Saturday, 30 May 2015

'Early Morning Run... A Farewell to Arms'

Title? A nod to Hemingway. He also maintained keeping the first paragraph short.

The real title, 'Farewell to Talisman'. Later.

Remaining on Hemingway for a moment. He once made a bet claiming he could write a story in six words. On a restaurant napkin, he wrote, 'For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn'. He collected his winnings.

My best effort. 15 words. 'Lost Dog: Missing one eye. Missing one leg. Neutered. Answers to the name of 'Lucky'. OK, not entirely in the same class.

'A Farewell to Talisman Energy'. 8-May 2015. The sale to Repsol finally closed. I haven't mentioned Talisman previously. 14 years service, until end 2013. A sad day to see such an excellent Canadian oil company being taken over. Not too many years ago; well, more likely the other way round.

So many memories. Some wonderful times. I learned so much coming from the British Army. I'd never had a real job. The Army is a laugh, an adventure, a journey, a vocation, with a few scary moments thrown in along the way. It turned out the oil sector was similar. OK, perhaps fewer laughs.

The real glory years lasted until a significant management upheaval in 2007, which afterwards began the slow descent towards, 'se vende'. I worked for, and alongside, many special people. Dr Jim Buckee, the CEO, led the company superbly. A group of people who represented the best of Canadian values at home, and overseas. My first posting with TLM was in Sudan. I lived in Khartoum more than four years (below, boat trip on the Nile). The most protracted ten years of my life. I later lived in Calgary for four years. A pleasure.

How do you get 43 drunk Canadians out of a swimming pool? Pause, 'please leave the pool'. That's why I love Canadians. The fact being, this old joke was like a badge of honour.

The final day three weeks ago rekindled many flashbacks.  Of Sudan mostly. Sudan was constant drama and the investment mired in controversy. The company had an early inkling of a bumpy ride ahead when a Cruise missile landed in Khartoum, courtesy of Bill Clinton. Some claimed the target was a chemical weapons factory. Others said a distraction over a certain dalliance in the Oval Office. An oil company Security Manager later commented, if the old warehouse near the Nile was a chemical weapons factory, then his backside was a fire engine.

However, throughout the company never wavered and always did the right thing. We all knew what the company stood for. We all knew the values. I was proud to work for them. TLM successfully defended a massive lawsuit, which ultimately went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Sudan saw four rig attacks by SPLA rebels, land-mines, helicopters shot at, an armed attack on the main field base camp (Les, get off the phone, take cover) and plenty more besides. In the words of Cpl Jones, there was a war on (below, Bentiu, southern Sudan, 2001).

The Army took me all around the world. TLM, on a second lap.

Below, the first visit to Kurdistan, May 2008, sadly a couple of years later several ex-pat sub-contractors died in a hotel fire in Sulaymaniyah.

Colombia saw 23 seismic sub-contractors kidnapped by FARC in 2010. Never a dull moment in overseas oil exploration (below, cocaine all around us, in its rawest form).

Peru, drilling in the Amazon.

Vietnam. Indonesia. Malaysia, Algeria. Papua New Guinea (below). Trinidad. Qatar. I worked them all, and others. These were the fun places. I haven't mentioned UK, Australia, Norway, the US & Canada. Dull in comparison.

My final piece of the Talisman story was a posting to Sierra Leone in Sept 2011 (below, testing out my 'jokes' for this blog in the southeast of the country). This posting first brought me to Freetown. After one dose of malaria too many I left TLM and co-founded a company here. Six months later; well, we were in the iron grip of Ebola. Those are the breaks.

Many former TLM folk read this blog, many of whom supported the 'Food Basket Appeal'. Canadians are amongst the most generous in the world. Many have, of course, left the company due to downsizing and the eventual sale, and are forging new careers. To those remaining with Repsol, especially you Frankie, I wish you all the best.

I've paused writing about Africa to provide this backstory. Back to the regular soap soon.

