NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 27 - CROSSING THE RUBICON

If expatriates, or indeed anyone else, wanted to get married in Nigeria, it could be done by district officers according to the law. This was interpreted by assistant district officers and senior district officers as coming within their authority with the result that many wedding ceremonies were carried out by them. Unfortunately, it was established as a legal precedent that only those people who had been married by a full district officer, not a senior district officer nor an assistant one, were legally wed. The upshot was the demand by people so affected, it being no fault of theirs, that someone should rectify the matter. Their worry was that they might be disadvantaged at a later date if it was discovered that they had not been officially joined in wedlock, or that their children might receive mental scars if the bastard nature of their birth became known; or even be psychologically damaged themselves in the knowledge they were living ‘over the brush’. As a result, it was not unusual to see in the Nigeria Gazette a ‘Marriage, Removal of Doubts Ordinance’ the outcome of which was that many a tortured houseperson found she had been made an honest woman of overnight and many an offspring, albeit by a quirk of the legal system, had any stigma of bastardy removed at a stroke.

Not for us these legal tribulations, for Mary and I were married in St Ann’s Church, Ibadan on January 29th 1955. We met a short time before my first interview for a job in Nigeria. We met again on my first leave and became engaged towards the end of it. We visited her parents in County Roscommon and relatives in Galloway. It was during this time she discovered she had rheumatoid arthritis. We decided it would be best if she joined me three months before the end of my tour to see how Nigeria agreed with her condition. That`s how we came to be married in Ibadan.

The wedding went off well considering there were no family members present but not without an initial alarm. The ceremony was to be conducted by Alan Galloway who held a post at the University of Ibadan and officiated ecumenically at the university chapel. In the event, the best man elect, Ted Barker, didn`t turn up at my house as arranged. I drove to the church and on the way my horn stuck in the blow mode. ‘That`s all we need’ I groaned to myself. Fortunately, I knew where the fuses were and managed to find the one that disconnected the horn by removing each one in turn. At the church I explained the situation to Alan and we had a short discussion on what Plan B would be. ‘Who has the ring? he enquired. For a moment I was nonplussed. It was as if my memory just refused to work. Then it came to me. I had it in my pocket. I stood alongside Mary and explained the nature of the problem to her. ‘Are you sure Ted`s reliable?’ she whispered, knowing him only from my letters. ‘Absolutely,’ I said in a hushed tone. I was sure I knew my friend from early Lagos days. Had he changed? ‘No` I thought, ‘that just isn`t possible’. Ted was meticulous to a fault. The awful thought struck me that he might have had an accident on the way or at best had a breakdown. Ted was not a touring officer and was a stranger to bush roads. Was his Triumph Herald in which he cantily tootled around Lagos man enough for the job of withstanding the corrugations in the road? I wanted to give him as much time as possible but time was something we were running out of. We waited. In the meantime, Phil Knights, on secondment from the Crown Agents, kept on playing the organ as if it was the most natural thing in the world - without repeating the music. And still we waited. I shall forever remember Phil`s feat of memory. He eventually gave me a glance and a baleful smile and I knew it was time for the alternative action. The ceremony had been delayed until it could be put off no longer. I asked an old friend from my Warri days and a guest at the wedding, Jim Brown, if he would stand in as best man at this short notice - as if he had any choice given the circumstances. He agreed without hesitation. Happily, Ted and his wife arrived during the reception none the worse of a hectic journey. We felt for them. Ted, who was a city man - and I use this expression in its very best sense - if ever there was one, accompanied by his wife Vera, had taken the wrong turning on his way from Lagos and arrived in Ijebu Ode instead of Ibadan. He had taken two sides of an equilateral triangle when all he needed was to follow the straight line.

The reception was held in my director’s house and the arrangements were organised by his wife Betty Hardwick. It was a joyful occasion. Betty’s husband Neville was a gentleman of the old school and one of that special band of agricultural graduates who had provided the core of the produce inspection service in the late 1920s and 1930s through to the present time. His post had been recently redesignated Chief Produce Officer under the Western Nigeria Ministry of Trade and Industry to which the Produce Inspection had been attached at regionalisation. He it was who gave Mary away. Mary chose not to have a bouquet of flowers as they wilted very quickly in the damp heat. Instead, she carried a white Bible to which she attached a small bunch of scented frangipanni flowers she picked fresh just before the car left for the church. These she later pressed and kept in our wedding album.

Mary`s arrival more or less coincided with my transfer to Ibadan and the household`s transition from a wood-burning Dover Stove to an electric cooker. Her first dinner party was by way of thanks to Neville and Betty Hardwick for their kindness in taking charge of the wedding reception. Richard had not yet mastered the intricacies of the electric cooker. As always, conversion was a painful process. The changeover was traumatic for both Richard and David. When the new electric kettle had been used, it was placed on the cooker without being switched off and eventually burned itself out. Pots boiled dry for the same reason and timings for the cooking process based on years of experience no longer applied. Richard advised dinner would be slightly late. An hour after the appointed time, nothing had appeared. When questioned he could only say ‘Give chance’. I had never seen Richard so close to panic except when we were stuck in the mud in the Cameroons and the grunting of the gorillas in the far distance got to him. “I too feah for dis place” he had said. There are no gorillas in Obinze. Eventually he was told to pass the fish soup the preparation for which Mary had made suggestions. It was very good. After a wait the soup plates were cleared and we waited once more. I could sense Mary`s discomfiture. The conversation became somewhat strained but an enforced gaiety had a stress-relieving effect. Then momentary hesitations in the flow of talk would appear again and take on the dimensions of a protracted silence. I was aware at one point of my voice going unnaturally high followed by a laugh that was more like shriek. And I marvelled at how I could somehow stand outside myself and watch myself display a nervousness I didn`t normally feel.

Two hours after the expected tabling of the meat, the main course appeared and the rest of the evening, or what was left of it, passed off without further incident to everyone`s relief. Mary remembered her mortification and she vowed there and then, she told me later, that she would teach this Richard how to do things properly on the electric stove. Richard was happy to know. Madam managed to establish her authority without interfering in Richard’s domain. Prior to her arrival he had not shown any sign of worry about the possibility of a new regime but he must have had some doubts as to what would change. Some wives were celebrated for their fixed ideas as to how the house should be ordered, cleaned and kept secure and no doubt the servants talked about such idiosyncrasies of their employers` spouses. Life must have been desperately insecure and stressful for them as they tried to impose a system they had brought with them. In the event everything on the house front turned out well.

Months later, when we had been invited to the house of the Acting Chief Produce Officer and we had just arrived and taken our drinks in our hands when the lights went out. The Acting Director’s servants were old hands, and although the dinner was not ready at the appointed time, they did manage to salvage a meal from the ensuing chaos by ingeniously lighting a fire in the compound and constructing a makeshift stove while our host dug out his paraffin lamps. Dinner was very late. When we related this to Richard, he already knew; such was the efficiency of the bush telegraph. He appeared to take great pleasure from it and said to me feelingly ‘Dat nevah go happen for our Dovah stove’. I think he was beginning to miss the excitement of being on the move much of the time.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 28