The Ghana Airways DC-9 Aircraft lifted off the tarmac at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, flew over the coastline and the Atlantic Ocean and turned right. I’ve never stopped admiring the landscape of Accra from the air and I did just that. It was an early morning in January 1996. This flight was commonly called the “West Coast flight”. The cabin crew welcomed the passengers on board and announced that the flight was en route to Dakar with stopovers in Abidjan, Monrovia, Freetown, Conakry, Banjul. It was literally a passenger bus that stopped over in every village on its way to the final destination. The difference was that this was by air and we hopped from country to country.
In an hour the aircraft landed in Abidjan and I got off. I had a whole day to wait in Abidjan airport. The wait was long and boring. I went through the duty-free shops four maybe five times. I finally got a chair and took a seat in front of the electronic flight announcement board. The flight was for 9:00 p.m. so I literally had about 11 hours to wait. I took a power nap that lasted about 30 minutes and woke up to continue the waiting. I had checked my baggage through to Niamey in Niger so all that I had with me was a briefcase. In those days, briefcases were the order of the day. The flight to Niamey finally got called and I followed the passengers into the DC-10 Aircraft of Air Afrique (defunct since 2002) en route to Paris via Niamey. About an hour after liftoff, we landed in the capital of Niger.
I was greeted by the cold dry harmattan air of the Sahel Region. As I claimed my baggage and walked out of arrivals there was a young man with a placard bearing my name. The young man Gilbert Kofie led me into a waiting Land Rover Defender. I found out that he was a Ghanaian national. He drove me to Hotel Terminus where I passed the night under a thick blanket, trying to keep the dry cold at bay. Before going to bed I was told to prepare for a long journey the following day that would start at 5:30 a.m. At 5:15 a.m. I met the National Director of World Vision International in Niger, Ken Singleton. He quickly outlined the agenda for my visit. This visit was supposed to be for an interview. He will conduct the interview in the car during the long drive to Zinder, on the eastern part of Niger, where I was supposed to be posted. At the same time, I will get an opportunity to see the city that would become my home and workplace for the next two years. Thirdly he will get an opportunity to see me interact with the people in Hausa the language of the area and finally introduce me to important personalities.
The drive was a long one. We ate breakfast in a town called Madaoua. Breakfast was made up of a glass bowl of coffee and a sandwich; in this case an omelette in a long French bread called baguette. My earlier frequent visits to Ougadougou had made me accustomed to this kind of breakfast. Then we continued our journey eastward to Zinder. The dry cold Harmattan winds beat relentlessly on the Land Rover Defender. As the sun went up the cold reduced rapidly to be replaced by head-splitting heat. The air conditioning in the Land Rover seemed to help but after 11:00 a.m it was not enough. We took lunch at a city called Birni-N’Konni. I was surprised to find out that the local restaurant surrounded by grass mats was managed by a Senegalese. What on earth was a Senegalese doing here? I asked myself. Later on, I regularly frequented this restaurant where lunch was usually a type of jollof rice called Riz Gras which had pieces of beef in it and separate bowl of salad as a side dish.
Finally, we arrived in Zinder at 7:30 p.m after 935 km of travel. During that journey, Ken Singleton conducted the interview. I doubt whether he would have ever had that amount of time to interview anybody looking for a job. We checked into a hotel and I got under the thick blanket provided, went to sleep and tried to get enough rest before the following day. The next day we did all that we could do and by the end of that day, I had communicated in Hausa enough to convince Ken that I was fluent in the language. The city was not that big and one could drive from one end to the other in less than 20 minutes. The weather was harsh but I had some bit of experience growing up in Manga under similar conditions.
The return journey was uneventful until we got back to Birni-N’Konni. To make some payments to me, Ken gave me a cheque to cash in the bank. I submitted my passport to the bank teller collected my money and dashed out back into the Land Rover and headed West for Niamey. Ten minutes after leaving the bank I instinctively felt that something was wrong. The alarm bells in my brain were ringing relentlessly. I checked my pocket for my passport and it was not there. I opened my briefcase to cross-check for the passport and it was not there either. Panic! panic!
When you’re travelling at a speed of 140 km per hour 10 minutes can make a lot of difference. Ken wanted to know what the problem was and I told him I could not find my passport. We stopped briefly for about two minutes to check under the seat but there was still no passport to be found. Going back to the bank to check was out of the question. So we decided to drive back to Niamey and call the bank the following morning to check whatever the passport was there.
