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Stories by Hillel Gilboa

The Kainji Dam


I love Nigeria, especially the Nigerian people, and particularly where I lived more than 20 years, which is south of the river. That is the Niger River and its sister the Benue River. They are beautiful, good people that love other people. If you don't understand them, there will be eventually, misunderstandings. That is how the system works and that is how the Europeans misunderstand the Africans in general and the Nigerians in particular.


Nigeria situated in West Africa and has an estimated 200 million people, the most populated country in Africa. No one really knows how many people live in Nigeria, and obviously, no one knows how many die in Nigeria, let alone the causes of death. No one, except of course few international organizations that provides questionable data.


What we do know is that about 50% of the Nigerans are Muslims, 50% are Christians and 90% are in different types of paganism, to be on the safe side. There are hundreds of ethnic groups of people, which speak around 300 different languages, but most are manage to speak a “broken” English, called Pidgin English, which is a communication system based on English, hands gestures and different meaningful vocal sounds.


Nigeria is divided into 36 states and one territory around Abuja, the Capital of Nigeria. The current Nigerian borders were drawn by European during the Berlin Conference in 1884 when the Nigerian land was given to the British by the other European rulers.  The borders were determined without any consideration to or understanding of the people who lived in this area, and who cares about them anyway.


The Niger River is the third largest river in Africa and 13th in the world. The Niger is a major source of life in Nigeria. The Kainji Dam is a big dam that Italians built over the Niger River, in Niger State, Nigeria. The dam has created a lake of 135 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. The residents around are happy with this lake that the Italians created, which supports irrigation, agriculture, fishing and very important, astonishingly, produce electricity.


When we were there, something was wrong. A young and well educated Nupe guy by the name Balukuku, meaning "the pigeons guard" was our escort. The Nupe (traditionally called the Nupawa by the Hausas and Tapa by the neighboring Yoruba) are an ethnic group, or about 5 million Muslims, native to the Middle Belt of Nigeria, and are the dominant ethnicity in Niger State, one of the 36 states of Nigeria.


Balukuku tells us the following story and it is interesting story, quite all right, even if it is not a true story, and he make a long story a bit longer. The Kainji Dam is located in Niger State, where the Nupe People are dominant, but other people live around the lake such as the Lopa, Tsikimba, Tsishingini, Tsuvadi and Cishingini and all enjoy the lake built by the Italians.


Anyway, Balukuku tells us this story, that I now tell you as Balukuku told me. He says that Italians built this Kainji Dam some years ago and later managed its operation for few years. The Nigerian government preferred the Italians design, build and later operate the Kainji Dam since they believed that without the Italians management there might not be electricity and the main purpose of the dam is to produce electricity.


The most senior Nigerian manager was Eng. Idogbo, a very good Yoruba engineer from Ibadan, working with the Italians in the past 6 years. Eng. Idogbo wanders around the site as the Chief of the Dam, planning how to take over the Dam Management.


According to Balukuku, Eng. Idogbo is a Nigerian patriot and his ambition is to manage this dam is quite reasonable. Eng. Idogbo holds the idea that the Italians are not required for the operation of the dam anymore, when he, as a Nigerian engineer, is capable and even better. What, Eng. Idogbo is asking, are the Italians the only people that can manage it successfully?


Balukuku agree that in fact, not only the Italians can manage the dam successfully, but he is fully convinced that Eng. Idogbo is grossly incapable of managing this dam, or any dam, or anything and I trust Balukuku. Mr. Balukuku himself is a Mechanical Engineer, with impressive communication capabilities. He is 1.8 meters tall and can communicate successfully with a wide range of people around the Kainji Lake and even with Yoruba people. He speaks excellent English and when he wants to say something he carefully articulates. He suspects that Eng. Idogbo is cooking something with the Honorable Minister of Power, sitting in Abuja.


On the other side, Balukuku is a Nupe and that might make some people think that he likes to complain, because some people think the Nupe people like to complain as a matter of a popular hobby, especially when they have nothing else to do. In fact, one of my friends tells me, that they are trying to complain on every possible element, such as the weather, the car condition, the problems they have with their wives, that they don't have enough money, and especially that they don't have enough money. 


