Chapter 6: The Meeting

The vacation is already over. I do not feel very rested when I come back home. I am overdosed on the African continent. All in all, I do not think it was a good idea to go to Kenya. I needed a real break that this trip did not provide.

As soon as I arrive, I get acquainted, to my surprise, with PTSD. I don’t believe it… no, not me. I am not the kind of person who has psychosomatic reactions. But, I have to face the facts. I experience a strong aftermath of the attack like a slap in the face. I lose my usual carefree attitude, freaking out about any minor incident that takes place in my presence, looking suspiciously at anyone who sneezes in front of me and limiting my nightly outings. Basically, I behave like these expatriates who live out of step with the country, in the comfort of their protected camp. Even Pascal ends up telling me to do something before I get into serious trouble.

I have to leave Warri. I cannot live like this anymore, with the jobs on the rig as my only refuge. My direct superiors promise to refer me, but two months later, I am still in the same spot. I am getting seriously impatient, yet everything is going well on the rig. In the city, I am bored spending my long tropical evenings in front of videos or listening to the recurring jokes of my colleagues.

When the end of the year comes, and with it the time for evaluations to assess our level of competence, I take advantage of the space left for personal comments to complain about not receiving any answer to my repeated requests for a transfer, despite the promises that were made. This report makes it up to the Paris headquarters and my words spur a quick reaction from my superiors. I am summoned: I have to meet our Country Manager in Lagos when I leave for my annual vacation. The meeting goes very well and he asks me what languages I speak. Apart from English and French, I speak Portuguese fluently having spent seven months in Brazil for my end of studies’ internship. He tells me it could be possible to send me there. Where? When? Now? I am already gone. No need to pack. It is the ultimate dream, and still only a dream, but for now, my plane awaits.

I leave for vacation with a light heart and many hopes for the future. I spend the holiday season with my family, to the delight of my parents who have not seen me for almost a year. I visit everyone and I quickly leave to fulfill my second childhood – or rather teenager – dream: a tour of India. I do this in honor of my backpacking excursions when I was a penniless college student and of the backpacking trip around the world that I promised to myself at the end of my studies.

Dreams should never be realized too late. I am trying to put myself in the mood. It is hard to be interested in the stories of the other, more or less lost, travelers when you have an exciting life yourself. They used to fascinate me with the list of countries they had visited, except that today I live in Africa and my adventures have nothing to envy theirs. I no longer enjoy these superficial visits, where I end up meeting more backpackers than locals. The state of mind changes when there are no risks involved and a credit card can be taken out to pay for a five-star hotel if one tires of sleeping in youth hostels. I was living this voyage to the fullest, travelling from India to Thailand, walking on the golden triangle, sleeping in remote villages and washing at the well, then to Malaysia for the beach and to Singapore for shopping. Finally, I head back home after two months of wandering.

I almost miss Nigeria and I realize with surprise that I’m going back there as one returns home after a long absence, happy to find my home, my friends who are like my family with a million stories to tell. This is where my real life is. It is a fired up Magali who lands for the fifth time in Nigeria, confident in the future and especially in the expectation of a transfer which will not be long in coming.

When I return, I am assigned a trainee. I now belong to the club of old timers who train the new ones. I am 23 years old! Her name is Fatou and she is Nigerian. She is quite confident and treats our helpers with haughtiness, generating some conflicts in the process. She is skilled at the job and has already passed the arduous test in Parma. I have no doubt that she will become a good field engineer.

I try to give her a maximum of responsibility to prepare her as much as possible. We are currently doing the last job of Western Polaris I. It will soon leave us to go to Angola. For a while there was talk of me following it, but my superiors felt, with good reason, that I didn’t have enough experience to go to a remote location without technical support. I’m a little sad to see it go and I finish this last job and make sure that we have sent everything back to Warri. Fatou is in charge and winds up the cable for the last time. We go back to the city in tears (I’m exaggerating, it’s only a rig after all!)

