Roller wire

Keeping the West African theme going, here is a Broad-billed roller that conveniently perched
on a wire opposite the garden wall just long enough for a quick scribble in my sketchbook.
There is a three year gap between that observation and this painting. I kept the rendering lose and simple,
giving the flat blue sky some interest with vertical brush strokes, and showing off the subtle mauve and
maroon colours of the plumage. A fairly common site along roadsides in Nigeria, this species has the
brightest yellow bill that stands out against any background.

Broad-billed roller acrylic
Broad-billed roller, acrylic on canvas 16×20 inches, 2017

Recycling parts of a failed watercolour painting into collage

Sketches from three years ago used as reference for this paper collage. Agamas, though absolutely
everywhere in Nigeria, never let you get close, and these two females looked down on me with
confidence, verging on smugness, knowing they could dash away at lightning speed.

agamas
Agamas on top of the wall. Drawn from life in the garden, Osogbo, Nigeria
agamas watercolour
Taking the sketches a bit further with some colour.
“Has he seen us? Yeah I think he’s seen us…”

I’ve recycled pieces of what was a ‘failed’ watercolour painting (we’ve all got them…), in this case
a landscape of a wheat field and evening sky, to hint at the texture and colour of the lizards atop
the garden wall in Osogbo. I omitted the actual wall, as I wanted to concentrate the viewer’s
attention on the lizards under the huge banana leaf. It may have been interesting to include
some shards of glass for a spot of urban realism, but I decided against it. For the impression
of bright sunlight bouncing off of every surface, it seemed ‘less is more’ was the way to go.

Agamas, collage 2017
Agamas, paper collage, 530 x 350mm approx. 2017 Placing the minimum of elements still seemed to take nearly all day until I was happy with it.

 

Sunbird on the porch

I’m producing some small African bird paintings seen on recent trips
to Nigeria. Choosing as a subject the Variable Sunbird that came into
the yard at the house in Abuja, visiting the flowers (sometimes quite
noisily for such a small bird). As a starting point, I looked back through
my sketchbook notes and used some photos of the porch wall, heavily
textured and stained with algae.

sketchbook_spread

flowersDSC_0024
I was keen to use the texture on the wall in the image

To try and keep it fresh and lively and not overwork things, I decided to
mock up a version in paper collage. This way I could work out the pose,
and placing of elements, but also my limited stock of coloured paper
forces me to simplify. Male variable sunbirds have iridescent plumage
that reflects brilliant metallic turquoise and green turning to purple,
but can appear plain black or even dull olive in certain light. I was after
nailing this early on, so when getting around to a painted version
using the collage as the main reference, I won’t get distracted with
unnecessary detail and ‘realism’. Hopefully I may even end up with
something I had in my mind’s eye to begin with…just for a change!

sunbird_work_in_progress
Trying out the basic shapes. I hadn’t decided very much at this early stage, although keeping it simple was important
sunbird on the porch
The texture of the wall was achieved by tearing off a layer of paper stuck over another. The effect is pretty random but works just fine.

The two-tone leaves, and diagonal cuts in the clay pot recall
some African textile style, and the whole composition ended
up being about colours and shapes, and quite poster-like.
I’m quite happy with it just now, but never one hundred
percent certain anything is finished, maybe that’s a good
thing though?


 

Ant’s eye view

The flash of yellowish green, black, and a bit of red as you disturb a Green Woodpecker up ahead, flying directly away from you in that classic, undulating flapping flight. Probing for ants, a favourite food, this one was on my front lawn, seen from indoors. The bill is remarkably large and dagger-like, and if I was an ant, I might feel quite intimidated.
I was aiming to capture, from an ant’s eye view, that intense look in the woodpecker’s eye as it concentrates on what can be had below.

