last. But the smooth-talking French Bar Steward plied us with all three and it did at least help us sleep through much of the journey! About an hour from Port Harcourt (PH) we encountered some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and our first sight of Africa was not what we expected … it was grey, pouring with rain andsheet lightning- “This is London weather” someone said disconsolantly

However PH airport was NOTHING like Heathrow. In fact it was exactly how you’d imagine: noisy, chaotic, hot and confusing. Luckily we were met by our very efficient contact Patricia (Administrator for Women’s Services for Rivers State) who whisked us through customs and immigration. Clearly we created something of a stir … most people decided we were a group of Missionaries!

A huge surprise was our reception committe – outside the airport was a line of gorgeous women in stunning national dress welcoming us to Nigeria. It turned out that these were women pastors and teachers who support Lady Judith’s ESI initiative and are to be our guides and escorts during our stay. I must say that their welcome made us feel incredibly reassured and cared for.

Then came the motor convoy … a surreal drive with armed guards and police escorts in front and behind through the waterlogged streets of PH … by tis time it was 6.30 and dark: the town was packed with people shopping at open-fronted  stalls, wading through puddles, wearing flip-flops and carrying their shoes. The driving was,f course, terrifying – we were particularly impressed that although they drive on the right, if there was a holdup people would just switch lanes and drive on the left for a while! And if you think we have potholes on Spanish roads, believe me, you ain’t seen nothing … most were invisible because of the rain, so even more bone-jarring when we hit them.

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For any of my family and friends who think I’ve been even more uncommunicative than usual lately, I offer this blog in explanation (and apology!)

I have had the honour and privilege of being chosen to be a member of this team:


On May 29th, eight intrepid women are venturing from the UK into the no-go region of Rivers State Nigeria with the mission of using soap to improve the lives of 1,500 women.

The enterprise forms part of a non-governmental project instigated and funded by Her Excellency, LadyJudith Amaechi,  First Lady of Rivers State, for  her ambitious and worthy Empowerment Support Initiative, set up with the aim of  promoting  vocational training  and enterprise for the disadvantaged in her region.

With limited resources to work with, the eight soap makers from the UK, France, Portugal and Spain will spend two  weeks training the 1500 women  to make natural, handmade soap from locally grown oils, herbs and spices.  As small entrepreneurs themselves the soap makers will also be briefing the Nigerian women on the basics of business and marketing so that they leave the project equipped to make and sell soaps themselves within their own communities.

Lady Judith Amaechi has become a beacon of hope to under-privileged women and youth in the trouble-torn Rivers State area.  She has demonstrated exceptional humanity and commitment to development, gender equality and girl child education and, through her work with the State Ministry of Youth  Affairs  and the National Women’s Coalition against HIV/AIDS, received the accolade of most outstanding ‘Friend of the Masses 2008’.

The project will be led by Melinda Coss, author of ‘The Handmade Soap Book’ and ‘Gourmet SoapsMade Easy’ and widely acknowledged as the ‘doyenne of British soap makers’.  No stranger to the challenges of  Africa, Melinda played a key role in the setting up of ‘Township Trades’ an entrepreneurial training programme in Cape Town’s  poverty zone of ‘Khayelitsha’.  http://www.youtube.comwatch?v=atlEvW6mIB8

She has also worked on a project in Tanzania developing an existing soap enterprise to meet challenging EU cosmetic legislative standards which enabled them to grow and to export.

‘’Soap making is the perfect medium for social enterprise as initial investment and resource requirements are low and returns can be high – it also offers opportunities to put added value onto locally grown plants and oils, the harvesting and processing  of which can create additional micro-enterprises in the regions that most need them’’.

This blog will be a blow-by-blow account of the project from my own personal point of view as it develops in the next three weeks. In the first few posts, before we actually set off I’ll give some of the background to the project: the challenges we face and what we hope to achieve, and also the frustrations we’ve felt at probably the worst part of the trip – getting the visas and contracts sorted out! I though that after living in Spain for 9 years that Nigerian bureaucracy could hold no terrors for me … I was wrong …

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