Monday, June 19, 2006



Let me start by apologising for not keeping you abreast of our Warri Story. Clearly blogging is not my forte. I wish I had a decent excuse. I could claim to have been kidnapped by the Delta militia for the past three months but you would say even hostages are able to send e-mails. In my defence, you need to realise that the Tipping clan have, for generations, been afflicted with a rare genetic disorder known as Lazium Reclinis Couchis, commonly known as Chronic Idleness. Whenever the disease strikes it leaves the victim totally helpless and incapacitated. The only known cure is a strict regime of sleep and more sleep, interspersed with long, hot soaks in the bath. Oh, how we suffer!

Anyway, back to our story. We both now see Warri as our true home. Even though we are looking forward to seeing family and friends next week during our holiday, we will surely miss Warri. Our house is starting to resemble a home and we are growing accustomed to the wonderful Delta environment. But we are most grateful for the friends we have made, both in the camp and outside.

We have joined a cool church located in the town centre, a ten minutes drive through the manic streets of Warri. The 'Father's House' was set up six years ago by a couple, a Nigerian guy who is married to a Romanian lady. They were both doctors and had established a successful private hospital in Warri. However, following a period in the US, they decided to return to Nigeria to start a church. This decision was taken against the protestations of their children and friends who couldn't believe they were prepared to throw away lucrative careers in the American medical profession. They ignored all the advice and returned to Warri with the plan to convert their old hospital into a church building. Six years on, they have constructed a third floor auditorium onto the hospital and, from an initial group of 30 people, the congregation is fast approaching 1000.

The Sunday services can be long, sometimes well over four hours but never boring. The church has a vibrant, rhythmic, truly African worship combined with excellent, solid teaching (a rare occurrence in African churches where traditional beliefs or American extremism can easily infiltrate the proceedings). It is also refreshing that we are not treated differently from other members even though we stand out from the crowd (and I mean literally stand out with our pale white faces towering above the congregation!).

On the work front, I have some major news. Last week, I made the decision to end my contract with Shell's Community Development department. The reasons for this are too many to detail here. In brief, I was becoming very frustrated with the slow pace of reform in the organisation and did not feel I was given the opportunity to add my views to the planning process. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the development of the Niger Delta is a highly complex issue and tangible improvements in the lives of the extreme poor will not be effected overnight. In order for the most impoverished to see real benefits there has to be a gradual process of development. The quick-fix solutions that government and oil companies tend to opt for are totally ineffectual. Passing through the Delta you cannot help but notice the graveyards of failed projects that litter the landscape. These provide a lasting testament to the futility o funding grand projects, originally built to kick-start development. The only winners are the companies who are awarded the contracts and the crooks who accept the bribes. The sad reality is that this crazy process continues today.

So what will I do now that I have finished at Shell. Firstly I have enrolled on a distance learning Masters course in International Development which I will carryout on a part-time basis over a number of years. I am interested to learn more of the overarching concepts of development with the aim of breaking away from a career focussed solely on water and sanitation.

In addition to the study, I plan to start-up an NGO (non-governmental organisation). The plan is to register the organisation both in Nigeria and the UK. The organisation in the UK will mainly be there as a fundraiser and to raise awareness. The main reason for going down this road is that there are few other development NGOs based in Warri. This is surprising given the desperate conditions of the surrounding villages. The aim of the NGO will be to work with community groups and other organisations who have experience in the region. I will initially concentrate on water, sanitation and hygiene promotion initiatives as this is my main area of expertise. If the NGO proves to be successful, I will then look to expand into other areas of support. I have already made a number of good contacts who are active in the community development sector. One such organisation is New Foundations whom I came into contact with last month.

A few weeks ago, a colleague mentioned that Shell's health department had worked with New Foundations, a small British charity, and wondered whether I had come across them. I was very surprised to hear that another Brit was working in a similar field in Warri. I got in touch with the contact person, a guy called Francis, who is the pastor of the church with whom New Foundations partner. I was informed that Dr David Donovan, the founder of the organisation, would be in town the following weekend. It turned out that David is a GP in Cambridge and uses his holiday to visit Warri twice a year in order to run medical camps in the swamps. Just a coincidence he was visiting at the time of my enquiry.

