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Ambassador's Blog - May 2017

Letter from Gambara Ngala

As we approached the far north east corner of Nigeria, a fellow passenger suggested that we should catch a glimpse of Lake Chad. He mused that the Lake, once the sixth largest in the world, was now only one twentieth the size it was in the 1960's. As we flew in low, we crossed miles and miles of bare ground, cleared, levelled and drained for irrigation. From above, the sun bleached concrete structures look like the broken skeleton of some massive life now extinct.

From the sheer scale, you get a sense of the place this once was. High science and endless water must have made this an irrigated paradise.  Today, it is all on hold, a symptom of the war being raged by Boko Haram. As we touch down, I can only think of that grey area between symptoms and causes, poverty and war.

The day then takes its own momentum. I am warmly welcomed by the Commander before we go to visit a camp of seventy thousand displaced people. The clumsy weight of my security entourage drags through the clearing ahead as people move to let us pass. I fumble to pocket my bottle of water as we pass hundreds of women standing in the sun queuing for food. Those who arrive with basic items are refugees returning from Cameroon, those who have nothing have come from the forest escaping the conflict. Nobody is in a good place.

Everybody is tasked with the impact of the approaching rains, the need for drainage in the camp and the shortage of potable water. Small boys push handcarts a few kilometres to the one deep sweet- water well.  Nearby, the houses built for the foreign workers who once managed the huge irrigation schemes are locked and empty. There are rumours that they will soon return. Priorities are always determined by funding. Different agencies do different things. Everybody is busy. There is no shortage of goodwill here.

Hours later, back at the command centre we gather our thoughts. We discuss the challenges, what is being achieved and what needs to be done. It takes a special type of person to work like this, always against the odds. The irrigation schemes may start again one day but life will never be the same. Climate change is irreversible change.

On board again, I rewind the day. In that rapid pass through the camp, we entered a tent from the wrong end. In front of us there were the backs of perhaps twenty boys all standing and chanting out their mathematical tables. They are small, small boys. Their teacher only a few inches taller had watched us come in. We edged through them as they all sat down in respect. Through translation, we learned that the boy teaching was just ten years old.

I never saw the Lake. The rains will bring a chance for some to scratch the land in a corner here and there and grow something to sell. The deep black cotton soils will swell and crack and breathe. For now, the green shoots of hope are not in the fields but in those young boys hungry for knowledge. I wish looking back that we had dignified their teacher by inviting him to stand up with us when I would have bent my knees and looked him in the eye and firmly shook his hand.  

Ambassador's Blog - March 2017

Letter from Minna

The road to Minna is measured in hours not miles. When we asked in Lagos, nobody knew how long it would take. Everyone was of the same mind that it was a journey that they would not make. The closure of Abuja airport for essential repairs, left us with no option other than travel by road. Having already stopped in Ibadan on the way south, Minna was not on the direct road back. It involved mile after mile of slow climbing behind an endless convoy of fuel tankers. Every few miles burned out wrecks stood as testimony that many had not made it.

It took us eleven and a half hours, arriving just before sunset. When I considered that we had only stopped twice for fuel the miles covered were modest. Always looking forward, my Nigerian hosts told me that a hard bed was the best cure after a long journey. After half dozing in the stranglehold of the seatbelt all day, the bed was as comfortable as a night spent sleeping on an ironing board.

The pilgrimage to Minna was at the invitation of the St Patricks Missionary Society for the “Send Forth” of one of their longest serving veterans, Fr Jeremiah D O’Connell, known to us as Father Derry but as “Baba” to the local Nigerians. As St Patrick is also a patron saint of Nigeria, the date had been fixed for months. I had readily agreed to participate and acknowledge a working career that was close to one and a half working lives for a teacher in Ireland.

A Send Forth is more than a farewell. It is more than a send-off. It is graduation to a higher place. Fr Derry is due to retire to Ireland after working for fifty five years in Nigeria. Since 1967 he has been principal of the secondary school in Minna. I was informed by the Bishop that as a special guest, I would have to speak on at least three occasions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was also trying to justify the hard travelling to get there. Three speeches, on the same day, on the same subject, to the same man! The day started with a special mass celebrated by no less than two Bishops. I was called up for my first address to a huge gathering. I remarked that while Fr Derry had given his life’s work to the people of Minna, he had actually worked in one place for longer than the average lifespan of a Nigerian male. This stirred much chatter in the church (with one journalist noting later, in a proud Nigerian way, that Fr Derry had actually worked for longer than a lifetime in Minna).

