by Ian McCall

Chapter 18 - CALABAR

Transfer to Calabar from Eastern Region Headquarters gave me the opportunity to work on my own without anybody looking over my shoulder when I was in the office. My office in Port Harcourt during my training stint had been next door to that of the senior produce officer. My new area included the Calabar province, and as far north as Ogoja and the southern part of what was the British Cameroons administered by the Nigerian Government. I visited variously by plane and Land Rover, launch, canoe and car. To get anywhere by road, we had to take the ferry to Oron down the Calabar River and over the Cross River, a journey of an hour and a half or so. To get to the Upper Cross River stations involved a long circuitous journey by way of Afikpo and Abakaliki.

There was a submarine cable that followed the same route as the ferry and carried telephone communications from Port Harcourt to Calabar. During my term there the cable broke and there was no direct line from Port Harcourt and Lagos. This meant that there was no one from Port Harcourt or Lagos requesting immediate information or explanation, everything having to come by post, sometimes a lengthy process. It also meant that my superiors arrived unannounced - or thought they did. My Chief Clerk had a connection in the shipping office who had access to the passenger list on arrival and he dispatched a runner to the office if anyone of importance was on it. The local mafia operated well. It does in a collective society. My office incidentally was reputed to have been occupied by Sir Roger Casement, Irish (Protestant) patriot or British traitor (later to be hanged) depending on your point of view or, perhaps more accurately, the accident of your birth. He acted for a short time before the First World War as British Consul in Calabar. The first Consul on the coast of the Oil Rivers was appointed in Calabar in 1851, partly to abolish the trade in slaves, nine years before the occupation of Lagos, and partly to assist the development of trade in the area.

I was quartered in a bungalow of what had been the old barracks. There was a magnificent purple bougainvillea bush just outside my compound which was said to have been planted by Lord Trenchard when he was a subaltern in the Nigeria Regiment. This regiment distinguished itself with the 81st (West African) Division in Burma (Max my cook served in it). Max said the troops were told they were going to Sierra Leone and ended up in India prior to being moved to the war zone where the British 14th Army was fighting the Japanese. As I recall, Lord Trenchard went on to become a Marshal of the Royal Air Force and ultimately first Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and Chairman of the United Africa Company.

No more living in temporary accommodation. Now I had my own house with verandah on two sides where it was possible to have breakfast in the morning which was the coolest time of day, where my steward, Richard, could get on with his work in his own way. Richard had a wife always referred to as Mrs Richard and a daughter Onyerije, and he was as pleased as I was to have permanent accommodation with privacy and relative space. What an improvement on the makeshift accommodation in which I had spent my nights in Port Harcourt when not on tour and Richard in quarters he was not happy with. There was a wall outside the servants’ quarters built of blocks which had a regular pattern of holes, not to be seen in the United Kingdom until they appeared in garden centres and the yards of builders’ merchants a couple of decades later. Through this wall grew a leafy plant with fruits that looked like cucumbers. In fact it was the loofah plant. Strip away the skin and there was the loofah. It would have been ready to use in the bath when dried if it had been possible to get all the seeds out. It had colourful yellow flowers before fruiting and somehow added a kind of dignity to what was often a miserable outlook from the servants’ quarters.

Richard took charge of the cultivation of yams, a Nigerian staple, and kept an eye on the part time garden boy who attended to the compound. Yam cakes appeared with dinner on many occasions. I had avocados growing which were unvaryingly spoken of as ‘English pears’ and they were sometimes served as a starter before the main course at dinner. There were mango and pawpaw trees in the compound too and the pawpaw became a favourite breakfast fruit. There was also a cashew tree that harboured a colony of caterpillars which were in the process of stripping bare the leaves. In the silence of the night you could hear the communal crunching as they continued their defoliation. Of the decorative trees there was a hibiscus, the said bougainvillea which looked to be part of the compound, and a frangipanni. Just beyond the compound, but looking part of it from the window looking out to the rear of the house, was a palm tree which weaver birds took over shortly after I arrived there. They proceeded to strip the leaves, building their nests with the bits of frond at the extremity of the bare stems with an abandon and apparent randomness so different from the studied and relentless efficiency of the caterpillars on the cashew tree.