On the Saturday I met up with David at the health clinic which his team are constructing in Warri. He explained the work they are doing and asked whether I was interested in joining him for a couple of days to witness their work in the riverine communities. Given the recent militia activity in the swamps, I was initially a little apprehensive but Nolda convinced me it was a good opportunity to see 'real' community development. So the following week, I set off with Francis out to the field. We initially travelled for one hour in the church minibus. Thankfully, they have put a huge "MISSIONARY" sign on the front of the vehicle which means less wahalla (problems) at the police road blocks.

We made it to the riverside only to learn that the New Foundations' boat had engine trouble and could only propel at half speed. After a two hour delay, we finally set off down river. It was then, as we passed the riverside villages, that I fully understood the immense challenges faced when planning development activities in the swamps. Accessibility is a nightmare. Even with a high-speed motorboat, it can take up to a day to reach the distant communities. There are others which are inaccessible by both river and road, where the only means to reach the village is to trek through the rainforest. In time, some of the areas will be serviced by roads, however for most villages this will be a distant dream. They will continue to have goods delivered by slow boats that take days to arrive and double the product costs in the process.

The conditions in the communities are desperate. David and his team had conducted a rough survey in some villages asking mothers the total number of children that had given birth to and how many were still alive. The results are staggering. Six out of ten children die in these villages, most under the age of five. With such high mortality rates, it is no wonder a woman's role is to give birth to as many children as possible. There are many reasons for these dire statistics: malnutrition, poor hygiene, high malaria, lack of proper ventilation in home, no health facilities, poor education...the list continues. If you consider the water issue alone, you can get an idea of the scale of the problem. People drink water, bathe and go the toilet at the banks of a river that is already contaminated from the waste of rest of Nigeria. For a child who is already undernourished and weak, drinking this cocktail of pollutants is lethal.

After an hour and a half in the boat, we finally met up with David and the team. They had set up a basic health clinic in a school and were frantically trying to register, vaccinate and provide medical checks for scores of women and children who had turned up. Alongside the daily clinics, they were also running an eye cataract surgery in a room of a local chief's mansion. A group of two doctors and two assistants were busy from morning to late at night, performing eye cataract operations, a relatively simple task but one that is not available normally to the people in the Delta. Without surgery, they become blind in the infected eye with a high chance of total loss of sight in the future. To see the joy on the patients' faces when they remove the eye patch following the operation was beautiful (check out the videos on the NF website, link opposite).

New Foundations is only a small charity but have a number of very effective, simple activities and it was amazing to see the impact these had in the communities. The experience showed me the importance of village-level organisations who are willing to take a few risks and get their hands dirty. The experience of seeing New Foundation's work gave me the impetus to start something myself.

During my time in the swamps, I felt no animosity and I found that the communities very much welcomed and valued the work of New Foundations. In fact, the further into the swamps I travelled, the friendlier the people became. I would see more and more smiles and hands waving from the riverbanks. I will try to keep you all up-to-date of how the NGO thing progresses. Don't hold your breath though, I not only have to tackle with the bureaucracy in Nigeria but also that of the UK. Not sure which is worse.

I will finish on a totally different note with a picture of our driver, Femi, a wonderful guy but who is sometimes a little over enthusiastic!!

Saturday, May 13, 2006



We have not been disciplined with writing lately. I can imagine most of you have given up checking for new postings. We have been concentrating on our life here. We found a great church and we made new friends here (both Nigerian and Oyibo). All very exciting! We are also bit by bit exploring Nigeria. A lot of fun but very tiring.

