Chapter 4: Nigeria, The Return

My return to Nigeria is similar to the first trip without the element of surprise. I walk around with a blasé look that seems to be the agreed-upon attitude of an old comer who is starting her second mission and crowned with her success at the center. I am picked up at the airport this time. I am glad because, despite my appearance of self-confidence, I do not really feel like facing the pack of cabs on my own. At the hotel, I look at this small island of luxury in the middle of the Nigerian capital, which is full of businessmen eating alone while reading a newspaper taken from the business class lounge. They all look bored to death and, of course, are not talking to the other people who frequent the hotel bar. How long before I start to look like them?

The next day, I leave for the airport, which is still exotic, but already looking familiar. None of my colleagues made the trip this time, and a driver is waiting for me in Warri.

These are not the only changes. Finally, I have passed the famous initiation test and I speak the language of the group. Finally, I manage to participate in conversations at the table. Finally, they stop scaring me with the ordeals of the center. Today I have earned my stripes and they accept me as an engineer, a woman perhaps, but an engineer above all.

Sometimes, they push the joke a little too far. The base regularly organizes parties with the clients and their wives. When I get up for the announcement: “Ladies, dinner is served”, my colleagues tell me: “Magali, not you, you’re an engineer!” I take it as a compliment! It is true that I feel much closer to them than to the expatriate wives with whom I struggle to find common topics of conversation. At the beginning, I made it my duty to integrate into their group, but without even having a child to contribute to the diaper conversation, I quickly felt isolated. I start making less and less of an effort and soon I am content staying with my colleagues, no longer venturing into the unknown world of married women with families.

Shortly after my arrival, the base manager summons me. When I enter his office, I am a little intimidated. It is the first time I enter the Holy of Holies. He is looking at my file and looking at the training center’s evaluation. Ouch…  I shyly say hello to him, waiting for the storm. Although he does not comment on my lack of femininity, he feels obliged to give me a lecture on the importance of organization in our profession. Throughout this meeting, he sits behind his huge desk, entirely covered with piles of papers leaving him just enough space to take notes. I can barely keep myself from laughing and promise to follow his example scrupulously.

The return to operations coincides with the beginning of the third part of the training. I have to work in tandem with a senior engineer until I am able to stand on my own two feet, which is the ultimate blessing, validated by the final test. This phase lasts about four months. All we will have to do is return to Parma to refine our knowledge. Only at this point will we have the right to be called a FE (Field Engineer) and no longer a Trainee – a title that has been following me grudgingly since the start. It is the final consecration of twelve months of effort.

My tutor is still the same: Mani. He has a prodigious memory and remembers what we learned at the training center better than I do, despite finishing five years ago while I just left it. Being with him has the immediate effect of reminding me of the benefits of humility and of deflating this head of mine, which has a tendency to take some liberties since completing the training.

Each engineer is assigned a rig to which they are wed at all times and to which they are only unfaithful when they replace another engineer on leave. Since we spend more than half of our time there, we consider it our second home. Even more so than at the base, the engineer is in charge and, without a colleague or boss on board, is free to conduct operations as they please. When we replace an engineer, we are careful not to disturb his “home” too much. The state of a rig says a lot about its occupant. The one held by Mani is called Trident VI, and we go there a week after my arrival. This rig belongs to a French company and five compatriots are on board to ensure its good functioning.

My arrival causes a small stir, as always, the first time. Now, I feel much more confident, because I am here to do a job I know and I am a professional. They are not supposed to know that I am not yet fully qualified. They give me the V.I.P room and I share the boss’s bathroom. I think I will soon begin working on the Michelin guide to Rig VIP rooms in Nigeria. This one is perfectly acceptable.

Of course, what had to happen happened: four days later, a V.I.P. comes on board. Dilemma. The boss refuses to put me in a mixed room, although the person most concerned – me – assures him that she sees no problem with it. I am obliged to go ashore that same evening, only to come back the next morning while the measurements have to begin during the night. My protests do not change anything. Anyway, he knows very well that Mani doesn’t really need me. I am enraged, obliged to give in, for lack of convincing arguments.