The finished image continues the paper collage series.

ant'seyeview_collage

 

 

To Lagos and beyond

The first business of the day is to buy air tickets for our flight to Lagos. Once reserved over the phone, we buy the tickets at the bank using cash. At the ATM, the N60k needed plus another N20k for later gives me a fat wallet which I give up trying to close, it’s only a short walk after all. The revolving door ‘capsules’ are supervised by an attentive security guard in paramilitary style uniform, and I can’t help thinking if they also serve to keep the sand outside. Inside the bank there are a dozen or so men standing and sitting waiting for
this or that.

Most staff are dressed western style and very smartly, with many busy conversations ongoing at once, unlike a western bank which in contrast seems to be a place of orderly silence. Although there are computers, things written on paper are still an important part of proceedings here. We are ushered through to a back room where we will hand over our cash. There are piles of paper files, counterfoils and banknote wraps strewn here and there and our money is counted by an old but very serviceable counting machine. We pass back through the tiny revolving capsules and back out into the blazing sun.banknote-wraps-sm1

Friday August 7th. Today we are leaving for Lagos, our flight stopping over briefly in Abuja. We have already met Babangida, a handsome and tall quiet man smartly dressed Hausa style, who has offered to take us to the airport as his wife Amal and young son Muhammed are also on the same flight. We leave on time in his new silver Toyota pick up and head off to the Sir Ahmadu Bello International, where ours is the only flight leaving today. There are many hands to make light work of helping you through the check-in process. They seem to be sharing one pen. The double height hall is light and modern with polished flooring reflecting the officials looking on from a balcony.

The check-in instructions are hand written on a large yellow card taped to the side of the desk, and I assume they haven’t finished implementing the signage program. As usual there are men wearing combinations of paramilitary uniforms with epilettes, berets and desert boots, and nearly everyone else, whether staff or passenger, is dressed in native style. Even me. I’m wearing a new smock style kaftan and matching trousers (one size fits all) in subtley patterned lavender grey waxed cotton with intricate embroidery around the neck and collar, finished off with my black velvet fila hat and suede loafers. I opted for this garb instead of western clothing as it’s going to be a long hot day. I was right. Through the security checks and sat in the empty departure lounge, I see the agama lizards outside casually owning the rock landscaping that line the path to the concrete apron. The plane will be a while yet. I don’t think the lizards are at all bothered.

We duly arrived in Abuja, but our plane was then diverted to Calabar (with our luggage still on board) to bring stranded passengers back to the capital, as the sister aircraft had mechanical problems. This made our one hour stop-over more like five hours. Amal decided it might be best to pray while we waited, and left Muhammed and her luggage with us. After an hour she hadn’t returned, and I began getting a little anxious. We decided to go on up to the domestic departures lounge anyway, as she would presumably just follow on in her own good time. The young security guard at baggage check signalled me over, and as I began to raise my arms for the inevitable frisk down, he said “No, no… I like your attire”  “Oh, right..” I said in relief, as I had fully expected “Have you packed this bag yourself sir?” which of course I hadn’t, and might have been slightly awkward to say the least.
airport-passengers-e1446751122597

Several people commented on my garb, and curiously they all said exactly the same words as the security guy. I even posed for photos once. When we finally discovered our plane was boarding (it wasn’t at all obvious, a flaw that needs sorting out, airport management please note..), much fuss was created on the tarmac while we identified our luggage. The trick is to physically point at it and make sure the staff notice you, stating your destination at the same time. For the paranoid, watching them actually take it across to the luggage doors on the aircraft is a useful extra measure. If not shepherded in this way it will not be stowed, the assumption being it’s destined for another plane altogether, and could then be as good as lost.

One of Amal’s bags was coming apart, it was a large carrier bag with handles, the type issued by superstores, and taped up. There were fresh moringa leaves spilling, holding up the flight a further ten minutes while tape was sent for. Eventually the bag was repaired to the satisfaction of the staff and we were on our way. Forty-five minutes later and as dusk approached, we landed at the cosmopolitan sprawl that is Lagos, now dubbed the Dubai of Africa. Outside, moths fly around the bright lights and in the noticeably humid night air a small scrum of boys are more than willing to help you with your luggage (if you let go of it, someone will literally take it from you and head on to the taxi rank, such is the urgency to earn some dash). Arrangements had been made for us to be collected and driven to our accommodation for the night with Rita, a relative, and we said goodbye to Amal and her son as her father-in-law loaded the trunk of his car with her moringa leaves. Tomorrow we will return to Osogbo but first, starving as I am, I will have to negotiate some Egusi soup.