Over Easter we went to see Calabar. This is at the border of Cameroon. Calabar has been the capital during the slave trade. There is still a museum to remind us of the horrible past. It really put me to shame to be part of the ‘white race’ who started the slave trade and are still often so arrogant to think we are better than Africans. Calabar was refreshing as it showed that not all of Nigeria is like Warri. Calabar is for us what the whole of Nigeria should be like. Shiny people, clean streets, Oyibos and Nigerians interacting at the same market. No aggressive bargaining. Jon became ecstatic when he noticed that in Calabar they have Water-Kiosks where you can buy a jerry can of water for 5 Naira. In Warri most people drink contaminated water from wells, mainly because they do not care or do not know the effects. Looking through our Calabar photographs, I noticed that we have mainly pictures of these Water-Kiosks. Sweet. He will always be a WATSAN (water & sanitation) fanatic.

We went to Calabar with Elisabeth and Edzard, friends from Port Harcourt. They are very similar to us. Same age, same passions, same motives for coming out to Nigeria. Elisabeth comes from the village next to my parent's home, Loenen aan de Vecht. She is from Breukelen. Very surreal! We flew to Port Harcourt and stayed over night with them. They had recently realised that they had employed an extremely bad driver. Unfortunately there was no time to get another driver for the 4-hour drive to Calabar. The next morning's drive was a nightmare. We had a number of near death experiences. He was by far the worst driver we'd ever seen. He was so short that he could just see above the steering wheel but could not notice the potholes. It was obvious he was not used to driving long distances. Probably his only expertise was to wait in the endless traffic jams of Port Harcourt. We were all wreaks by the time we arrived. What a way to start a holiday. The next day was spent recovering, but the whole experience brought us all closer together. We really enjoyed getting to know E&E more during the holiday.

We also had the chance to meet a volunteer couple working at monkey sanctuaries around Calabar. Very interesting to learn some basics about monkeys and to learn a bit more about the life of this couple from Holland. They were there for a year with no salary. The guy was working in the middle of the rainforest, the girl stuck in Calabar, with the full-time role of mother for a baby chimpanzee. Reminded me of the joys of being a volunteer for Medair out in northern Uganda. It was refreshing to talk to 'normal' people who are not linked the oil industry.

One evening Jonathan and I were in charge of finding a place to eat. We heard from the monkey couple that the best food in town was street food just down the road. We managed to convince Edzard and Elisabeth to give it a try. I think it was a totally new experience for them. We had so much fun. We went around the different stalls, all lit with kerosene lamps, and collected grilled fish grilled and beef on a stick. Next we convinced one of the bar owners to provide plates, cutlery and boiled rice. We had an amazingly tasty meal with cold drinks from the bar. We were eating outside with no other Oyibo in sight, a true Nigerian experience. The great thing was that we could keep returning to the stalls for more and more food, until we were completely satisfied.......and all for less than 12 euros in total (Jon ed. Very Dutch to remember the price!!). After months in the country, we finally felt part of Nigerian society.

It was sad to leave Edzard en Elisabeth after our holiday, but we are sure that we have made really good friends and we will see them again many times. Seems a bit of a shame they live in Port Harcourt and we in Warri. We feel blessed we got to know them.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Wild West


Warri is the centre of Shell Nigeria's Western operations and is certainly living up to it's name. Cowboys, otherwise known as "Okada Boys" (Okadas are motorbike taxis) control the streets and the militia dominate the creeks. The rule of law is for the weak, those with money or power simply flaunt it. Assassinations are rife so all are aware of making enemies.

I came to Nigeria with an open mind and have certainly needed it. As in any country, a minority, intent on causing as much havoc as possible, spoil it for the rest. Delta State is no exception. These last weeks we have witnessed a further escalation of violent protests in the swamps. The militia have again attacked oil facilities and this time have been extremely successful. They seem to know precisely which targets will cause the greatest disruption to production.

It all started a few weeks ago when the military Joint Task Force (JTF) launched "Operation Restore Hope" (which assumes there has been hope at some point in the past!). The aim was to target the bunkering operation in the Delta region. Helicopter gunships carried out two air strikes targeting barges carrying stolen oil. That is the government's standpoint, the local Ijaw community's view is that villages were hit resulting in many civilian casualties.

