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Sydney Lenssen Home and away

When John Cooke started as an ex-patriot engineer in Nigeria 35 years ago, it took 13 days for SS Accra to sail from Liverpool to Lagos, and another week to reach Kaduna. When he got there the ex-colonial engineers working for the Northern Territory were not sure what to give him to do.

Recruited aged 28 by the Crown Agents, he had been a structural engineer with Freeman Fox and Sir Frederick Snow, and now wanted to earn more. At college he was enthused by hydraulics lecturer William Healey, father of politician Denis Healey - 'any decent engineer cuts his teeth overseas'. Friends at the then South West Essex Technical College, as likely to be from Africa and Asia as Britain, spoke of plenty for a civil engineer to do.

Last Sunday it took less than 13 hours from home to Katsina via Kano for what could be his last stint if his World Bank water projects complete on schedule. Of all my ex-pat friends, Cooke has stuck it out longest. His experiences hold lessons.

One early job was rehabilitating Kano Airport runway. He laughs now: 'Twenty men with buckets, brooms and barrels of Colas, plus a lookout watching the control tower for a flag warning of an incoming plane.' Then to the water department which determined the rest of his career.

Two year tours were standard in the sixties, and by the time his first leave came, the Biafran War had started. Most of the colonial engineers were being retired, not valued by the newly independent republic and reluctant to forsake pampered Empire lifestyles.

At the end of leave, Cooke's work was hardly affected by the fighting, which most of the time was far away. Money went on arms rather than wages, and after 18 months he went home minus several months' salary.

Working on Yorkshire motorways, Cooke found it harder on his family being 200 miles away from home than 3,000. So he joined consultant RKL and spent eight years on water studies and works in Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Barbados and Mali before returning to Nigeria for land drainage in Ibadan.

During the next stint at home, commuting to London, he was conscious for the first time of the difficulty of fitting in. His salary dropped, he was expected to move on and didn't get the responsibility he expected. The bureaucracy irked him, for even the simplest decisions needed endless meetings.

In 1980, I offered him a return to Nigeria to head up Pell Frischmann's office. Over the following five years our Kaduna office grew from a handful to over 60 people, only to return to nothing as the military government resumed and construction spending was strangled.

Through the last ten years, back in Nigeria with Parkman, he has overseen the design, contract letting and supervision of boreholes, dams, treatment works and distribution pipelines around Kaduna, Kano and presently in Katsina close to the border with Niger. Most jobs are financed by loans from the World Bank and the European Union, eked out by Nigeria's Petroleum Trust Fund. Project costs total more than $100M: it is not easy to spend that wisely in that business climate.

Why has he spent so much time abroad? The first answer is higher salaries. Close to retirement he is comfortably off, but I suspect not much more so than he would have been with a home-based career.

He plays down any idealism in his motivation. He has provided water for numerous towns and thousands of people, but he is not confident that any of the works will be functioning properly in ten years time. The necessity of maintenance is not accepted in Nigeria or other parts of Africa. Politicians benefit from aid and borrowing to buy new.

The ex-pat role of engineers changes. The next generation's experiences will be as different as Cooke's was from that of the colonials. Air travel allows firms to whisk staff in and out of countries as needed. Tax changes have hurt individuals and firms trying to win overseas contracts.

Saddest of all is that Cooke and everyone I meet who has spent time in Africa believes that the standards of life are not improving, and for many they are worse. That is a fundamental problem for anyone with the smallest bit of idealism.

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