My superior calls me into his office, my assistants have reported Fatou who has apparently made a foolish mistake. I was not aware of this. While pulling up the cable, she hit a measuring tool. In this case, the safety key breaks and releases the tool before it is damaged. It is meant to, so nothing serious. The only problem is Fatou’s reaction. Not finding replacement parts (they had already been sent back to the city), she decides without consulting me to put the key back in place after having it welded, thus changing its mechanical properties and its breaking point.

In short, the rig goes to Angola with a modified key that can break at any time and lead the next job to a fiasco, all because Fatou didn’t dare to tell me about it. I manage to reach the team of technicians on board so that they put a note on the equipment to warn the next engineer. The timing is just right, they leave the rig on that same day. The disaster is narrowly avoided, but the chief is furious, asking Fatou to make a report. In short, she blames everything but herself. I try to reason with Fatou and explain to her that our chief is looking for an apology to show that she understands that her only mistake was to hide her first small blunder. I tell her that she should not persist in this attitude. Fatou still refuses to understand and ends up getting fired, perhaps without realizing what was happening to her. It is a good lesson. In the future, every time I would make a mistake, I warn my superiors as soon as I can in order to fix the problem before it takes on greater proportions.

After the departure of Western Polaris I, I find myself in charge of a new Tourmalines rig that does completion, i.e. takes over producing wells that are losing steam and gives them a second lease of life. It is a much less stressful job. The drilling company must first retrieve the completion that is at the bottom of the well – that is, remove all the pipes that bring up the crude oil. There is no way to know if one has caught the “fish” until it comes out of the well. One either has to go back fishing or make room for us to take measurements. The whole process can take a long time. The client requires that I stay on board at all times, in case he needs my services.

My life on board is spent between videos, embroidery, some work, long talks with the client to try to convince him to let me go ashore and long discussions with David, a representative of another branch of COMPANY, who is stuck there and just as idle as me. We are the only ones who have nothing to do and we spend most of our time doing it together, sunbathing or jogging on the helideck. I soon realize that this David, a New Zealander, does not leave me indifferent, that I especially appreciate his company and not only because I have no choice.

At this rate, we get to know each other very well after barely a month. While I am sure that we are made for each other, or at least to go a long way together, he does not seem to be convinced at all. In any case, he doesn’t let his feelings show. He considers me to be a fellow worker. This drives me crazy, but I can’t complain. I tell him all day long how tired I am of these men chasing me because I am one of the only single white women around. It is the hard life of adored people who have lost confidence in the sincerity of feelings. So logically, even if he had intentions other than friendship, he would probably keep them to himself to avoid any potential rebuff! Men and their egos!

I decide to go on the attack myself and to make him understand by all means that my recriminations are addressed to the whole male species, except him. It starts with endless allusions and I end up switching into high gear by jogging on the helipad during a tropical storm, wearing a white T-shirt… etc. With no results.

It is true that the rig does not offer the proper setting for romantic flights of fancy. I tell myself that he must certainly be waiting for our next meeting outside of here. The fate seems to be against us and we spend our time crossing each other, one getting off when the other gets on.

Finally, for our first night in the city, we meet up in our favorite night club. The ultimate in romance! The evening goes by and the least that can be said is that David hides his game very well. Making no allusion to us, he even decides to go along with his friends when they leave in the early hours. I ask him to stay and continue the fun and promise to bring him back later. However, when the club closes, I suggest that he sleeps at my place, in the guest room of course, because his house is really too far away and I am definitely too drunk to take him home. My efforts are finally rewarded and the end of the evening goes as planned or at least as dreamed. We quickly become the most famed couple in Warri.

It is the first time I feel such emotions for a man and I am persuaded I finally have met the right one. My poor parents! What face will they make at the thought of me building my life with a man who comes from the other side of earth and who does not speak a word of French? Yes, I am already talking about building my life with him.