The school is in itself the story of religious tolerance in Nigeria. It was opened in January 1965 as St Fatima’s Secondary School with Fr Derry confirmed as principal two years later. In the 1970s when all religious schools were nationalised, it became the Government Secondary School, Minna. This month, the Governor of Niger State has agreed to rename it Fr O Connell Secondary School Minna. When Fr Derry retires, a new Muslim Principal will take over.

It was St Patricks Day away from the usual. It was a celebration of one man who had articulated in his lifetime a lasting bridge between Ireland and Nigeria. The name Fr O Connell is associated with Minna wherever Nigerians are found. I had been asked to pass on greetings from Ghana, from Ibadan and perhaps most memorably from Bama in Borno State, a town destroyed by Boko Haram but now secured by an Army Commander from Minna. Like everywhere in Nigeria, once we had identified a common link, we became brothers and I walked through the IDP camps in Bama, in front of the world media, as the Commander held me warmly by the hand.

The day’s celebrations began to draw to a close as we gathered at the back of the church in an open courtyard where dancing would soon begin. Fr Derry had reportedly gone home to rest as temperatures rose over 38 degrees. The speeches were shorter now. I stood to make my final remarks, when in what can only be described as a cinematic moment, a fully loaded Toyota Corolla swept into the yard in front of me with Fr Derry strapped into the front seat. The restless crowd cheered and clapped as he was escorted to his seat.

We had arranged a small symbol of partnership between our two countries, something very Irish but at the same time African. A local carver had copied a hurley (camán) using local African wood. For a Cork man, a hurley is always special. For a Cork man living in Africa, a mahogany one, maybe more so. The Master of Ceremonies was jiving in front of the cameras as they strained to take a picture not understanding why I was presenting Baba with what looked like a fighting weapon. The MC then read out the small inscription, “Fr O Connell, a Champion for 55 years” and after repeating it a few times, hummed it into a refrain that he then chanted out aloud. The crowd gathered in to dance, as celebrating and standing still in Africa are not possible. As I was escorted by the two Bishops back to the residence for a quick lunch before the last journey of a St Patricks Week that had included five cities and a thousand miles of road, I glanced back to see Fr Derry gripping the hurley, its fullness in his hands possibly taking him back to another St Patrick’s Day so many years ago.

Ambassador's Blog January 2017

Letter from Accra

On Saturday 7th January in the blistering sun, the NPP supporters came out in their red, blue and white. Every route to Independence Square was choked with traffic as some 400,000 Ghanaians made their way to witness the inauguration of President Nana Akufo-Addo. Traditional drummers pounded out a hip swaying beat that seemed to add electricity to the stifled air. Under the canopy, I was jammed in a folding seat hurriedly placed in a passageway. There wasn’t room to roll a sweet in my mouth, yet alone raise my hands to take off my hat for the National Anthem.

This was a truly African affair in sharp contrast to the more sober military formations in Nigeria complete with silver swords and white horses. President Akufo-Addo was inaugurated in traditional Kente attire, radiantly flamboyant for the occasion. He cut a fine contrast with the highly respected Vice President Dr Alhaji Mahamudu Bawumia who favoured the modest white tunic of the Muslim population. President Akufo-Addo was following in his father’s footsteps, a national hero during the independence struggle 70 years ago. He was gracious in his remarks about the outgoing NDC yet determined that Ghana needs a new start, one that brings economic growth to the country and reaches down to rural areas where mass poverty remains entrenched. The President promised to reduce taxes and to provide stimulus for private investors to kick start the economy. He championed the need to focus on youth in every corner of the country. Traditional Chiefs in their distinctive and yet unique attire stood en mass to applaud their new President.

And despite tight security, this is an easily accessible government. At a banquet immediately afterwards for diplomats and visiting dignitaries, Ministers mixed freely as they began the task of building partnerships for the future. The President and the Vice President worked the room shaking hands with everybody and allowed time for each of us to pass on greetings. Ireland is well got in Ghana from the contribution of missionaries and teachers in the development of the country to the warm memories of Dr Conor Cruise O Brien who was the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana after independence.

The leaders of the region came to join the celebration, to welcome Akufo-Addo into the ECOWAS family and to sit en merge and determine next steps as the political crisis in Gambia unwinds. The ECOWAS Chairperson in her remarks urged Gambia to follow the example of Ghana in accepting election results and moving forward. The speeches were short as the banquet room moved up a gear to the distinctive jazz of legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. In canary yellow, the veteran raised his trumpet and called the party to order. Everybody was dancing as if it was their own wedding day, bumping into each other as the dance floor spilled over. Soon the revellers gave up trying to take selfies as the free moving crowd succumbed to the Africa beat. Masekela was only getting going, at 77, like Africa he seems like he will go on forever.

Ambassador Seán Hoy

09 January 2017