by Ian McCall


I started as a Produce Officer in the Department of Marketing and Exports and spent a short time on the Lagos ‘beaches’- this was the name given to the places where officially inspected produce was bought, examined and stored prior to shipment - the expression comes from earlier times when palm oil was bought on suitable stretches of sand in the creeks of the Niger delta. There I was introduced to the inspection and grading of produce for export like cocoa, palm kernels, groundnuts, rubber and capsicums under the experienced eye of D. I. Nosiri, one of the first Africans of the Junior Service to be promoted to a senior appointment in the department some years before. Nothing escaped his keen eye and I learnt quickly under his direction. He took time to explain when I had difficulty in adjusting to his particular kind of Nigerian English, reading any confusion in my face rather than wait for the questions that might not come if I had, embarrassingly, to interrupt him too often to ask him to explain what he meant. He regaled me with tales of his recent visit to England and his visit to a chocolate factory to see Nigerian cocoa being made into chocolate bars and his discussions with the factory management on how the quality of chocolate was determined by the quality of the cocoa. He also mentioned with pleasure a visit in Cheshire to the home of the mother of a colleague, Ted Clunies-Ross. By way of explanation he admitted to certain fears of how he would be received in England and how these had been dissipated by the warmth of his reception. I did wonder if everyone would be as friendly as I had already had some indications to the contrary.

These reminiscences were thrown in between bouts of explanation about rules for the storage of cocoa that had to be implemented and how it was to be transported from store to ship and vice-versa. He emphasised the need to ensure weights as well as quality were correct and introduced me to the local Licensed Buying Agents of the Boards and their buyers. He talked about and showed me examples of fully fermented, slatey, mouldy, weevily and germinated beans and how they might have got into that state like being harvested too early or too late or not having undergone the proper process of fermentation. He explained the processes and problems of grading and considered I had something to learn about suspecting people instead of just inspecting produce. There was little doubt he had acquired a nose for the unusual and unlikely and seemed to be able to go straight to the heart of a difficulty. I remember seeing him draw a sample of cocoa from a bag of cocoa with his scoop, take another from a different part of the bag and instruct that it should be removed from the stack. When he examined it closely, he found the stitching and seal had been interfered with and the contents had been adulterated. That meant that that particular parcel, as the bags of that particular consignment were referred to, was suspect and would have to be ‘turned down’, that is, emptied on a tarpaulin on the ground for inspection. It was an action I would myself repeat when we were joined some years later in Lagos by a newly appointed officer.

The beaches were areas close to the shore with land on which produce could be dried, cleaned, mixed, examined, bagged, weighed, sealed and stored and were convenient to land and/or seaborne transport. I developed a callouse on the finger which I put pressure on to cut the cocoa beans with a knife I bought in the market. It was to remain with me for years. Simultaneously, I was introduced to the Produce Inpection Ordinance and the Produce Inspection Regulations made under it which I was later to have an intimate knowledge of. I was quite amazed at the authority which was being invested in the likes of me. I would have the power to license premises as suitable for inspection; to enter premises, search and seize produce or potential evidence without individual warrants where there had been a suspected breach of the regulations; to require persons to furnish information deemed necessary and to convey produce to a designated place for examination. I would also have the authority, indeed the requirement, to prosecute in cases of contravention of the regulations. The process of learning the nuts and bolts of inspection was somewhat repetitive and boring if you did not or could not see it in an overall context. It was, however, a necessary beginning to what was to become a fascinating job. More diverting for the moment was the office in which I was based in Alakoro Square in the teeming heart of the open air markets within sight of the waterside and the Carter Bridge that connected Lagos island to the mainland. It was all unfamiliar sights and activities and sounds and smells that assailed the awareness and kept up a constant stream of new and exciting experiences that generated a further feeling of expectation.

This was a city which less than one bundred years earlier had been the most notorious of all the slaving ports even after many attempts by ships of the British West Africa squadron to suppress the actions of Portuguese and Brazilian slave ships and the warring Lagos kings who were slaving intermediaries and able frustrators of abolition. Due to its key position in the continuing slave trade which was inhibiting the growth of commerce in the region, the British government annexed the territory in 1861 and declared it a colony the following year - it was a period when Britain, at the height of its imperial glory linked the commercial and the moral. This was manifested in the phrase ‘philanthropy plus five per cent’ in the words of the arch- imperialist Cecil Rhodes who could not assimilate the fact that the early missionaries saw the economic improvement of people as an article of their faith and a necessary concomitant to the willingness of these people to embrace Christianity. Lagos’ boundaries were later extended to east and west and, during my time there, Lagos and Colony was still a distinct administrative unit. As a result of this, government was established in Lagos which was in due course to become the first city in Nigeria and its first capital. At the same time it became increasingly a prime centre for trade and eventually received resources for the development of its infrastructure which included the clearing of the bar to make it the premier port of the region by the end of the First World War, the building of a railway to the interior which assured its commercial future, the construction of the Carter Bridge which gave it access to the mainland by road and latterly an international airport.

