It is seven o’clock when I arrive at my new job. It was a serious struggle to get up that early and cross the city to be on time. Never in the course of my short career or student life have I started so early.
I arrive before Gerard, the chief of the base, and I visit the installations while waiting for him. The yard is big and has offices built from recycled containers, which is a change from the relatively luxurious buildings of my former base. Here, the style resembles that of a temporary site installation. Broken down engines are waiting in front of the mechanic’s workshop, all in a nice typical French mess, halfway between the junkyard and the workshops that line the roads. David doubts the seriousness of this company. He is sure that the return to French resourcefulness will change me.
There are about a hundred Nigerian workers and two expatriates watching me. I guess they don’t often see women here and they must be wondering who I am. My title is project engineer and assistant to the base manager.
I should say a few words about Gerard. About twenty years older than me, he exudes quiet strength. Having been in the company for years, he is a real pillar and knows all the ins and outs of the country. He has created a large network, making it possible to anticipate the frequent local crises. From what I understand, I have to replace Gerard when he goes on vacation, meaning every three months, but especially in a few weeks. I also have to take care of Warri’s small worksites, customer relations and other projects. At the moment it is all pretty confusing – I know I’m joining the oilfield equipment manufacturer industry and the projects revolve around surface facilities made for the processing and storage of crude oil. The company builds pipe networks, metal tanks and huge machines that separate oil from gas and water. The other part of the business concerns maintenance work at the Warri refinery, which is located less than 500 meters from the office. We also serve as a logistical base for all the big projects in the country, for which we provide a stock of parts and various tools to help them out. Finally, we house the main mechanical workshop and the machines come back here for their annual overhaul or for major repairs.
My predecessor has been appointed to a new project on the other side of the country. To replace him, they need someone who speaks English, knows the country well and especially Nigerian culture. Fortunately, I have that going for me, because as far as the actual work is concerned, the only welding I have ever seen goes back to a workers’ shop internship at the end of my first year of engineering school. I had made a few futile attempts and my efforts had resulted in stuck sticks and holes in the sheet metal in front of the laughing crowd.
Gerard shows me around the base, introduces me to the workers whose names I quickly forget. He explains that I will be in charge of the small sites that do not require a dedicated team and are managed directly by the base. It is exciting to be in charge of projects that are small enough for me to get a hang of before starting on more serious jobs. That same afternoon, we go to visit the only major construction site. It is located in Ughelli, a half-hour drive from Warri. We have to renovate four big tanks, which are 48 meters in diameter and 18 meters high. Work has just started on the last one. A team of about thirty people is based there.
The next day, the Nigerian project manager resigns. I will never know if he is more upset about not having been selected to direct the project or about being directed by a woman. The result is that I find myself running a site with no help and no idea what to do. I will have to rely on Gerard.
The second major blow of the week is the resignation of the Cameroonian foreman, who challenged my authority from day one. He liked his special position as “translator” for the expatriates, who don’t speak English. My arrival brought him down to the level of everyone else, because he no longer had a language advantage. He didn’t stand it for long.
So, everything is going well. Fortunately, nobody really cares about this project which has been going on for four years, although it was originally planned to last two years. I am now the third manager assigned to the project. As long as I manage to finish it without causing too much of a stir, everything should be fine. The most difficult part is clearly the rapport with the client – a big European oil company. I find a binder full of complaint letters from them. Hopefully my feminine charm will help me to improve the situation. In fact, I only really fear the local ordeal, but that is Gerard’s domain.
The following Friday, as I painfully finish my first week, exhausted from getting up so early and absorbing this new world, Gerard feels faint at the office. He goes home to be examined by the Hungarian nurse who takes care of us. There is no medical center in Warri. We rely on good preventive medicine, a nurse on site married to a Nigerian who cares for all our small ailments and a good system of emergency evacuation. For the rest, we cross our fingers and convince ourselves that, being young and in good health, there is no reason to stress! The nurse prescribes him full rest, requires him to follow a no fat diet without alcohol or cigarettes, and to stay in bed. It is only because he has to leave the country ten days later that she does not send him back to France immediately.
This is what I call adaptation: after only five days working as a duo, I am left alone to face the fire. Until now, the magnitude of the task seemed acceptable to me thanks to the presence of Gerard, but now I know that I can only count on myself. Fortunately, I can still find him in the evening to ask for advice on decisions to be made or to reassure myself about those I had to make without his advice. I have to deal with all the complications involved in running a base of one hundred and twenty people. These vary from the personal problems that are told to me plaintively in the office, to the problems of the sites for which we ensure the logistics, to the problems that arise on my own site, to the problems with the clients in Warri, and finally to the problems that are purely related to the rhythm of the base.
I work without respite and I wonder if the workers really accept to be directed by a young 25-year-old French woman, landed from out of nowhere and clearly not very experienced in this field.
