Chapter 2: The Great Departure

I only know that it is in Africa and I rush to the atlas to learn a little more about my upcoming destination. First of all, it is a former British colony, not to be confused with Niger, a former French colony. I read: The Federal Republic of Nigeria, composed of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), has been independent since October 1, 1960. The dictator, Babangida, has been in power since 1985. So far so good.

More than 200 ethnic groups live together on the Nigerian territory, but there are three dominant ones, the Hausas in the north, the Igbos in the southeast and the Yorubas in the southwest. I’m not sure I’ll remember all that, but I guess I’ll be able to refine my knowledge once I’m there.

Its population is now estimated at 120 million, which represents 20% of sub-Saharan Africa and 47% of West Africa. Nigeria’s surface area is equivalent to twice the size of France. The GDP is $35 billion, or 12% of that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer. It is also the country of Biafra and of the war that took place when I was just born. A million dead and images of starving children shown in the history books of my childhood.

Everything gets mixed up in my head and I really wonder what is waiting for me there. An industrial landscape with flames shooting out of refineries or desert landscapes populated by children with swollen bellies. And I still don’t know what the atlas omits to point out: that Lagos is the most violent capital in the world and that Warri, my final destination, is the least safe city in the country!

Today, I am not worried about my security. I am both excited and anxious about entering a very masculine world in which very few women have had the opportunity to work. It is a real challenge, exactly what I was looking for, at least on paper.

At the beginning of July, even before signing the contract, I leave to spend two weeks in Cornwall to improve my English. I am staying with a family, spending my days taking private lessons and my evenings with the other colleagues, most of them French. We focus on grammar, understanding different accents and improving my own (although do I really want to lose my sexy accent?).

The course ends on July 15, 1989 and I manage to negotiate with the school to leave 24 hours early in order to participate in the bicentennial of the French Revolution. My recruiter makes it very clear to me that choosing a “little party” in Paris over a day of language classes verges on the sacrilegious. My doubts about this corporate culture are growing, but I push them away.

We meet at the headquarters to sign our contracts. There are eighteen of us, from all over the world, sixteen men and two women. Did you say two women? Yes, an Italian woman has joined the party. We watch each other from a distance. First impression? Good. I am not unhappy with this unexpected companion. Maybe we will be able to find a quarter of an hour for girl talk. As for the men, it is difficult to make up my mind. They come in all colors, all sizes, all origins, and I don’t recognize any of them from my selection sessions. I observe them while reading my contract and listening to the recruiters. It is not easy; too many people around me are making my head spin.

The same day, everyone flies off to their final destination, without having met. I am lucky to be with another new employee, Howard, an American going to Port-Harcourt, while I am heading off to Warri.

Africa. The great return. Memories flood back, the sensations are overwhelming. Three years ago, I set up an expedition to Mali with a friend to help a women’s group. The women had left their husbands, refusing to accept the arrival of the second wife, and had formed an association to make a living by selling artisanal soap. We came in contact with them through our university and found their story fascinating. Then, the work began: hours spent in the laboratory with the teacher to find the right soap recipes, applications to different grant organizations to finance the airfare, side jobs to raise funds and work with the school alumni to arrange accommodation on site. We went to Mali for two months. It was an exciting experience, living the African way, following in the rhythm of these women. Who gave the most to the other? I don’t know, but I was falling in love… with Africa, while my boyfriend was leaving me. The violence of those feelings, the violence of the break-up. A piece of my heart remains there. Disappointment in love? With whom? With what? Everything gets mixed up, but the heat, the noises and the smells are more alive than ever. That was my first real voyage, my initiation to travel. Since then, the virus has never left me and any opportunity to escape is good.

I have a hard time maintaining a neutral expression to make a good impression in front of Howard. When we arrive at the airport in Lagos, we are immediately immersed in the atmosphere. The heat and humidity catch us as we get off the plane.

Of course, no one is waiting for us at the airport and we have to make our way through immigration. My visa is not quite in order, but as a woman, no one expects me to come for work. All I have to do is invent a brother, a father or a fiancé (or all three) whom I visit regularly and who will justify my frequent excursions in the future to a country not known for its tourist attractions.