Lagos pulsates and hammers at the senses. Various activities take place in relatively confined surroundings. People squeeze through the throng to examine wares on offer in the market place or to get to neighbouring stalls all cheek by jowl, while others seem to be pressing in directions that take them away from the markets towards the canoe ferries and the notices saying obinrin/okunrin - the lavatories for men and women built out over the creek - towards the side streets and the cooked food purveyors frying meat and vegetable offerings in palm oil, dodging the omalankes, the ubiquitous two-wheeled handcarts propelled by their sweating owners who braved the frenetic honking of the lorries and the ringing of bells by the cyclists as they sought to negotiate the chaos with their loads intact. All this against a background of stallholders carrying on multiple conversations simultaneously, strident voices extolling their wares, making offers, uttering imprecations, giving warnings and exchanging greetings. At first, I felt that these exchanges were aggressive but quickly realised that they were not unlike a conversation in Glasgow, Scotland or Alexandria, Egypt. The sounds at first thought to be aggressive are often succeeded by peals of laughter and indicate a habit of talking loudly or having a naturally abrasive-sounding manner of speaking to ears more accustomed to softer cadences, rather than hostile intent. I was reminded of the annual sheep sales in my home town when shepherds from the remoter parts would meet perhaps for the first time since the previous year’s sale and carry on conversations across the road oblivious to the people passing by.

The trading is dominated by Yoruba women - the market mammies - who give more in return than they get from demands and taunts of would-be buyers. They always seem to have the last word. Despite the fact that they are clothed in traditional blue lappas (the cloth they wrap round their waists and sometimes given the name of ‘tie-ties’ from the action needed to secure them) and bubas (blouses) and big, colourful headties twisted in a knot at the back and with the ends sticking out like big, Minnie Mouse ears, they still manage to stand out from others similarly dressed. It isn`t only their repartee. There is an imperiousness, a presence about them that is forbidding. It reminded me of the cartoon in the Weekly News of the school for conductresses with the severe-looking trainer (like the clippie on the 23 tram when I was at university) who took her class under a banner bearing the motto ‘Nae impiddens’- no cheek. The occasional flash of bright colour of the clothes of women who originated from parts of Nigeria other than the Yoruba-dominated lands provided a vivid mixture of tones. And men too, for the odd Hausa from the north stood out because he was usually taller than his southern neighbours and wore lustrous robes and a white turban in simple yet startling contrast to the subdued colours of the clothes, based on indigo dyes, of the locals.

The variety extended to the stalls themselves. Cowpeas and purple egg plants in the food stalls were set off by the red capsicums and the green plantains. Next door would be the witch doctor and his juju objects for the more drastic diseases. These offerings included antlers of the duiker, West Africa's smallest deer with Bambi-like qualities when alive, yellowing animal skulls, fruit-bat wings, bundles of feathers and, hung up on a string, as a fertility fetish a colleague and relatively old hand on the Coast informed me, a bunch of monkey penises that had taken on a sharny-green hue. Then the herbalist with his roots, leaves, and lumps of chalk, who claimed that all his wares had medicinal properties, and the women selling cosmetics to other women that looked like a collection of powders which they used, I was told, to highlight their skin and the eyes. African women usually have very beautiful eyes, something I noticed from the first day; I was surprised they felt the need of cosmetics to enhance their appearance in that respect. Adjacent to these would be the market woman selling her cloths and threads and another tempting shoppers with her pottery wares.

The smells were forever changing. One moment it would be the pungent aroma of the spices on sale or the heady one of the ripe mangoes, the next the less salubrious ones emanating from the open drains. As you moved away from the markets and into the side streets the signs of squalor became more marked. The smells were now predominantly of the sewer variety. Yet the feeling of vibrant activity and bustle was still there; people talking and laughing, an important activity obviously from the number of groups indulging in it; youngsters playing table tennis between the houses with a piece of coloured cloth as the net and empty boxes as the support for the piece of wood that passed for the table; the peals of laughter that followed the description to a group of some funny incident; the businessman rushing with his brief case from the mud house to his Humber Hawk left parked outside; the barber boasting of his superior ‘Sami Cuts’ and the mother haranguing her disobedient child. Never in the eight years I was to spend in Nigeria would I see a parent strike a child.