The answer is not long in coming. On Monday evening, all the workers leave the base at 5:45 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. I notice this immediately, of course. After the first moment of anger, I sit back down to think about what to do. Fifteen minutes is not that much, but it is no coincidence. It is a test to evaluate the limits of my authority from day one. I must not call on Gerard if I want to be able to establish my authority now. The head of security, who is responsible for opening the gate, among other things, is quite old and I assume he is one of the troublemakers. In Nigerian society, age is often a sign of authority and place in the hierarchy. I go to him and ask him innocently why everyone has left the base so early, without my permission. He answers that the workers had decided to leave and that there was nothing he could do about it. The proof is that he stayed. We both know that I can’t impose a collective punishment without ending up with a general strike on my hands. It is time to call his bluff. It has to work or I am in for some very difficult days ahead.
I ask him: – But who opened the gate?
˗ Yet it was too early, did I order you to?
˗ No, but the workers were on the buses, ready to go out.
˗ It seems to me, though, that I pay your salary, not them. Can you confirm that it is for me that you work?
He now looks embarrassed. He becomes worried when I tell him that I consider him personally responsible for the time the buses leave. With a show of indulgence, I let it go for this first time, as I may not have been clear enough in my instructions. But I caution him that the next time he opens the gate before 6:00 p.m., he’ll get a warning letter and the second time, he will be fired. Needless to say, this never happened again.
I have to endure multiple challenges to my authority, which I manage with varying degrees of success, but from which I learn a few lessons: I try to make the right decisions after taking the time to weigh the pros and cons, to keep my word, to punish mistakes, but to reward good deeds and to recognize my mistakes, without being weak. Child’s play, isn’t it? Especially when you know that you are sitting on a powder keg called susceptibility that is only waiting to explode at the slightest blunder.
In the meantime, Gerard’s news are not good. He undergoes a series of intensive tests in France and the result is a liver problem, a classic illness after a life of excess. His return is not expected for a long time. What was supposed to be just a vacation replacement slowly becomes official. When this news reaches us, I am a little freaked out. Am I really up to this task? Didier trusts me, but he doesn’t really have a choice. I am here and he has no one else available at the moment. He promises me his support and asks me to give it a try. If I really break down, then we’ll reconsider… But it would be nice not to break down. For the moment, I’m holding on. For how long? I don’t know. As long as there are no serious problems, I’m fine. I work very long hours, because everything is new to me, but it’s just a matter of willpower and energy. And I have plenty of that!
In my previous job, I only managed a team of two people. I didn’t have any other responsibilities and I still have a lot to learn about the local mentality. Now, though, I don’t have the time anymore. I am learning with difficulty through various experiences which monopolize all my neurons and which are daily challenges for my nerves. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking on a wire over a precipice, without any training. Fortunately, my strong willpower supports me, I won’t give up so quickly.
For example, I quickly realize that Nigerians are very good at using arguments that hit home. One day, I noticed that the painter has been stealing from us. He is in charge of all the small painting jobs on the base, both in the buildings and for the vehicles and other machines. One small problem, though: he systematically orders double the amount of paint necessary for each task. I confirm my observation with a French painter and go back over several years of paint purchases. The amount of money involved is considerable and the misconduct warrants dismissal. When I confront him, he confesses his malfeasance. I find myself with a poor wretch, on his knees, sobbing in my office. I take a deep breath, and manage to keep my composure. Even though I know that by firing him, I am putting this man and his family in a difficult situation, I remain adamant. To give in on this point, when I have succeeded in demonstrating that he has been defrauding the base for so long, would be to open the door to all kinds of abuse: “We might as well go for it, because if we get caught, we can soften her up with a little crying.” There are one hundred and twenty million Nigerians, many of them unemployed or underemployed, and I would rather take someone out of poverty who is brave and honest than keep someone who steals, lies or refuses to work. This theory sustains me in difficult times.
I quickly gain notoriety throughout Nigeria where I earn the nickname Iron Lady, in reference to another lady who operates in London, or even sometimes Mamangida in honor of the dictator Babangida. The advantage of this reputation is that I don’t have to prove my authority anymore; newcomers are warned before they even meet me. I only hope that they don’t just see me as an iron fist, but that they understand that I also want to work fairly for the good of all. Is 25 really an age to be compared to a tyrant? Even if David is there to share my doubts and questions, to tell me that he believes in me and that behind this reputation lies a real person, it is sometimes heavy to bear. Fortunately, the rhythm of the base does not allow me to spend too much time intellectualizing about this experience. I’ll do that later and one day, perhaps, I’ll write my memoirs.
I am becoming more and more comfortable in my role. I am still working hard. The employees seem to have half accepted me, including the expatriates on the base, as well as the site staff with whom I communicate daily and whom I sometimes meet when they pass through Warri on their leave or just to spend a weekend in town.
A sick Frenchman comes to Warri to be examined by the nurse, accompanied by a young man, Franck. They arrive on Saturday evening and after having organized the nurse’s visit, I authorize them to keep a driver all night in case the patient’s condition, although not worrying, gets worse.
