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Making soap.

Which, after all, was what we were there for …

The Big Top

Those of you who know my La Finca persona may remember that I am a troglodyte soapmaker who normally works in my nice cool underground workshop known as the Soap Mines … in PH (which we quickly learnt to pronounce /put’acourt/)  I emerged into the light of day with a vengeance. Our workspace was a huge marquee in the grounds of the temporary offices of ESI with transparent plastic sides that could be rolled up when the weather was hot (i.e. every day) to catch any passing breeze … or indeed tropical storm …. It had electricity, lighting and a water pipe that circled the perimeter and gave us taps on each of the tent’s uprights. No sinks, but a storm drain to one side that took care of our washing up … always the most fun part of soapmaking …  There was enough space for the audiovisual section at the front where participants sat for their initial theory presentation from Melinda  (and for morning … and afternoon … and evening prayers, about which more later), seven workstations, a central table where we kept our equipment and materials and a first aid station.  In fact, unconventional as it seemed, it was almost an ideal venue: we enjoyed all working in the same space rather than in separate rooms and it had the facilities we needed. The only drawback was that you can’t actually air-condition an outside space!  We could escape to the ESI office during our breaks, though, and I have to say that I was less affected by the heat than those of our team who had come from the UK.

The Big, big Top!

The Big, big Top!

Setting up

You can just see me on the left, in our incredibly flattering work uniform ...


Once all the participants had registered and the unlucky ones turned away, it was time for introductions, first from the ESI Project Manager (the wonderfully-named – and wonderful – Gogo Cookey) who then introduced our leader, Melinda as “The UK’s top soapmaker” with which we certainly agreed, especially as she then introduced us as “some of the best soapmakers in the world” – aw, shucks …  We were each then called to the microphone to introduce ourselves. After our typical British reserve of the first few days we rather got into the swing of things and our introductions became quite competitive, involving audience participation and mini-language lessons in French, Spanish, Welsh and Portuguese! I will modestly admit that I scooped first prize on the last day by giving my introduction in Pidgin – and brought the house down ….

Gogo Cookey speaks!

Gogo Cookey speaks!

Short digression!

I suppose at this point I should explain about Pidgin …. We were quite surprised to find that we had been assigned interpreters from among the ESI staff and volunteers – after all, English is the official language of Nigeria, isn’t it? Well, yes and no … In fact, Nigeria has over 500 spoken languages (yes, languages, not dialects) most of which are tribal-based. The most widely-spoken are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, but all these are very different to each other and not mutually intelligible. English is therefore the official language (the Empire and all that …) and is spoken by all educated Nigerians and many others. However, among our participants were many people who would possibly not understand our own particular brands of British English, and so we had translations into Pidgin or Broken English, which is based on English but with its own vocabulary and grammar rules. My language antenna was quickly raised and I became fascinated by Pidgin, which is quite picturesque … maybe I’ll give you some pidgin lessons in another post!

Down to work

Okay, can’t avoid it any longer! We had three sessions a day, of approximatly 2 hours each. For the morning and afternoon sessions we each had  12 participants (plus any babies that got smuggled in!) and from these we chose one or two of the best from each session to do a third session where they put their soapmaking skills into practice and we watched and gave advice.  There was a very wide spread of abilities and education, as the targets were not only village women, as we had originally thought, but also unemployed school-leavers and even graduates, both men and women, and this became particularly clear when we came to the “mathematical” bits of soapmaking. However, it wasn’t by any means universal that the young ‘uns trumped the older ladies in catching on quickly to soapmaking skills.

We were keen to use only equipment and materials that would be available locally to the participants; soap is made from the reaction of oils with an alkali, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and the oils used locally for cooking are red palm oil, palm kernel oil and groundnut oil. The first day we used a mix of red palm and palm kernel, but the red palm oil is,well, RED and our sparkling clean pinnies (and my best white linen trousers) took the brunt of it. From then on we used  palm kernel oil on its own. We had to improvise and adapt our methods because of the limitations, but some things worked out to our advantage … I and several of my colleagues use liquid oils such as olive in our soapmaking and stirring these until they thicken – we call it “trace” – can take quite a long time (for me, usually about one episode of The Archers …)   We use a stick blender to speed things up, but we had visions of standing around for half an hour, waiting for trace with yawning and glassy-eyed participants fast losing interest. However, when we poured the cooled lye (caustic soda dissolved in water) into the palm kernel oil the first day it was a question of “And now we stir and wait until it – oops, there it goes!”