So, it is not easy to make judgement. I tell my friend that I personally know some Nupe people that always complain that they don't have enough money, just like everyone on earth, including Eng. Idogbo.


Balukuku said that Eng. Idogbo approached the Honorable Minister of Power, also a Yoruba from Ibadan, and they speak between them Yoruba. As a matter of habit and tradition, the Yoruba people speak Yoruba between them.


Anyway, Eng. Idogbo tried to persuade the Honorable Minister to come over to the dam by himself to see the situation. In such a visit, Eng. Idogbo will demonstrate to the minister his professional capabilities and show the Honorable Minister that, anything the Italians can do, he can do better. Anyway, that he Idogbo is the one that does all the work. 


Eng. Idogbo tells the Honorable Minister how he has mastered the entire control panels, almost the same as the Honorable Minister's secretary control the typewriter; blindly and easily. And so, after some nudges here and there, the Honorable Minister decides to personally undertake a visit to the dam.


The Honorable Minister's visit is a huge event of biblical proportions. Eng. Idogbo and the Honorable Minister's team invite the area dignitaries, traditional rulers and chiefs to receive the Honorable Minister upon his arrival. Thousands of locals, gather around the premises to watch the rare event. The area where the ceremony is to be held is a dusty land and, on the side, a big tent was erected. The tent's floor covered with carpets giving the place a flavor and aura of king's palace.


On the tent's sides there are big fans, since this area is very hot and humid. Big speaker playing music at deafening volume. The ceremony is impressive and includes dancers, drums, and bands playing traditional local songs.


All are already waiting more than three hours for the Honorable Minister’s arrival. Most Ministers ensure that as many as possible people shall wait for him and they should wait as much time as reasonable. The more they wait the more important is the honorable minister is seen to be. That is the system.


As the Honorable Minister's entourage is approaching, clouds of dust welcome the entourage. The crowd is excited. The honorable minster's entourage consists of 74 vehicles, most colored black with tinted glass, and if anyone will bother checking, they might find out that in those vehicles there is only a driver and even that is doubtful. The reason for the entourage size is simply related to position of the honorable minister.


A federal minister, such as the honorable minister of power, can't allow himself to arrive at a ceremony with 3 vehicles, which is what the honorable minister really need. Coming with only few vehicles would be regarded as an insult to the honorable minister. If this explanation is not enough for you, to establish the rationale behind such a long entourage, then read this. A week earlier, the federal minister of works arrived on a visit to Ilorin with 72 vehicles and such a long entourage put the number of vehicles required for the visit of the honorable minister of power at no less than 73. So, once we are aware of the limitations that the honorable ministers have to deal with, we begin to appreciate the modesty involved with such a short entourage of 74 vehicles only.


Everybody, around and above, north and south, clearly understand that the honorable minister of power is not in a position to allow himself an entourage shorter than the minister of works, bear in mind that the minister of works is Hausa visiting Yoruba town. There is no question here. 


Now, in front of the entourage there are 6 noisy motorbikes and behind at the entourage end there is a vehicle with soldiers and chakalaka that provide the necessary ambiance, which is to terrify the entire population of this area.


Clearly, Eng. Idogbo is fully excited from the unfolding event and the huge honor bestowed on him with the attention he is receiving. The dignitaries, together with Eng. Idogbo, are all gathered around the Honorable Minister's car greeting him with long bows as a sign of respect. Eng. Idogbo himself is actually prostrating on the ground vocalizing generously welcome statements, telling the Honorable Minister how happy is he to see him.


Out of the noise, the hustle and bustle and the dust, comes a group of about 50 dignitaries and chiefs with Eng. Idogbo leading the gang toward the Control Rooms. No Italians are to be seen. Idogbo updated them on the event and explained to them that the nature of the event is a Nigerian political matter and there is nothing more resentful to Italians than be involved somehow in Nigerian politics or in Italian politics for that matter.