On Monday, the driver comes to complain, because Franck refuses to sign his overtime slip, arguing that he would have spent most of the night driving a cab in the streets of Warri. After checking, it seems that the driver asked for the authorization to be absent to warn his family, which Franck would not have understood considering his poor English. I agree with the employee and order Franck to sign the time sheet before leaving to make my usual tour of the yard. A little later, while I am going back to the office, I pass the driver who comes out screaming, holding his head. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m expecting big trouble. My first instinct is to lock Frank in my office, certainly the most protected place in the base. It turns out that the discussion got heated, the driver had grabbed Franck by the collar, who in fear, sprayed him with tear gas.
I tell Franck not to move and not to open the door to anyone but me while I go get news. The base is in turmoil, the workers think that Franck has thrown acid (it is a local tradition) and that the driver has become blind. They demand revenge. I don’t know what this means, but I certainly don’t want to find out! I manage to warn the army – with whom I have an excellent relationship and whose barracks are located a few hundred meters away – and soon a small detachment arrives and places Frank under escort.
We rush to the airport. I manage to find him a seat, on the first plane to Lagos. For the moment, he is safe. He doesn’t really realize the fate from which he has escaped and seems mainly concerned by his suitcase, left at the construction site. I reassure him on the subject. After all, all I have to do is go back to the workers, furious at having seen their prey escape.
When I come back, the revolt rumbles. I am very worried. I plant myself in the middle of the angry group and try to calm them down by telling them that Franck has left Nigeria, but that I will personally make sure that he is punished for his attitude and fired* (*which was done). But another problem awaits me. The barracks’ commander is furious that his troops helped free a foreigner who assaulted a Nigerian. He is not wrong. Let’s imagine for a moment the same situation in France!
I spend the rest of the day calming everyone down.
Later, when we gather Franck’s personal belongings, we find a whole arsenal of war (American fist, throwing knife, nunchaku… etc.). Thankfully he left without having caused a greater catastrophe. In the end, all is well that ends well and I come out of this adventure in a rather positive light in the eyes of the local staff, having proven that the person in the right was one of theirs rather than “one of mine”. However, it also serves as a lesson to me. In the name of my sacrosanct principles, I absolutely insisted that it be Franck who signs the time sheet, following the rule that I had established myself. Perhaps I could have avoided all this by signing the damn sheet myself and letting Franck go back to his work site and to his foolishness. Was it really worth it?
A few weeks later, on a Thursday at five o’clock in the morning, we are sleeping soundly when there is a violent knock on our bedroom door. A driver is waiting for David. There is an emergency. A well exploded during the night. The worst nightmare of the oil world has just happened. Fortunately, it is an onshore well and there were no injuries. The oil company calls on all the country’s forces. And from then on, everything goes very fast. The team led by Red Adair (the famous extreme firefighter who extinguished the Kuwait wells after the Iraq-Kuwait war) is on site the next day and asks that a natural reservoir 100 meters in diameter be filled with water, as the river is seven kilometers away. With David, I follow the project very closely and offer my services as early as Friday afternoon. I leave for the site on Saturday morning. It is an impressive sight.
All of Nigeria’s construction equipment seems to be concentrated here, not to mention the equipment that was flown in. In forty-eight hours, the workers have dug a ten-meter-wide trench from the well to the river, seven kilometers away. Our job, if we accept this responsibility, will be to build three small pipelines to bring the water back to the tank. In the course of a few days, there’s an immediate mobilization. On Saturday evening, I enlist ten welders and a team leader who go directly to the site. On Sunday morning, the ten replacement welders are at work. We are two hours away from the city and I have to make emergency arrangements for lodging, food and transportation for our troops in the small villages nearby, which certainly do not have the infrastructure to accommodate such a crowd. We are forced to use the hot-banner system, with the night team sleeping in the beds of the day team. My French team leader speaks very little English and I have to translate his instructions at each shift. We are improvising as we go, but we get there. I spend most of my time on site, the base has to run itself. I don’t sleep much, but the adventure is impressive. Ten days later, it is finished. We will finally be able to rest.
I am in my office; I pay the welders very generously before letting them go back to their respective sites. They come to ask me for permission to go home – most of them are from Warri – to deposit their money. I give them two hours. They just stand there; apparently, they want something else. Finally, they ask me for money to pay for their taxis home. They have just been handed the equivalent of two months’ salary of an average worker for a few days’ work and they still ask for more! I stand up, look at them scornfully and say: “I thought that welders were gentlemen, but you talk like the lowest of clerks. I was wrong, you are petty. I’ll give you the money.” The silence is heavy. I have just insulted twenty packs of irascible muscles in my office. As usual, it is after I’ve spoken that I wonder if it was safe! I hear them say in disgust, “Forget it, we’re not going to get anything from her” as they leave my office. Phew!
Each small victory reinforces my impression that I am in my element here. Maybe Didier was right to trust me after all. I work more than 80 hours a week and I continue to discover the job on a daily basis, always with the impression of moving forward without a net, bordering on disaster at all times. After three months at this pace, I ask for a vacation. Didier is a bit reluctant; he would prefer to wait for Gerard’s return, but I have been in Nigeria for 7 months without interruption and I really need a rest. Before, I was at work, spending days without sleep. But once I got back, I could rest all I wanted without any worries. Now, I am immersed in the world of responsibilities and of sleeping badly at night. I can’t just “turn off” my brain at the end of the day. As a result, I’m exhausted.