Soapmaking equipment

Soapmaking equipment

The dreaded scales!

The dreaded scales!

Our main frustration came in the form of the weighing scales. It’s really important to measure accurately in soapmaking, and of course we all use digital scales. However, what was provided and what was available were mechanical scales, made in China; if you think of an ordinary mechanical kitchen scales, you’ll see that it’s only really possible to weigh in about 50 gram increments, whereas we want to be accurate to one gram!  But the main problem is that scales are not routinely used in Africa – food is bought from the market by volume or number of items and baking is usually done by volume, rather like the American use of cups. So it soon became clear that weighing was a problem, and after a day or so we learnt to check by asking “How many grams in a kilogram?” The answer we most enjoyed was 162, and we have NO idea where that came from!  Digital scales were rarely used and so it was difficult to explain them until my wonderful interpreter/assistant (of who more later …) said “You know when you go market and buy gold …” and everyone got it!

We weren’t easily able to access essential oils, so we didn’t scent the soap, but we collected spices for colouring, and local herbs that we thought might be suitable in the future as additives. In fact is was amazing the different effects we were able to achieve with very basic ingredients. We poured the soap into small round moulds so that each participant was able to proudly take home their own individual soap bar.

1000 grams? Are you sure?

1000 grams? Are you sure?

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Daily Routine

Strange how novelties develop into the everyday routine … we soon began to feel we’d always worked in Port Harcourt: we got to know our colleagues, our workplace, and began to work out the geography of the city. I’ll give you an idea of what we did each day.

We didn’t need alarm clocks as around seven we would hear a huge clatter on the metal roof above our bedroom. Trying to decide between the possibilities of workmen or robbers, I emerged on the balcony to see two magnificent Griffin vultures prancing around, no doubt waiting for one of us to get Malaria … my room-mate and I get out of bed groaning at the insult done to our backs by the hardest bed I’ve ever slept in.

Less-than-inspiring picture of vulture on roof

Less-than-inspiring picture of vulture on roof

Breakfast was waiting for us at about 7.30. We tried to persuade the housekeeper, Margaret, that they shouldn’t make us a full breakfast and we’d be happy to helpourselves to cereal, fruit and toast. That worked for two days but then the eggs started creeping back in, followed by the bacon, then the fried plantains and baked beans and soon we were back to the full service breakfast with our own personal waiters.

Two “chaperones” stayed with us on a rota basis – the female pastors we had met at the airport – whose job was to keep us company and, frankly, to cater to our every need (except for internet access and leaving the compound …) We had our favourites among them, the statuesque beauty called Pastor Milly being the nicest and also the most amazingly dressed – we were always agog to see her latest creation, but learned not to be too appreciative as they loved to give us gifts!

I want that hat!

Casually-dressed chaperones

After breakfast came our favourite part of our day: the drive to work. Since we couldn’t  travel freely this was the only time we really got to see the bustling, chaotic and fascinating city. We roared  off with our armed police in front and behind.  Our driver , the Jenson Button of Port Harcourt, was amazing, switching lanes (i.e. onto the other side of the road) nonchalantly and driving straight towards any oncoming traffic. We actually got quite blasé about this …

whose right of way? Ours ...

Whose right of way? Ours ...

As we passed through the relatively upmarket suburb our guest house was in  we waved to the beautifully-dressed, shining-faced children in their rather french style uniforms (check shirts and blouses and tunics) on their way to school. Then traffic started to build up and we hit the busiest part of town where the main market is. We called this Umbrella City as it’s a huge area covered with small open stalls shielded by multi-coloured umbrellas. This part was obviously a flea market, but next to it were the food stalls and we drooled at the mangoes, watermelons and enormous pineapples on sale. We reached the business district where the temporary offices of the Employment Support Initiative are located, driving past a mixture of business shacks (Wank Creations was my favourite sign, but I think it was missing an initial S …) and modern highrise buildings. I should say that the traffic was no problem for us as the answer to “Who has right of way here?” was always “We do”!

We arrive at our workspace at about 9 to find most of our morning students (about 85) crowding outside the gates waiting to register. I’ll leave until the next post a description of our workday and the actual training and jump forward to about 6.30 when our last trainee leaves, the workstations have been cleared for the next day and we pile, sweaty, tired and dirty (we’ve been working in 30 degree heat but more importantly 80 to 90% humidity) into our bus for the homeward journey …

Margaret, the housekeeper and Isaac, the steward, greet us as if we were their long-lost children and urge us to eat supper soon (strange, this compunction to feed us up, as on the whole we are big, strapping girls. Well, I definitely am ….)  Of course what we really want is a nice hot shower and a huge alcoholic drink.  I convince myself that I actually like my showers lukewarm and dribbly and then – bliss – clever me packed a bottle of gin!