The militia group, MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) retaliated by attacking a number of key Shell facilities and taking nine hostages who were working for an American contractor. This was the second hostage taking this year and was proof that MEND were serious about carrying out their threats. The consequences of these attacks was that all Shell's oil production in the West were stopped and travel restrictions were enforced for staff. For the last two weeks, we have only been able to travel between the office and the living compound. Our planned holiday to Abuja and Jos in the north of Nigeria had to be cancelled.

The potential threat to expats was very concerning. We were told to pack an emergency bag in case of evacuation. A military platoon was stationed on the Shell living compound. They arrived one evening and for some reason ended up at our house requesting the use of our garage to store their belongings. Believing this was a temporary measure, we reluctantly agreed. Our garden soon became a camping ground for half the platoon. Each morning we would have to wake the soldiers and ask them to clear mattresses off the drive so we could at least reverse the car. Our main concern was that our house could become a target should the militia ever attack the camp. After a little negotiation, alternative accommodation was found for the soldiers. I would not want to be a soldier in Nigeria. Most haven't been paid for several months and have to endure appalling conditions, especially when patrolling the swamps. It is no surprise to hear that at the first sound of militia gunfire they drop their weapons, remove their uniform and run for their lives.

To date, six of the nine hostages have been released yet two American and one British are still held somewhere in the swamp. Reports from those freed say that the militia treat the hostages very well. An American guy, nicknamed "papa" by the hostage takers, was released last week on humanitarian grounds as it was his 69th birthday. Those behind the recent kidnappings do not want to harm expats, they just want to get international media attention for their cause. Their demands are for the Ijaw community to have a more control of the oil resources that is being taken from their land. The Ijaw people are some of the poorest in the whole of Nigeria and have seen little development since oil was discovered more than 50 years ago.

However, those native to the region claim that the true reason for the recent uprising lies with the illegal bunkering trade. This $1 billion per year business receives little attention but is as serious an issue as the major drug smuggling operations of South America (see link for a detailed report on bunkering in Nigeria). Everyone acknowledges bunkering exists yet very little has been done to combat it. The bunkering operations involve those at all levels of Nigerian society, from village chiefs, businessmen, police, military, all the way up high ranking government officials. The recent attack by the military apparently targeted barges owned by one of the largest cartels. This group has close links to a local Mafia boss who is not favoured by the government. The cartel is supported by MEND who in turn retaliated by attacking the heart of the government's source of revenue, Shell.

In the past, government forces have reacted harshly to such uprisings by the militia. Villages have been raised to the ground resulting in casualities to innocent Ijaw communities while the militia boys make a cowardly retreat back into the swamps. This heavy-handed military response is what is most feared and is the main reason MEND is holding on to three hostages.

The Nigerian government are calling for international assistance to help resolve the Niger Delta crisis. Their main request to foreign governments is for more military equipment to aid the war against the militia. As you can imagine, the West prefers the diplomatic road and is very cautious to offer direct military assistance given the country's notorious human rights record. Yet, behind the scenes, who knows what deals are being made. Nigeria is a major player in the West's addiction to oil, especially in providing the next fix for the US. I am sure Western governments will not allow a few militia men from the swamps to affect their precious oil supply.

And so where does all this leave Nolda and I. At the moment, the situation seems to be improving and we are able to travel more freely. Next weekend we hope to escape Warri and visit a small nature resort. Work for us continues at a snails pace! It is difficult to always stay positive in such difficult circumstances but we have to be optimistic that we can still have some impact, if only small. I will update you about my work at a later date. You must be bored of this blog by now.

Even though the outlook seems bleak for the Niger Delta, life continues and everyone pulls together. We have noticed in the camp that, through this troubled period, more social activities have been organised and friendships made. Outside the camp, the vibrancy of Warri town is not dampened and the smiles continue to shine amid the hard reality of life.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

2 x gold


It’s already one and a half week ago that I swam in the Nigerian Oil Industry Games. Seems a lifetime away. Since the games we have had a crisis in Warri, but I’ll not write about the crisis now. I’ve talked about it too much over the last days.