Idogbo is no doubt XXXL size and he leads the honorable minister and associates with full confidence, moving his hands up and down left and right, since there is a meaning of itself to the hand movements. The show must be perfect. He must successfully utilize this "once in a life time" opportunity. This is a life changing crack. If he will manage to manipulate the honorable minister, he shall possess immense power. Someone in the class of Idogbo, sitting on the chair of electricity “ruler”, be in charge for allotting the electricity to different areas of the country based on his educated judgement, this is a biblical dream.


At this point, there is not enough electricity produced in Nigeria to meet the demand. The supply of electricity is so low that Nigeria is probably one of the world leading importers for generators.


Some areas get 2 hours electricity, others might get 4 hours and yet others might not get at all. Now, the one who decides which area gets power and how many hours every day, shall face no argument whatsoever until he is removed from that post. Such a power provides enormous respect from citizen all over and all will be greeting him with very deep long bows and some may kiss his shoes as a matter of a total respect. Most shall laugh loudly from the driest joke that the chief electricity officer might say.


Reps from villages, towns and corporations make sure the chief electricity officer, which Eng. Idogbo dreams of being, shall be the happiest person on earth, so he shall provide them with electrical power. He shall be gifted plenty Naira and Dollars and make friends. Representatives from the different areas and villages will make sure that he will be very-very happy and that in return he will provide them with electricity, on account of the other villages, of course.


Accordingly, the representative come up with creative marketing moves. Sometime they send him one or two goats, with corn and casava tubers, some pineapples and mango. If it doesn't work, they might send him a young beauty that will persuade him to provide power, no matter how, since tomorrow there is important event.


You got the idea.


Idogbo is very well aware of this traditional system and that is why he is so anxious to see the Italians go back to Italy.


All these thoughts are moving across Idogbo's mind once he is leading the honorable minister with the chiefs toward the Kainji Dam's Control Room. He knows this is his chance for glory and he must show how good he can be in mastering the control panels blindly and easily, exactly as the Honorable Minster's secretary tap the keys on the typewriter. Nothing less, so the Honorable Minister shall not doubt his capability to control the Kainji Dam's panels.


The moment has arrived. Eng. Idogbo approaches the control panels with extra showoff with his eyes on the honorable minister and his fingers push buttons here and there off and on as he brags with his engineering art. He describes to the Honorable Minister about the different buttons and lights. He speaks up and down, left and right and makes sure no one will understand what he is saying. The honorable minster shakes his head in different directions as a signal to the others that he is listening, which is a rare phenomenon, since the honorable minister doesn't tend to listen to citizens, especially around the Kainji Lake. 


The Honorable Minister looks around wondering if other associates are impressed with Idogbo's capabilities pressing buttons here and there when a sharp beep sounds and thereafter horrible bang and then an earthquake. Everything is shaking up and down.


The dignitaries flee, terrified, chiefs fall down and panic everywhere. The chiefs pray to different gods with their last wishes. The minister's bodyguards pulling out guns and pistols ready to shoot.


Coincidently, Idogbo had opened the dam's gates with the emergency click. Huge water wave washed whatever was in the path. 60 villages and small towns were submerged without trace and no one really knows how many good people with wives and children were buried in Idogbo's mud. Who counts anyway?!


Eng. Idogbo is telling the Honorable Minister that he has no doubts that the Italian displaced that button, Ah … Ah … these Italians.


And this is the end of the story, Balukuku tells me, except that few weeks later, after recovering from that horrific experience, the Honorable Minister decides to send the Italians back to Italy and he had two reasons.


One reason being Idogbo telling the Honorable Minister how the Italians installed the wrong buttons and the second reason is that these Italians came from Italy and it is only reasonable that they will prefer to go back to Italy.


