by Ian McCall


Officials going out to Nigeria for the first time were appointed either by the Secretary of State for Overseas Territories and Administrations, as the post-war euphemism went, or The Crown Agents. The latter made appointments for those concerned with trade and industry or the technical government appointments. Those appointed by whichever office were given a kitting-out allowance and usually obtained gear from the estimable firm of tropical outfitters Messrs Griffiths MacAllister of London who provided such necessary recommended equipment as curry combs, sola topees and zinc hip baths, wicker-covered, not to mention indispensable items like camp beds complete with fittings to hold mosquito nets and folding camp chairs. The last mentioned were supplied with leather seats to prevent the discomfort of jiggers boring through some lesser material and into the fleshy part of the buttocks. The discomfort was nothing to the pain of the cure if the feared contingency did arise. This was the application of the lighted end of a cigarette by a servant to the point of entry, which made the offending insect withdraw from its preferred location when it could be seized and disposed of, preferably by incineration from the same cigarette end and/or by the ‘mak siccar’ treatment of squashing it beyond all recognition. This process was claimed to be the only effective treatment. Those dispensing this wisdom comprised a discrete group who were termed ‘old coasters’, otherwise people deemed by recent arrivals to be worth listening to because of the time they had spent on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea and by dint of having survived there for so long in what had been called long since the White Man’s Grave. Others who did not qualify for the designation but had nevertheless served some time in the area saw them, perhaps to their own disadvantage, as know-alls or old farts. The old coasters perceived themselves as seasoned and reliable individuals and considered the term an honourable one which by and large it was.

Another item the tyro official received was a copy of an official publication Hints on the Preservation of Health in Tropical Africa. Its covers were impregnated with DDT so that the volume would not be devoured by insects; it did not carry a warning that it could do untold long term damage to the person if handled frequently. It contained useful information on what to do if bitten by a snake. If such a contingency should arise, then your first action was to obtain the body of the snake that had bitten you so that the it could be identified and the appropriate anti-venin administered. Accompanying the ‘Hints’ was a copy of Colonial Regulations. You did not read these with as much relative avidity as the ‘Hints’. In fact you didn’t usually read them with any seriousness at all until you got into trouble or ran out of reading material. It included a section on the requirement of an officer to perform such tasks as might be required by the Chief Secretary (the Governor’s first lieutenant) which in effect meant some minion in the administrative function to whom the task had been delegated. These tasks turned out to include such duties as electoral officer and president of a board of survey. The regulations covering these aspects had been skipped as unimportant when first looked at.

The Board of Survey is part of a system to ensure accountability as established by one’s peers. My first board was on the stores of the provincial Public Works Department (PWD) in Warri. A certain percentage of the items had to be checked. Accompanied by two junior staff I set about the job. We chose to check that the coffins in the store tallied with the number in the records. Barrels of high melting point tar were checked and the petrol tanks were dipped. The proprietorial Inspector of Works expressed his disappointment that we had to close down his yard as per instructions from the convening officer while we did so (‘You’ll not close my yard you b......s’). Those who read the reports of the boards must have been amazed at the statistical quirk that left unchecked the thousands of pieces of sawn timber stacked in the yard usually because it would have taken an unconscionable time to do so.

Several years later when the brake master cylinder rubber of my car had perished and I had driven many miles with only the handbrake for comfort, I pulled into the PWD yard in Enugu, the capital of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria, for a possible replacement. Unfortunately, in my anxiety to have the repair effected, I drove into the yard through the entrance marked ‘Exit’. and was met by the same PWD Inspector of Works, who advised me to ‘clear out of my yard’. I angrily and foolishly drove out after a sharp exchange in which I told him his fortune, and made my way along the many more miles to Onitsha, meeting hazards natural and unnatural on the way. The timber wagons became a source of anxiety, for the drivers drove like devoted henchmen of the Earl of the Black Waistcoat himself. They were reluctant to use their brakes which were air operated and slowed the huge vehicles with such effectiveness that the logs tended to move forwards against the cab. These logs were so big they must have been hundreds of years old. It was, sadly, the beginning of the wasting of Nigeria’s forest assets driven by the increasing American commercial influence in the timber trade and the advent of the chainsaw. Self preservation decreed that the driver touch the brakes as little as possible to avoid being crushed and that oncoming drivers must ‘go for bush’ to ensure their long life on the land the Lord God had promised them.

That I am here to tell the tale confirms I made it. Onitsha, in the person of Able Baker, a former neighbour in Calabar and now provincial engineer in Onitsha, came up with the goods and I was able to carry on driving in safety. Onitsha had then the biggest market in Nigeria and almost certainly in Africa, where the latest cloth designs, gudgeon pins, household gear and gadgets from the four corners of the earth and of course brake master cylinder rubbers for a Standard Vanguard could be obtained. It was said that anything in the world could eventually be had in Onitsha market.

I could have sworn I saw the look of recognition in that PWD man’s eyes in Enugu.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003