Back to swimming. I arrived on Monday evening 13th February in Lagos. I booked into a luxurious hotel. Did not seem like Africa at all. Surreal. I managed to find some other swimmers after dinner. I was told to go for swim training the next morning at 7:00. I was shocked. I was planning on a relaxing few days. The next morning I showed up at 7 only to find out that they were just cleaning the pool and had just added fresh chlorine. Swimming was postponed to 10. Why was I not surprised? Fortunately I did not know that the organisation would only get worse.

Between 8 and 9.45 I went for a wander into Lagos. It is a city to be seen by car, but then again you would only get you stuck in the ever lasting traffic jams. I was not impressed with Lagos. For the first time I longed for home and found out home had shifted to Warri. A good sign!

Within the time span of 10 to 11 the other swimmers showed up for training. The swim trainer gave us a few minutes to warm up, after that we were summoned to get out of the water. For 45 minutes we watched him show us how to do all the strokes and dives that there are needed with the games. “ Now let me try this” I thought, but there was no time left. In my world I should have been swimming and he watching, but this is Nigeria. I’ve stopped asking questions.

Later that day two more Oyibo’s (white people) arrived, Menno and Marie. Menno is from Warri and Marie is a teacher from Port Harcourt. Both are very good swimmers. The Nigerians had seen Marie and me independent from each other in the pool. Only when we showed up together, did they figure out we were not the same person. She is a head smaller, totally different shaped body etc. “ How were we to know? All you Oyibo’s look alike” Was the comment of Golden and Doc (Two Nigerian team members). They had a point. I had trouble the first time I was surrounded by black people in Uganda. Now I am ashamed I was ever so ignorant.

Marie and I tried to figure out when the games would start. No one knew if one or two people per company could enter a competition. We decided to just try to arrive at the scene at 8 the next day and see what would happen. On the whole this is the best strategy in Nigeria.

Wednesday was a really long day. We arrived, but the referees and the organizers had not arrived. Half an hour later they arrived with two pens and a pile of paper. That was about as much preparation they had managed. Naturally no one had thought about dismantling the diving board. No wahala (pigin English for “ no problem”). They managed to take off the board in only 30 minutes. The metal structure underneath was too much work, so who ever was in lane 4 needed to dive at an angle and use the first few meters to get on course. Registration was on the spot before each race. The registration caused a number of near fistfights for various reasons, one of which was that you needed to show your company I.D. Bribes were paid, a lot of shouting and finally the first race could started. Woman’s breaststroke! “ Hey that’s me!” By that time it was 10 o’clock and I had lost all excitement and adrenaline. I went straight into the finals because there were so few girls swimming. At some points a guy showed up on the other side of the pool and said in a soft monotone voice “On your marks, Go.” This was so unexpected that I forgot to do anything. I dived my worst dive ever, but after that just swam like a machine. All went black. All I thought was: “ swim, swim, swim”. When I touched the wall on the other side I had won by 10 cm! My team went wild and pulled me out of the water. I was hugged and squeezed. The first gold!!!

The rest of the day were more heats and finals. Marie organises swimming races for kids and had previously managed to get 500 of them to swim all their races in 1.5 hours. It took us 9 hours and there were only 26 races (including heats) in total. So boring! There was no shade, no water, no chairs. I think this was a conspiracy to weaken the Oyibo’s spirit. I did hear comments that the Oyibo’s were stealing all the medals and that next time the Nigerian oil Games should only be for Nigerians. Thanks! Makes me feel welcome.

All the races for men were 66m and for women 33m. A lot of Nigerian men would start off really good, but 66 m is a killer. Stamina was not a strong point for most of these guys. The men’s back stroke heat was a good example of this. On the way back two guys stopped swimming and had to cling on to the ropes for their life. We thought it was a joke until they started dropping under water and coming up again. It took me some time to realize that it is theoretically possible for people to drown during national competitions.