At the other end of the spectrum were the shops on the Marina, at that time the principal shopping area for the better heeled. It was up-market and contained stores with names like Kingsway Stores, A.G.Leventis, G.B.Ollivant, Gottschalk’s and Union Trading Company. Into these stores went expatriate Europeans, senior African officials and businessmen, and anybody else who had the kind of income to pay the prices asked or not as the case might be. It was relatively close to Ikoyi, an island just off the larger island of Lagos and connected by bridge, where the lowest density housing was and where the majority of government officers and commercial executives lived. As its name suggests, the Marina gave on to the Lagos lagoon where ships occasionally moored and were unloaded and loaded from or on to lighters or by lorry at the limited docking space. But most of the vessels moored at the Apapa wharves on the other side on the mainland which had the latest facilities for lifting, storing, weighing and handling goods to give the speedy turn-round needed in a busy and successful port.

The newcomer to Nigeria very soon learned that certain words occur with a surprising frequency. ‘Dash’ is a word that comes to Nigerian pidgin possibly by courtesy of the Portuguese (‘das’ meaning ‘Are you giving?’) who were the first to attempt to navigate and explore the west coast of Africa giving us place names like Lagos (after the Portuguese port), Forcados after the river so named (river of the swallow tail) and Escravos (river of the slaves). ‘Dash’ is variously translated as a gratuity or a bribe. In the early days of the Guinea trade, commercial activity was dominated by the Portuguese and a prior form ‘dashee’ was used right down the Guinea Coast from Cape Verde to Gabon to mean a customary present made to an African chief negotiator before trading began. The newly arrived expatriate in Nigeria would be confronted by wide-eyed children who would ask him to give them something. ‘Oyibo (white man), dash me’ they would say. A response to this could be ‘Why I dash you? If the answer is ‘because you get plenty money’, then the action to take is to pass it off with a light remark like ‘I no be big master’ and smile. This is usually rewarded by a smile which acknowledges that he or she has tried it on and you both share the joke. If on the other hand he says ‘I look after your car while you go for Kingsway (Stores)’ there is a reciprocity intended that merits the token payment made (before the performance of the implied contract). This trust ensured he would be on hand when you returned hoping he had started a long term relationship to your mutual benefit.

Lagos is an outpost of the Yoruba heartland which is in south-west Nigeria. The Yorubas are the sophisticates of Nigeria and comprise the largest single group of people in that corner of the country. The provinces of Kabba and Ilorin in Northern Nigeria had a majority of Yorubas and were a potential problem between Yorubas and the Hausas from the North. There are other tribes in the south-west but the Yoruba are dominant. They have had contact with Europe since the late 15th century when the Portuguese were exploring the Gulf of Guinea and penetrating up-country from the Bight of Benin. This kingdom, of uncertain origin and of complex organisation, is dominated by a powerful king, the Oni of Ife. Legend has it that the Yoruba migrated from the north and the north-west, probably around the beginning of the 13th century. The Oni is the spiritual as well as the titular head of the kingdom. The present Oni was in fact a member of the Cocoa Marketing Board and a director of the Nigeria Produce Marketing Company in London. In his spiritual capacity people saw him as responsible for the regulation of the supply of rainfall in his kingdom. The history of the Yoruba people is bound up inextricably with the trade in human beings destined for the sugar fields of the West Indies and South America in which they were the slave masters supreme. The Yoruba kingdom came easily within the influence of the government set up in Lagos because of endemic wars within it which sprang from the unequal distribution of the wealth derived from slavery. In more recent times, they had created a buoyant economy built on the cultivation of cocoa, the good lands for growing cocoa, namely a clayey loam, deep earth to accommodate the cocoa tree’s need to put down a long tap root and a well drained but not too acid soil, being largely co-extensive with the Yoruba territory. Their economic well-being was assisted by the work of the women in planting, tending and harvesting food crops and this gave them a standard of living in advance of anywhere else in Nigeria.

One of the people I met in investigating my new milieu was Jock Brunton. Jock was an old hand on the Coast. He was on the point of retirement and I was among the newest and youngest of the recruits. Highly regarded by all those who knew him, he was a fund of information on the Nigeria that was and an unsurpassed raconteur. In one evening of conviviality he asked myself and a recent recruit to the administrative service if we had seen the dip in the Carter Bridge. Of course we had. You couldn’t miss it. He had worked on the construction of the bridge which was of some importance in that it was the first road connection between the island of Lagos and the mainland. It was Christmas Eve and they had been busy driving in piles. They were anxious to finish when the last piles were found to be too short. ‘Screw them back’ was the instruction given. The construction team screwed back the piles until the tops were level with the others and there they stayed. As the bed of the water was China clay, the hole did not fill in and over the years the piles gradually sank into the Iddo Pool under the weight of traffic, leaving the dip which characterised the bridge. It was something Jock would be unlikely to forget in his years of retirement in Dollar.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003