by Ian McCall

Chapter 45 - HAZARD

Danger can be put into a number of categories. I prefer to talk about (a) real dangers, (b) dangers which are relative to knowledge, skill and experience and (c) those which may be neither of these but may be perceived as such.

Neil Waldman, a colleague of mine in Warri, was originally a Development Officer who, in the course of his duties, had had to wade waist deep in waters that left him with bilharzia which is a disease from which there was only a fifty-fifty chance of survival. And that was with a knowledge of how it is acquired. It is caused by parasitic worms entering the body through the anus and spreading into the bloodstream. Three times Neil’s coffin was made ready for him and three times it was not needed. That is real danger as is contracting malaria despite taking the necessary prophylactic medicine and the other precautions. Another danger also caused by a parasite in the blood is trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness - an affliction contracted by rank bad luck, but thankfully not prevalent among Europeans although it was widespread in the Southern Cameroons. If blackwater fever or some other affliction is contracted as a result of neglect of the basic precautions or failing to take and send off a blood sample for test on the slides provided to all officers, then the danger could probably have been avoided and comes into the second category of relativity to knowledge and experience which an individual can apply or ignore.

Yet another health hazard was filaria, an uncomfortable condition reputedly caused by the filaria fly depositing an egg under the skin and hatching into the guineaworm which proceeded to parts of the body other insects cannot reach. The treatment for it was with a drug called bannicide and that was a depressant. My senior in Port Harcourt, Frank, would occasionally appear in the mornings wearing dark glasses and say, hand over brow, ‘My filaria is bad today’. Filaria blocks the lymphatic vessels and can be excruciatingly painful. In the worst cases elephantiasis can develop. These bouts of Frank`s filaria coincided with his having imbibed a half bottle of gin the previous evening. Another colleague at regional headquarters, being unaware of the sociological truth that if you don’t take a person at her/his own valuation you kill the relationship, said on one occasion ‘Come off it, Frank. You were pissed as a newt last night’ and Frank, who was lovable and Welsh, burst into tears. I later heard that he had died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Richard arrived at the breakfast table one morning with half a snake dangling over the end of his machete which he proceeded to put in front of my nose and inform me he had killed it in the kitchen. Kitchens were usually apart from the house, certainly in outstations, and connected to it often by a covered way. He was suffering again and was in no way comforted when I consulted a chart showing that the snake was a calabaria and quite harmless. He treated them all as poisonous and his demeanour was a signal to me that he felt I should do the same and cut them in half if I got the chance.
‘You nevah remember how de snake done blind de Forest Officer dog for his compound?’ he asked. This was quite true. Alan Roxburgh’s dog had been bitten by a spitting cobra but it had not been nearly as bad as Richard was making out.
‘The dog didn’t die, Richard. He see again after some days.’
What Alan had done was to give the dog an eyewash with water. If water wasn’t to hand in such circumstances, beer, human urine or any other harmless liquid was the antidote.
Richard went on ‘A man done die for Obinze when snake done bite him. I done see him die. I beg massa, makee kill all snake. I too fear am’.

On another tour of duty, he would remind me that I had the skin of a python shot in my compound in Warri. I had it cured as a memento of the time and always thought it would make a striking pair of ladies’ shoes. On yet another occasion he told me off, not for the first time, for having a safari camp-bed of the type that just cleared the ground - much beloved of matloes on aircraft carriers in the Pacific - this after I had wakened up in the rest house in Nwaniba with something rubbing along my back through the canvas and had instinctively pulled my legs up to find instant sweat pouring down them. The higher (and heavier) camp beds with wooden frames, of the kind I had been advised to take to West Africa, would have avoided this incident but would not have removed the snake from the rest house. The urge to travel light with a familiar bed was a strong temptation. I knew I didn’t have to take up my own bed and walk but old habits die hard particularly when they are associated with a pleasurable activity.

The same Richard, whose athleticism could be called in question, was on one occasion transferring from a launch to a canoe at Itu and instead of stepping lightly in, he put one foot squarely on the gunwale of the launch and the other firmly on the thwart of the canoe which began to distance itself from the launch under pressure of the current, and his legs went wider and wider apart until he fell into the water. I called out to him in as loud a voice as I could muster ‘Can you swim?’
‘I de try-o’ (I can’t swim but I am giving it a go) he gasped, even as he thrashed his arms to keep afloat. His upbringing in the Owerri province, far from clear water of any depth where he could have learned to swim, had not prepared him for this. Perhaps it was better to be hauled out of the Cross River than run the risk of getting bilharzia.

Natural hazards are one thing and their most harmful effects can be minimised. One can avoid going into the river where the hippopotamus is. We were staying one night at rest house near Mamfe in the Cameroons. It looked on to the Upper Cross River and in the night we could hear the rumbling snorts as they cavorted just under the water. The whole building seemed to shake. This allied to local tales of how people had had their canoes upturned by them was an encouragement to be cautious rather than bold. The fact is that it is not the families of hippotamus that are dangerous according to the Mamfe cognoscenti. It is the lone hippo - a theory I disproved to my entire dissatisfaction when the canoe carrying my assistant and myself had to be paddled for dear life to the safety of the shore. The pullers, who were local, were not singing from the same hymn-sheet as my informant. The presence of crocodiles had the same effect. A friend in Akure, Garson Miller, who was walking a trace for a new road, witnessed some locals with a captured crocodile. He told how one of his staff had poked a crocodile with a stick when its feet were tied together over its back. It brought its tail round with such force that it would have broken the man’s legs if he had not moved just out of reach. Experienced people know what to do, from negotiating crocodile infested waters to coping with sandfly bites that have gone septic. For them the situation is not only predictable but manageable. It is no different in that respect from other occupational hazards. Anyone can have the bad luck to succumb to disease or have his number come up when negotiating the natural perils. To that extent I am a fatalist.