I am happy to be with a companion who takes things in hand. My English, which I thought was pretty good, is put to a severe test when we have to fight against a multitude of porters who throw themselves on our small suitcases. We pass the customs with so few belongings that they can’t really tax anything, despite being very insistent. All this takes place in the heat of the airport, in the middle of a swarming crowd, whilst seeking a little air that the broken air conditioning is unable to provide.

The final test is the taxi ride. Having only just finished the luggage war, we face a pack of drivers jumping to offer their services when they notice that we are unaccompanied. We have been warned about fake taxi drivers who rob their clients in a deserted place. We do our best to choose a trustworthy-looking driver and get into a taxi that seems to be more or less intact. Howard remembers the name of the hotel, which the driver seems to know, and we are off.

We arrive at our destination in one piece. We are staying in a five-star hotel for our first night. I draw myself a bubble bath in the marble bathroom. What a pleasure to feel rich! My first job. My first salary that is more than anything I own after years of student life. The evening ends in a fancy restaurant where we dine on French food washed down with excellent red wine! I think I’ll get used to this life quite easily after all.

The last 24 hours have been full of emotions and I quickly fall into a deep sleep.

The next day, I wake up at dawn. My plane is scheduled to leave at eight. The national airport is what you would expect from a small airport in Africa. A crowd of people are walking (because there is no running here) in all directions, offering obscure services. There is no check-in desk, rather a man is dozing behind a wooden counter with luggage piled up on carts next to him. After I manage to get my ticket stamped and to receive a-sort-of boarding pass without a seat number, my luggage is added to the pile, with the risk of making it collapse, and I wait to be called.

Howard is no longer with me and I make myself very small in my seat to better observe my surroundings. There are no shops as there ordinarily would be in an airport, but lots of people are selling packaged or single cigarettes, food and drinks. Despite the early morning hours and the listing of only a few planes on the flight board, it is already crowded. The women wear traditional clothing, but the men are dressed European-style. No beautiful African dresses are to be seen. The general impression is of poverty and cleanliness, of colors faded by time. Another surprise: no characteristic smell. Characteristic of what, I do not know exactly. Maybe I would like this airport to look like a postcard, with bright colors and spicy smells? All of this is disconcerting.

I am half-asleep in the humid heat waiting for this plane that already has 45 minutes of unannounced delay when a man calls us to board. I find myself racing down the runway, wondering if they’ve given out too many boarding passes. I’m hoping to get a seat on this small eighteen-seat plane that doesn’t seem like the safest mode of transportation. One hour and no incident later, we land in Warri. The runway crosses the main road of the city which is closed for the occasion. My adventure continues.

Warri is located in the Niger Delta, a large river that rises at the border of Sierra Leone and Guinea, crosses Mali and then Niger, to flow into the Atlantic Ocean, after a journey of 4,184 kilometers. The city has between 100,000 and 500,000 inhabitants, depending on the source, and three major ethnic groups that fight regularly. The main activity is related to steel and oil with its refinery (one of the three in the country).

This time, the airport is tiny and I find the expected clichés: beggars with polio, children clinging to me and chickens pecking on the edge of the runway. I also discover a feeling of uneasiness that will never let up when I face this misery.

Two men are there waiting for me in work overalls and safety shoes. All this seems so unreal. Yesterday morning I was signing my contract in Paris and today I am making my way through this brightly colorful crowd, in the company of engineers who do not seem to notice my bewildered look. The first one, Libyan, speaks English to me while the other, Tunisian, welcomes me in French. But in the midst of all this confusion, I am no longer surprised by anything.