Like myself, Richard was now able to entertain. On such occasions David would be on duty. ‘Did you have a good time last night?’ I asked Richard the morning after one such occasion..
‘Yes,sah’, he said, ‘it was fine fine’.
‘What did you do?’
‘We take some kola.’ The chewing of kola nut was widespread. This is the fruit of a tree found in the rainforest and grows as star-shaped clusters of woody pods. A pod contains a handful of plum-sized seeds wrongly described as nuts. It is habit-forming and acts as a stimulant. Its role may be likened to the combined functions of a cigarette, a cup of coffee and a piece of chewing gum. It also has high nutritive value and can provide instant energy like a Mars bar. It is easy to tell when people have taken it for their lips and gums are red for a time afterwards.
‘Did you have something to drink?’
‘We drink tombo (palm wine)’,he replied.
‘Do you ever get drunk?’
‘No, sah’, he laughed in a strangulated way. His reply was in a tone that implied hurt that I should harbour such thoughts, ‘I tink massa too vex if I do dat. Good steward never drink too much’.
After administering this gentle rebuke from the moral high ground, Richard signalled he would like to return to his work. ‘I tink massa never need me now’.
‘Off you go, Richard’. And he returned to the kitchen where he would not be asked damned silly questions.

Calabar was paradise. A full social life both on station and on tour, good friends - I remember particularly Joe Widdell who was an administrative officer brought up in Huddersfield. Little did I think that I would set up my first home in the UK in the town he was brought up in. While in Calabar, I heard on my not inappropriately named Bush radio, of the loss in the Irish Sea of the Princess Victoria out of Stranraer. I was not to know that my future father-in-law had been booked on that very ferry and had later cancelled his booking. Spanish officials from Fernando Po where indentured labourers from Calabar found employment, visited us. We had a range of sporting and social activities. It was a new and enjoyable experience for me. I never did manage to get on a return visit to Santa Ysabel not always being available as a touring officer, but through that place I was introduced to products sold under the name ‘Pedro Domecq’ and especially did I like the Spanish brandy which was probably smuggled at five bob a bottle. That compared with eleven and sixpence for a bottle of whisky. Tennis and cricket were the main sports. We occasionally had a few rubbers of bridge but for the most part the evenings were given over to conversation. At parties we would all do our party pieces. This varied from my own one-man rendering of the duet ‘Give Me thy hand, O Fairest’ from Don Giovanni to a recital of the first chapter of Genesis in pidgin English by an old hand on the coast. Occasionally one of the rugby songs clique would sing The A.D.O. Bende. An A.D.O. was an assistant district officer.

I started as A.D.O. Bende
I was nervous and shy to begin
So I got me a young Ibo virgin
For the price of a bottle of gin

and so on through postings to Yola, Warri and Lagos in the progressive education of a young administrative officer on the ways of women, his problems finally being resolved when he wrote to the Chief Secretary and was directed by him to Secret Circular ‘B’. When on tour from Port Harcourt, I had visited Bende and the mud-built house thatched with palm fronds of the then Assistant District Officer there. The verses made me think of Robert Louis Stevenson and his battles with the intransigent donkey Modestine which were to mirror his struggles to understand the female of any species.

I met a number of my countrymen in Calabar. The Hope Waddell Institution was set up by Scottish missionaries and provided schooling at secondary level and training in artisanal skills as well as pastoral care. The official name of the church was the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Nigeria and the Bight of Biafra. I enjoyed the service on a Sunday evening and extended my circle of friends and acquaintances as a result. It was the place where Mary Slessor made her name. I duly visited her grave in the cemetery in Duke Town. Where I lived in the Old Barracks was within a stone’s throw of where in 1914 she was honoured guest of an ‘At Home’ attended by all kinds of important people prior to her receiving the insignia of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England of which the King was Sovereign Head.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003