On the second trip, the novelty is already starting to wear off. A few weeks later, I return when Trident VI’s V.I.P room is full and I share my room with three men, without it shocking anyone.

On the rig, my life is similar to others with a few exceptions. Everyone here has accepted me and we have adapted to each other, with some concessions. The launderer refuses to touch women’s undergarments. I have to wash them by hand, which is not really a problem. I’m not sure the delicate lace would survive the wash mixed with work overalls in an industrial machine. But after washing, I have to dry them and that is when things get tough. This is how the head of the rig, whilst entering his bathroom, found himself face to face with my bras. Last I heard, he still hasn’t recovered. Another time, I had to explain using the radio that is listened to by the whole of Warri where to find the underpants that I had forgotten, in the rush of my departure, drying under my bed.

On my end, I demand that they change the video when I enter the break room when they’re watching a movie that decency prevents me from describing here. The other place where I cannot ignore my status as a woman is the helideck (helicopter landing pad) at sunbathing nap time. The first time I went, the men had put on their shorts. But by the third day, they have gone back to their habitual nudity, while I have to stay dressed from head to toe, otherwise I could cause an accident! Life is too unfair.

On the other hand, they all take good care of me and my wishes are almost always orders. On the whole, my life is quite pleasant on board; I even get used to the heads turning and the conversations that stop when I arrive in the restaurant.

On the third mission, Mani is forced to return to town, called to another platform. We are not done yet, but what is left should not be a problem, even for a novice. I accompany him to the helicopter, listen to his last recommendations and return to our unit slightly anxious about my new responsibilities. For the first time, I am alone on board without the protection of my tutor. A few minutes later the phone rings and one of the workers suggests that I get to know him a little better… in order to help overcome my newfound solitude now that my colleague has left.

Very calmly, I answer that I will hang up and forget about this call. If this happens again, or if he or any of his colleagues try to approach me in any other way, I will have to inform the head of the platform and make sure they are immediately dismissed. I am angry now and I forget about my nervousness. News travels fast in this closed universe where everyone coexists more or less happily and I was never again to receive another such proposal on a rig.

A young female trainee who came to spend a month with us would later prove me to be right. After a few days, she left for the rig. When she returned, she told me that she received an average of three to four love letters a day. Out of kindness, she did not dare to reject the advances of the men on the platform. They took this attitude as encouragement. Fortunately, her stay was short-lived. This situation could have quickly become unbearable and led to misunderstandings that would have been difficult to resolve. I never had to suffer from this. It must be said that my natural kindness is buried under a large dose of cynicism.

The rest of the mission passes by without further incident and I return to the city three days later, proud of having succeeded in this first solo mission, which goes completely unnoticed by the experienced engineers.

In the evening, a kind of routine is established. We go straight to a local bar, the “Beach Comber” for a drink. We are now so much a part of the scene that we regularly bring our own music tapes (the CD era hasn’t reached us yet). It is not uncommon to see young eccentrics in work overalls and safety boots going wild to frenzied rock. A woman dressed in work overalls is rather noticeable, but being white and dancing in a small local bar, I quickly reach the status of alien.

After the drinks, we return to the camp to make ourselves presentable. For me, this means a bath and a half an hour of total relaxation during which I manage to forget where I am. It is perhaps the only moment when I really feel like a woman. I sometimes make an effort with my makeup when we go out, while still dressing in a rather masculine way. Ah, these remnants of engineering school, where jeans are almost compulsory, have a hard time wearing off!

Dinner follows in the common room where we all meet around the big table and where the atmosphere is so convivial that we rarely finish before 10 o’clock. The evening sometimes ends quietly at the camp playing pool, but more frequently at the bar and then at the local nightclub, the preferred meeting place for expatriates looking – or not – for female company. We manage to maintain this rhythm thanks to frequent stays on the platform where, without going out or drinking, we can catch up on our sleep and get healthy again.

I form complex bonds with the other engineers. I’m one of them at work, but I am a woman. This means I am similar to those who regularly fuel the conversation at the table, yet I am a thinking being, which seems to surprise them slightly. They quickly realize that I am not particularly moved by the frequent and sometimes quite precise descriptions of their relationships with the fairer sex. So they take more and more verbal liberties in front of me and come to completely forget my presence in their conversations.