Not so predictable were the man-made hazards. There was the ever present menace on the roads of ‘mammy wagons’ and lorries carrying all sorts of loads. Many drivers were accustomed to drive with the right foot on the running board and the left foot on the accelerator, robes billowing from the cab in the slipstream created by the speed of the vehicle. This kept him cool in the hottest of days and also facilitated leaping out if danger materialised. Many of these lorries carried produce as well as passengers. Passengers were classified and positioned in the lorry according how much they paid. Number one position, or first class one might say, was beside the driver; very few could afford that luxury. Then in front of the bags of produce was seated accommodation for ten or so passengers, a kind of business class. If the loads moved forward because of having to brake suddenly, these passengers were at risk. The equivalent of economy class was at the back of the vehicle where the passengers had to stand. Such was the abandon with which these lorries were sometimes driven that any attempt to anticipate their movements was destined to fail in favour of pulling off the road to let them whip past.

A favourite slogan painted on the cabs of the lorries was ‘Trust in God’. Never was such an invocation more appropriate. The propensity of Nigerians to kill each other on the roads might well have added another dimension to the Malthusian view of population curbed by wars, pestilence and moral restraint to hold down the gap in the situation where it grows at a greater rate than the resources needed to sustain it. Not for this large minority of indisciplined drivers the prohibition of the empty petrol drums which were supposed to deter them from taking their vehicles on to the road being tarred for the first time. That the surface was not yet firm meant little to them. The tarred surface would save the wear and tear on the lorries and facilitate their passage. They would plough through the drums to reach the smooth surface leaving tyre marks on the freshly scraped and tarred strip of road until an Inspector of Works hit upon the idea of filling the odd drum with concrete to ensure compliance.

A year or so before my arrival in Calabar, a young assistant manager with G.B.Ollivant, a husband and father, blew himself up as well as killing a valued customer. He had had a complaint that his gunpowder was damp and he took a handful 50 feet away from the magazine and put a match to it to demonstrate to his complaining customer it was indeed dry. Gunpowder grains are so fine that they leave an inperceptible trail via the fingers which cannot contain them completely. In this sad instance they ignited a fine line right to the magazine. Accidents involving gunpowder on the west coast of Africa have been frequently reported right back to 1652 when a Mr. Bowles of the Guinea Company was blown apart in an explosion of a powder chest on which he was sitting smoking a pipe of tobacco in the mistaken belief he was sitting on a chest containing gold. Nigerians wanted gunpowder down the years not only for hunting for the pot or for money it could bring in, but also to celebrate any happy event, to ward off any evil spirits which they believed pervaded their life space or to win the favour of the gods for the deceased on the occasion of a funeral. It was a flexible product with a number of applications to suit the particular needs of the user.

Danger can also lurk at home. A departmental colleague, George Pole, had, a year and a half before my arrival in Calabar, the disconcerting experience of having a servant go berserk and kill his (the servant’s) mother-in-law with a machete. When George went to the aid of the wife and others who were also being attacked, the madman hit out at him with his machete and severed his thumb. It was only the intervention of a neighbour with a rifle who shot the man before he could kill anyone else that saved him and the man’s wife and children from almost certain death.

It has taken me a long time to realise that a person’s perception is the reality for that person. Perhaps I should have been more tolerant of some people’s irrational fears like that of juju; even more so the fear of harmless creatures like the praying mantis with its forelegs seemingly clasped against the wall in supplication and geckoes and lizards that clung to the walls and ceilings and only infrequently lost grip and fell with a wet smack to the floor or occasionally on the person. I had a spring on my bedroom door in Warri and the closing door one bedtime must have cut a lizard nearly in half. In the morning it already stank. Some hazards work both ways. It’s easy to say nearly fifty years on how one’s attitudes to others’ foibles should have been.

Stories circulated widely in the United Kingdom at the turn of the century of people’s health being ruined even if they survived their time in the delta. An old lady, remembering a gentleman who had resided some years in Fernando Po (once a British possession) recalled how he had ‘returned a wreck at forty and shook so violently with ague as to dislodge a chandelier, thereby destroying a valuable tea service and flattening the silver teapot in its midst’. Perhaps, if he had taken the normal precautions, as informed and responsible people do, he could have given the lie to the old saying

Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin
Although few may come out there are many go in.

It was the discovery of a native American remedy for malaria, quinine, transplanted to India in the 19th century and grown in plantations there for industrial processing, that equipped the white man to master the principal disease of the tropics and prepared the way for the later explorers, military adventurers and colonists to establish themselves there. But it was the commercial enterprisers who were the driving force that brought these others in their train. They all had a vested interest in the treatment of malaria and the use of prophylactic medicines. Later developments in public health and hygiene further helped Europeans in their efforts to limit the risks of an extended stay in the delta swamps and surrounding regions.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003