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.