Sometimes we have the excitement of a visit from the tailor or a shopkeeper (of which more later) but usually after-dinner entertainment consists of talking over the day’s training and making plans for the next day, a hand of gin rummy which I always lose, and slumping in front of the telly watching, of all things, re-runs of Masterchef!  Yes, folks, I had to go all the way to Nigeria to hear John Torode say “The SWEETNESS of the beetroot is so exciting as it BURSTS through the silky cabbage …” This thanks to my room-mate Leanne who is as passionate about food as she is about soap, and whose heroes are the Jamies and Ricks of this world that she never gets to see on French TV ….

I retaliate by spending half an hour looking for my glasses, ipod, mozzie plug-in, book and clean apron for next day and then it’s off to sleep at the ridiculously (for me) early hour of 10.30 …

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The State Banquet

Dressed for the Banquet

You shall go to the ball ...

How on earth to describe this incredible evening?  We arrived in what we thought was our finery to find 500 or so people amazingly dressed in a mix of European dress (DJs, sharp lounge suits, heavenly evening frocks like the red satin strapless number at the next table), ladies in bright prints and traditional headties, venerable old Tribal Chiefs in kaftan/trousers and bowler hats, and everything in-between. Our first lesson was how it feels to be a Minority: apart from an American woman who had been married to a Nigerian for 17 years we (i.e. six of our group) were the only white faces there.
I must say that I’ve never been had quite so much fun at a diplomatic party. There were choirs (I scored over my colleagues in being able to join in the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness”), dancers, stand-up comedians (we understood about 50 percent of their jokes which all seemed to be about the misuse of mobile phones … same the world over …) and an amazing dinner with plenty of wine (Spanish!) which, as Nigerians don’t drink much, drifted our way quite a lot.

Party, party ...

Party, party ...

Then there were speeches …. The occasion for the Banquet was the celebration of Democracy Day: ten years since military rule ended in Nigeria and also since Rivers State was founded. It is no secret, of course, that Nigerian politicians have had a bad press among their own people as well as foreigners for corruption and greed but there really does seem to be a hunger for change and we sensed a general feeling in Rivers State that the Governor (H.E. Rotimi Amaeche, who was elected two years ago) really is trying to do some good and to change this image. He stressed the need for transparency and access to Government, but also reminded us that the Administration can only do so much by itself: it needs the commitment of ordinary people to bring about change. Of course, it’s easy for politicians to spout fine words, but we later talked to a very impressive female entrepreneur (she of the red satin dress!) from the opposition party who obviously had a great respect for him and what he was trying to do.
Governor Amaeche’s speech was interesting but loooong and we were tired soapmakers, but of course that wasn’t the end because we had not yet had the customary speech welcoming – us! Luckily we didn’t have to step forward and introduce ourselves, but we were filmed for local telly – so we were soap stars indeed!

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Looking back …

As you see, I had no luck with Internet access … Nigeria mostly relies on Satellite internet for which people buy a card for their computer. And although we were able to borrow one of these for a few days I could NOT work out how to use this on my netbook. So, a word of advice to you all from one who has suffered … even if you loathe Microsoft and think B Gates is the Spawn of the Devil, PLEASE get Windows rather than the Linux OS if you buy an Acer Aspire. That is, unless you instinctively know what  ububtu, thunar and toadsvomit mean. Well, okay, I made up the last one …

So now I’m back home with amazing memories, lots of notes and photos, and suffering from reverse culture shock (all these white people!) and I have my faithful old desktop back to record my impressions. Obviously it won’t now be a proper chronological blog, but I hope my musings will still be of interest …

All in all, we had an amazing, sometimes surreal,  time: we trained close to 2,000 participants, made many new and wonderful friends, and left a little bit of our hearts in “Pot ‘Arcourt”. It truly was a Most Excellent Adventure.

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Internet …?

So frustrating … I have so much to talk about and it’s almost impossible to get online. We are being feted and looked after but also worked very hard. So far we’ve taught about 100 participants each and work a 10 hour day. Everyone’s waiting to check their e-mails so I have to go – hope to catch up at the weekend so bye bye for now,

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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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