Africa? Last week a 'funny' story from Guinea. At an Ebola checkpoint, officials became suspicious of a fellow in a taxi. He was wearing a white shirt, jeans, hat and sunglasses. He was propped up among others. He wasn't saying much. He was dead. He'd died of Ebola. Others were illegally moving his body. They are now in quarantine for 21 days. Should they survive, they'll be charged and probably go to prison. I know this is no laughing matter, but...

Where next for the blog? Next Sunday, it's hello Dubai. A conference with a friend. The contrast will be immense. Only twice away from West Africa since Sept last year. I'm ready.

I hope my love of Africa comes through. But, and I have to tell you, while this love is all well and good; time in Dubai, can't wait...

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A Postcard From Ghana

"This bus go," said the Chinese fellow, "to Bintumani Hotel?" Presumably his first time in Sierra Leone. Perhaps his first time out of China. He looked worried. I said, "Bus take us to boat." He said, "This wrong bus, I go hotel. No boat." I explained we have to take a boat across the estuary. 30 minutes. Then taxi to the hotel. He said, "Wrong bus, I pay $40." I tell him we all paid the same. Thankfully an Indian fellow in a rather grand purple turban stepped in. "When I arrived in 1995 there was a war on, we had to be carried out to the boats on shoulders." Helpful? The Chinaman was utterly bemused. He sat with his bag tightly clenched between his raised knees and his folded arms. I tried to visualise this strange place through his eyes. Difficult. Freetown is complete madness... right up there on the barmy-ometer.

The crossing... entrance into Freetown.

Last Tuesday I arrived back to 'Dodge' from a terrific week in Ghana. The divas by now are fully prepared for me waxing lyrical about any other African country I've recently returned from. I normally race through a list of wondrous things I've witnessed. Traffic lights, power, buses, bus stops, power, pavements, pizza ovens, street lights, smooth roads, power... Actually, Senior Diva had to handle me by herself this time. Baby Diva has taken an extended vacation to visit family in the US. Baby D, we miss you. And to show just how much, this from a beach bar in Takoradi... made me think... Senior D on the right?

Then they glance at each other. You know the look the telling glance. The divas both see where this is heading. Yep, I continue; Accra, I could live there. Bingo. Previously. Dakar - I could live there. Abidjan - I could live there. Monrovia - I could live there. Conakry (Guinea) - I could, never in a million years. Wouldn't wish on my Mother-in-Law. Another glass of wine as I'm editing this and I may rethink. "Gertrude, how about a holiday in Conakry, it's and Harold would love it..."

Ghanaians are open and friendly. They want to know what you think of their country and where you're from. I don't say England. For conversational purposes, I tell Sierra Leone. There's usually a pause. A taxi driver the other day made the ghost sound from Scooby Doo. Whoooo.... Freetown. Ebola. I quickly changed tack and ask how things were in Ghana. Bad was the reply. Why? Power comes the response. Now when it comes to whinging and whining Ghana is right up there. Not quite in Guinea's league, but up there all the same.

They explain to me just how 'bad' things are. In some areas of Accra there's currently light for only 12 hours a day then nothing for 24 hours, and so on. All the government's fault, they say. They are useless, they say. The President will have it fixed by the end of the year, they say. You're lucky, I say. Come and live in Freetown for a week, I say. Then you'll have something to complain about. In fact, try Conakry for a long weekend. Oh, and my Mother-in-Law's in a home there, could you possibly visit...

I like Ghana a great deal. The country that's geographically the closest to the centre of the world (the notional centre, 0°, 0° is located nearby in the Atlantic Ocean). The powerhouse sub-regionally. A relatively wealthy country, certainly by African standards. Hence the current problems are hitting hard. They have high expectations and a burgeoning educated middle class. Some countries in the region can only dream of Ghana's success. No country is a land of milk and honey. Ghana is no exception, everything's relative. Most West African countries are similar in their reliance on natural resources.

'The Gold Coast' achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, becoming the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so from European Colonialism. It became Ghana...