We spend the next two months on Tourmalines, playing hide-and-seek with eighty men who are watching us. As soon as the rumor reached the rig, that is a few hours later, (news travels fast here), we were summoned to the boss’s office. We were both informed with tact that nothing was planned for welcoming lovebirds on board. If we were caught in the act of romance, we would be immediately sent ashore with a letter to our respective companies and forbidden to return. Obviously, my heart skipped a beat. What right do they have to interfere in my private life? The answer was unavoidable: as the only woman on board, I had to be inaccessible. If only one can “have me” (I appreciate the expression), the others will be frustrated and the climate will suffer. We are far from the fairy tale of my dreams, and we remain in our golden prison. All night long, visitors pass to check that David is sleeping alone in his bed and we only manage to sneak rare and precious moments of intimacy, thwarting this surveillance with tricks worthy of the best B movies.

The French team on the rig is accomplice to our clandestine love affair and it is the first time that the representatives of service companies are willing to stay on board longer.

On land, the bush-babies breathe a little better knowing that I am finally settled and, without notifying me, decide to protect our couple. When David goes out without me and a young stranger approaches him as a potential customer, it doesn’t take five minutes before one of my girlfriends comes and whispers a few words in the ear of the possible future ex-girlfriend who disappears immediately. David grumbles a bit about being confined to the company of old ladies, who present no risk; I, although swearing that I had nothing to do with it, find this situation rather pleasant. We laugh a lot about all these schemes and we believe enough in our newfound love not to worry about it.

One month later, we take our first vacation together. We start with a stop in London, for a little romantic getaway in a 5-star hotel on Orchard Street with a caviar breakfast. Nothing is too beautiful.

Our final destination is France, and I introduce him to – in this order – my country, my parents, my village, a bit of my culture, a bit of Paris, frog legs, snails and pastis. He adopts everything and takes the opportunity to conquer my parents. After one week, they already swear by him, and are ready to forgive him in advance for possibly wanting to take their daughter to the other side of the world. They manage to understand each other more or less with the help of gestures and David has no problem being in their good graces since he doesn’t speak our language. He just has to smile at everything we say to be sure not to offend anyone.

He has to leave again very soon and my vacation finishes nicely before I take the plane back home. Since I met David, I am not afraid anymore, and I don’t want to leave Nigeria at all, which everyone has understood. We have a tacit agreement not to mention a transfer that nobody wants anymore. In the end, our little romance makes a lot of people happy.

We spend our evening on the roads, because David lives on the opposite side of the city, and we are no longer on the same platform. I’ve been assigned to a new rig – Chuck Syring. I am back to exploring and I have to work hard this time. Gone are the days of idleness and flirting on the rig. A well is drilled in forty days on average with three measurement sessions that last about a week each. If one does the math, I spend more than twenty days per month on board, and only meet David the too rare times when we are on land simultaneously. At least I can console myself with the fact that I am doing a job I am passionate about.

When one of us is on board, the only way to communicate is by radio – the same radio that adorns the offices of everything oil-related in Nigeria. We know that what we say will be listened to and analyzed by dozens of people. Even if we have nothing to hide, it moderates our fiery declarations.

One afternoon, I get a call from my rig. They had drilled much faster than expected and I have to leave at dawn the next day. I am not ready. I spend part of the night checking my tools before heading to the harbor in the early morning, grabbing the boat with my gear, after much too short a night. As soon as the helicopter leaves, the work begins; it was time for me to arrive. I’m on board with two helpers, one of whom is Smart, who has been promoted to team leader and who seems to accept or at least pretends to accept my authority now.

The job is long – sixty hours without stopping – especially after a short night. It is doable and it is not the first time. Everything goes smoothly and after two and a half days of work, I catch eight hours of well-deserved sleep while they clean the well in preparation for my second round of measurements. This one shouldn’t last more than twenty hours.