Finally, we agree on a two-week break. David and I will return to France to start our wedding preparations.
We return to Nigeria barely after leaving it or at least that’s the feeling I have. We spend our time visiting castles and caterers needed for any worthwhile wedding.
The full-scale Test takes place on December 19. For several days, the base has been in turmoil as the Christmas holidays approach – the south of the country where we are located is Catholic, unlike the predominantly Muslim north. The workers are demanding a higher bonus than the one negotiated in the contract. The accountant tried to trick me, by taking advantage of my ignorance to try to get me to sign this famous supplement. I initially agreed, but I found out about his scheme just in time to back out. Now the workers say they are being robbed.
Before going to the base that day, my sixth sense warns me of potential problems. I ask David to check during the day, just in case. As soon as I get through the gate, a delegation led by my friend, the head of security, comes to ask me, officially this time, for a bonus increase… which I refuse. The immediate reaction: “Mass resignation”. My answer: “- Very well, go ahead and I can go on vacation”. Theirs “- Well, we’ll talk, in the meantime nobody leaves the base.” I am locked in my own base with the 2 base expatriates and three other French people who were passing through Warri before returning to France the next day.
Their first action consists in cutting the power generator and therefore the electricity. It is not a disaster to lose the air conditioning, but it is absolutely necessary to keep contact with the outside world. I solve this problem by recovering a car battery to connect the radio. Here I am, transformed into MacGyver. This small victory gives me a feeling of confidence that I need to be able to face the next hours. I can finally call Bruno, in Port-Harcourt (four hours drive away) and bring him up to speed on the situation. Bruno is the residential manager, with whom I usually communicate. Didier lives in France. I can’t give in, because while I employ 120 people, there are more than a thousand local workers in the country. The news of a wage increase in Warri would very quickly reach the ears of the other sites, which would have to fall in line. This could cost us a fortune. And above all, I refuse to give in under threat.
With Bruno’s support on the phone, I decide that I would only agree to these demands as a last resort. In other words, only to save my life if they take over the offices. Even in the name of principles, I consider my humble life worth more than the few hundred naira in play! Negotiations resume and last all morning without any further result.
Austin, the office worker in charge of photocopies and coffee, assures me of the unfailing support of his fifty kilos. I am reassured! In the late morning, when David comes to see me, I can’t go out. I send Austin to tell him that the situation is not yet critical. I am in control… for the moment.
Around noon, we eat in our little canteen while the workers fast. They have closed the base and cannot or do not want to go out for lunch. However, they drink and very quickly the combined effect of alcohol and lack of food takes hold. They become threatening and lash out at me, telling the other expatriates that they are free to go home since I am the “boss”. I am not feeling reassured and fortunately one of my colleagues, a backpacker who has traveled across Africa, is there to support me, because the others urge me to give in before things get out of hand. Well done super adventurers.
At this precise moment, while giving the impression of remaining calm in the storm, I would be ready to give everything up, to wave a magic wand to be in an office in Paris. My kingdom for a helicopter! But my fairy godmother has abandoned me and I can only rely on myself.
I try to reach David, but he is out to lunch and the radio operator at his base doesn’t seem to be able to contact him or pass him a message. The workers are banging on the walls of the office with their tools. The noise is unbearable, the tension is at its peak and I am starting to feel really scared, but I still don’t give in. How long will I last in these conditions? Wait for them to invade our offices, but won’t it be too late by then? How far can I go before the point of no return? At this point, there is no book, no school course for reference, just my common sense and my guts feeling. But is it really common sense or am I being too stubborn for my own good? Which voice is telling me the truth? How do I recognize it? I have to calm down before I throw a tantrum in front of everyone and lose all the authority I had managed to gain in four months. Falling back into the fragile little woman category, what a victory!
At about 2 p.m., David asks for news. I send him an S.O.S., still through Austin. Things are heating up here, it’s time to get the army and take me out of here. It’s the last resort when all other options have been exhausted. I feel relieved because I know my release is now only a matter of minutes.
But the hours pass and David still doesn’t come back. I continue to negotiate while waiting. I finally feel that there is some hesitation on the other side. The workers are not so united anymore. This is the moment I choose to let them know that the accountant will immediately pay anyone who accepts the negotiated bonus. This idea of money waiting for them makes the more moderate ones think twice. An hour later, David is still not here, but the workers are marching into the office to collect their bonus and go home. I won!
By the time David arrives, it is 4 p.m. and everyone has been paid. I am out of the office and about to leave, in front of the silent crowd of workers. That is the moment David chooses to show up with two pick-up trucks full of soldiers armed to the teeth. The workers get angry and scream at me, threatening not to come back, while the soldiers want to beat up one or two of them to set an example. I put myself in the middle and manage to calm the situation down. We finally leave.