However, like many others, it's susceptible to commodity prices. Prices are down across several sectors. Gold is one example. Oh, and Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world. Come on, let's fly south to Takoradi...

Short flight on 'White Knuckle Airways'. 25 minutes. We're now on the south coast of Ghana. Takoradi is one of the two major ports in the country. Timber, manganese, bauxite in the past, shipped out by train. The mothballed train station appears to have been suspended in time. Fascinating.

Now it's all about black gold. Oil. Ghana discovered oil in 2007 and is currently producing over 110,000 barrels a day. This is set to increase. The windfall for the government is significant.

I'm delighted to report Takoradi is a boom town. So it should be. Takoradi is the regions leading oil hub outside of Nigeria. Plenty of employment, proper infrastructure, good hotels, local companies supplying the oil sector, a significant port under expansion. All good. A boom town. There remain links to traditional industries, fishing... (need something like this in Basingstoke to provide some character).

An old Slave fort, of Dutch origin (1640)...

Finally, the last post I told you of Sally Hayfron Mugabe. Sally died in Harare 1992, aged 60. She came from Takoradi. She and Robert were both teachers. They were married 31 years. A son also died of malaria here, aged 3. As told to me, Mugabe last visited 2007, with his current wife, Grace. The story goes that she wasn't allowed over the thresh-hold when he called on his former family to pay his respects. Apparently quite a rumpus at the time. She sat in the car...

I've thoroughly enjoyed Ghana again. In the back catalogue, you'll find previous posts, featuring Accra and Tesano.

Back here in Freetown, the Ebola crisis is nearly done, only a matter of time. We've had eight straight days of zero new cases or deaths. A case two days ago broke the run. To be declared Ebola-free we need 42 consecutive days with zero new cases. As I say, only a matter of time.

Other good news as well. Air Chance recommences flights to Paris 30th June. Kenya Scareways, a crucial regional carrier, resumes in two weeks time. This will help open up the region. Life is gradually returning to normal. Within two months the country should be celebrating, similar to the scenes we witnessed in Liberia last weekend.

The 'Food Basket Appeal' has funds remaining. I plan to wrap it up with one further donation. Something involving children. I'd like to write a special post, just about the appeal. If possible featuring some of the folks and updating on what's happened to them since. Remember Yayah? Emmanuel Cummings? Nurse Isha? Many others. Something uplifting to mark the end of a tumultuous 12 months.

Where next? Hopefully back to the UK sometime next month. Senegal also a possibility for June. Dakar, I could live there. Senior Diva - just for you.

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Saturday, 9 May 2015

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday...

A previous unfinished post I was working on over the recent holiday, hence the title. I'm currently in Accra. 'A Postcard From Ghana' in the works. Decided to finish-up this one first. Here goes...

A recent article made me think. Favourite feel-good moments? Was it really about the simple pleasures in life? Turned out it was. Apparently taken from a BUPA survey based on 2,000 replies.

Responses included; sleeping in a bed with fresh sheets, feeling the sun on your face, people saying ‘thank you’ or a random act of kindness by a stranger, a bargain at the sales, having a nice cup of tea (this was a British survey after all), dancing like no one is watching, freshly made bread, having time to yourself, and laughing so hard it hurts; these were among those simple pleasures.

Got me thinking of simple pleasures in West Africa. I was discussing this with Senior Diva, who incidentally is letting this new hair thing go right to her head. Now sporting a ginger comb-over. Life and business in Sierra Leone presents a constant challenge, particularly over the past 12 months. What about those simple pleasures? The good bits? In no particular order, apart from the first one...

1. Electricity

2. Water coming out of the shower (Rigsby - take note)

3. Internet speed on fire, relative term

4. African sunrise every morning, realise how lucky I am

5. African sunset every evening, realise how lucky I am

6. The divas smiling faces, every morning without fail. Their laughs...

7. Running down Lumley Beach at dark O clock, just before first light. Seeing the Atlantic Ocean from somewhere in Freetown every single day

8. The short drive to my run start point as Freetown begins a new day, listening to Kris MacCormack. Listen to Kris with the windows down stretching under the palm trees. It's dark, it's cool, then setting off along the waters edge - that's the exact moment...

