The saddle of a cheap motorbike, the deck of a riverboat, the open bed of a prehistoric pickup truck - in Africa, I’m happiest on the move. My time here is limited and it seems a waste to remain stationary for very long.
On this particular day, I’m especially happy to be on the move because we’re beginning the journey home. It’s not that I haven’t been enjoying myself - it has been an amazing time of cultural immersion and unparalleled hospitality from our hosts. But on every trip there comes a time to go home. I miss my wife. I miss the familiarity of my office and the routine of my work. I miss coffee. Nigeria is a tea country and I'm a coffee person. Two weeks of instant Nescafe and I’m ready for a proper cuppa Joe.
I’m tired. Nigeria’s constant, oppressive heat and humidity have worn me out. I can’t seem to drink enough water to counter the constant sweating. I’m weary of being oily and sticky all of the time. I’ve lost weight and I feel weak.
I slouch in the backseat of the 80s-vintage Toyota truck, windows wide open and the breeze ruffling my Tshirt that used to be white and smell better. Yakaiyi is a careful driver and I trust him, so when the road is smooth I drift into half-sleep, and when it isn’t, I hold onto whatever I can to keep from knocking my head on the roof as the rusty springs hit their bump-stops.
Yakaiyi has hauled us on-road and off-road, through rocks and sand and fording rivers as we’ve visited remote rural villages, churches and medical clinics. Keeping the truck running is a constant chore for him. After thirty years of use, the Toyota is as tired as I am.
Today’s trip is about eight hours. We began on a sandy path, graduated to a massively-potholed “paved” road, and finally, if all goes well, we’ll be delivered to the airport at Yola. We have a plane to catch.
It is rice harvest time, and we’re sharing the road with other old trucks, ridiculously overloaded with bags of grain and people. They creep along and gradually build momentum until a pothole or washout compels them to slow again. The passengers remain calm as the loads shift and lurch beneath them. Sometimes they have to get off and push.
So I watch the harvesters at their back-breaking work and the haulers with their precarious loads and then my gaze shifts to the white-hazy horizon and loses focus as I drift out of consciousness until the next jolt brings me back.
I am in one of those mental fog-states when I sense the truck slow and vaguely hear Yakaiyi say something about “smoke” and “burning”. The engine is off and we coast to a stop at the top of a rise. Opening my eyes I see for myself that there is smoke coming from under the dashboard. “It is fire”, he said. It seems wise to exit the vehicle.
Nigeria is so densely populated that there are always other people around, and a small crowd is attracted - a cluster of guys with enough mechanical expertise to point out the obvious - “your truck is smoking”. We already knew that. It’s why we stopped.
Yakaiyi suspects an electrical problem and doesn’t quite know how to get to it behind the dashboard.
One learns to take this kind of situation in-stride in Africa. Trips to anywhere are not a straighforward matter of jumping into the car and going. There will be a complication: a flat tire, a roadblock with a toll charged by an unofficial road working crew, unexpected passengers who want to ride along. So, smoke from behind the dashboard is just, you know, one more thing.
I don’t really have anything helpful to contribute, so I wander back down the road a bit to have a pee in the ditch and contemplate the flight I’m probably now going to miss. Coming back, I stop to make conversation with some guys relaxing under a shade tree. They were watching me. Beside them is a field with what I recognize as beans planted in neat rows.
We nod heads at each other. I assume they don’t speak English, but anyone can understand if you speak it loudly enough so I shout to them that in the far-off magical land of America that I come from (elaborate arm gestures - long way - fly airplane) our trucks don’t catch fire very often and we grow exactly this same crop (point at beans - exaggerated pantomime of planting, hoeing, harvesting) in our fields, too, and we call it “beans”. “Beans” I shout at them. I ask them what they call the crop here. “Beans”, one of them replies. It’s the only word any of them speaks to me. I feel a bit foolish and excuse myself and walk back to the truck which isn’t smoking anymore.
The whole point of this little story is to compare how the developed and undeveloped worlds handle this situation of a smoking electrical short in a vehicle.
Had I been at home in Iowa, in my own vehicle, and smoke began to billow from behind the dashboard, I imagine the scene playing out like this: I would use my cell phone to call for help. The police would come with flashing lights and would direct traffic around my smoking truck. A wrecker would come. The fire department would show up. Upon seeing the smoke, the firemen would likely pull the dashboard apart and soak the insides with water, thereby completely destroying the vehicle. My truck would then be loaded onto the wrecker and I would spend the next month arguing with my insurance company. If, by some miracle of restraint, the firemen don’t destroy my vehicle outright, it would then be taken to my mechanic who would take a week to diagnose and fix the problem and the whole thing would cost me hundreds, or maybe thousands of dollars.
Here’s how it played out in rural Nigeria. There’s an initial head-scratching phase, where the crowd gathers and we all wonder if the truck is going to burn all the way up, or if the fire will go out on its own. One of the fellas in the crowd had a motorbike. He rode into the next village and came back with a young man who had two or three handtools wrapped up in a towel: a screwdriver, pliers, a couple of allen wrenches. The young man carefully dis-assembled the dash, found the burning wires, cut out the short, spliced-in a repair, and put the dash back together - all of this right there by the side of the road with no more tools than you could put in your pocket. He wanted to charge us the equivalent of twenty bucks. Our guide balked because the price was too high, he said, and talked him down to fifteen. We were back on the road in an hour and easily made it to the airport on-time.
There’s a first-world tendency to look down upon the third-world and consider the people to be incompetent and incapable, but I actually find just the opposite. They live on the periphery of development and they know it. Their environments are often harsher, circumstances less controllable, and infrastructure less reliable. But because of this, their problem solving is sometimes more creative and immediate than ours.
They face their problems with an open-minded, “what do I have to work with?” approach that isn’t governed by "if-then" decision trees. I grew up in the back shop of our family-owned printing company where we fixed a lot of old machines with paperclips and rubber bands, so I have an admiration for this kind of inventiveness.
In our first-world society, we want our solutions to be prescribed and clean, orderly and automatic, so we build layers of communication and protocols for responses. The upside, is that when you need an ambulance or a pizza, one comes immediately. The downside, is that when your truck is smoking, a response is triggered that involves lots of people and agencies and they all have paperwork and beaurocracies and it ends up being this hugely expensive thing, when all you really needed was a guy with a pair of pliers and a "can do" attitude.
Here's 28 seconds of video from inside the truck. My traveling partner, Mark, is having a conversation with Yakaiyi about how much rice he can haul in this small, ancient Toyota Hilux.