It is true that I didn’t want the job of a young dynamic executive, surrounded by young ambitious wolves, but this didn’t necessarily mean wanting to wear work overalls! My knights in shining armor drive me through the broken roads in the emblematic Peugeot 504. Around me are dilapidated cars, still running thanks to a few miracles and a lot of string, kids playing on the side of the road, overloaded carts pulled by sweaty beautiful young men, women carrying mountains of objects precariously balanced on their heads. A little further on, I see open-air mechanic workshops, containers that serve as stores, piles of scrap metal in every corner. The landscape is picturesque, but it smells of misery. This is not what I expected from a country that sells millions of barrels of oil per day.

Finally, we arrive at the base. It is responsible for the regional logistics, with maintenance workshops and offices, where the equipment and the engineers get back in shape between two missions. There is even air conditioning. We call these facilities a base; they often serve as a rear “base” for operations.

Once there, I begin to wonder if I really made the right choice. I find myself in the office of the FSM (Field Service Manager = the boss, for us engineers) who is the caricature of a Frenchman, loud-mouthed, bon vivant with a generous belly and whom I imagine to be irascible.

The first contact, in French this time, is not especially intended to put me at ease. I start timidly: “Hello Sir, how are you? I am the new girl.” – “You’ll learn that here the French are on first-name terms.” Yet I find myself speaking to him in a roundabout way for weeks to come. He is too impressive to be on first-name terms, and he is my boss after all.

The next half hour is a litany of the dos and don’ts of my stay. These consist mainly of obeying anyone who speaks to me and completing the list of tasks on the program, which seems rather confusing at the moment, all under the supervision of my tutor. My doubts continue. Apparently, I’m here to take a beating and prove to everyone, including myself, that I can handle the pressure. Is this really how I see the world of work? We had been clearly warned that newcomers are trained during the first year by making their lives as difficult as possible. This serves to eliminate those who do not have nerves of steel, an unfailing capacity to resist and self-control close to perfection, with of course an excellent ability to learn and the memory of an elephant. In other words, these are the basic and necessary qualities, which are barely sufficient to pass the first test.

They had warned us during the job interviews, trying to discourage us from the start. Our measurements are used to evaluate the extent of the oil reservoir. The financial stakes are enormous. A mistake in the evaluation can lead to millions in lost investments or to false information that could destabilize the stock market of big oil companies. It is therefore forbidden to make a mistake. These draconian selection criteria, which are as much about skills as about the strength of our nerves, should guarantee this. But nothing scares me. If others have made it, then I too will take up the challenge without giving up!

The training starts with a month on a base, during which our only goals are to please our boss in order to get a favorable report and to convince ourselves that we really want to continue in this path. If not, it is best to give up before too much money has been invested in our training.

The old-timers, who were treated harshly at the beginning of their careers, treat the new ones harshly to get their well-deserved revenge. With a sadistic smile, the FSM describes this custom and the list of tasks I will have to accomplish in the next thirty days. It’s hazing time again. I’ll have to disassemble and reassemble tools, do maintenance on some others, read documents, go through the mechanical workshop (oh, is car maintenance part of the job?)… etc.

Apparently, it seems my status as a woman allows me to escape one of the unofficial tests that revolves around the nightlife of the local bars.

This only serves to reinforce my belief that I will hang in there and prove to them that I can do as well or even better than a man. Maybe that was his way of motivating his troops: the challenge. I spend the rest of the day getting to know my co-workers and trying to understand the job, for which my schooling has poorly prepared me. No more theory and complex equations, I have to forget everything I have learned to make some space in my brain and prepare it for the force-feeding that I will happily endure in the months to come.

In the evening, we all eat together at a large table that can seat about twenty people and where about fifteen nationalities, from all continents, are present. The conversation keeps coming back to work, and I feel somewhat lost in the middle of this group that seems to be in complete symbiosis. An example of a typical conversation, full of obscure acronyms: “During my LDT run, I hadn’t fully opened the caliper at TD. My pad started floating around in the washout and reading anything. My DRHO went crazy.” I’m trying to learn about a job, a country, and a group of people, all at the same time. And all of this in English, while I’m barely out of the cocoon of student life. All of this without being able to go home at night or call my best friend and confidante to share my doubts and questions.

