NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 38 - THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Dan Hood was an international rugby player in his younger days. He would smile deprecatingly if I introduced him as such and perhaps with good reason. For his one and only international appearance was for Nigeria against Dahomey in Cotonou. Dan recalls how different the accommodation was for the French citizens. Their houses had fewer rooms and the team had to be slept in the local income tax offices. These had no lavatories unside the building and an abiding memory of the team was having to pee out of upstairs windows; one or two of the accompanying ladies were reportedly in agony by the morning which tells us that this minority were either lacking in initiative or were weighed down by a modesty that far exceeded awareness of the harmful effects of holding one’s water. A more generous interpretation perhaps of their behaviour might have been that they had a fear of heights.

How did this unlikely match come to take place? The reason lies in the fact that in Lagos where Dan worked there was quite a French community. The two countries had common borders, the French territories of Dahomey, Niger, Chad and Cameroun entirely surrounding the country. As the result of an agreement between the two countries some 50 years before, each had the freedom to set up a commercial representation in the other’s territories. This was not unusual in West Africa. For example, the firm of John Holt (Liverpool) Ltd, long established as traders on the coast but now operating in specialist areas of business under different names, had trading operations for example in Nkongsamba in what was the French Cameroons and where I once made an unauthorised visit to see a friend. It all stemmed from this earlier agreement between the two countries early in the 20th century that their traders would have equal access to markets in the West African colonies and protectorates.

France and the French people and language have always had an attraction for me. Our family has always been francophile as have the vast majority of Scots. I was to be delighted to go to a conference many years later organised by the Franco-Scottish Society and graced by the presence of the French ambassador to the Court of St James, to mark the 7th centenary of the Auld Alliance between the two countries. When he addressed the Scots in Edinburgh in 1942 Charles de Gaulle enthused: ‘No sooner has a Frenchman set foot in this old and noble country than he detects a multitude of natural affinities between your people and our own and he is aware of the thousands of vivid, precious links in the Franco-Scottish alliance, the oldest in the world...’. During the short reign of François II, husband of Mary Stuart, the two kingdoms were in effect joined when all Scots in France and all Frenchmen in Scotland were granted the same civic rights as the natives.

Two major French trading companies were established in Lagos and they had very similar names. One was the Société Commercial de l’Ouest Africain (SCOA) and the other the Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale (CFAO). Their expatriate employees were by the nature of their work involved in the social exchanges that took place. The companies were also represented in smaller stations and that was where it was impossible to live a separate existence. Because the French presence was minute in relation to the British presence, it was only to be expected that the French adapted more quickly and readily to the British ways while retaining their own unique culture. Like their British counterparts, many of the French had experience of other parts of the world. They had been in places like Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Chad, and spoke of places like Constantine, Ouagadougou, Tombouctou, Zinder and Fort Lamy. They brought their own backgrounds and lifestyles with them. We could often hear radio broadcasts from French territories on my old thermionic valve Pye radio ‘Ici Brazzaville, poste national français en Afrique équatoriale’. Often they were crowded out on the airwaves by American missionaries from the deep south who believed there was a colossal market for conversions in West Africa and worked at it for all their sincere worth.

There is always a rub-off from friends. We learnt respect for wine from the French in our midst. They received their wine not in 70 centilitre bottles but in demijohns. The French are not given to excesses like the British in the consumption of alcohol but perhaps drink more steadily at a lower level of consumption. My experience was that they allowed for two glasses per person at the dinner table and felt no one needed more with a meal. One or two of the young British newcomers were even known to chill their red wine until the restrained horror on the faces of guests indicated something was amiss or some other Brit with more savvy and taste would tactfully but firmly indicate the error of their ways when they had a moment to themselves. To dine at a French house was a different experience. To be exposed to a couscous cooked to an authentic Algerian-French recipe is to have, certainly for a young man not long out from the United Kingdom, a rewarding experience - a bit like having your first nasi goreng in a Dutch household with East Indian connections. I wonder as I write if people from other countries coming to the United Kingdom enthuse over Indian curries as the locals do over the very British invention of chicken tikka massala.

Many of the friendships forged have lasted the lifetime of the people concerned. My cousin’s widow, Sandy Murphy, herself an old coaster, was recently at the wedding of a grandchild of French friends from their Nigerian days. As I key this in she has arrangements in hand to be with them on the occasion of their golden wedding. The world may have changed, probably for the better. Some things are changeless like friendships forged in what was sometimes seen as a crucible of adversity.

Apart from their mighty influence on the English language, the French have long made a contribution to the Scots tongue. The Scottish word Hogmanay denoting the feast of the New Year and now used to describe the activities associated with ‘seeing it in’, comes from the Old French aguillanneuf’ commonly used likewise to describe either the New Year or a New Year’s gift. My paternal grandmother cut her meat with a gullie possibly derived from ‘guillotine’ via the Scottish mercenaries who plied what was then an honourable trade on the continent (French kings were protected by their Garde Ecossaise for 133 years in recognition of the Scots’ help in assisting in the expulsion of the English from France). That meat could have been a gigot straight from the French for a leg of mutton - and still to be seen with that spelling on butchers’ boards from Melrose to Mintlaw. It was normally carved on an ‘ashet’ (assiette) which was a plate big enough to contain the leg of lamb. My great- grandfather played the best in the land on his dambrod (draughtboard), from the French word for draughts, and my grandmother would ‘pree’ something at table (a word derived from Old French) if she wanted to try a small piece. At school we would be encouraged to do something ‘at the toot’ meaning ‘quickly’ from the French tout de suite; Scots soldiers who fought in France in the First World War returned with the expression `tout de suite and the tooter the sweeter`. There are enough examples of the effect of French on Scots, as distinct from formal English, to justify learned research if this has not yet been done.

The French influence persisted in Nigeria in the custom of signing the Governor’s book contained in a gatehouse at the entrance to Government House in Lagos. It was signed when you arrived from leave or transfer into the territory and again when you went on leave. It was expected that all government officials would sign the book and those in other occupations had the unwritten option to do so. As it did not appear to serve any particular purpose, I surmise that it was a symbolic gesture of obeisance to the Queen through the person of her senior representative in Nigeria. Those departing on leave would enter their names and what they did where, concluding with the letters ‘PPC’ meaning of course pour prendre congé - to go on leave, literally to take a holiday. Foresters, agriculturists and engineers did not usually possess the refinement of the French language beyond school level - that was the province of those who had studied the ‘soft’ subjects - but they recognised the letters. They dubbed it ‘the PPC book’ forgetting that these initials were for departure only.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 39