9. The sound of ballistic rain on a tin roof in wet season and feeling secure, providing of course your house doesn't leak. However, the bad boys are more active in wet season. They once called on me in the middle of the night, late 2012. Took a new flat screen TV, a DVD player, my 'Little House on the Prairie' box set, and the air conditioning control unit. Left the TV remote behind. I was pretty upset, I was only half way through the box set... I did draw some comfort in the fact they couldn't change channels...

10. The unfailing and amazing happiness of Freetown residents, most of whom have little or nothing

11. This conversation I have most weeks at a certain Police checkpoint late on a Friday evening driving home;

"Good evening officer"
"Good evening Saah"
"How are you this evening?"
"I'm doing fine Saah, it's very cold" (about 23C every night)
"Officer, you and your colleagues are doing a great job, thank you"
"Thank you Saah, but we have no sugar for our tea"
"That's a pity, I wish you a good night. Keep warm"
"Goodnight Saah"
"Goodnight officer"

The officer in question has a chubby round face with a smile that could light up any room. He tries for 'something' every week (not necessarily sugar). I smile as I drive away thinking we'll do all this again next week. I'd miss it. I'd miss him

12. After nearly 4 years (come Sept), and for the first time, I have an apartment with a plumbed in washing machine. The distinctive double bing when a load finishes. that's a real feel-good moment

13. Taking my once dirty sports kit out of the washing machine, holding to my face with both hands. Smelling it. Joyous! Hang on a minute, that sounds, er... a little... er, strange. Three and a half years of laundry being done on a washboard does this to one... I haven't taken to sniffing other peoples laundry yet, is that the next step? Johnny Admin?

14. Downloading a movie from iTunes in a week or less. When you finally reach that 4.5 GB, it's a real punch the air moment. Last evening was 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Always good to re watch a classic movie. The 5 day struggle is worthwhile, just to hear those classic words, 'get busy living, or get busy dying'. Not only the words, but the whole scene, the piano soundtrack; to be savoured even when you know what's coming next...

15. Laugh out loud moments in Freetown that sometimes lead to tears. Funniest place in the world... we laugh a lot...

16. Finally, and it could have been top. The day I leave to England. Time off. That 9 mile boat ride across the estuary to the airport. Boarding the plane. Traveling home to see family. Seeing 'O' for Organiser, 'H', & Cup Cake. CC is delighted to share her name with the recent birth of a Royal Princess.

There you have it. Tried to keep it to 5, then 10...

'A Postcard From Ghana' is next up. The post is set in Takoradi, in the south of the country. Regular readers will be familiar with the cast of characters, and references, which frequent this blog. Rigsby, the Divas, the French, my mother-in-law (full moon the other night, she was pretty active), the Lebanese Chuckle Brothers, The Belgian, Belgium, Robert Mugabe, Taggart, Peter Pan, Our Man in Port Loko, Johnny Admin, Lifeline, past guest runners, and numerous others. I mention this because...

...well, and would you believe it, Robert Mugabe makes a return in the next post. Turns out he was a teacher in Takoradi, back in the day. He married Sally, a young Ghanaian teacher. They lost a 3 year old son here to Malaria. He couldn't attend the funeral, by this time he was in prison for 10 years. Sally remained loyal all the way through, she died in 1992. They were married 31 years. This came out at lunch the other day, what a story...  

Postscript: A favourite Mugabe joke to finish, from an earlier post last summer.

Barack Obama, David Cameron (congrats; couldn't have imagined inserting Ed Miliband into my joke) & Robert Mugabe are in a boat in the Atlantic, when suddenly the boat discovers a leak. They have only one life jacket. Obama says, "Let's do the democratic thing. Take a vote to see who gets the life jacket." They each write a name on a piece of paper and stuff it in a coffee can. Obama & Cameron get one vote each; Mugabe gets six.

Time to... get busy living...

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