NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 31 THE DINNER PARTY

During my first week in Nigeria I was invited together with another recent arrival to have drinks with Andrew Young, the Director of the Department of Marketing and Exports, the executive of the Nigeria Marketing Boards. He it was who interviewed me on the ‘milk round’ when would-be employers came to the universities on an annual visit to look for suitable recruits. He first went to Nigeria in 1927 in the Department of Agriculture and was instrumental in setting up and running the Produce Inspection Service within that department. Now he was Director of Marketing and Exports but retained his interest in the quality aspect of the Board`s products in his capacity of Chairman of the Produce Inspection Board. He was also appointed to the post of Chairman of the Cameroons Development Corporation. He was to have the good fortune to survive a plane crash at Tripoli when a well known Nigerian chief sitting just in front of him, the Orimelusi of Ijebu-Ode, was killed. If he gave us a message it was that what is normal in Nigeria is not quite the same as in Britain. The adjustment would have to be made by us and that quickly. He also warned us against a certain type of European. He would rather sit down to a meal with his African cook, he told us, than some of the Europeans who arrived on the Nigerian scene. We had been recruited, he said, because he felt that we had, among other things, the character and ability to discriminate among people and issues.

Nowhere was this adjustment truer than in the ways in which people socialise and this of course means the ways in which they entertain, eat meals, observe rituals associated with dining and generally enjoy each other’s company. Eating is one of the ways by which relationships are established and maintained. And eating in Nigeria was very different from the way it was done in Auchenshuggle or Brighouse. Nowhere was this more evident than at the dinner party, not to be confused with other evening get-togethers. Certainly not with the extended drinks party where ‘finger chop’ or ‘small chop’ was provided for a fairly large gathering and only the older ladies had chairs to sit on. The majority stood and conversed in informally well-dressed groups which would change their composition in the course of the evening as guests circulated assisted often by introductions, where necessary, from their hosts or willing others. The food consisted of goodies like anchovies on toast, devilled eggs and various canapés which were available in sufficient quantity to make dinner later a matter of choice rather than necessity. Nor was dinner to be confused with knee chop which in terms of intake of calories closely approximated that of the dinner party with cold meats, salads, home made crisps and other relatively substantial fare available at a buffet table. A knee chop gathering was a highly informal affair where guests might be invited to remove their jackets and ties and were seated sometimes in the most unusual ways like sitting on a pouffe made in traditional Oyo leatherwork based on traditional prayer mat designs of the kind on which it was customary for the faithful to kneel upon when bowing in prayer in the direction of Mecca.

The dinner party proper was by far the most formal. Guests were received by the host(s). In the rainy season the man of the house or a servant would carry a golf umbrella to your car and accompany you to the shelter of the house (there were no gutters on the houses, the rain cascading from the roof straight into the storm drains). Only on the most formal of occasions would jackets be kept on, guests being invited to divest themselves of their ‘coats’ on arrival. Stewards and ‘small boys’ would be decked out in their best whites and would pass drinks to the seated guests. Drinks would vary from pink gins to gin with orange squash and soda, to whisky and its various additives if preferred. One or two hosts with good sources might proffer gin and French or gin and Italian (vermouth), a drink that would be combined at a later date in a more profitable same bottle, never mind the individual taste - a triumph of marketing over substance.

In the course of conversation it was not unusual to see people remove flies from their drinks and place them in ashtrays and go on to finish them. It was something one got used to in sticky climes where insects were abundant. The operation was performed with an ease and nonchalance, even elegance, born of practice. Flying beetles were another distraction, certainly away from the cities. They needed a distance to gather speed before becoming airborne rather like a plane taking off at La Paz in Bolivia where the elevation is so high that engines lose much of their power at take-off and require an extended runway to enable the requisite amount of ‘lift’ to be achieved to become airborne. When the flying beetles eventually got off the ground they didn’t seem to have the radar apparatus to avoid things like hanging lamps which they would hit with a thud and fall in temporary concussion to the floor leaving the lamps swinging as they came to when they would repeat the process, perhaps hoping to avoid stationary hanging objects on a second essay into the air in a slightly different direction. During mating times, flying ants would swarm in the evenings and windows had to be kept closed as they made for the light and fluttered against the glass and fell to the ground to couple or do whatever else was their pleasure. Problems arose only when there were no windows and the ants flew in through the jalousies which we had to shut in a hurry. They were prized as delicacies by the servants who scooped them into any convenient container for later frying, in palm oil of course, and consumption. Manna comes in different forms in different countries.