The continuing drive back to Niamey could best be described as full of anxiety. Gilbert stepped on the accelerator and kept his foot down as we sped towards the elusive horizon as if we wanted to get there before the sun which was descending fast in the same direction.
Back in the city, the battle between anxiety and fatigue raged on in my body. I had skipped out of Ghana for this interview and I wanted to get back to Accra before my boss started asking me questions. I woke up in the morning to find that fatigue had won the battle allowing sleep to reign throughout the rest of the night. I got out of bed washed up, took my breakfast, checked out of the hotel and was ready to go to the office by 7:30 a.m. The wait for Gilbert took forever but he finally came and I was in the office of World Vision by 9:30 a.m. When we finally called the bank and described the scenario of the day before, they confirmed that they had my passport with them. They were going to put it on a courier, so I should expect to receive it within 24 to 36 hours. There was no way I was going to sit there for 24 hours waiting for a passport. So we designed a new strategy. I went to report my lost passport to the Nigerian police. I took the police report and proceeded to the immigration and requested for a travel certificate that will enable me to travel back to Ghana. Luckily I had a photocopy of the passport; and my driving licence as well as my air ticket.
With the police report and a travel certificate in hand, Gilbert drove me over the bridge on the Niger River, out of the city, across the border into Burkina Faso where I waited by the roadside to get any means of transport to Ouagadougou. By some miracle of God, I found an NGO car heading for Ouagadougou and the driver kindly agreed to give me a lift. I jumped into the front seat by him got my seatbelt on I went to sleep. He was driving like a maniac but who was I to dictate the speed at which somebody else should drive. In Ouagadougou, I checked into the Hotel Ok Inn. The following morning, I had to wait once again for work to begin at 9:00 a.m. before getting into action. I called the reservations office of Air Afrique and explained my problem to them. I wanted them to reroute my ticket from Ouagadougou to Accra via Abidjan. I was told to come to the offices of the airline which I gladly did. My ticket was cancelled and a new ticket issued for me for Ouagadougou to Accra via Abidjan. The lady at the desk said they had to give me a refund but the money would not be ready until the following day. I was in a crisis mode and the refund was the last time on my mind. I called my boss to explain to her that I was caught up in Burkina Faso without giving any details. In the afternoon, I got on Air Afrique to Abidjan and then back home to Accra. Wow! What a dramatic way to initiate my work beyond the frontiers of Ghana. My passport finally arrived In Niamey and was sent to me in Ghana by courier.
The actual process of my career move beyond the shores of Ghana started when I got an offer and contract to become a staff of World Vision Niger. It was very painful to leave my job with the US Peace Corps. I remember writing my resignation letter and walking over to the office of the US Peace Corps Director Harriet Lancaster at the time. She was surprised and disappointed that I was resigning from a job that I had not done for up to one year. With tears running down my cheeks I told her that I had a wife and four children and my current salary was not enough to take care of them. I showed her my offer letter and the remuneration package contained in the contract. I told her that I did not know the Republic of Niger and I could not speak French so I was walking into unknown territory. If she could pay me half of what I was offered I would not leave the Peace Corps. She asked me to put this in writing which I did. She went ahead and minuted a note on my letter which she faxed to the US Peace Corps headquarters in Washington DC asking for approval to pay me my request. This was declined and I had no option but to leave the shores of Ghana. Harriet Lancaster is one of the most dynamic and efficient leaders and managers I have ever worked with in my development career and it was painful leaving her. We have remained in touch for over 20 years. The narrative of my two instances of change of job in detail is to highlight the fact that financial remuneration is not necessarily the primary motivation for changing jobs.
On the 15th of March, I joined World Vision International in Niger as the Area Development Programme Manager for the Region of Zinder. Once again it was Gilbert who drove me all the way to my new station accompanied by Ken Singleton. The two of them went back after a day and I was left alone to start pioneering work in the eastern part of Niger. The experiences of the pioneering work in Tamale became my reference point as I tackled my new job. It took me one week living in a hotel room to identify a house that I could use us my living accommodation. With the experience from Tamale, I knew that I had to start looking for office accommodation immediately. My first night in my new living accommodation was scary. Throughout my life, this was the first time I was going to live alone in a big house with a security guard in front of the house.