Forty Orphans

Bala is a round, jolly young man with a very dark complexion and always smiling. Today he is showing us the nearby Zainab Saidu Usman D/Gari Orphanage, where he spent most of his childhood, but still was motivated enough to educate himself and avoid falling into the begging trap as so many disadvantaged do. Also with us is Mariam, a very tall twenty three year old wearing a cerise pink hijab. She also grew up in the orphanage. In a moment of madness and for reasons known only to herself, her mother decided to literally burn her infant feet, and so Mariam now lives life as a double amputee with scarred stumps, managing day to day using hand made leather shoes, which in reality are more like cups, and of slightly different sizes. She would benefit greatly from bespoke orthapaedic shoes that only specialists can provide.
I can’t help wondering how she’s managed all this time.

Set in several hundred square metres of ground large enough for a few trees and for growing some crops, the main building is raised above ground level by a few steps and consists of a single story square layout with a central open air courtyard. One of the dorms serves as a dayroom, with children from toddlers to teens watching tv or sleeping, sitting or lying on the bunk beds or on the bare tiled stone floor. There are forty children here, the older ones go out for the day but there is little to occupy the younger ones. One baby, asleep in a cot cleverly fashioned from steel bars and tubes and softened with two colour basketry contained a baby that had just recovered from malnutrition, looking a little thin in the arms and legs but we were assured she was out of danger.
orphan girl

 

Another room was for babies, mostly sleeping in their cots. There are only two full time staff looking after all these youngsters, and they do their best. The roof leaks in places producing large stains and bowed ceiling tiles, and the air is stale and thick. Replacing all the bedding and redecorating throughout would be a good thing, followed perhaps by a rota of chores for the older kids which would help out the staff while giving them some routine and a sense of responsibility, certainly better than sitting around all day watching western tv.

Outside in the sandy yard washing is hanging on the line strung between two trees and cooking takes place over an open fire, pots large and small and the traditional wooden pestle and mortar for pounding yams (called an Odo) are strewn about. Most of the grounds look a little neglected, and the children could be actively involved in projects that could improve their environment, such as a kitchen garden or safe play area, or decorate the dorms and dark corridors with their artwork. Some of the grounds are used to cultivate crops, but the children receive no benefits from this. At the moment at least, it appears that nobody cares that much, at least they are all off the streets.
We come away with plenty to think about.

Operations HQ

I’m standing on the balcony of the newly named Entrepreneurship Development Centre, Emir Haruna Road, Kebbi. Directly opposite is a door and gatemaker’s yard. There seems to be a standard size, with most having quite intricate patterns welded on to the panel faces. The sun is high and the shadows are short. A hawk swoops by fast and straight across the road and disappears over the trees. Could have been any one of a dozen or so species, but the silverbill finches in the small tree in the yard remain undisturbed.
doormakers-yard-kebbi

A man passes by dressed entirely in white with a white tray on his head, too far away to see what was in the tray, suffice to say it was also white. The finished shiny doors catch the sun as they lean on the perimeter fence on display, and the occasional welding flash erupts from the rusty stacks of sheet metal in the yard, shaded by the Neem trees.

The Centre is set up to give young people a helping hand setting up their own art and craft business, anything from shoemaking and beadwork to basketry and jewellery. The taylors are the main focus though, and have been brought here from Osogbo in the South to expand their business. They have a full order book.

Something of a hub of operations for Jumoke’s various business endeavours, the Centre is being visited today by the Kebbi State governor’s wife, Doctor Zainab Atiku Bagudu. Thanks to some frantic phone calls and last minute changes of schedule in response to the (inevitable) short notice her PR team gave, everything is in place to show off the products and talents on offer. She is due to arrive at ten. Five hours later an advance security detail appears and gives the layout and exits a once over and quietly informs us the official cars will arrive within the next half hour.