Another amusing aspect of the games was that there was only one referee to check the finish order of 7 contestants. Stopwatches were not used at all. Most teams applied the strategy of acting as though their team member had won. Usually the referee had not seen it any way. If it was a close finish, the loudest team would get gold. Doc and Golden told me that the body language of the team is essential to get golds for our team. They were right. Menno got a shared gold and I was sure that the other guy was a few inches in front of him. I was not going to protest.

At the end of the day, when I had reached the peak of boredom, it was finally time for the women’s relay. We had put together a team with first Victoria for back stroke, I would do breaststroke, Oti for Butterfly and Marie would finishing with freestyle. Victoria and Oti are quite good compared to my Nigerian colleagues in the office, but the competition was higher than expected. Victoria started the relay and lost direction with her back stroke. She kept on going deeper too. Menno was ready to dive and rescue her but she just made it. I gave it my all and was able to get rid of the pent up frustration. I was shaking when I finished. I had managed to bridge the gap for a large part. Oti could maintain this with her butterfly and Marie was brilliant. She finished just in front of the other team. We had won GOLD. I thought this was the largest accomplishment because we worked as a team. This was Victoria’s only race of the day and it would have been a shame for her to have worn her swimming cap all day for nothing. I was thrilled for her.

Half a week later my trophy arrived in Warri. I had not stayed long enough in Lagos to pick it up myself. My colleagues were in awe. My home-made cakes added to the happiness. I decided to keep the trophy in the office. Yesterday my colleagues decided to lock it up when I went home. They were afraid it might get stolen. “Someone can smash the window and take the cup. After all is a GOLD cup.” commented my supervisor. He was dead serious. It is the most fake cup I have ever seen, but I did not dare to say anything. We decided as a team that the head of the department would keep it in his office, that way we would not get blame if ‘our’ cup got stolen. Where did the ‘our’ come from? I have a hard time staying serious in those circumstances. Life is great here.

Sunday, February 05, 2006



Just recently I have started going to swim training on Saturday morning and Tuesday evenings. I took me a month to get over my pride. I knew I would have to learn crawl (or free style) all over again. And so it was. My technique was terrible. At first it was like someone chopping off my legs and telling me to walk. I did need to start from zero. On a good day, Menno, the instructor, would allow us to do a few lanes breaststroke to recover. Relief! For a short period I could swim without drowning. By now my crawl has improved quite a bit, but I also noticed my breaststroke is not nearly as bad.

To my great surprise Menno asked me to join his team for the Nigerian Oil Industry Competition. I will represent SPDC in the women’s breaststroke competition. The last time I had any real breaststroke training for was in primary school!! He told me I stand a chance for a medal, but I'm not so sure. I need to swim once 33 meters. I did not really care about the medal, but was only interested in the luxurious 3-day holiday in Lagos, hotel, flights and dinners included.....But then Jon heard about it: “ Right, we will look on Internet and find out what the proper technique is. You will need to do push-ups with your feet on the chair, every morning and afternoon. You will need to eat loads of pasta, swim 4 times a week, run and also go to the gym.” He declared himself coach and for two days I felt competitive. Then I was diagnosed with dysentery and Jon’s schedule was down the drain. I slept for 2.5 days.

A little dysentery won't stop me going though. My race is February 15. I just pray that there is hardly any competition. Good thing that Nigerians generally do not like swimming.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Water water everywhere


It has taken some weeks but finally I have started work. I have been given a lot of flexibility, so much so that I have written my own job description. I will act as an advisor for the Sustainable Community Development department. They want me to investigate why water projects are proving to be so unsustainable and to develop a new strategy for water and sanitation provision.

Many issues must be confronted when approaching community development within the Niger Delta. The foremost is the perception that both the community and donors have with regards to development assistance. The legacy of the last 40 years of oil-funded, top down 'aid' has created a dependency by communities on handouts. This has either been in the form of cash payments (usually termed compensation) or infrastructure projects. Given the current crisis in the Delta region, it is clear these policies have failed. Cash payments inevitably end up in the hands of the community leaders, always men, who then go out and buy the latest Mercedes. The majority of infrastructure projects have focused on developing the status of a community, not necessarily develop the people's quality of life. The construction needs to be big and halls, roads, electricity, and water towers are top of the list. Promoting good sanitation, educating children, training farmers are not such sexy projects.