Alas, we have barely descended when the tool gets stuck at the bottom of the well. It had to happen to me one day. Now we just have to go and fish it out. The procedure to follow is not very complicated: the cable must be run inside the drill string. Every thirty meters, we add a set of rods. To do this, we have to alternately raise and lower the cable each time, and repeat the operation until the “fish” is reached at a depth of several thousand meters. When we have caught it, we go back up using the procedure in reverse. For the entire time, we have to watch the tension of the cable to avoid breaking it. It is the only thing that still links us to the tool. If it breaks, the tool could fall back to the bottom and get much damaged or lost, which would mark the complete failure of the operation and potentially the loss of the well. The entire operation is very time consuming and requires constant concentration. No one is allowed any mistakes and the engineer has to take matters into their own hands and drive the winch themselves.

Fifty hours later, the tool is out. It is four o’clock in the morning, I am exhausted. In five days, or one hundred and twenty hours, I slept eight hours.

The client then decides not to clean the well as he should, and to go on with the rest of the program. In other words, he asks me to repair my cable in order to attach my spare tool and continue the measurements. The whole operation must take at least twenty to thirty hours, including the repair of the cable head, without counting the non-negligible risk of jamming the tool again since the well has not been repaired.

This operation would already be tricky even if I were in full possession of myself, and I cannot even imagine being able to accomplish it in my state. To top it all off, I hear that Smart has returned to the city without warning me, claiming a timely illness.

It is at that precise moment that I collapse. For the first time in my life, I surrender. I would be unable to continue even with a gun to my head. I take the radio, wake my FSM up in the middle of the night to tell him that they are completely messing around here and that he has to warn the client in the city of the situation. I finish by telling him that I am going to bed. If they decide to maintain this absurd plan, it will be without me – too bad if the rig has to stop (the ultimate sacrilege).

I go for my shower without waiting for the result of the negotiations. When I wake up a few hours later, almost fresh and ready, not only have they changed their minds and proceeded to upgrade the rig, but my FSM has sent an experienced engineer with a new assistant. I must have been especially convincing.

I remember this mission as the moment I discovered my limits. After all, my aim in taking this job was to find out how far I could go; now I know that I can’t go on forever and that the machine can break: a necessary step in the construction of oneself. No, I am not a robot. Yes, I am capable of weakness. When I return, neither my FSM nor anyone else makes a comment. I guess I’m not the first one to break down. I had a good reason after all!

I don’t get along well with the FSM who keeps berating me for not yet getting my promotion. To do so, I would have to complete a certain number of training modules between missions, which I don’t have time to do. Because he trusts me, he sends me to replace every engineer going on vacation, or facing a difficult operation. As a result, I am almost never in town. When I am, I’m too busy catching up on lost time with David to think about my personal promotion.

I’ve been here for two and a half years now and I’m quite behind. I should have reached the top level long ago. This promotion principle is strange as it benefits those who stay in town and don’t go on missions all the time.

In January, Tom is transferred to Warri. I haven’t seen him since Parma and I am really happy to see him again. Forget our past antagonisms, we are adults now. Even more so since he is at the same point as me in terms of advancement and we unite against the hierarchy. Tom and David quickly become the best of friends. He hates the base and doesn’t get along with the FSM at all. What a team!

I am preparing my annual vacation when I receive notification of my transfer. I won’t be coming back to Nigeria. No! No way! I refuse! Who would have thought it a year and a half earlier? We give an ultimatum to our respective leaders: either they keep me in Warri or they move David with me. We have been together for over a year and our relationship is more serious than ever. However, we are not yet married and our company is picky about this at a time when the PACS (civil solidarity pact) does not yet exist. We are not getting our way.

The personnel manager tries to get me to give in under pressure, but I tell him, “It took me three months to find a job and twenty-four years to find a partner. Let’s think about it, which one would I sacrifice?”

Refusing a transfer is the worst rebellion, the ultimate insult.

The answer is not long in coming and on March 31, 1992, exactly two years and eight months after starting this adventure, I am fired.

The announcement comes as a shock. Even though we knew we were playing with fire, we still believed the personnel department was made up of people with feelings. My dismissal is announced to me by phone at midnight while I am on vacation in New Zealand.