I watch from the balcony as the motorcade overshoots, reverses up the road and pulls in to the forecourt, all this maneuvering causing them to temporarily close the road while the vehicles assemble. Across the road boys on machines with their pillion passengers stop to look on. Half a dozen soldiers step out of their black SUV, and are directed to the perimeters of the forecourt by their commander who looks pretty cool in his dark glasses and beret. At this point I move inside to be on hand as the governor’s wife and daughters with entourage and photographers duly arrive upstairs and their tour begins. The whole place is suddenly jam packed with colourfully dressed ladies with their PR contingent taking photos and video on various cameras and tablets.
edc-and-bagudu

I am introduced as a foreign visitor and only just managed to remember the Islamic etiquette to not shake hands, but not before my arm flinched upwards. Thanks to a very discreet slight body movement as a prompt from Dr. Bagudu my arm stayed down. I’m sure only the two of us noticed! As the cameras turn my way she asks “And have they shown you some interesting places around Kebbi?” “Yes we visited the Argungu fishing village yesterday which was…”
I started to reply, not finishing my sentence as she turned towards the cameras and staff taking down notes, “I was brought up in Argungu” she proceeded, recounting a childhood detail. I could see how well Dr. Bagudu was versed in the whole meet and greet side of being a public figure here, and how cleverly she turned the question into a self
promotional anecdote for the cameras. I also appreciated how carefully managed
these things are, despite the (again, inevitable) schedule overrun.

When it was time to leave, a group of people were waiting by the vehicles for handouts. News travels fast around here, I thought, as it seemed only half an hour or so had passed since they first arrived. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip” Dr Bagudu said with a smile as I took her photo. “I’m sure I will” I confidently replied. Lengthy goodbyes were exchanged and everyone climbed back into their respective vehicles and left. The whole visit was chalked up as a success.
sewing

Earlier today we bought tickets for our flight to Lagos. Once reserved over the phone, we buy the tickets at the bank using cash. At the ATM, the N60k needed plus another N20k for later gives me a fat wallet which I give up trying to close, it’s only a short walk after all. The revolving door ‘capsules’ are supervised by an attentive security guard in paramilitary style uniform and I can’t help thinking if they also serve to keep the sand outside. Inside the bank there are a dozen or so men standing and sitting waiting for this or that. Most staff are dressed western style and very smartly, with many busy conversations ongoing at once, unlike a western bank which in contrast seems to be a place of orderly silence. Although there are computers, things written on paper are still an important part of proceedings here. We are ushered through to a back room where we will hand over our cash. There are piles of paper files, counterfoils and banknote wraps strewn here and there and our money is counted by an old but very serviceable counting machine. We pass back through the tiny revolving capsules and back out into the blazing sun.

Argungu

We are heading from Birnin Kebbi north-east to Argungu. It’s about 53 km. One perfect painterly composition after another whizzes past the car window. Rice and vegetables tended by people of all ages, groups of men sitting in the shade of trees, footpaths winding tantalisingly out of site into the green, the painterly rustic decay and distant rocky outcrops. The sun is already low and some heavy clouds are forming in the distance. Although it is getting towards the end of the day, there is still much activity on the streets, and trading goes on well after dark. Along the straight road, we pass some very fine looking horses tethered and being groomed and fed in the shade under the Neem trees.

We are intending to visit the Emir of Argungu in his palace, who will see us even at such short notice such are our connections. Set back off the road the walled compound has the look of a parade ground with buildings around the perimeter, some bedecked with flowering climbing plants. We come to a stop in the middle of the square. Groups of men sit around in the shade of the battered collonades and others stand in the open discussing the business of the day. Most are dressed Hausa style, one or two wear military combats and berets, and carry Kalashnikovs slung casually over their shoulders.argungu-boys

As we alight to stretch our legs, standing in the blinding sunshine bouncing straight upwards from the concrete, some staff approach our Hausa guide. He has a dark complexion and a weathered and lined face, highlighted by his elegant white kaftan and traditional hat. A brief discussion reveals the Emir unfortunately was summoned to Abuja and left yesterday, such is the nature of Nigerian politics.

