The Other Things That COVID brought…

Not a day seems to pass without my having a staring contest with a cat. What has been most intriguing about this is all the very different places I find them: the bus stop at 6 am, outside the main shop at 4 pm, during my evening walk at 9 pm and most recently out in the plant, in the middle of nowhere. Their languid, fearless manner suggests they are as much at home in these spaces as I am, and have probably been for quite some time. There must be a story I am oblivious of, of abandonment perhaps (the French are top of the charts for that apparently), of having outlived their usefulness as rodent control or maybe they are just being cats out and about enjoying the warmth like I am. No doubt with time I’ll get to know the reasons why, but in the interim – cats apart – I have been grateful for the brisk breezes in the morning and the cloud cover that means that the day starts and ends in the low thirties, not the high forties which cause the heat to hang like a wet blanket around one’s head.

Besides cats, masks are also ubiquitous out here. Mandated since the early days of the COVID pandemic – with none of the pussyfooting and political posturing that has plagued their adoption back in the ‘West’ – everyone has been required to have one outside the confines of your own home. Gloves and temperature checks have also been required when going into shops and other closed spaces. Their usefulness or otherwise is a rabbit hole I would rather not go down (isn’t it interesting how folks end up for or against them depending on their ideologies?) but the biggest discomfort for me is how my glasses steam up, making things rather interesting given my less than adequate unaided eyesight.

More importantly perhaps is a point my friend U, who by the way is most certainly not socially awkward, makes as to how the eyes seem to be working double-time to compensate for the lack of facial expression. It is something that has been on my mind a lot over these past few weeks of work, particularly the lack of a facial frame of reference for the new people I’ve met. Being one of only two black chaps in the building – of similar build and both needing help to see properly – has made for some interesting conversations where I have been confused for the other person as he has for me. All of this rather leaves us semi-blind people facing the double jeopardy of losing even what little help we could get from our eyes. I can only hope the peculiarities of the situation are not held against me when my inability to connect names to body shapes shows up now and again.

On a sadder note, I had the opportunity to join in an online service to bid W* farewell recently. I first ‘met’ him virtually at the beginning of April thanks to Alpha which had gone online largely because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Having recently moved down South from the ‘Deen it was an interesting coincidence to be added to a group that featured a large contingent of folk from north of the border. I got to hear dribs and drabs of his fascinating story over the course of ten weeks and some, as the pandemic raged outside and I wrestled with the weight of wondering if this move would happen at all. I remember one of the early nights in which we mulled over the question of what we would ask God if we met Him face to face. H was very much on my mind at the time, as was the question of why bad things happened to good people which made for a very entitled spiel from me. With the benefit now of knowing a little about his story and how much pain he was in at the time, the scale of the sacrifice he made to share so much of his final days with the group is now apparent. My gripes at the way the world is seem fickle by comparison. I didn’t come away with any epiphanies from the course but the personal stories I heard underscored for me that perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence for faith is the changed lives of people who truly believe. In many ways W epitomised that: someone who believed, was genuinely grateful for prevenient grace and was ready for the end when it came. I can only hope my Prodigal journey reaches as satisfying an end…

*I hope it is obvious W was not his real name…

Weight

For The Sunday Muse prompt #120,  and B who in (wo)manfully wrestling pain to a standstill reminds us to hope again…

**
Remember, in
the failing light
of falling night,
when the weight
of the world feels
like a thing around
your neck, that
we see you, proud
against the night-
feet planted firmly
in the mushy earth,
unflinching
in the maelstrom.
Like the North Star
sometimes hidden,
sometimes peering out
from behind the clouds,
a beacon showing home
we see you and believe
again.

Getting My Finger Out

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

**

I am finding myself drawn again to the radio and to the BBC World Service- not the physical box itself but the BBC Sounds app which my VPN allows me access – and in doing so, all sorts of memories come flooding back. Many moons ago, when I was nearer ten than thirty, the World Service was my companion on many a hot, humid day with not a lot to do. Programs such as Off The Shelf, Wright Around The World, various radio dramas and the bumper Saturday sports package which sated my Liverpool fixation in the days before colour TV (never mind satellite TV) came to my corner of the world, all came to define that era for me.