In recent years, there has been a greater effort for donor organisations to change their development policies to more community based programmes. Health, education and economic empowerment have been emphasised. However, in a country with such an entrenched culture of corruption and mismanagement, it is difficult to change attitudes overnight.

One of my first tasks is to try and promote more appropriate technology, such as simple handpumps and rainwater tanks. This is not perceived by the community to be as advanced or as high status as electric pumps, water towers and distribution pipes. Yet basic technology is the only service level that communities can sustain at the present time. As a community becomes more developed so can the infrastructure.

Providing access to clean water does not have a dramatic health impact unless it is supported by improved sanitation and hygiene promotion. The sanitation coverage in the Niger Delta is terrible and good hygiene practices are virtually non-existent. This is evident by the high incidence of diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid, as well as high mortality rates. One in five children in Nigeria die before they reach the age of five, which is one of the highest rates in the world. It is an absurd statistic given the wealth of the country. The national policy for sanitation is that each household must construct their own toilet without support from the government. This policy looks good on (loo-) paper as it is supposed to be sustainable. However, in practice, building a toilet has the lowest priority for families. Simply filling the stomachs of the children is a daily struggle.

The only way for the water and sanitation situation to significantly change is for government bodies, oil companies, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and communities to collaborate. This will enable standardisation in technology and policy, sharing of information, less 'oil-company' focus, more equitable distribution of resources and hopefully a long term positive impact. Easier said than done though. Local governments are terribly corrupt. Little actually gets spent on rural water and sanitation. Many NGOs do not want to be seen to be colluding with oil companies due to possible bad press. Oil companies often believe they can tackle seemingly simple community development on their own. There are so many obstacles to change but we have to start somewhere.

So that is where I am at. I knew I was in for a challenge but this is definitely more than I bargained for. Will keep you posted.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The excitement of camp life


Yes, there have been pipeline explosions, kidnappings, killings etc. You have probably read all about it. If not, you can read the facts in Jon's article. Seems all quite serious, but in everyday life we notice very little of this, except the worried emails and phone calls have increased. It is interesting to see how the media can exaggerate without lying straight out. I read an article on the BBC that gave the impression everyone was evacuated out of Nigeria. Not quite. The only effect of all this is that I do not get to travel to swamp locations.

My colleagues are quite calm about it. Seems to be a reoccuring cycle. Violence is just part of life. I think our outlook will change in 3 years here. Most expats in the camp are not too shocked by it either. We are advised to not travel on our own at night, but I was not thinking of that anyway. There are those who do not like it here and use this sequence of events as an extra argument to convince their husbands to leave.

The reason we did not write earlier is that in contrast to the news you have read, our personal life has been a bit dull. No major adventures, just the challenge of not feeling trapped in the camp or getting depressed with the mundanity. I have my good moments and my bad moments. I usually get my dip on Sunday afternoon. Even though it reoccurs, it seems just as severe. Each time it hits me that this weekend was just a repetition of the weekend before and the one before; run, swim, go somewhere for coffee, have someone over for dinner, bake a cake, write emails, complain about the slow delivery of sea freight etc. I am still working on a plan to do something useful in my weekends and evenings. Never thought I would miss the DIY (Do It Yourself) that haunted us at our house in Groningen. At least it gave me a feeling of accomplishment. Do not think I am depressed. This is just me. After a few hours of feeling sorry for myself, I will usually cheer up by doing some sort of exercise. Jon must find me very tiring. His emotions seem very stable. I think a lot of women go through the same or worse here. There are those who are here for their husband's job and have lost their social life, their own job and part of their identity. The perception of this camp can easily change from a 'centre park' to a prison.

Once we have our car we can go on day trips in the weekends which will break the monotony. I am also trying to start some type of distance learning, just to give me a sense of purpose. Sorry that this blog is not a glory story. It is really not bad here, but I can not hide here from the big questions of life. So that is the excitement of camp life!