The Honorable Minister knows very well that Idogbo's story about the wrong button is isokuso (nonsense in Yoruba) but, Idogbo promised the Honorable Minister that if he will send the Italians back to Italy, or to any other place for that matter, then Idogbo will make sure that the Honorable Minister's village will receive electricity every day for at least ten hours and the village chief will not have to send Idogbo two goats, some corns, pineapples and casava tubers, and in any case the village certainly will not have to send any beautiful girl to explain to Idogbo what is the importance of electricity to the village.

Think about it.

Ibadan Theater


I miss Nigeria and particularly I miss the Nigerian people. More than twenty years I lived in Nigeria, with different people and different cultures in a mixed society. Part of me is definitely a Nigerian, from the different cultures, such as the Yoruba, Fulani, Hausa, Igbo, Efik, Ijaw, Bini, Ibibio, Anang, Anyema, Baushi, Eket, Etong, Igala, Nupe, Oron and more. I am a mixture of them all with their rich diversity.


Ten years I lived in Ibadan. The capital city of the Yoruba people, considering Lagos as a multicultural city. There are 6 million Yoruba residents in Ibadan, but it looks more like a big village with rusty roofs, open drainage systems, open sewage systems and a system that spread the garbage around the city, allowing all to equally enjoy it.


There are some efforts in developing public infrastructures and one of the projects was a semi-circle modern cultural center or theater.


Now, this Schroder is a 61-years old project superintendent. He is accurate and discipline with German roots. He loves teaching and explaining his staff the construction techniques. Specifically, he likes Adewale, the foreman, since Adewale already have some knowledge in construction techniques.


That evening, Schroder tells me that he feels badly.

Why? - I ask him.

Well - Schroder says – This morning, the challenge was to construct a curved wall. The drawings show that the stairs are going up to the second floor along the curved external wall. So, they should build the internal wall curved, like a semi-circle, to enclose the space under the stairs for any wrong access.


Schroder said that he demonstrates to Adewale how to place the bricks with small twists such, that the wall will go with the stairs and close the space under it. Then - Schroder says – I went for my "Schlafstunde." Schroder always go for a break by 1pm.


Before Schroder goes for his Schlafstunde, he asks Adewale - who will he give this complicated job? Adewale suggest Babatunde, since he has good hands, on one hand, and since there is no one else on site, on the other hand. Schroder confirm the choice and disappears for his "Schlafstunde."


Schroder tells me - I returns from my "Schlafstunde" around 5pm and I am amazed with the high quality of the wall built by Babatunde. I was very pleased with the results – he says. He calls Adewale and praises him for a well-done job. Adewale too is proud. He knows Schroder will give him a nice bonus for a well-done job. Plus, a bonus for Babatunde, of course.


Schroder ask Adewale – and by the way, where is Babatunde?

Adewale hesitates – Mastaaaa … he says - we have a big problem, Masta.

Schroder – okey Adewale, what is the problem?

Adewale - You see Masta … Babatunde, he is trapped behind the wall, under the stairs. How can we get him out?


And that is the end of the story, except that few years later I am passing by the theater and decide to have a look. To my very big surprise, Babatunde is the person in charge of this site. It is good to see Babatunde getting such a promotion.


I ask Babatunde if he can arrange tickets for the next show.

Babatunde gently says - right now there are no tickets for at least the next 2 weeks ahead. Two minutes later he admits - there are no tickets at all.


The new governor decides to freeze the project. He doesn't want his predecessor to get credit for such a nice project.


Thus, in the meantime, for the past 3 years, Babatunde is using the site as a goat's pen and grow cassava around the parking lots.


Think about it.

The Writing System


Professor Ogunleye Shakale tells me that he teaches Aeronautics in the University of Ibadan. The reason of his intimating me has to do with the road to his house on the hill, over Salami Estate. Professor Ogunleye Shakale approached me with the idea that I could help him arrange for a layer of asphalt on the road, especially with the coming rainy season. Of course, I can't help with the asphalt, but we gradually become friends. He is a wonderful person, even if I have some doubts about his professor title.


He is well dressed with three-piece dark suite, and red handkerchief in the left pocket of his jacket. His English is perfect, thanks to his time in London and he tries hard, without success, to speak with a British accent. I wonder how Professor Ogunleye Shakale is creeping into my office when there is a clear instruction at the gate not to allow entrance for people without appointment, particularly professors from the University of Ibadan.