David took a long time to assemble the army forces who had gone to ensure the security of a governor who was supposed to inaugurate a building that had not yet been built. He had a hard time convincing them to follow him. I still ask two soldiers to stay outside my house for the night, in case the workers decide to carry out their threats.
Before going back, I have a drink at the guest house with the five expatriates who are leaving the next day. They are so happy to be leaving that they find it hard to show sympathy for me who is staying here. They advise me to make myself scarce for a few days before returning to the base. David agrees with them. However, not going back would mean being afraid of them and subsequently giving up my victory. We come to a compromise, David will drop me off himself and will only let me out of the car if the soldiers are present as agreed.
The soldiers are there and David lets me out. When I make my morning rounds, everyone is at their posts, the workers have started and welcome me as if nothing had happened. The day goes by without incident. Yesterday never happened! I love this life: we confront each other, we wage war, but the winner is the winner, and we move on. The soldiers guard the base for another fifteen days without incident. This day of strike has definitively established my new undisputed status as “Base Boss”.
Now that everything is back to normal, it is time to understand what could have caused the conflict. The accountant is the source of the misunderstanding, having intentionally tried to get me to sign the wrong bonus. I scrutinize his books. It doesn’t take me long to realize that, taking advantage of my inexperience and lack of knowledge of the workers’ names, he has created a fictitious employee and has been pocketing the salary for several months. He has to go. But how to replace him? And above all, how to prepare his replacement without raising suspicion and giving him the opportunity to steal more money? In the administrative team, one employee, Gabriel, seems to fit the profile. For the next two months, I train him by giving him the task of accountant’s assistant – the poor man is overworked. When he has learned the basics, I let him onto the secret and find a pretext to send him to Lagos to finalize his training with the country’s administrative manager.
Meanwhile, I keep an eye on the accountant and scrupulously review every paper he makes me sign, but I don’t confront him. I am not ready. The day Gabriel returns, I fire the accountant. I have prepared everything, the bonus, the letter of dismissal, and other papers to ensure that he will not be able to strike back. I’ve seen it happen too often on construction sites where we regularly have to rehire people who have been fired for a serious fault that is impossible to prove in court, due to the lack of a police report. Since the court is in Warri, I coordinate the efforts of our lawyer and I am well placed to know that it is better to pay a dismissal bonus to a person who does not deserve it than to have to re-employ him with an apology a few months later! I stay with the accountant while he collects his things to make sure he doesn’t take advantage of the situation to take money. I get him to hand all the keys back to me before accompanying him to the door.
Gerard is still not back yet and I am told that the CEO of the company is coming in a few months. The excitement is high. Didier gives me free reign to clean the base. I take the opportunity to finally give it a new look and bring the feminine touch it needs. I get rid of all the scrap metal and other broken-down machines that we keep for spare parts by storing them in a separate area, rented for the occasion. Gone is the look of a construction equipment junkyard. I turn a container into an archive room in order to empty the clogged offices, I repaint the whole base, change the linoleum… etc. The hardest part is changing the mentality. Archiving to clean the offices? What a crazy idea. But it’s a give and take process; only tidy offices will be repainted. This works. Finally, the base is starting to look, from a distance, like the subsidiary of an international group. The ideal would be to build permanent offices and to pave the yard, but the results are satisfactory with the few means at my disposal. Our reference system for the general appearance of offices is quickly distorted here, being surrounded by local companies that operate with very little means.
I am relieved when Gerard finally returns, five months after his departure; five months during which I put all my energy into taking care of the base. But we missed his network, especially the contacts with the unions, which serve to anticipate strike movements and negotiate labor agreements. When he returns, the project managers push for me to keep my job. They particularly appreciate my quick reaction time. With a few exceptions, all their requests were met and the spare parts left on the following shuttle (three times a week). I don’t ask them questions, I don’t hesitate, I act. My experience in an oil service company taught me that every minute counts in a project. Gerard is then promoted to director of the four Nigerian bases while I remain in charge of the one in Warri. For good this time.
The changes I introduced in the base, my way of forcing things through, the checks on expenses, the interruption of everyday racketeering and the dismissal of people did not only make me friends. I am considered a disturbance. Eight months after being hired, I receive an anonymous letter in the mail, handwritten in red ink, threatening my life.
I have one month to leave the country. Or else…
I take this letter very seriously. David gets a rifle from our Lebanese friends. To my great displeasure, it finds its home under our bed – I hate firearms. Every day, I change the time and the route that I take to the office. I decide on the route at the last moment and only inform my driver, whom I don’t particularly trust, once he has started driving. I don’t go out at night anymore and I lead an ascetic life: Home – Office – Home. Yesterday I was MacGyver, today I am James Bond. But I just want to be me.
After two weeks of this routine, I reach a state of nervous exhaustion. I suspect everyone. I don’t know who to trust anymore. Paranoia is creeping up on me when Gerard tells me that he has discovered the authors of the letter. He has spoken to them and all danger is now over. I will never know who the authors of this amiable joke are, but I trust Gerard enough to be reassured. I can’t help but continue to observe my surroundings as I get into the car, but all this soon becomes a bad memory and we finally return the rifle to its owner.