At twenty-two, am I really prepared for all this? Will I be able to cope without the moral support that my self-assured colleagues seem incapable of providing?

At the table, a young white woman joins us. She is the wife of a colleague. A potential friend? Perhaps the confidante that I so desperately need? She seems to look unfavorably at the arrival of a woman who is going to steal her exclusivity and with whom her little-girl charm has little chance of working. Our relationship will quickly turn into a non-aggression pact in lieu of friendship.

The world I am approaching seems very hard. These engineers are certainly not sentimentalists ready to devote time to my moods. The only way to survive is to grit my teeth, with no means of communication with my Old World. The restless night that follows does not help.

This is not the time to be depressed. Giving up right from the start, I’d make a good adventurer! I have to put my doubts away in the back of my mind. I have nothing to lose, I will live this adventure until the end. It won’t be too late to let it all go if I’ve gone the wrong way, but at least I won’t have anything to blame myself for. Happy, I am happy. It’s now or never to experiment with the Coué method!

In the end, even though it’s 40 degrees Celsius and 5,000 kilometers from home, every day feels the same on the base. I get up early, arrive at work at 8am and get back home around 7 p.m. for after work drinks. Only Sunday afternoon is free. I am now looking forward to the first mission. I still don’t understand the conversations at the table, but at least I have the impression that I am part of the group.

Tomorrow is a big day, I’m going on the rig for the first time. At last, I’m going to enter the real world; the adventure begins. I leave with Mani, my tutor, who has the hard task of introducing me to my new job. We go to the heliport. I try to look detached, but I am very excited at the thought of this rite of passage. The helicopters are big machines that can fit a dozen people and move smoothly. I’m a little disappointed, I was already seeing myself as James Bond. Seen from the air, a platform (or rig) looks like a huge metallic structure of about 50 m by 30 m, standing on 3 or 4 legs (at least those that operate in shallow sea) with a mini-Eiffel Tower, 40 m high. The rest is overloaded with cranes, tubes on standby and various equipment. On the opposite side of the tower are the residential quarters where eighty people coexist, almost always men, in rooms of 4 to 6 with a common bathroom. The noise is permanent. Two teams take turns every 12 hours and the activity never stops. Today, we are going on an exploration rig.

Things have changed a lot since 1859 when Colonel Drake drilled the first well in history, to a depth of 23 meters, in the United States. Research has evolved and now drilling uses very high technology to dig with a greater chance of success, while limiting losses.

The history of oil began millions of years ago when the oceans covered most of the planet. As the oceans receded, micro-organisms, the remains of tiny animals and plants, became trapped in the sedimentary rocks, known as source rocks. Then they were transformed into gas and oil, and migrated towards the reservoir when the temperature and pressure were adequate. But only porous rocks, called reservoir rocks, allow oil to be exploited. It is exceptional for all these conditions to be met and now we must discover these precious geological encounters.

Everything starts on a virgin site with seismic studies. This consists in studying the path of a sound wave, sent from the surface and bouncing off the successive geological layers. To obtain an exploitable profile, thousands of measurements must be taken over kilometers of surface. At sea, boats drag thousands of microphones that collect the sound waves. On land, the problem becomes more complicated, as we study virgin terrain in which we have to make our way, both through the desert and the jungle, to place the microphones.

Once the surface seismic studies are completed, the geological profile of the subsoil allows us to speculate on the presence of oil; then we drill a first well to validate the hypotheses. One or two wells later, we have a good idea of the entire field by superimposing the results from the drilling with those of the seismic studies. We can then plan the exploitation of the reservoir.

Our job is to intervene at the end of the drilling phase and, using measurement tools, to determine the geological profile of the well – in other words, to make logs. In Nigeria, the wells are quite deep – on average five kilometers long. We are far from Colonel Drake’s 23 meters! We confirm the exact position and estimated capacity of oil, water and gas reservoirs. Well, if there are any, unfortunately we do not win every time.

We determine the nature of the reservoirs by measuring the resistivity. The resistivity of oil is almost nil and very recognizable in electrical measurements. Then, we evaluate the porosity of the rock in which the oil is caught to define its exploitability. The best current technologies do not allow us to exploit more than a third of the known reserves.