Kidnappings in the swamps


If you've seen the international news recently you will know that the Niger Delta is experiencing another violent episode. The problems to date, have been concentrated in the swamp region of the Bayelsa State which borders Delta where we are based. Three major incidents have been reported. Firstly militia sabotaged a major oil pipeline causing widespread pollution and an immense fire. They then attacked a boat of a security company who were guarding an offshore installation. Four hostages were taken - an American, a Brit, a Honduran and a Bulgarian. This was 8 days ago and as yet they have not been released. It is very rare that kidnappers harm any hostages, though the worry is that they would be caught in the crossfire should the military use force. The final incident occurred last weekend when two houseboats, used by Shell staff, were attacked and set alight. Two Nigerian catering staff died and numerous others were wounded. Shell have since evacuated most of their workers from the swamp region, though production of oil resumes at a reduced level.

This is not the first time such violent incidents have occurred in the oil rich region. The reality is that there is such immense inequality here that it is almost inevitable. Many people believe the reason for the cuurent outburst is the forthcoming presidential election in 2007. A power struggle exists between the numerous tribes of the south. One of these are the Ijaws, the predominant tribe of the Delta swamps and they are willing to fight for a slice of the oil-profit pie.

The Ijaws are, generally speaking, a peaceful and relaxed people. They are a fishing community, constructing their homes on stilts in the water or on the tiny land outcrops dotted amongst the maze of rivers in the delta swamp. Since the discovery of oil though, the finally balanced traditional system of the Ijaws has been shaken. They see the vast oil installations and are aware of the billions of dollars being made by the priveledged few. Understandably, the Ijaw people want to have adequate compensation and the youth especially are becoming restless. They have seen very little change in the quality of life for their communites. The reasons for this are many: corrupt government, lack of investment by oil companies, difficult environment for development, poor education of people, high mortality rates, etc.

As a result, many young men have joined militia groups who fight to gain recognition and to highlight their cause. The oil companies, Shell being the largest, are an easy target for these groups and, hence, the regular attacks on pipelines and facilities. The militia are financed by money made from 'bunkering' or stealing oil from pipelines. It is estimated that over 10% of all oil produced in Nigeria is stolen and sold to giant cartels. Pilots of the helicopters have told me that they often see illegal barges, hidden among the creeks and rivers in the swamps, waiting for nightfall when they take the oil to a ship waiting offshore. It is common knowledge that this occurs and it is clear there are those in high positions in government who also profit from this illegal activity.

By the way, I heard an interesting fact recently. Did you know that out of every $50 made on a barrel of Shell produced oil, $44 goes to the Nigerian government, $4 to operational costs, $1 to other companies and just $1 for Shell itself. There again, at a full production of 1 million barrels a day, Shell still make a lot of money but the Nigerian government make a whole lot more.

I also read the other day the 2004 Financial Report of Edo State, a minor oil state, north of here. I was astounded at how they allocated their budget and how they openly confessed it in the press. Out of a budget of around $150 million, they spent only 0.5% on health and absolutely nothing on rural water and sanitation. Most of the money, some $85 million, went on salaries, overhead costs, pensions, gratuities, etc for the state officials. Looking at this it is no wonder the rural folk remain in absolute poverty while the state governors drive past in half a million dollar Hummer. What a country!

Over the last 30 years much of the oil profits have been looted and stashed in foreign bank accounts. A recent leaked memo from the World Bank identifies some of the presidents and generals (many still alive today) who are to blame along with the amount of money still in foreign banks (check out the website to the right for the full report). Former president Babangida tops the list with an estimated 6.2 billion pounds, 7.41 billion Swiss Franc, 2 billion US dollars and 9 billion DeutscheMarks stashed away. Whatever could one man do with so much money??

A final word...just to say that Nolda and I are OK and that everything is very safe here in Warri. It is very unlikely that the we will see any unrest in this area and Shell will not take any risks if there is the possibility of please don't worry!!