But here we are sitting in my office speaking about different issues, especially this and that, but also other issues, when Professor Ogunleye Shakale tells me that he has an appointment with the Honorable Minister of Transport next week and he wants me to join him at the meeting.


Professor Ogunleye Shakale tells me that the Honorable Minister asked for his advice regarding the situation of the Nigeria Airways and he would love me to accompany him at the meeting.


Coincidentally, I plan to be in Lagos next week, and out of curiosity I decide to go along with the Professor since meeting the Honorable Minister is a great honor anyway, at least until you meet him.


It is 9AM in the hot and sunny morning in Lagos. We are driving from Ikeja to Lagos Island. This morning it takes about four hours. Without the usual Go-slow, it should take about 20 minutes, but there is no Lagos without a Go-slow, which is simply a slow traffic or more precisely, a traffic jam.


Upon arrival at the Ministry of Transportation, it is already 1pm. The Professor introduce himself and me to the minister's secretary and she pleasantly show us the waiting room and advised - the honorable minister is coming any moment from now.

This is - I am telling myself - good news.  


The day is as usual hot and humid. At the ministry's waiting room there are 6 air-conditioners. The secretary say that they are not working for the past 3 years. The floor is wet because Lagos is close to the equator and that's mean it is tropics, humid and sweaty. By 2pm the Professor is asking the secretary if she heard anything from the honorable minister, and she say - the honorable minister is coming any moment from now.


At the ministry's waiting room there about 15 well respected Lagosian discussing on this and that, along the walls. One respectable Lagosian tells his neighbor that the Oyinbo, (peeled people, as the Yoruba refer to white people), know so little. Yes - the Professor says - but it is enough to destroy the world.


A third one says - the more we know, the more we know that we don't know and the danger grows, the more we know. Now you can see that waiting in the honorable minister's waiting rooms can be quite enlightening and perhaps more than a class in the University of Ibadan.


It's 3pm and it looks like the heat cause us to lose our mind. The Professor is asking the secretary if she heard anything from the honorable minister. Her name is Jibola and she insist that - we need to be patient - and that - the honorable minister is coming any moment from now.


I have to move around a bit to keep my knuckles out of troubles and I coincidently notice a familiar face, so I am mentioned to him that I have been waiting for the honorable minister of transportation for few hours now, and that Jibola the secretary say - we need to be patient - and that - the honorable minister is coming any moment from now.


The familiar face tells me that this is actually the truth, but - he advises me - come in 3 days since the honorable minster is now in London. There is no contradiction, say the professor when he discovers signs of my frustration. You must be patient - the honorable minister is coming any moment from now - as Jibola say.


I certainly need more patience. The Professor is staying in a small hotel at Ikeja and I stay at a Guest House in Ilupeju. I use the time to see a dentist. The Nigerian dentist check my teeth and decides that I need seven tooth fillings. This is unexpected for me, however; a dentist is a dentist. Seven fillings!? After the dentist complete the fillings, my dentist in Israel says - the way I know your teeth, the dentist in Nigeria had to drill seven holes in your teeth. When the Professor hear what happened, he says - after all, you need holes in your teeth, so you can make the fillings. That is the system.


Professor Ogunleye Shakale explains the dentist's conduct. He says - the decision on the fillings number depends on the Dentist's need at that time. For example – he says - if the dentist has some extra expenses, then he needs more Naira, and if he needs more Naira then he will increase the number of fillings. Professor Shakale says - the number of fillings required, determine the number of holes that the dentist drills in your mouth. It is really so simple. Even a new comer to Nigeria should understand this math.  


After some investigations, we find out that the honorable minister will actually be in his office on Tuesday. Jibola apologizing to us for the long waiting. She smiles and say - I told he will come any moment, didn't I?