However, they sometimes turn to me for practical advice on how to deal with the woman of their dreams – or at least of their current dreams. I am the little sister to protect on outings, their equal at work and the mom who gives advice. Safe to say this complicated situation does not help me to solve my own existential problems of identity.

In a move that does not simplify the situation, one of the engineers becomes my boyfriend. This is not a love story with a big L, but a nice fling with someone I like. However, it soon becomes clear that we do not have the same conceptions of life in general, and more specifically of the place of women in society. Here I am, confronted with the harsh reality of cultural differences that do not disappear even when we are thousands of miles away from our respective origins.

One day, I learn that this sly man takes advantage of my missions to bring back young women, called bush-babies here, who embellish the nights of lonely expatriates for a small fee. I am not particularly fond of sharing in general, but even less so with women who may transmit certain diseases for which I do not want to be a depositary. I immediately break up with him.

Is he more sentimental than he seems or is he upset that he did not take the initiative? No matter the reason, he is transformed into a repentant lover, laying siege to my house at night and informing the world of his misfortune. The situation is quite bothersome, although I find it hard to take his immeasurable pain seriously given his previous behavior.

My colleagues are not very sympathetic about broken hearts as they each have a fiancée who has either abandoned them or been abandoned back home. The misadventures of my former sweetheart receive little attention from them and my reputation does not suffer from this setback. When he threatens to resign because he cannot stand being around me anymore, we have a serious discussion. I explain that not only was he not going to get me back, but that he would also lose the job he loves. I advise him to go on vacation as planned and to take the opportunity to take stock of the situation before making a decision.

In the end, he met a princess who saved him from being depressed; they got married and had many children (this happy ending is a figment of my imagination, but it fits well with this moment in the story). I draw two lessons from this adventure: first, I must be more discreet and above all – the golden rule – I must not mix work and feelings, especially when there are no feelings.

Apart from my colleagues, I make friends with people I meet in our favorite bar. The regulars work in fields as varied as construction, public works and oil, without forgetting the bush-babies. I feel for these women who trade their bodies without being real professionals. They are looking for the one who will offer them happiness, or at least marriage, and an escape from their situation. Feelings are part of this relationship and if they get paid, it is more to live while waiting to find the real deal than to make a fortune.

The first time I walked into the darkness of Warri’s one and only nightclub, I felt all eyes turn to me and conversations stopped. I tried to keep composed, but wasn’t too convincing. I couldn’t make out the male stares that followed me. The bush-babies have the advantage of playing fair. They were first intrigued by the presence of a white woman who was not hanging on her husband’s arm, who was not worried about being attacked in the middle of a bar or about having her husband taken away by one of these women against his will (or not…).

I belong to a special race, those who are here to work. There are about ten of us in Warri, including eight teachers from the Dutch elementary school of a large oil company and another engineer. The others don’t go out much and are not known to the local community.

The bush-babies try to find out which of my colleagues is my companion. All is well until they realize that I am single and therefore a potential competitor. So, they fear me and some of them, considering me too threatening, decide to play a few tricks on me which, fortunately, I will thwart with some help.

These women have survival habits far removed from those in my comfortable world. They can be very dangerous. You should never play nice with them as their reactions can be as violent as they are unpredictable. The rules of the game are clear, you have to learn them quickly and not make any false move to avoid trouble. In the breach of contract clauses, the arrival of the legitimate partner is well accepted. It is with this excuse that an expatriate ended his relationship with his usual companion, although it was a ruse to change partners. When she found out, she decided to take revenge and waited for him one night outside the club to inflict superficial cuts on his face with a razor blade. A hundred stitches later, his life is not in danger, but he now displays a strange family resemblance with Frankenstein.

Little by little, I build my network and I keep myself informed of the nasty tricks in the works, even going so far as to intercede on behalf of the unwary. When I learn that some malicious women are spreading a rumor about my supposedly non-platonic relationship with a bush-baby’s regular, I take the matter very seriously. I have no desire to face her wrath. I decide to take the bull by the horns and talk to her directly to clear up the misunderstanding. Fortunately, she chooses to believe me and we become the best of friends.