The offerings have changed since then, time and ratings conspiring to sound the death knell for some of those programs, as has the advent of the internet. Death itself has claimed a favourite of mine from those days, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America. There are new favourites to be discovered I suspect but whilst the new offerings warm their way into my heart the sound of the World Service in the background as I putter around my house brings back memories, and some comfort, if I’m willing to admit it.

The World Service is not the only thing that has become a staple in my life. Between the peculiar timing of work and travel to work, I have now taken to waking up at 4.00 am, doing a little bit of indoor exercising (in a bid to exorcise the fruit of three months of lockdown, two weeks of quarantine and good neighbours who plied me with salah meat and rice) and then preparing for work. Podcasts keep me company on the bus into work and after dinner, a 5k walk helps me get the heart rate pumping. Ideally, I would like to get back to running 10k three times a week but given temperatures in the mid-forties even at night, I suspect that will be a jaunt for winter. At work, a cup of green tea with some mint leaves has become my after lunch pick-me-up.

When I first toyed with the idea of sending missives chronicling my time out here, the aspiration was for them to come out every week. In conversation with someone the other day, the difficulty of building a discipline of writing amidst all that life throws one’s way came up. Part of the issue for me has been trying to settle on where (Medium, here, a substack newsletter), when and what to write about. On far too many Friday evenings than I would care to admit, I have faffed about, worrying over one or all of the above rather than just writing.

So in the interest of getting on with it, here goes:

  1. What: Thoughts, a diary of sorts, anything from the mundane to the otherworldly. For inspiration, I will revisit my copy of Cooke’s Letter from America collection and one of my favourite expat blog from ages ago. Obviously, I’ll be trying to learn Arabic in 1,000 lessons (if I last that long given oil and all that stuff)
  2. When: On or before 10pm my time on Friday evening.
  3. Here!

Sorted

A Lift off of sorts…

Image Source: Rajab Guga on Unsplash

**

According to the Book of Proverbs King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about hope and despair once said – whether in despair or merely noting in a manner of fact way – that Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and for the last three months and some I feel like I have known just that; lurching — sometimes several times a day — between the delirious joy of looking forward to an adventure and the deep depths of despair. COVID-19 was the culprit, as were the not entirely unconnected issues of an oil supply glut and oil price wars leading to sub-zero oil futures pricing. That there was a clear cause-effect relationship did little to tame the perennial desire to find wider meanings in things that is our forte as Nigerians, cue warfare prayers from my near and dear ones, a la Mountain of Fire and all.

The call to suit up and boot up came out of the blue late one Thursday, which set off a series of throat swabs, trips into central London to hand in passports and pick them up and all the not entirely fun stuff of packing up a life and moving continents in a week. Part of me wondered if it was entirely sensible to be jumping onto a flight, cooped up with others for six hours and some, but given I had waited three months for this chance, I was not about to let it slide over the small matter of a lengthy flight. I felt like a guinea pig through it all – one way systems at the airport and all the rigmarole that came with those, unseasonably warm weather, and lengthy queues. Thankfully, I had my friend O for company, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer to slather my hands in. It might have been the weather, or plain old tiredness, which made someone drop in a faint was our queue slowly inched its way towards the check-in desk. We all had to physically check in our bags, which made for an interminably slow and painful process, exacerbated by the fact that people were flying with tons of bags, returning home after being stuck away from home I guess. Once through security and on to flights, it seemed like the plan was to send us through as quickly as possible – a quick turn around in Dubai and then onwards to our final destination being the plan. On arrival, we were whisked through security, on to the meet and greet folks and then in a taxi towards my final destination, reached at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, at which time I was barely lucid.

The price to pay for moving to the edge of the world in these difficult times has been to self-quarantine for 14 days, days which alternate between speeding past and dragging on interminably. The glorious gift of the internet is not something that is bestowed on us out here without any strings, so one has had to make do with a mobile wifi device and a pre-paid plan, a far cry from the unlimited fibre-optic broadband I enjoyed for the past three months. As such mindlessly watching Netflix or Amazon Prime has not been an option. Shades of living in Nigeria in the dark days before proper internet arrives you could say.

For food, I have had to ping WhatsApp messages back and forth with the chap who manages the camp diner, iteratively arriving – via pictures and explanatory texts – on a semblance of dinner. Bread and eggs have been a salvation of sorts. The downside to all of that though is the blandness of everything which led to me retching over a toilet bowl one afternoon after one too many meals comprising of bread and eggs. The small Nigerian community did come through several times though, bowls of soup turning up one weekend, rice on an another and then two trays of salah meat to cap it all off. Weight is something I am refusing to look at at the moment, not helped by the heat discouraging any attempts to running outdoors.