The most pleasant thing about living in Niger is the way their telephones work. First thing I did was to pick the phone and call my wife at home and assure her that I was safely in a rented house and also enquire about the welfare of the rest of the family. Every telephone in Niger, in those days, was such that one could make international calls. The situation was different in Ghana. The only way one could make international calls from a landline was to apply for what was called International Direct Dialling (IDD). This was very expensive and so people preferred to go to what was known then as Communication Centres or “Comm Centres”. From the Comm Centre, one could book a call and wait for their turn for a long time while several people ahead in the queue made their calls. I found out that it was cheaper and faster to call somebody in Darkar in Senegal from my house then to call a subscriber in northern Nigeria. A call to Nigeria would normally be connected from Niger through Paris, London and Lagos. Really ridiculous.
The headquarters in Niamey quickly purchased and sent a Toyota four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser to me to facilitate my transportation for work.
I worked in the Republic of Niger from April 1996 to the end of October 1998. My family joined me in 1997. Indeed this was the most difficult time for me in terms of managing my family. My eldest daughter was in High School in Ghana and only travelled to join me during school vacations. I had to get an English-speaking boarding school for my two boys aged 10 and 13 in northern Nigeria. And then I lived in Niger with my wife and 3-year-old daughter.
During this time of my life in Niger, I had to learn and get used to working in the Sahel climatic zone and in the Sahara desert. My childhood and working life had been in the Savannah Climatic zone as well as in the Forest and Coastal belts of Ghana. The Sahel region was a completely new experience for me. The landscape, the vegetation and the weather were completely different from what I knew. Apart from the tarred roads that linked cities and major towns, all other roads were very sandy and needed skills of driving that I had to learn.
I quickly learnt that I had to carry rectangular planks of wood measuring about 20 by 40 cm in my car all the time. This was to be placed under the car to support a car jerk anytime I had a flat tire. In the absence of this plank of wood, any effort to jerk up the car will result in the jerk sinking into the sand. In my bid to recruit a driver, part of the interview included a practical session to test the driver’s ability to drive in sand and to get out of the sand without the vehicle digging in. With the vegetation, the familiar trees I knew such as the Dawadawa tree, the Shea nut tree etc were missing. All that I saw around where shrubs and thorny trees. This meant that when one is out in the field the option of getting shade where one can park and rest was out of the question.
My introduction to the Sahara desert was a completely new experience. I had to learn to put on the turban used by the Tuaregs in the desert. I never succeeded in learning this skill and always needed somebody to put the turban on for me. It had to be put on in such a way that it covered the head as well as the nose and the mouth. This is because the air is full of sand and dust, so one had to breathe through the cloth that created a barrier to filter out the sand. Then the very sight of the sandy desert was very agoraphobic. It reminded me of my days of sailing off the west coast of Scotland. The difference is that in one case you were surrounded by only water while in the other you are surrounded by sand. Like the waves in the sea that keep moving, the dunes of sand in the desert also keep moving. What could be a dune could suddenly become a trough in less than 5 minutes. The absence of major landmarks such as trees and hills made it almost impossible to determine direction. If the sun was not visible it was difficult to tell the cardinal points. One had to have a compass in the car all the time to determine one’s orientation. I am told that the Tuaregs prefer the night to find their way as they can use the location of stars in the sky to determine their direction and orientation.
The temperatures were unbelievable. It sometimes dropped as low as single digits during the night and then rose rapidly up to about 50 Degrees Celsius in the day time.
I remember sitting on the verandah of my house with my wife one evening at about 4:00 p.m. when a lizard fell off the tree on its back and died; killed by the heat. There were several trees in my house and my domestic worker had to water them every day despite the fact that they were adult trees. Then there were instances of sandstorms. During these instances, one could see a reddish-brown storm approaching and then as the storm approaches and passes one would realise that it did not carry a single drop of rain but rather a huge mass of sand moving across the country. It left behind think layers of sand everywhere. No matter how you closed up the house, the sand managed to get everywhere.
The other significant challenge I faced in Niger was the language challenge. Although I could communicate quite effectively in Hausa, I quickly found out that the language was loaded with French words. This was understandable because there are no local equivalents for development terminology such as Infant Mortality Rate or Maternal Mortality Rate. This could only be described. But words such as Annual Leave or files and folders did not exist in the local language. I was in this place to do development and I needed loads and loads of documentation which were only available in the French. I, therefore, had to tackle and learn the French language and use it to work. The details and intriguing experiences of how I overcame the language barrier will be contained in my next blog subtitled “Scaling the language barrier”.