Plan B comes into play as we now head back into town and make for the Argungu fishing village. The village is an extensive stretch of breeze block and grass roofed huts by the side of the Sokoto River, laid out like holiday camp chalets amongst generous, roomy avenues. One or two are occupied, but most are empty, and serve as home to many hundreds of hopefuls for the duration of the annual international fishing and sports festival, an important cultural event that has sadly been in decline in recent times. The apparent lack of maintenance of the village reflects this perfectly.
argungu-postcard-1lo

Sanusi drives as far as the terrain allows, almost to the river bank, where our guide encourages me to walk with him to the water’s edge. A boy is watering his donkey, and some other lads are washing fishing equipment in bright red plastic buckets. Some sand from the river is piled up lengthways along the shoreline, and knowing questions and answers in words are probably beyond us, I quietly assume the sand will be used for building the new fisherman’s huts set out nearby. I nod in approval albeit rather self consciously, which is taken as a signal to walk a little further on.

The scene is set for a hippo to surface with the pale mauve flowers of water hyacinth clinging to its ears – we’ve all seen the wildlife documentaries – but that isn’t going to happen. I am told there are crocodiles here, and in all the rivers we have seen so far, which fits nicely with my idea of the wild, dark continent. Standing here I have a rather different impression though, one I’ve not yet understood.

The water is a mix of sandy silt and a pale lavender grey reflection of the now cloudy sky. It starts to rain, but is refreshing and cooling. I spot the ferry boat coming across to our bank in the middle distance, and my guide recognises my interest and leads on along the rice paddies to meet it. We make it to the landing point before the boat arrives, the rain now more persistent. Two boys bathe in the water as the boat lands. The teenagers in the boat have finished working for the day, and throw their tools and slippers onto the sandy shore before disembarking, some carry sacks above their heads. The first few boys smile for the camera, and it completely slips my mind to wipe the raindrops off the lens, but no matter. By now rain soaked, I try and absorb the enormity of the landscape, the hard living. The moment is heavy and laden with paradox.

boys out the river
The walk back to the pick up is quite a long one, and I feel confident enough in my
paddy walking skills to take a slightly different route than my guide as the terrain is drier.
I’m not sure why this feels strangely risqué and later put it down to the adventure.
Once we are underway the rain quickly stops and the drive back to Birnin Kebbi sees the sun give the trees and grasses and crops a backlit golden glow before setting behind more birds on wires. Later I make two postcards of the scene along the river, one of my guide leading me across the rice paddies to meet the ferryboat, and of the boys watching the
boat come in.

 

Into the Sahel part one

Birnin Kebbi stands on the southern edge of the semi-arid Sahel, close to the border
with Niger. Today Sanusi is driving us North to visit a working gold mine, and then
on to another, much less well developed operation in which Jumoke has an interest.

On the road out of town, the Neem trees lining the route have large puddles sitting in
their shade from last night’s rain. Business is conducted under them. It’s also common
to see boys taking time out, lying lengthways across their motorcycles, or machines.
A two hour drive on long straight roads, the flat landscape of leafy bushes, sand and
rock is broken by patches of corn, rice and watermelons. Larger trees and palms
have been left standing here and there and provide shelter from the sun and rain.

leanto_shelter_lo

The blue horizon of higher ground is covered in rocky woodland and bushy scrub. The occasional worker in the fields, termite mounds and strange trees attract my attention as I take all this in. Some trees have the look of a baobab, cartoon-like with bunches of leaves on the end of fat branches and even fatter trunks. There are cattle egrets, rollers and kestrels, swallows and swifts, and I imagine the leopard, caracal or jackal that may be lurking in the distant rocky outcrops, staying out of site until the end of the day.