This is my first time in New Zealand and I am going there to meet my in-laws. I am impressed by David’s family: six children in total, all married except for him, and fourteen grandchildren, the oldest of whom is three years younger than me. David is the youngest and this is the first time he is bringing home a potential bride. Let’s say I was awaited! This does not help me to relax. Since I speak English, I can’t hide behind a polite silence to avoid revealing too much about myself and to conquer the in-laws with less effort. This is not really part of my character anyway.

David has just proposed to me during our candlelit anniversary dinner when I learn of my dismissal. I have too many dreams in my head to think seriously about the future. At that moment, I am almost relieved to have lost my job; the idea of not going back to the rig, of not having those moments of intense stress and of not doing a fifty-hour job is quite pleasant.

We use the rest of the vacation to explore possible career options if I can’t find a job in Nigeria and we have to move here. I hesitate between going for a postgraduate degree or starting a family agricultural business. We inquire about what we could do with our few savings, which are clearly not enough to buy a farm without going into debt for life. The conclusion is that we’d better continue our expatriate life for a few more years before thinking about settling here. So far, I’ve been more of a grasshopper than an ant and my hoarding is minimal.

I negotiate a plane ticket to go back to Nigeria to get my stuff. For the first time, I am traveling as my fiancé’s companion and no longer as an emancipated woman. My ego takes a hit and I find it strange to be perceived as a decorative plant instead of the usual curious beast. I hope I am not inaugurating a new lifestyle.

I go to the base to get in person the news that I am no longer part of the team and to deal with the paperwork. I learn in passing that Tom quit the day I lost my job. It looks like our destinies are definitely intertwined.

I am happy about this forced break. I will finally have the opportunity to hang out in the small local markets which I’ve wanted to do since my arrival. We are sharing our house with another couple with an English wife who is not working and is as excited as I am to discover the sights of Warri.

However, the places to visit in Warri are limited, walking is not very practicable, and I am soon working on my Curriculum Vitae. By the end of the second month, I am turning in circles. My days go by slowly and without surprise. In the morning, I sleep in and garden. In the afternoon, I golf, swim, play squash, and visit local artisans. Of course, the evening is the great moment of the day: the long-awaited return of the Man. Finally, a bit of animation. Here I am, all spruced up, ready to go out or to listen to him tell me about his hectic life. But, there he is, exhausted, yearning only to slump on the sofa, a beer in his hand. I have to admit, I am really not made for this life. I don’t see myself as a respite for the returning warrior!

All this plays out against a background of political tension. A few months ago, the dictator Babangida had to give up power to a civilian coalition. Some said that he put his civilian successor in place only to please the UN, but we thought that a civilian government could not be worse than a military junta. We were wrong. Now that the old lion is no longer there to hold the country with an iron fist, there is a frightening level of civic disorder.

The increase in the price of gasoline sparks off a crisis. Fuel is largely subsidized by the state and the price per liter is ridiculously low, to the point that every liter produced costs the state money. The tankers that leave the refinery usually go and sell their gasoline in Cameroon where they can get twice the local price. As a result, there is a shortage at the pump in one of the world’s ten largest producing countries. The situation would be laughable if it were not so desperate. Lines at the gas stations are huge and everyone is rationed. The shortage of petroleum products also means no heating or cooking fuel for most families.

The government wants to remedy this situation by doubling the price of gas overnight, which has the immediate effect of throwing the economy off balance. The impact of this increase is reflected in the basket of everyday household goods and the population is grumbling.

The atmosphere is very tense. We hear of demonstrations in Lagos and of many people killed by the police. Like everyone else, we follow the situation on CNN.

A few months later, elections are organized and won by a civilian named Abiola, under the supervision of the UN which guarantees the smooth running of the operations.

