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.