Apart from this detail, my daily relations with the employees are good and my being a woman does not pose any problem. The only person who absolutely refuses my authority is a Frenchman, close to retirement, who criticizes me for having established overly strict rules on the base; at least, too strict for him. The procedures are the same for all employees, expatriates and locals alike, and he cannot accept that he does not benefit from preferential treatment because of his skin color. It must be said that he occupies an office on the base, but does not report to me.
One day, we have a big clash. During the argument, I tell him that I (a woman) am the only one in charge and that the CEO himself would have to respect MY rules if he comes to MY base. I win this time, but I will learn later that he used his influence in Paris to try to get me ousted, without success. I have never been to the headquarters and I don’t know anyone there, but fortunately I have Didier’s unfailing support.
I will regularly encounter such attitudes coming from expatriates who do not understand that I do not systematically agree with them and that I want to be a fair judge of any conflict between a Frenchman and a Nigerian. My way of doing things has at least the effect of making me respected by the local workers and of preserving my conscience.
My status as a woman helps me to develop very good relations with the clients even if they are somewhat destabilized when they meet me for the first time. This also gives rise to a few misunderstandings. One day, I am in my office talking with a Frenchman from the base. An unknown expatriate comes into the office and speaks to my colleague without giving me the slightest glance. He must have thought I was a talking flowerpot. The Frenchman glances at me desperately, as his knowledge of Shakespeare’s language is very limited and he is drowning in the words of our visitor. I simply observe the scene, laughing inside. After a few minutes, our visitor realizes that there is a problem and I finally intervene: “- Whom do you wish to talk to? – To the base chief – In this case, I think you have been talking to the wrong person. How can I help you?” The face he makes at this moment is worth all the sexist vexations. Our visitor leaves with his tail between his legs and I will never know why he came.
It is Saturday, June 19, 1993, 6 a.m., Charles De Gaulle airport, and my plane has just landed. I jump into a cab, heading for my father’s house. Next Saturday, I am getting married. There, it is said. I have one week to make myself beautiful and say a final goodbye to my life as a bachelorette.
Everything is ready, we booked our “castle” during our November vacation. The invitations, the medical examination and the paperwork were done during our March vacation, including the final fittings for the dress, meaning I could not change size for three months!
How complicated it is to get married to a foreigner in France! We need a lot of very French papers, which don’t exist in New Zealand and for which we had to find equivalents before getting them translated. Not to mention the official translator we had to use at the notary’s office. Next time, I’m getting married to a Frenchman!
Everything is now ready, at least we hope so, because there is no time for any changes. All I have to do now is spend the week between the beauty salon and the guided tours of Paris with the in-laws.
We planned a fairly small ceremony with about thirty-five people, including about fifteen Anglo-Saxons, to maintain a certain balance between the “rosbifs” and the “frog eaters”.
The part at the town hall is comical. David doesn’t understand a word of French. I explain to him that the mayor will look at him, pronounce his name and then mine in the middle of a long sentence. David only has to say yes. The rest of the wedding is bilingual and we have mixed the traditions of our two countries to make a hybrid ceremony that makes everyone happy, especially us. After a princess wedding and a romantic honeymoon in Mauritius with half of the world’s honeymooners, we head back to Nigeria. We were almost starting to miss it; the heavenly beaches don’t have the incomparable charm of Warri!
We are married now, which means we have a house just for the two of us and we are invited together to official parties. I’ve changed my name; the mail arrives with initials I don’t recognize yet and I spent a few hours polishing my new signature! Cowboy in my base and starry-eyed girl for my wedding. I discover a whole new part of my personality.
We move into a new house, inaugurating our new home in the middle of an unfinished worksite (it is practical, I don’t feel like I’m leaving the base), and the soft romantic light of the candles which suits our young couple well and, above all, replaces the failing electricity while waiting for the future power generator.
All in all, our life does not change. We continue with our respective companies, him going to the rig regularly, and me supervising my base and my building sites. We still go out a lot and we now have a house that we have furnished with the modest means at our disposal, but where we feel at home. Our home. We organize our life between work, golf tournaments for David, the pool for me, squash for both of us and social life as a couple.
At the end of January ’94, as we are returning from a month’s vacation in New Zealand, David learns that his stay in Nigeria is coming to an end immediately. Oil is in a downward cycle and savings are required, leading to big budget cuts, especially for expatriates. David is temporarily suspended while waiting for a new position. The New Zealand vacations are definitely not bringing us luck professionally.
David stays in Warri where he tastes the life of non-working husband and plays golf every day in the company of a flock of lonely expatriate wives, who are pleased with the situation. But I’m not jealous. I just make sure everyone understands that he is my loving, faithful, newlywed husband and that I am capable of biting anyone who tries to prove otherwise. He doesn’t last long at this pace and decides to leave for France to take advantage of his forced inactivity and study my language. In total, he will have stayed in Nigeria for three years as I enter my fifth year. Our group of friends is dwindling, most of them have already left the country. I feel isolated.
