Chapter 3: Training Center… or Boot camp?

Our plane lands at six in the morning. A taxi is waiting for us at the airport and takes us directly to the training center. Some have already arrived and are waiting in front of a coffee shop, recounting their adventures in the field. I observe my companions. When everyone is present, we are still eighteen. So, no one has given up yet. They all seem motivated and positive about their chances of finishing the course.

The group is a mix of different nationalities: Italian, Canadian, American, English, French, Nigerian, South African, Bolivian, Indonesian, Dutch and Moroccan. A cosmopolitan population with varied accents and whose only common characteristics are a taste for adventure, the English language and a great strength of character.

We all try to suss each other out. But the director of the center is already there and we are entitled to the now traditional welcome speech. This speech reminds me of the one I received in Warri. A supreme commander with infinite powers tells us that we will have to work very hard, harder than in our worst nightmares. Only a handful of us will succeed, but those will then be able to face life on the platform and all the trials and tribulations that make field engineers supermen (and superwomen?). He concludes by saying that statistically about half of us will be eliminated before the end, but that there is no limit to the number accepted. We are only fighting ourselves. What pleasure it is to be reduced to a “number”. We are all too nervous to appreciate the comedy of the situation. One thing is certain, his role is to give us a hard time and he takes it very seriously.

We can’t help but observe each other and weigh each other’s chances, including our own in relation to the group. The training will last about three and a half months, during which we should not expect to sleep more than four hours a day, and if we are lucky, we will have a few Sunday afternoons free.

All the knowledge that our well-functioning brains have been able to accumulate during these years of higher education is to be erased. We must listen very carefully and get ready to receive the Good Word that the team of instructors will happily spread and force feed us daily. It is starting to feel like we are in a mixture of a university and a prison. We could almost have laughed at the situation, except for memories of the “worst horror stories” contests held by our elders during our traineeship and which we can’t help but repeat now. Was it a show to scare us? How much of it was true? Perhaps it was a farce to throw us off our game before the first class?

We will study one measuring tool per week. This tool consists of an electronic and a mechanical part. The electronic part is about three meters long and is made of a succession of electronic cards on several levels. The mechanical part differs according to the tools and is generally larger. We will have to learn how the instrument functions, the conditions of use, and its electronic diagram by heart. This will be checked by a written test and a practical exercise where we must demonstrate that we really know how to use it. And the following week? We start again!

The practical sessions take place on the weekend. We have to set up the equipment above the well, then lower the tool to the end of a cable. Once it is at the bottom of the well, we slowly lift it back up while taking measurements. All that is left to do is to develop the meters of film in the darkroom and print the logs. Everything is done in teams of two people (designated by the instructor), at a given time of the day or night. I look forward to this work, it is the most exciting part of the training, the one that really brings us closer to the life ahead.

We move into the house. It is a huge building with four double bedrooms and about ten single bedrooms. The common rooms are so big that they easily fit all eighteen of us. Like the bunch of children that we are, we run up and down looking for the best rooms. After all, we intend to spend as much time as possible here… before we get kicked out! Naturally, without consulting each other, Francesca and I move into the same room, hoping to better form a common front.

Francesca has a degree in geology and is afraid of not being technically up to the task. She is very pretty, always with a smile or a word of encouragement for each of us. She quickly won over the hearts of the group, including mine, and I assure her of my support in this upcoming ordeal.

The distribution of chores is next. I wonder if I was in the wrong office on recruitment day. I must have signed up for the army! Each of us is assigned one of the common tasks in the house or at the center. I am in charge of being the camp boss. In other words, I have to make sure that the house is always supplied with food and basic necessities, including drinks. What a coincidence that this purely domestic task falls to me. Fortunately, I am not in charge of the cooking!

Nonetheless, I find myself taking great pleasure in carrying out this role, and once a week, I arbitrarily designate two young chaps to accompany me. We push three shopping carts at full speed through the aisles of the supermarket to purchase the weekly provisions for eighteen people. All the boys are well educated and obliging, especially when it comes to helping a poor woman with her weekly duties (grocery shopping), which she could not accomplish without their miraculous help. What would become of her without them?

In the evening, we meet regularly at the stove and I must admit that the men are the undisputed masters!

We start the lessons at a fast pace and right from the beginning, Francesca has problems. The only way to succeed is to understand the lesson during class and then to revise in the evening. We don’t have enough time to learn in our free time. Francesca is quickly lost and I spend a good part of my evenings helping her pass the tests above the fateful and eliminatory sixty-five percent grade.