When working on an unexplored field, the logs are eagerly awaited and the client exerts strong pressure to get quick results.

Considering that the operating cost of a rig is several thousand euros per hour, time is precious and the work never stops. The field engineer must be ready to intervene as soon as the drilling is finished, day or night, and can only stop when the measurements are completed. Until normal activity resumes, the eighty rig workers are busy with other tasks. This means eating a meal in front of the computer, chosen from the canteen by the assistants, and spending an average of 50 hours running between the unit, the opening of the well through which the different tools descend successively, the workshop where the instruments are stored while waiting for a final check and the as yet unavoidable toilet stop. Obviously, resting is out of the question, much less sleeping.

I am quite nervous when I get off the helicopter. All these faces turned towards me, expressing curiosity more than animosity, make me uncomfortable. I’m not particularly shy, but to be the focal point of a whole group to this extent is new to me.

Mani and I go straight to the captain’s office (company man), who seems somewhat embarrassed by this unprecedented situation. He knew that a trainee was coming on board, but he never imagined that it could be a female trainee. These platforms are not designed for women, there are no rooms or bathrooms for women only. This is the first time he has been confronted with this situation. For the moment, he solves the problem by giving me the V.I.P. room, which, by chance, is free. But what will happen the day a big shot comes on board and claims their room? Where will he put me?

He allows me to use the only private bathroom in the place: his. At first, I don’t really understand the point of his proposal, but I quickly realize that it would be difficult for me to share a bathroom with men who are used to being amongst themselves and emerge naked, singing, from the shower. The situation could quickly become embarrassing for all of us.

In the future, a similar agreement will naturally be reached. I don’t mind sharing a room, though. They are usually equipped with bunk beds and I manage to hang an extra blanket on the upper bunk to create some privacy for myself.

This is the first contact with the client and I don’t babble too much. I manage not to make a fool of myself. I hope I am giving the impression that I know what I am doing. While Mani goes to set up his equipment, I have to go through a training course, as all newcomers do, to familiarize myself with the safety rules and evacuation procedures. By definition, a rig sits on a powder keg. At any time, the drilling can pass through a layer of high-pressure gas and the whole thing could explode. During drilling, mud is constantly circulated. This mud has three functions. It lubricates the tool, brings the cuttings to the surface and, most importantly, helps to balance the hydrostatic pressure of the geological layers that are crossed. This mud is constantly monitored and chemicals are added to it to make it heavier or lighter as needed. The “mud-guy” is certainly the most important person on the platform! Accidents are very rare, but can be deadly, like the infamous “Piper Alpha” which sank in the North Sea, just one year ago, taking the life of 167 of the 226 people on board.

I then rush to join my tutor in the unit where, if I still don’t know what to do, I at least feel safe.

That night we start the measurements at 11 p.m. and we are there until mid-afternoon. Apparently, this is short and we are lucky (??). I am exhausted, I have not slept for 36 hours. It motivates me though to see this virtuoso engineer in the middle of the storm, the only master on board this strange ship, when all is agitated around him. I admire the way he keeps control of the situation. His power seems immense to me. At this precise moment, he is the only one who knows the potential of the well and everyone is awaiting his diagnosis as gospel.

I am more and more motivated, I must succeed.

The rest of the stay continues without me going back to a rig, but it is a Magali with a favorable report from the boss and determined to overcome all obstacles, who goes to the Parma training center. On the plane back home, I find Howard who seems to have had an excellent time in Port-Harcourt. We encourage each other and wish each other good luck for the future. The future looks bright for me today. I am happy. I know that the next few months are going to be very hard and that only some of us will finish, but I don’t want to think about it. I feel confident. I will find the strength within me to succeed. I don’t have a choice anymore. It is too late to turn back. Now that I have tasted this life, nothing else seems appealing and the disappointment would be enormous if I missed this new vocation.

Chapter 3: Training Center… or Boot camp?