Roadside compounds are enclosed with neat mud brick walls and rustic wooden hurdles. There are lean to shelters and canopies with benches underneath for socialising, mostly in the early evening. Looking past the pile of discarded tyres and plastic litter I see that inside the walls there are round, thatched mud brick huts of varying sizes raised off the ground. I allow myself to imagine that this stockaded community style is necessary to protect livestock from wild animals. May even be true.

village_walls_entrance_lo

We slow down to make way for cattle and goats being herded down the highway by Fulani men and boys. Traditionally dressed with long cotton gowns and pointed straw hats, their long walking sticks are used to encourage their red Sanga cattle to keep moving. The goats follow the cattle, and some kids that are too small to keep up are carried. Two men lead camels which are fully loaded with all the equipment the group need, for these are truly nomadic tribesmen. Some Fulani, or Fula people have settled, and as an ethnic group they are spread across many African countries. There are about 7 million in Nigeria.
fulanislo1

Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track for a hundred yards to a corral of wooden hurdles where some men are waiting in the shade of a small tree. After a brief discussion, and a much needed leg stretch for me, a tall, thin middle aged man with prominent cheek bones and a pencil moustache leads us on his machine to the
first mine.

 

 

On to Kebbi

A short flight with local airline Air Peace and we touch down (as the only arrival today)
at Sir Ahmadu Bello International Airport, Kebbi in the north-west corner of Nigeria.
Stepping out of the plane, a wall of heat hits me as I notice how smart the new glass and steel terminal building looks, set in a flat landscape of short green bushes and butterscotch and peach coloured sand. Our driver Sanusi is waiting for us with a dark blue pick up truck he is somehow dwarfed by. I realise this is similar to some government vehicles and so draws attention from pedestrians.

We are guests of Jumoke, Toyin’s sister. She is an imposing, handsome woman with
the kind of physical presence which leaves you in no doubt who the boss is. Fluent in all three major Nigerian languages and with fingers in many business pies, she is addressed as ‘Momi’  by all who work for her. It is convention here to use terms such as Auntie or Uncle, Sistah or Brudda etc, depending on the persons’ age in relation to yours, or if you come from the same village. It is unnerving however, to be called Daddy by someone you’ve only just met.

kebbi-yardAfter freshening up, chicken rice and spinach is served, followed by water melon
and pineapple. Later in the evening, a visitor arrives and there is a discussion about
leases, land and mining. Mining is one of many business pursuits for Jumoke, and the main reason she upped sticks and moved here from Abuja. The man brings out an uncut ruby which we place on a smartphone lamp to see the bright magenta colour shining through. It looks curiously like a fruit gum, or a chunk of turkish delight, but is indeed
the real thing. The sapphire he had looked more like a grey pebble you could pick up on
a beach, and a little imagination was needed to picture these stones in a cut and polished state. Most impressive though, was a polished gold nugget, the size of a Brasil nut,
and I’m certain it weighed the same as the coffee table.

auntie-princessThe same wall of heat hits me after dark as I step outside to make my way to our apartment. By lamplight, I see one or two moths, but dozens of large cockroaches
spread around on the concrete yard, on the walls and on tree trunks. I step back
indoors very carefully to avoid an unfortunate crunch.

In the morning, some distinctly unmusical parrot-like squawking in the Neem trees outside turns out to be a pair of Long-tailed Glossy Starlings. Back in the seventies,
starling-cardI was familiar with these birds from ‘The Handbook of Foreign Birds’, where they were described as not for the novice, and could be quite aggressive towards weaker inmates
in a mixed aviary, so best kept on their own or with other glossy starling species.
There is a certain air of confidence about them, something of the pirate, too.

More than forty years later, it really is satisfying to see these (and other) birds in the
wild, which were forgotten memories from the pages of a book. Happily these were to
be a common site on car journeys for the week, regularly seen flapping from bush to bush carrying their very long tails behind. I make a postcard of them, and of the cooking pots
in the yard.

 

cooking-pots-card