David receives his new assignment a few weeks later before he can really improve his French. He is going to the Philippines and will return to spend his vacations in Warri. In the “proof of love” category, he sets the bar very high! I keep finding him, after a hard day’s work, at the Golf bar, surrounded by all “his” women. For me, life goes on. The base doesn’t care about my tribulations as a young bride with an often-absent husband. I have seen others in this situation, it is only a bad moment to get through and the reunions are so beautiful.
My efforts have finally paid off, I get a contract with the refinery. All those calls for tender that I answered and all those customer visits that I made were not in vain. We have to dismantle a whole network of pipes with convoluted shapes, re-fabricate them and reassemble them identically. I call Paris and ask them to find me an experienced boilermaker for this difficult mission.
When Pierre arrives, we have just mobilized the troops. He is very energetic and he seems made for this mission. However, I very quickly have doubts. He dismantles the existing pipes and copies them as one traces a drawing to remake it. To do this, he uses metal sheets that are rolled and cut to give them the desired shape. I am surprised that he does not calculate his cutting angles and I find the result rather bizarre and not in line with expected procedures, even for eyes as uninformed as mine. I ask Gerard’s judgment on one of his visits to the base. He confirms that Pierre’s way of working is unorthodox. We call the boilermaker who has already worked on this equipment. I make arrangements with his site so that he can be freed to help me. Claude arrives at the base and looks at the prefabricated parts with a desperate look. The project is off to a bad start. Claude assures me that he will be able to take back some of the parts, but that we will have to use those already finished, because we do not have enough raw material.
However, as the days go by, we are already far behind schedule; way too much to go on without Pierre’s help. We need all the good will possible to try to catch up with this mess. Sending him back to France would be the easy way out, but I’m going to have to make sure he stays and that he accepts to move into second position while staying motivated. Though he doesn’t have the profile of a site manager, his energy and good will make him a good worker. I know he is relieved that Claude has arrived, but he is certainly not a man to accept losing face, especially in front of a woman.
I don’t see any other solution than to take responsibility for everything. I “admit” to having misled him by ordering him to redo everything identically. My lack of experience is to blame! And now we are late. In conclusion, we need Claude’s help and I ask him to let him lead the project because of his seniority. Needless to say, we are both relieved, him to get out of it with his head held high and me to see him stay, even though I’m raging inside! If someone had told me that one day, I would be able to show such self-sacrifice, and not even with a witness… I knew it was the only chance to save the project.
All these problems seem minor to me, I have a private life which requires most of my attention and I put it into perspective. I just got the test result today, I had to wait six weeks, there is no pharmacy here. It is due in the beginning of December, at least according to my hazardous estimation.
I keep the news to myself; David is not here and I want him to be the first to know. I don’t change my habits, I still go out regularly. I’ve quit drinking and smoking completely, which doesn’t go unnoticed and provokes questions from my surroundings. I’ve come up with a foolproof answer: “My new sensible behavior is due to a bet with David, to prove to him that he is the source of all my vices.” This bet seems to surprise no one. I am apparently thought to be eccentric enough for this.
I continue to swim, I stop squash and the little running I was still doing. I don’t gain weight for the first few months. I don’t have a book to explain the changes that are taking place in me, no husband to support me morally, no mother or girlfriend to give me advice and no doctor to reassure me about my condition. And since it is not yet showing, I am not asked any questions. The only local doctor that I saw put his hand on my belly, looked at me intensely and finally announced in a solemn tone that everything was fine. I left feeling reassured! Fortunately, everything is going well so far and I start writing in my diary for the first time since I was twelve years old, with the intention of involving David in the beginning of the adventure even from a distance.
My hormones begin to play tricks on me. I get very irritable. My sense of humor is reduced to its bare minimum and I burst into tears at the slightest derogatory remark. My usual sense of repartee is gone. I end up choosing a friend to hold the honorary title of confidant. He, the hardened bachelor, finds himself embroiled in passionate discussions on the choice of the first name. The choice of the first name is an important affair, and a complicated one. A very big responsibility.
One evening, during dinner, I receive a phone call from my father. A phone call from France is a rare enough thing that my senses are on alert before he even starts talking:
“- Did David manage to reach you from the Philippines?
˗ No, why? Is something wrong?
˗ I don’t know, I didn’t understand anything he was telling me. I think he was calling me from a hospital. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. I just managed to write down his number.”
And poof! I thought I was stronger than the others and that I could make a baby on my own, but I find myself crying, dazed in front of the phone, unable to align my thoughts, with wobbly legs. I have only one thought: to talk to him. I conjure up the worst scenarios in which the baby in my belly would be an orphan before being born from a father who would have died without even suspecting his existence. I regret not having said anything to David. Is this the same Magali, who is supposed to be able to face any situation without failing, who finds herself sobbing, unable to make the slightest movement?