Jibola and the minister are both Yoruba. Great people and culture existing thousands of years. There are about 35 million Yoruba, mainly in Nigeria and they have an old tradition to speak Yoruba when they are talking with each other and that makes it difficult to understand what they are saying because I don't understand Yoruba.


The honorable minister invites us to sit and after the usual greetings I take my place at the table. The Professor introduces me as his long-time friend from London, to add some legitimacy to my presence.


Of course, I am trying hard not to ask what they are talking about because the minster might suspect that I try to find out what they are talking about. This might be regarded as a disrespect. Nevertheless, from time to time I receive a short translation.


The Honorable Minister of Transportation and Prof. Ogunleye Shakale discuss the unfortunate condition of the Nigerian Airways, the national carrier of Nigeria. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) suspended Nigeria Airways in early 1987 from the Clearing House (which meant the airline could not issue tickets to fly on other IATA member airlines and the converse).


Few years earlier, the former minister of transportation, a well-respected army officer and politician, dismissed the excellent KLM staff after they did a good job of operating the airline and the new terminal and send them back to Amsterdam. There were two reasons why the honorable minister sends them back to Holland. First, the Nigerian teams was believed to be able to do a better job than the peeled experts of KLM in operating of the Nigerian Airways and second, these peeled experts came from Holland, so it is reasonable to send them back to Holland.


The carrier started accumulating significant debts and losses that outstripped its revenues, which is nothing unusual, except that when aircrafts belong to the Nigeria Airways landed in Europe, they were detained or impounded in Europe for unpaid debt. This was seen as very rude and impolite attitude of peeled Europeans that unfortunately misunderstand Nigeria.


In light of the above, Prof. Ogunleye Shakale shared his frustration with the honorable minister and blamed the peeled European for their unfair tactics. He angrily reminds the honorable minister how Columbus, a renown peeled explorer, is regarded by the European as if he discovers America, when there were already millions of good people there. And Columbus was sure it is India. Ignorant!    


Prof. Ogunleye Shakale explains to the Honorable Minister that the entire problem of the Nigeria Airways could be saved if there was a Nigerian writing system.


Professor Ogunleye Shakale explains - when other cultures and members of the homo-sapiens developed writing systems, thousands of years ago, to improve their communication, in Nigeria it was completely unnecessary.


Villages and residents in Nigeria were always very communicative and manage very well with each other, plus, they had nothing to write about.


I later asked the Professor why there was no writing system in Nigeria. Professor Ogunleye Shakale always have at least two reasons for everything. So, he says that in fact there are two reasons; One, they didn't know how to write and two, they didn't know how to read.


Prof. Ogunleye Shakale clarifies his remarks and share with the Honorable Minister some of his childhood memories in the village somewhere near Ogbomosho. Prof. Shakale says - those days they had an advanced technology that allowed them to travel to London in a minute.


Prof. Shakale described the exceptionality of that technology. No need for air crafts, no fuel is required, and the operating cost is minimal. No need for favors from the peeled European.


Prof. Ogunleye Shakale criticizes the technology of the peeled people, forcing Nigerians to use aircraft just for traveling a long distance. He says - such a technology is not efficient. He adds – this is why Nigeria is completely dependent on the peeled people's technology.


The Honorable Minister listen carefully and asked Prof. Ogunleye Shakale how can we implement the fantastic technology in Nigeria.


Prof. Shakale says - Honorable, that is the problem, we have no writing system, so we couldn't keep record of the details and the process required for that good technology.


Prof. Shakale remembers - one of the village elders is making smoke from a special fire. I am not sure what type of smoke was it – he says - the next thing, the village elder disappeared in the smoke. Then, after a minute, the village elder was back from the smoke – he says. Prof. Ogunleye Shakale was a child than and he remember the village elder telling them that he was in London. Simple! Just like that.


After we left the Honorable Minister of Transportation's office, Prof. Ogunleye Shakale, the Aviation expert from Ibadan, tells me - it is unfortunate that there was no writing system in Ogbomosho to record the details of the Chief's technology for the benefit of the next generations. Who needs these peeled people's aircrafts anyway.


Think about it