New routines are needed for this new life. One had best get going.

One

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #119, Artistic Photography Dreamlike Portrait Photography by Damien Casals:

**
You and I
are becoming one,
our unspoken words
a voice, mellow
in its timbre,
its echo light
like a soft hand
yet firm, kneading out
the noise from
the silence that we share.
In that silence
of being and being present,
of returning and reforming,
of holding out against
the pressure of the world,
are broken things
becoming whole again,
each breath a small victory
won by persistence,
a fresh shoot
pushing its way
through the things
that rage has razed.

Breathe

For The Sunday Muse prompt #117:

**
Breathe,
in spite of beauty,
in spite of the frailty
of the blue orb floating free
beneath your feet,
stunning you.

Breathe,
because of beauty
because the earth hugs you
like a mother tethers
her unborn child
fragile in its parts
guiding, calling, growing
feeding.

Breathe,
because home centres you
because wherever you are
times and seasons are locked
in an eternal dance

Breathe,
because.

2020 Reading: #1 – The Practice of The Presence of God

The Practice of The Presence of God (In Modern English) by Brother Lawrence (Author) and Marshall Davis (Translator)

**

A classic which dates back to the late 1600s, this is a book that regularly makes it on to lists of great devotional books. This (newish) translation is by Marshall Davis, who has form for this sort of reimagining. Between this year being my year of delving deeper and plenty of time thanks to COVID-19, I finally got round to reading this!  to read has ended up on my pile for years. The central characters are a French lay brother, born Nicholas Herman but better known as Brother Lawrence, and Father Joseph de Beaufort, the vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris. A perhaps unlikely friendship given their different stations in life, we have it to thank for the letters and conversations recorded here.

A key theme is developing a practice for the presence of God in one’s life, through the mundane and the spiritual, particularly apt given Brother Lawrence served in the kitchen of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. The difficulties of going from normal life to a state of authentic union are not shirked. Rather, several times in the book Brother Lawrence refers to the need for ‘faithfulness in the dry seasons of the spiritual life’, ‘make[ing] a special effort’ and using the will to constrain wandering thoughts.

The path described here is not merely hard, disciplined work though, a love for God, instigated by Him, must be the reason why we go through the process and practice so that ‘after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty’. Elsewhere, ‘All kinds of spiritual disciplines, if they are void of God cannot remove a single sin from our lives.’

My favourite quote:

The spiritual life is neither an art nor a science. To arrive at union with God all one needs is a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, do nothing but for His sake, and to love Him only

Certainly one to come back to again and again.
Rating 5/5

The Diary: Jacqueville By The Sea

This has been sitting in my drafts for several months, so I thought I’d try to finish it off and post it here as a means to making use of the time I have on my hands.

**

If there is a silver lining to being a terrible sleeper it is that I usually manage to wake up in time for things, typically before my alarm rings. The blips on that record are increasingly regular –  and spectacular – like this past weekend when I slept through multiple alarms. When I finally woke up (having failed to do so to the alarm on my phone and on my watch), it was ten minutes before my taxi was due, cue half-brained rushing about to splash some water on my face, brush my teeth and grab my travel bags. By the time that was done, there were already two missed calls from the taxi driver and the company on my phone. There was, I thought, a hint of irritation on the driver’s face when I finally emerged. All of that disappeared once we were on the way, and speeding, to the airport.  The usual chit-chat revealed he had passed through the corner of West Africa I was headed for many years ago, and that he was Latvian, not that anyone could have guessed from his near-perfect Aberdonian accent. Scrambling for change at the airport, he waived the additional £1.20, helped me with getting my bags out of the car trunk and then promptly disappeared for the next gig. Bag drop and security took ten minutes at that time of the morning, by which time I was barely lucid and grateful for the cup of black coffee I poured myself once I was into the lounge. I was the first of my work party to arrive, which gave me some time to settle in and breathe a little, before the incessant chit-chat and mindless prattle began. It was a good thing I managed to catch my breath because the chit-chat, when it began, focused on the prospect of my leaving for greener pastures – being a traitor to the cause was the good-natured accusation thrown about. In those days before the oil price tanked, there were stirrings of growth and opportunities and I was only the latest in a long line of folk who had either left or were in the process of leaving. To cut costs, we had somehow engineered a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle, our turn around time being a grand total of ninety minutes plane to plane which left us hands full, running almost full pelt through the airport. We made it with some time to spare in the end and were delayed by a further hour for reasons unknown to us, all of which left me internally cursing the necessity of the awfully early start. We found out in the end that the delay was due to a deportation order being served on someone, cue police and immigration and all the malarkey that comes with those.