I end up regaining my senses and jump in the car, half-blinded by my tears, to rush to the house of friends with an international phone, the most precious thing in my eyes at this minute. I vaguely explain to them that my husband is dying in a hospital deep in the Philippines and desperately try to get a line. An hour and twenty handkerchiefs later, I finally get through, and I hear His voice. It seems that everything is fine; a bad gastroenteritis that did not want to heal was the reason for his evacuation. All that for a bout of diarrhea!
At that point, I break down. Between the relief and the frustration of not being with him, I tell him that he is going to be a father. Gone is the romantic evening with candles during which I was to announce the big news, against a background of violin music, gazing into his eyes to catch each of his reactions. Too bad, it will be done on the phone, eight thousand kilometers from each other, from the house of half strangers, with make-up completely ruined by my nervous breakdown.
No more secrecy, the news has made the rounds of the bars. I can finally relax and play my new role as a pregnant woman.
That is when Didier chooses to talk to me about renewing my contract. He can’t renew it again as a temporary contract and must transform it into a permanent one before the end of the month. I hesitate to tell him the happy news. Will he sign my contract? So close to the goal, what should I do? I ask Bruno for advice and explain my dilemma. He reassures me that my work is worthwhile. “If the business were to drop to the point of sending all the expatriates home, you would be among the last three to stay.” He found the right words.
Finally, I decide to play the trust card and ask to meet Didier the next time he comes in. The dialogue that follows is unreal:
“Me: – Didier, I have great news to tell you, I am pregnant.
- Congratulations, when is it due?
- Early December.
- When do you have to stop working?
- Since I am not allowed to fly after the seventh month, I have to leave Nigeria by the end of September at the latest.
- What do you plan to do next?
- I don’t know. I will not come back to Nigeria. I refuse to put my baby at risk.
- What do we do about the contract?
- I don’t know. I understand that you need me in Nigeria, but I don’t know what use I can be anywhere else, so I don’t see the point of giving me a permanent contract now.
- Your contract ended three days ago, what are you suggesting?
- If I were in your shoes, I would offer myself a consultant contract until the end of September, because you still need me on the Warri base.
- And then what?
- I don’t know yet.
- And in terms of social security and insurance, how are you doing?
- I haven’t thought about the problem yet – another trait of mine that has often worked against me. Never thinking about problems until they’ve hit me!
- I think you’d be in a pretty tough spot. Between your return to France, the end of your pregnancy and the rest, you’ll have enough to worry about as it is. When I came here, I had decided to give you this contract so I’m giving it to you, I haven’t changed my mind.”
I’m not sure what to say anymore. This is the second time he has left me speechless, it’s a lot. From this day on, I remain full of gratitude and I will always be ready to give Didier the best of myself.
I am in my fifth month when I return to France for a few days of vacation. I have my first complete health check-up, my first ultrasound. The mother is doing well, the baby is a little small, which is not surprising when one considers that I have not reduced my activity at all. I finally have a book that explains everything I need to know to understand what is going on inside of me. Like any woman expecting her first child, this book becomes my bestseller of the moment. At least I don’t have to listen to advice from family or well-meaning girlfriends! I take advantage of my vacation to replenish my wardrobe. It’s hard to find work clothes that fit my growing belly. The boxer shorts are a bit too revealing and the dresses are not very practical in a refinery. I have to fall back on David’s jeans for now.
This is the last time I fly to Nigeria. I only have seven weeks left. Work activity is average and my replacement has already arrived. I take advantage of my last moments in the country to do some sightseeing and visit the sites that are a bit far away. I feel time going by very slowly, not to mention my general state of heaviness and the heat that weighs me down. I have almost stopped going out in the evening. David is not here and I don’t have many friends left. I spend my evenings doing jigsaw puzzles. However, despite Didier’s insistence, I refuse to return to France before the scheduled date and especially before I have properly handed over the keys of the base to my successor. Over these two years, I created a network of customers from scratch and I think it would be a shame to waste all these efforts to gain a few days. Especially since I’m in great shape and I feel that nothing can stop me, despite trouble squeezing between the ladder and the safety cage when I visit my site.
I have a bit of a belly, but not many people know about it. I have only announced it to the workers very recently. Since the death threat letter, I have become cautious and reveal as little of my personal life as possible. Many people have complimented me on my weight gain, a sign of beauty and wealth here.
The trunks are packed, five years of life in five trunks is not much. I had a farewell party, liquidated the wine and other French delicacies I had left.
Not feeling too reassured, I organize a drink at the base, expecting to be hissed at by those people I had treated so harshly. Against all odds, several workers take the floor with a very flattering speech about me. They compare me to a mother who chastises them when they do wrong, but compliments them when they do right and push them to improve. I am very touched by these expressions of respect and sympathy and leave the base with a heavy heart. It is raining heavily that day, the base is flooded. It is the first time I have seen it under water! It reminds me of a song, of Yesterday. I am relieved. I was happy in Nigeria, I met my husband there and I learned two jobs. It’s time to move on and this little being stirring in my belly is calling for me.