I soon become acquainted with the older women who have decided, all things considered, that I am not a threat. They like to prove to their male conquests that they are headstrong enough to be close to a white woman.

One day I’m with a colleague and his girlfriend. He is more of a butterfly type. But, for the first time, he seems quite attached. The only small drawback is that this girl is not from Warri. The hunting territory is guarded and as soon as we arrive in the nightclub, we feel a certain uneasiness. A pinned butterfly is bad enough for business, but when the culprit is a foreigner, the insult is added to the financial damage. A few minutes later, we see several bush-babies and herself heading to the bathroom, while removing their jewelry. It is not looking good. My colleague asks me to go and see what is going on while he notifies the management. I head to the bathroom looking as natural and detached as possible. All the bush-babies are there, in a circle, the fiancée in the middle. They are getting heated up and it could be only a matter of seconds before it gets serious. Still looking nonchalant, I deliberately position myself in the middle, next to the future victim, crossing my fingers and hoping that the esteem my girlfriends have for our friendship is more important than the hatred that is currently emanating from them. They don’t attack, but ask me not to interfere in a matter that doesn’t concern me. I don’t have much to say, but I manage to stall long enough for the management to arrive and get everyone out. Needless to say, we return to the base without finishing our drinks.

Paradoxically, the bush-babies introduce me to any new “blue fish” expatriate in Warri; and the confused men wonder who this white woman is, so comfortable in the middle of this group of call-girls. Here is an example of a conversation with an Englishman who has the look of a young man from a good family:

Bush-Baby: Hello, Him, this is my friend Magali

  • Him: Hello.
  • Me: Hello, how are you?
  • Him: Good and you?
  • Me: Fine, thank you.
  • Him: You live in Warri?
  • Me: Yes, and you?
  • Him: Yes, me too. Do you want to go home with me tonight?
  • Me: No, I’m not interested.

At this point, I am stunned, speechless with surprise. After a few minutes of reflection and especially after having fully digested this proposal, which is disrespectful to say the least, I go towards Him who has already moved away.

  • Me: Tell me, when did you arrive in Nigeria?
  • Him: Four days ago.
  • Me: Well, that’s strange!
  • Him: Why?
  • Me: Normally it takes a little longer to become like this.
  • Him, taken aback: What do you mean?
  • Me: Imagine this. You are in a pub in London, you meet a person of the opposite sex. Do you ask her to go home with you after three minutes?
  • Him: No, but…
  • Me: And what did you just do?
  • He realizes the enormity of his blunder and starts to stutter while changing color before running away as fast as possible. Him spends the rest of the evening apologizing to my friends.

I experience anecdotes like this on a regular basis. I have learned to view them with humor and philosophy, without forgetting to ridicule the authors of these kind jokes. I don’t see myself as a vigilante, but it is useful to remind them of their manners. In the end, though, it gets tiresome to get those looks that follow me when I enter a public place because of my skin color and to know that the tributes I receive are not on account of “MEEE”.

At first, I was flattered to receive so much attention, thinking that being a white woman, in this very male environment, shows a certain strength of character and a state of mind that attracts the admiration of these bachelors. I quickly realize that for some young, single men who have few opportunities to meet their soul mates with the short stays in their country and most of their time spent in Nigeria,  I represent the best possibility to start a family. So I don’t have to complain about dishonest proposals, but rather too many honest ones. I receive marriage proposals from people who have managed to convince themselves that they are in love with me. Obviously, I am THE indisputable solution for combining work, pleasure and family.

I take advantage of this state to gauge my real success. However I soon realize that I have been playing with my principles and that it is time to stop. I decide to wait calmly for the Chosen One.  I still go out, but following the education that my parents tried to give me more or less successfully, I only speak to people who have been officially introduced to me. I have become a master in the art of dismissing these intruders who think they have the right to start a conversation under the pretext that I have isolated myself in a corner of the bar to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet.

I observe their little game, the bets that are taken, and lost, on who will manage to talk to me. The whole thing is rather entertaining and without risk because I always go out accompanied by my colleagues who could intervene in the event of a problem.

Chapter 5: A Job Unlike Any Other