After 3 months in my new job in the Republic of Niger, I recruited a driver, Laouali, a field assistant, Oumara, and an office administrator, Habila. Lessons from Tamale were not lost on me. These three people were very critical and indeed pivotal in my accomplishments for two and a half years in Niger. I will forever be grateful for these three people who gave me maximum support and helped me to succeed in my new job. Unfortunately, I had to leave that country under very unpleasant circumstances. But before I left I had successfully engaged several communities in the Damagaram Takaya area and successfully carried out a detailed Base Line Survey that will form the foundation for future developments in the area.
In carrying out the baseline survey I employed standard statistical methodologies to collect data and do an analysis using professional statistical methodologies and finally produced basic information such as the total population of the area, average family size, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, population distribution, common childhood diseases, vaccination coverage etc. This information produced provides the foundation for future planning and execution of projects. I successfully completed primary school blocks to enhance education in three communities. Although I did not stay in Niger long enough to follow up and measure the impact of these projects I am convinced that it increased access to schools and that some of the children who had this access increased their chances of access to competitive jobs in their lifetime.
My two-year contract ended in March 1998. The National Director for World Vision International had a meeting with me and informed me that he would not renew my contract for another two years. He was looking for somebody to replace me. He, therefore, renewed my contract for three months in anticipation of recruiting my replacement within the three months. At the end of June 1998, nobody had been found to replace me so my contract was renewed for another 3 months. In a meeting with him in Niamey with my wife, she asked him why he was making this decision.
Ken responded that my family situation was very complicated. I had a daughter in high school in Ghana, two sons in a boarding primary school in Nigeria, and my wife and I and my last daughter in Niger. We reminded him that before I signed the contract for this job, I had declared details of my family status and indeed we invited him to our home in Accra and he met all our children. So we did not just arrive in Niger and surprise him with our family status. At the end of September 1998, I signed yet another three-month contract to last till the end of December. I then submitted my resignation, two days after the contract was signed. Ken wanted to know whether I had a new job. I told him that I didn’t but what was happening to me felt humiliating. I was basically a “squatter” in somebody’s job waiting for a replacement to be found and then I would jump out of the job saying “Hallelujah”. No Sir! My wife and children returned to Ghana in July 1998. I packed and sent my belongings to Accra by road in August 1998 before the signing of the three-month contract. The most uncomfortable thing is that my wife had resigned her job to join me in Niger and now two of us were back in Ghana without jobs.
It was during this period that I was diagnosed with Cervical Spondylosis. The effect of discs in my neck pressing on the spinal cord and reducing the sensitivity of my fingers. I went to the UK in August 1997 for the first surgery on my spine. However, because I was on medical insurance this surgery did not have any financial implications on the organisation. The surgery luckily did not impede my work as an Area Development Program Manager.
Reflecting on the circumstances leading to my departure compels me to make a profound statement. The future of man is ultimately in the hands of God. Unfortunately, some people think they can set up their own future and sometimes trample on the future of others in the process. After my departure from Niger, Ken Singleton proceeded to the UK for a Post-Graduate course. There is a perception that the termination of my contract was part of the setup to ensure his easy return to Niger as National Director. An Australian was brought in to act as National Director while he was away in the UK. Ken returned to Niger in 1999 but was never able to regain his position as National Director. There was an effort by the African Regional authorities of World Vision International to get me to comment on my departure from Niger. I referred the authorities to the notes contained in my exit interview. The lesson from this experience is that it is the Lord God who determines our future. When people in power make decisions, they should think beyond thier interests and consider the interests and future of the staff affected.
Back in Ghana at the end of October 1998, I lived for six days without a job. I finally got a job with the US Peace Corps again and this time as a Training Manager. The French language competence I acquired in Niger came handy. It enabled me to collaborate with my US Peace Corps colleagues in Burkina Faso, Benin and Ivory coast to design a new Pre-Service Training(PST) methodology for the US Peace Corps in Ghana. I successfully accomplished this within the period of my 1-year contract and moved on further beyond the frontiers of Ghana.
As stated earlier my next blog is subtitled. “Scaling the language barrier”. You do not want to miss this narrative of my battle to learn French. It is full of very funny incidents.