Sokoto & the bush rat

Image of man with bush rat The year was 1982. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was Prime Minister and Bill Davis was Premiere in Ontario. Gawds when I think of how long we were subjected to those two dinosaurs I really begin to feel my age. It was the year the Ocean Ranger capsized, taking with her 84 souls, the year Bertha Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court and the year Canada's Constitution was repatriated. I was young, full of piss and vinegar, and had taken a job in the survey industry. Anyone who's worked in the survey industry for any length of time has likely done their share of travelling and, I suspect, the adage "the world is your office" is precisely what lured me into the field to begin with.

A vocation which offers travel to strange and exotic foreign lands can provide an important life lesson: there's a significant difference between "seeing the world as a whole" and "seeing the world as a hole". When you work in the survey industry, you see the world much in the same way a proctologist: spending most of your time in dimly lit places with unpleasant smells. Although it took a year, I reached the conclusion that Nigeria was, and quite possibly remains, quite an unsavoury blight on the west African landscape. Perhaps her biggest curse was her new-found wealth in the oil-rich fields along the Bight; a wealth that brought about a dramatic economic shift in the country and, ironically, a shift which was accompanied by an increased dependancy on the developed world.

The company I worked for had two branch offices: one in the country's north located in Kano on the southern tip of the Sahara, and a second in Lagos in the country's south on the Bight of Benin. Nigeria was in the process of creating its new federal capital in Abuja, an area more or less located in the country's center, ostensibly to provide more even access to the federal government for each of her 34 states. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought the location was chosen only after someone pushed a thumbtack into the center of a large map of the country after declaring "Make we build 'em there!". Having spent a substantial amount of time in Nigeria over a seven year span, I soon came to realize that a more plausible reason was likely that building a new federal capital in an obscure area likely provided more opportunity for graft and corrupt... er, um, I mean entrepreneurial opportunities. Regardless the reason, Abuja was born and with it a significant amount of survey work for a respectful survey company; especially a respectable survey company that had a Nigerian Chief on its Board of Directors.

The preliminary stages of survey work involved high altitude aerial photo coverage. A photo mosaic made from the high altitude coverage was then produced to provided ground crews a rough base map from which to work from. This was necessary as the only other topographical maps available, as was the case in most developing counttries at that time, had been produced in the post-war era from RAF reconnaissance photography. To facilitate the production of the photo mosaic coverage, an aircraft, aircrew and supplies were dispatched to Abuja: the future site of the country's new federal capital. The aircraft sorties would require a significant amount of fuel, an ample supply of which was stored in the northern Kano compound. And since Abuja was essentially barren, with a makeshift airport and a few scattered buildings, It was necessary to ship forty-five gallon drums of Avgas overland with Adamu, a slight Hausan man who drove the company's pristine Mercedes lorry.

Bush rat is, as the name implies, a rodent. Quite large, akin to a groundhog, bush rat is essentially still a rat. Anyone who's travelled through west Africa has, at one time or another, passed a roadside vendor holding one or a few of these critters by the tails up in the air to passing motorists. I don't even want to know what a bush rat eats (particularly in the north of the country where vegetation is sparce) but whatever they do eat, I can't imagine it's anything I'd want to digest. Many Nigerians, especially in the north where there's a high Muslim contingent, wear a traditional dress-like garb called a barbarige'. (Admittedly, I'm guessing at the spelling.) The barbarigue', moomoo like in design and extending down to nearly the ground, is quite utilitarian. It is not uncommon to see people squatting on the roadside for calls of nature, their unmentionables shrouded by the tented cover. Perhaps in the future I'll write a missive entitled The Sabon Gari Blues on the topic of nightsoil and the art of dodging Nigerians landmines but for now, I'd like to stick to the topic at hand: Sokoto and the Bush Rat.

Dan Hassan Sokoto was a valued company employee. Sokoto was a facilitator. Though his primary function was company messenger, he could always be relied upon for a variety of tasks: running errands, finding good weed or, in this instance, as an additional labourer. Anyone who's spend any time in third world countries recognizes that many tasks get accomplished by manual labour. The Kano compound consisted of office space, staff accommodations, an aerial photo lab, photogrammetric and cartographic sections and also served as a makeshift fuel depot, always providing temporary storage for several drums of aviation fuel. The compound also boasted a dog named Karla, a sweet, goofy and affectionate Doberman. From what I observed, most Nigerians (particularly the northern Muslims) are not overly fond of dogs and, in the case of Karla, most Nigerians were terrified of her.

To complete the aerial survey work of the new federal capital, it was necessary to expedite a truck load of Avgas by road from Kano to Abuja. Adamu backed the Mercedes lorry up towards the large collective of fuel drums stored at the back of the compound. Several long, thick planks were slid off the back of the lorry's flatbed, the furthest end of each lowered to the ground and positioned so as to form a makeshift ramp on which the 45 gallon drums could manually be rolled up onto the truck. With a plan established, all that was needed was sufficient manpower to accomplish the task. One of the labourers was, as you may have guessed, Dan Hassan Sokoto. Sokoto, a Hausa man from the country's north, was exceptionally dark-skinned. In fact, Sokoto was so dark he sometimes looked blue. And when he was dressed in his traditional bright white barbearigue', he seemed blacker than black. Sokoto was even blacker than Karla, the company Doberman, who sat watching, seemingly indifferent to all the barrel-loading activity. That is to say Karla showed little interest until...

One barrel was moved and a large mothering bush rat scampered out from between two other drums of Avgas. Sokoto caught a glimpse of the bush rat and lunged for it. "Kie," he screeched, which was an expressive term to denote surprise but I quickly translated the expletive into there's my supper. I had never seen Sokoto move that fast before. In fact, most Nigerians don't move particularly fast due, in large part, to the heat and, in small part, to work ethic. Dressed in his traditional garb, all I observed was a big black and white flash as he darted towards his objective. To his surprise, and that I'd imagine of the bush rat's, Karla demonstrated an almost instantaneous interest as well.

Wrestling matches pale in comparison to the tussle that unravelled between Karla, Sokoto and the bush rat. First Sokoto had it, then Karla, then Sokoto, then Karla and than, for a brief moment, Karla and Sokoto had each other. I lost sight of the bush rat several times as the melee continued. At the bout's conclusion, Karla came up victorious. She clutched the rodent by the scruff of the neck, shook it vigorously several times, then dropped its lifeless corpse on the ground at Sokoto's feet. In a final expression of despair, Sokoto muttered, "No chop, tsk" which I more or less intuited to mean "I can't eat the little fucker now."

It was difficult to hide my laughter, particularly because a half dozen of Sokoto's bretheren were in hysterical laughter, but I have concluded that if I live to 101, I will never forget Sokoto and the bush rat.

Submitted by "Big Banana" Bob Loblaw, 30 November 2014