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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Nigeria 2014 - Lockdown Experience - The 3 Year Recurrence

Enduring lockdowns, either self-imposed, or otherwise.
Responding to the call given by the Prime Minister, I find myself indoor, observing a 21-day lock-down, helping break the transmission chain of the Wuhan Coronavirus. With no vaccine or definitive treatment available, social distancing and personal hygiene are the only effective ammunition in our arsenal to confront this Chinese-origin Virus, also known as COVID-19.
No complains, though. Have always appreciated solitude, and not having anywhere to go hasn’t been too bad a deal. NPR & Radio Garden are on perpetual Play, books purchased decades ago are getting read, college friends whom I had lost track of are pinging, incessant WhatsApp notifications, cupboards are looking civilised. Some long-sought pursuits of fulfilling academic goals have presented themselves with an opportunity, only for it’s exam dates, too, to’ve gotten postponed. Everything considered, making decent use of the downtime enforced by the potentially cataclysmic, global event unfolding around us.
Emerging out of the lock-down, hopefully, on April 14, 2020, we’d have completed 21 days at home. As long as it may have been, it would still not be my longest.
Nigeria, In 2014
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - Lagos - Union Marble House - 01
I reached the country in June 2014. Landing at Lagos’ International Airport, a 4-hour drive from there took me to the project site, in Ibese, situated in the Ogun State. Life at a project site is simple & binary – you work, you sleep. After spending 12-16 hours at site, sleep is the only other activity one can perform in the remaining hours.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - Lagos - 07
As we went about executing the project, in midst of monthly bouts of Malaria & Typhoid, & occasional accidental death, came news that Nigeria had reported cases of Ebola virus disease in Lagos. As it so happens, being based at remote locations, with practically no Internet connectivity, news of the outbreak eventually reached us only around the middle of August. The country also started reporting multiple fatalities.
By then, 300 of us were already at site, not counting the local labours. Taking into account the restricted spread of the disease, the logistics of transporting all the men safely out of the country, & challenges involved in summarily shutting down a site, with our numerous Cranes, Excavators, Piling Rigs & tonnes of tools-tackles in place, the organisation decided to monitor the situation further, before deciding on a pull back1.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - 02
Due to our geographical remoteness, we generally have very limited contact with people, to begin with, other than our colleagues, workers & select client representatives. Still, as matter of abundant caution, to further safeguard ourselves, it was decided to shift into accommodations inside the site itself. While the housing facilities were an improvement, it however meant a stop to the weekly visits to Sango and Ilaro for personal purchases, arranged every Sunday afternoon [morning, we worked]. Anything we required, henceforth, our Admin officer would coordinate with the client to arrange for us.Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - 03
So, for the next 11 months, I stepped not a foot outside the plant premise. The only exception was when we came down with Malaria/Typhoid, or both - a quarterly event, when, more often that not the good doctors at the Hosanna Hospital, in Ilaro, would recommend that we get admitted. There, while administering IV or checking the pulse & temperature, the cute nurses would coyly enquire about my religion & then ask if I’d be game in uttering the "Lord's Name" and join her in a prayer - saw no harm in playing along. Some positively non-religious/medical benefits resulted out of it.
At the site, mobile connectivity being virtually non-existent, Internet access required trudging to the remote main office and use one of the Desktop PCs, kept for official work - pre-Wi-Fi days. So, Surfing the Internet was given up, for all practical purpose.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - 04
a 'Staff Vs. Worker' match, at our site in Gboko, Benue State, 2015-2017
As a result, us execution Staff became virtually cut off from the rest of the world. It became a world within the world - ignorance was bliss, clich├ęs notwithstanding. The Civil guys got to work, turning a portion of the abundant space into a flat ground. Every Sunday evening, it would play host to highly-contested Cricket matches - Staff Vs. Workers. Even though we’d lose more often than we won, this deviation from the weekly routine was much welcomed. At all sites, during such matches, workers go that extra mile to plot our defeat. Their way of getting back at us for constantly being on their case at work. All in good spirits. Dumbbell, Barbell & other Gym paraphernalia were also fabricated using the Steel available at site.
Giving us company was Sinoma, a Chinese Govt.-backed Company, also executing another project at the site. With 2000-odd peak manpower count, they had a big setup in place, including a provisional store, retailing bottled version of the stuff currently making news. That apart, they'd keep the TV on, running Chinese channel. Time to time, saw Indian content being broadcast. Occasionally, when a retro Bollywood song would come on, some of the Chinese folks would break into a dance, of sorts.