Abiola is wealthy and known in the United States where he regularly defends the cause of his country. He appeals to voters who thought that with his established wealth, he was likely to be more concerned with doing good for the country than with increasing his personal wealth. Yet Abiola will not govern; instead, he will be thrown in jail. His only fault is that he comes from the wrong ethnic group. The inescapable rule for preserving the country’s precarious balance is that since the oil wealth is in the south, political power must be in the north. Unfortunately, Abiola comes from the South.

The situation is very confused for a few months. Most expatriate families leave the country, but my stubborn temperament and I stay. I never saw myself as a “family” who could leave as a precautionary measure, but as a worker who had to stay like my male colleagues.

In 1993, General Abacha takes power by force, despite internal opposition, ending this political uncertainty. He is still in office and Abiola still in prison when I leave the country.

I visit all the French companies in the country. They tell me without surprise that I have an interesting CV and that I can apply for a job… after a training period in France of about two years! With a little luck, I will be assigned to Nigeria after David’s departure.

I am desperate to find a job and my mood strongly shows it, so much so that even David agrees that I’d better go back to France if I don’t find a job soon. He will ask to go on rotation, spending four to five weeks in a row on the rig with three to four weeks of vacation with me.

I have been unemployed for three and a half months when I show up at the door of a subsidiary of a French group. I am playing my last card before my return home! The base manager seems quite interested in my career path and asks me to come back two days later. When I come back on Thursday, he tells me that his boss wants to meet me. He is expecting me in Lagos the next day at noon. I go home, overexcited. Who would bother sending someone all the way to Lagos without seriously thinking about hiring them? I don’t celebrate in advance to avoid having dark rings under my eyes the next day, but the intention is there.

It’s a five-hour drive to Lagos, just enough time to memorize the company’s reviews and to find the myriad reasons for why I had always dreamed of joining this company… which I had never heard of a few days earlier. It is a steel and industrial construction company, which builds surface oil installations. After all, I can’t tell him that my only ambition is to stay in Nigeria with my fiancé and that I am ready to accept any job at any salary.

When I arrive in Lagos, I have a rough idea of the speech I will make to convince my potential boss of the enormous benefits of hiring me. I am a little nervous when I enter the office to find myself face to face with Didier. Didier? Well yes, Didier. Didier whom I meet regularly in the evening, among the anonymous people who populate the nights of Warri and with whom, just as regularly, we reinvent the world around a drink! I remain speechless while he bursts into laughter. Few people can boast of having made me mute.

There is only one female field engineer in Warri. He knew who I was as soon as he got my resume. How weird it feels to be interviewing with someone you’re on first-name terms with! But he conducts the interview as if nothing has happened, not forgetting to ask me about my motivations and the reasons for this sudden change of direction in my career.

I explain to him in all seriousness that I have decided to return to the industrial sector, which is more open and offers more varied career opportunities than the very restrictive world of the oil and gas industry. This choice must be made within three years, before forgetting how the normal world works. Didier recruits candidates on personality more than on experience. He had decided to take me on even before seeing me in Lagos. My coming was more of a joke. I start on the first of August, that is, on Monday. On Saturday, I return first thing in the morning to Warri to celebrate with David. I am staying in Nigeria. We are not going to be separated for the time being. We have earned some respite.

That night, we decide to celebrate my new job at the restaurant and unite all our friends.

I don’t feel very well before going out. It must be the emotion. My condition gets worse as the evening goes on. I am getting colder and colder and David ends up giving me a huge winter sports sweater. Let’s see, I’m freezing in the middle of the tropical restaurant, my stomach hurts, I have cramps. It reminds me of something. I self-diagnose a bout of malaria. Just what I needed, thirty-six hours before my new job. I don’t want to spoil the party, but we have to go home as soon as we finish the meal. After taking the proper treatment, I go to bed, have a terrible night, and sleep most of Sunday. David takes good care of me. In the evening my condition is already improving, I am even a little bit hungry and after a good night’s sleep, I am still tired, but ready to go on Monday morning.

Chapter 7: A New Page Is Turned