When the steward informed the lady of the house that dinner was served, guests would be called to table and invited to sit down in appropriate places, these being as far away from spouse or partner as possible with every lady a man on either side as far as possible as is right and proper. Knapkins were starched, folded into all kinds of pleasing configurations and ironed to hold the shape. This was the setting in which I felt it would be appropriate to say a Latin grace Sit nomen Domini benedictum, per Jesum Christum salvatorem nostrum, Amen. None of it. The atmosphere of what I imagined to be an academic dinner without the gowns was destroyed by the arrival of the soup in bowls with lids to keep it warm and nary the sign of a grace except in the most devout households. Guests were asked if they preferred light or dark (sherry) and glasses were filled according to taste. The fish course, garnished to provide matching and contrasting colours, would arrive perhaps laid out decoratively on anodised trays, an innovation of the early fifties, and guests helped themselves to a portion, the newcomer feeling perhaps that it was equivalent to being a vandal to destroy the symmetry of such a masterpiece.

It would be wrong to say that hostesses vied with each other in novelty of table decoration. Flowers grew luxuriantly in the Nigerian climate and the way in which they were mixed and shaped was a miracle to the male mind. Even bachelors contrived to have choice floral centrepieces. My own pièce de résistance was the blushing hibiscus that grew in my compound in Warri. Under normal conditions it opened white in the morning and by the evening had turned red. The manager of G.B. Ollivant, Eric Mintie, an old hand of an old established company on the coast, let me into the secret of adding a subtle interest to the meal by cutting a couple of heads in the morning, putting them in the refrigerator and removing them just before guests were seated, making it the focus of the table. As the meal progressed the flowers changed colour from white to red.

When the servants had taken away the plates of the fish course, the plates for the main course were put in front of the guests from the left hand of course. If the dish was a hot one, everything had to be on the table quickly to prevent anything going cold (a relative condition in these circumstances of high temperature and humidity). While the senior steward went round offering the meat to guests, handles of the serving spoon and fork at the optimum angle for the diners to take hold of them, he would be followed closely perhaps by the steward of a neighbouring officer with vegetables and the small boy, resplendent in his whites like his seniors, with any additional vegetables or sauces. Cooperation among servants was normal and one imagined some kind of meeting among all the servants every morning to find out whose employers were dining where and negotiating the necessary support perhaps even calling in accumulated credits if the occasion was one of real importance. The empty plates would be cleared with a practised alacrity and the sweet would be offered prior to coffee and brandy.

Conversation gathered momentum over the brandy and continued until the hostess invited the ladies to retire to the main bedroom and dressing room. Since rooms were spacious but few, guests often many, the weather usually fine and post-prandial lavatory facilities limited, the men were asked if they would ‘like to see Africa’. On this cue the men adjourned to the compound and amidst a collective micturition lit only by shafts of light escaping from the house, had the last word on conversations they had started at the dinner table. In Nigeria, men were by tradition the movers and shakers, a tradition nevertheless under siege from a generation that grew up during hostilities and gave women not only more freedom but a new sense of worth. Many found the job of housewife irksome, especially when there were servants to do the housewifely things. Intelligent women sought a challenge and custom had decreed otherwise. Career women, who were relatively few, had greater satisfaction from their work. Sometimes wives found an outlet for their talents in the cities where their particular skills were more likely to be needed. It was customary for them to provide support for their husbands in whatever duties they had, not least in entertaining guests and relieving them of the task of overseeing the household whether or not they had other work. Nigerian women, if the market traders were anything to go by, had an established authority in their particular role which many of the European wives must have envied.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 32