The first few weeks go well. Francesca manages to pass the exams, not brilliantly, but with sufficient grades so as not to be expelled. The atmosphere is excellent, at least between the men and Francesca, who is an integral part of their group. It must be said that it plays in my favor that this woman in difficulty comes to me for help and allows me to demonstrate my superiority over the men. After all, it is rightly a job for men, in their supreme goodness, to help this sweet woman in distress.

It is me they have a problem with. At first, they were intrigued by a woman who was as good at repartee and bad jokes as they were. They get exasperated when I don’t need their support to pass the weekly exams. And finally, they get offended when I manage to lift the heaviest tools, with difficulty – yes – but without calling for help and without proving to their very male egos that I need them. This situation does not affect my performance at the center, but it does affect my morale, because the group that is most hostile to me is made up of those who are the most energetic, outgoing and fun. However, I maintain good relations with the firsts in the class, who are nice, but deeply boring.

The first to leave is a Frenchman, a “little joker”, liked by everyone. He had trouble keeping up from day one and decided to live, rather than work himself to death. He was always the first one to go out and clear his mind. He was the life of the party. During one class he was called into the principal’s office and by the next break he was gone. Of all my classmates, he was the one I felt closest to. We had met in English class in July and our common nationality took care of the rest. His abrupt departure was another blow to my morale. We couldn’t even exchange addresses. I never saw him again.

This is the moment for us to discover one of the cruelest principles of the center. Any person who is expelled must leave the premises as soon as possible, to avoid a contagious drop in morale among the others.

We will thus witness the departure of Howard who resigns, to go back to his fiancée, then Francesca who is finally forced to quit. She had managed to hold on for a few weeks and I had hoped that the battle was won, but I had forgotten that it is the war that must be won. I see them go with great sadness. Now I have lost all my friends and I feel more alone than ever. Fortunately, I am too busy to worry about my feelings. Every once in a while, someone gets called out and we all know what that means. These rulings leave a sense of unease as the group shrinks. I’m holding my own, I’m just about average. In here, that’s already an achievement.

The group helps each other and we find some spare time for rare outings to nightclubs, restaurants and other places that guarantee absolute decompression. The pace is brisk. We are far from the dreaded twenty-hour days, but we still spend most nights studying.

At the end of the three months, there are eleven of us, which is apparently a record of sorts, and the group is congratulated by the director for its team spirit. We are happy to have succeeded, but deep down we almost regret that it is already over. We have learned to appreciate the frank camaraderie that prevails in this atmosphere of relentless labor. We were in known territory, with a repetitive weekly rhythm. Now, we must leave this cocoon to face the real world. Even though we were told that everything would be easy once we had passed the test at the center, we’re still anxious about going back to the field.

Before leaving, the director calls us in one by one to give us his judgment on our work and attitude. His message to me: I have the required profile and should be able to succeed as a field engineer, but with two major flaws. I lack organization and I am not feminine enough.

I admit that being organized is not my main strength, but I have a hard time understanding his second comment: why is this a flaw? He elaborates: “When you arrive on a rig, all the workers make an effort; they are shaved and dressed in their finest work clothes, but you always have the dirtiest overalls, and pay no attention to your appearance. This is a lack of respect to them.”

If I understand correctly, I am accused of being as the men usually are in my absence under the pretext that they change their attitude and appearance when confronted with a lady in a skirt. Although, of course, there is no skirt – who could travel in a helicopter in a skirt, to play at Marilyn Monroe in the wind? Not to mention the grated floors, ideal for high heels! I ask him if he knows of any magic non-smudge make-up that can resist fifty hours of intensive work in the muggy Nigerian heat and a gel that keeps a hairstyle in place under a safety helmet.

I thought I had proved that I was at least as good as the men and the criticism I receive is that I lack femininity in an almost exclusively male environment! I really don’t understand anything anymore.

It is true that we do not go unnoticed. There are exactly three women for nearly three hundred expatriates on the African continent. My arrival increased this contingent by fifty percent. We are all in Nigeria. The two others are in Port-Harcourt while I am in Warri. It is a four-hour drive, a distance we will never cross. One is a French woman who went to the same engineering school as I did. She has the reputation of being an excellent engineer with a very strong character. The other is a Moroccan woman who is said to be gentle and kind, but also very good at her job. Completely different methods that seem to work equally well. What will be mine? While waiting for my visa, I spend a week at home before leaving again for Nigeria. I spend most of this time resting and walking around Paris. I don’t see my friends. My feelings are too raw, too recent to share with those who have not been part of this period of my life. I need to clear my mind, to recharge my batteries with the grandiose spectacle of the Parisian streets and to regain strength before going back to face the harsh life in the field.

Chapter 4: Nigeria, The Return