Parties, too, became more commonplace – erected a 210 MT Gearbox, a party after work, commencement of erection in a new work-front, a party in the evening. If nothing of significance was achieved, despite the word's casual interpretation, there would be a party on Saturday, irrespective. With alcohol flowing as liberally as air, these events would quickly transcend into raucousness, the kind where law enforcement are called upon to break-up. While the details of these parties, a family-safe platform, such as this, will not reproduce, needless to say, they were a perfect foil to work pressure & the forced self-isolation. Living life unhinged.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - 10
It must be said, as much as a testament to their "capacity", as to their professionalism, that despite these parties extending into the wee hours of the morning, come 7 o'clock, everyone would be up, showered, breakfast downed, ready for site. How much of work would be done on a Sunday, after previous night’s revelry, is another matter. But, present we would be, 7 o’clock sharp. Towards the end of my stay, we laid out a Badminton Court too. These continue to be used by the crew stationed there as part of the AMC contract my organisation subsequently received.
Despite spending almost a year confined within the 2-odd sq. km of the site, we had the time of our lives, never experiencing any deficiency due to the arrangement. When off work, there would be folks gathered in somebody’s room, either watching old movies on a laptop, playing boardgames or just downing more alcohol. You picked your room, as per your inclination.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - Kenya Airways - 05
To top it, I missed my connecting flight on the return leg. Decided to visit home in July 2015, after spending 13 months in Ibese, post-commissioning2. Returning by Kenya Airways, the journey involved flying from Lagos to Nairobi, & then from Nairobi, boarding the connecting flight into country. Generally, trips from West Africa to India follow this pattern. If flying Ethiopian Airlines, the layover happens in Addis Ababa, while you’d transit at Abu Dhabi when flying Etihad Airways. So, landing at Nairobi, owing to the Ebola outbreak, an extensive health screening process had been put in place. The connecting flight was scheduled after 90 minutes.
As luck would have it, my arrival coincided with many others. Needless to say, the arrival hall was jam-packed & the screening was slow. By the time I got mine done, the flight had departed. Locating the airline desk, I explained to them my situation. The next flight was scheduled 16 hours later. After a bit of internal discussion & a few phone calls later, they issued me a new Boarding Pass, along with a token-card, giving me complimentary access to their lounge, my Cattle-class ticket notwithstanding. Kenya, being famous for it’s Safari, sees significant overseas tourist arrival. Resultantly, its airport is quite well-maintained & gives out a good vibes, overall. On your first layover, you can easily spend a couple of hours looking through the airport. Nepal, being similarly blessed with International tourist arrival, Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport, however, bears resemblance to a decrepit ST Bus-stop. It’s currently in the process of getting a make-over, though. Wonderful people, horrible airports.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - Kenya Airways - 09
After enduring a 6.5 hours flight and 2 hour wait at the screening, this nice gesture on part of Kenya Airways made for a memorable delay. Some much needed shut-eye happened inside. Using the 15 minutes of free Wi-Fi usage available, emailed home and the company of my travel plans [pre-WhatsApp days], and got back to enjoying the lounge for the rest of the wait. 330 days in lockdown.
1 = Our operations in Sierra Leone, during the same period, however, was wound up & folks came back to country, enduring 4 layovers & multiple baggage check-ins. A team returned only in 2016 to complete the remaining work & commission the plant.
2 = My return to Nigeria, a few weeks later, to another of our project sites, in the Benue state, saw us going into yet another lock-down, of sorts.
Lockdown - Gboko - Anish Sharma - Dangote - 01
Lockdown - Gboko - Sai Srinivas - Dangote - 01
Two of client’s Managers, both associated with the project, were kidnapped on their way to site. Resultantly, they arranged for us armed security escorts of the Nigerian Police. Anywhere we were to go, they’d accompany us. This put fair bit of restriction on our mobility, as we couldn’t go anywhere on a spur of the moment. That said, we became very good friends with many of the personnel. Got to enjoy many sights and sounds of the place, the kind of which can only be safely experienced in the company of well-regarded/feared people. Some experiences, they were. In memory, forever.
Lockdown - Ibese Nigeria 2014 - 11
Godspeed
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