The flight itself was unremarkable, except perhaps for the opportunity it provided to catch up on some sleep and a small moment of which I am ashamed in which I relocated a very pregnant woman’s bags to ensure I’d have access to mine during the flight. Not my finest hour I’ll admit, though I’d point to my being less than mentally optimal from the loss of sleep. There was food, some movie of some description to pass the time and then podcasts to drown out the noise around. The Bamako pitstop was just that, though it added an extra hour to our travel, meaning we arrived at Abidjan just after 5.30pm local time. Customs was a breeze, the one advantage of arriving on a flight that disgorged the majority of its passengers in Bamako, which meant in just under an hour we were through customs bags in hand searching the gathered crowds for our assigned driver. H and I were at our hotel by 7pm and having dinner by 7.30pm, before turning in for our early morning helicopter flight offshore. That set the tone for the week: early starts, late nights and plenty of helicopter flights, meetings, getting frogged on and off remote platforms, and largely being visible. By the time Thursday came around, the days had begun to blur into each other, the situation not helped by terribly slow internet which was the result of issues with undersea cables off the West African coast.

These trips take me down memory lane, to a time and place in which I was the young, exuberant national engineer with expatriate advisors doling out dollops from their vats of wisdom. Back then, I felt like I was kicking against a glass ceiling and would never really hit the heights I wanted to. There is after all, a perverse incentive structure here; the expatriate is by definition highly paid – better remunerated than in his (and it typically is a he in these parts) own country, waited on hand and foot and holds a lot of power by virtue of his perceived expertise. His approval is thus something of great significance in the local power structure, and when given sparingly can drive behaviours of subservience in the local engineer. There is also the small matter of the expat boys club and the propensity to err on the side of supporting the hegemony in the event of a potential threat to that power. After all, every member of the club benefits, and the more the perceived requirements for their expert service persists, the more the local engineers are made to feel and look incompetent. Nationalisation schemes attempt to address the skills gap by demanding quotas for nationals in these companies – whether they work is a different matter altogether. The irony is not lost on me though, I too am out here because of a perceived superiority of expertise – I too have become part of the White-Saviour industrial complex, to borrow a construct from Teju Cole.  I can only hope that with time, at least some of the bright, young people I meet on these trips can hit the heights their exuberance and energy deserve, and opportunities to grow and learn come their way.

We spend the last day back on land, a day visit to Jacqueville being the objective. It is one of those little outposts big (or medium-sized oil in this case) manages to find, the small pump station on the edge of the town being the most important thing of economic significance in the area. The road there, usually impassable in the heights of the rainy season, has recently been graded and is thus somewhat passable. Graded or not, it is a bumpy ride, our convoy of 4×4’s leaving dust in our wake as we bounce along the final stretch of earth road. Palm trees line the earth road, tricycles dot the roads and in the distance, boats bob about on the sea as fishermen go about their daily business. At our final destination, we carry out an impromptu inspection of some work which is planned for completion in early March with several strong words exchanged at the state of preparedness (or not). Part of it is a manifestation of that industrial complex, and the resultant lack of agency of the national engineer in charge. Lurking beneath the surface for me is that it is my last time out here. Although, I have been involved in this place for all of three years. I’d like to think I’m leaving it in a better state than I met it. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, plastic shrouds the roots of the trees.

Disappearing


For The Sunday Muse Prompt #116. Image “Seeing Black & White” photography by  Susie Clevenger

**
Yesterday’s ghouls
are slowly disappearing,
fading like the night light
once bright but now dappled,
wisps of grey carried away
in our slipstream,
lingering like the dust
a knight’s steed leaves
in the frenzy of flight.

But the promise is a mirage,
objects in a mirror
are closer than they appear
and though we run
as though the wind bears us,
yesterday’s shadow lurks
in the space between
the things we leave
and the things that
disappear