NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 17 - ON TOUR

‘On tour’ has a ring to it that suggests ease and freedom except for people who tread the boards. Nothing could be further from the reality in its Nigerian context. The touring officer had to go on his inspections at regular intervals irrespective of the prevailing season and on all kinds of roads and tracks and waterways. How he decided his particular choice of stations to visit was up to him. Because he had to give details of his visits in regular reports, failure to visit certain stations for reason of bad roads or unfavourable conditions would be picked up by his seniors.

It was not all that difficult to get used to the corrugations and potholes on the laterite roads. The vibration was initially upsetting but eventually you found the speed it was most comfortable to drive at - in the case of my car around 45 miles per hour. There were two critical speeds at which the vibrations got bad before you reached the most comfortable speed. Apparently the optimum speed varied with the length of the wheel-base of the vehicle you were driving. A certain vibration was transmitted to the person even at optimum speed. I wondered how this compared with vibro-massage offered in the barber shops of my youth which I had never experienced. However it might have contrasted with barber shop invigoration, the vibration could loosen nuts in the engine. Hence the need for numerous looks under the bonnet at convenient spots to identify any loose nuts or wires. I recalled an old hand saying that you could feel a pound note flying out of the window with every mile covered.

When you got into savannah country you got away from the everlasting palm trees that put a dark-green cover over all the countryside and could see much further. The character of the houses changed too. Instead of the rectangular houses in the compounds of the forest belt, people lived in open country in round mud huts thickly thatched with grass with no windows and low doors. It was possible to identify an oncoming vehicle from afar by the cloud of dust that heralded its approach. Dust went with the job. When you arrived at a destination your shirt was covered with it across the shoulders where it combined with sweat to provide an outer coral-coloured crust when it dried. It has been said in polite society that ‘horses sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies glow’. Very nearly everyone gives off litres of perspiration in the southern parts of Nigeria where the heat and the high humidity smother you in a clammy embrace; the least exertion makes you sweat like a sheltie pony necessitating frequent baths and changes of clothing. What starts as a small dark patch under the armpit just grows and grows. Those who cannot sweat have a rough time as it is part of the cooling process. Indeed there were stories told of people who had to return home for that reason. I did wonder, perhaps unkindly, whether it was psychosomatic and that it was the very English antipathy to sweaty smells that unconsciously affected whatever controls the sweat glands.

One of the chores of touring in the dry season was clearing away the insects which splattered the windscreen which they hit continuously. We all kept a bottle of water and rubber scraper for the explicit purpose of clearing the driver`s vision. Ultimately the problem was mitigated by the appearance on the market of a plastic deflector which was fixed at the front of the bonnet. This in theory sent the insects over the top of the car and cured the problem. In practice, some still contrived to stick to the glass and it wasn’t until the advent of the windscreen washer that it was most effectively resolved. This was anticipated by many drivers who kept water in a plastic bottle - a recent innovation - and squirted it on the windscreen by the simple expedient of winding down the window, putting the right arm out of the vehicle and squeezing the water over the glass simultaneously operating the windscreen wipers. It was only a matter of time before the car manufacturers would incorporate the feature in a more elegant way. Elegance and good design go together.

I always made a point of keeping a full tank of petrol where possible as it was not readily available in the bush. All petrol was moved in 44 gallon drums, often lashed together in rafts to the side of a river steamer. I don’t remember ever having seen a petrol tanker in Nigeria with the sole exception of the bowser at Ikeja airport. Up-country, the sellers dispensed the petrol straight from the drum. A portable pump was inserted into the bung-hole of the drum. It had a glass bottle which held exactly one gallon. The attendant would pump the handle until the bottle was full. When he had released it into the tank of the car he would produce a pebble from his pocket and place it on the drum. Then he would repeat the process. The number of pebbles was his and your way of checking that the appropriate volume was delivered and paid for.

The south of Nigeria was criss-crossed by rivers that slowed down progress between any areas separated by them. Ferries provided the necessary continuity. The big ones like the one that plied across the Niger from Asaba to Onitsha and the Jamieson River at Sapele had their own excitements. When a lorry driver at Asaba found his front wheels had slipped from the metal ramps, it was treated as a matter of course that a rope would be fed through to the rear axle and tied to it. The other end of the rope was taken under the front of the lorry and up and over the crossbar of the ferry and tied securely. The driver then went into reverse gear and eased back slowly. As the rope tightened and the front of the vehicle came up, volunteers pushed the front end of the lorry until the wheels were again above the guides. The driver put his gear shift into neutral or moved forward fractionally and lo the lorry was ready again to drive on to the ferry. On another occasion the driver might be one of the volunteers helping another driver to get safely on board the ferry. Onlookers from Asaba town would willingly lend a hand and would applaud when the lorry was righted.

The smaller ferries were pontoons built on canoes and usually took one vehicle only. Paddlers conveyed the contraption to the other side. They needed skills in proportion to the strength of the current. At the Mfum ferry on the Upper Cross River, the river was sometimes too fast and too high to cross because of heavy rains in the mountains of the Cameroons where the river had its source. We would drive out to the ferry from the rest house at Ikom only to find that the levels were still too high. The produce inspectors in Ikom must have wondered what he had done to deserve such a close examination of their work. Once we had to wait as much as two days to go on to the Cameroons on the road which was officially only a trace as far as Mamfe. And you travelled it at your own risk. Not having yet been officially adopted, there was no guarantee you would be recovered if you broke down. Recovery vehicles were kept by the Public Works Department only. On one occasion we arrived at the ferry to meet a disconsolate lorry driver who apparently had been standing speaking with others on the far side when his lorry had moved forward, tippled into the water and disappeared. It was at a spot where the onrushing water had gouged out a deep channel on the bend of the river and had completely swallowed the wagon. When I asked how it had happened the driver said ‘My brakes done disappoint me’.

When the ferry was operational again I drove my car on to the pontoon which was then hauled upstream by hand using lianas fixed to trees. The canoemen cast off and then piled on to the one side of the pontoon and paddled like fury to the other side of the river where they braked by reverse paddling and others held on to ropes to keep the pontoon fast. It was then possible to drive off with two wheels on dry land and two in the water. Skill and coordinated man-power combined to get people and transport safely across. I felt a satisfaction in interacting with the men responsible for getting us across such barriers.

A touring officer needs a chop box, not least in the very extensive areas where you could be away from your station for up to three weeks at a time. At least in Richard’s view it was an indispensable adjunct to travel. Rather than have him cast as the servant of an impecunious or mean small master without the nous, wherewithal or importance to get the necessary accompaniments to comfortable movement in the bush, I lashed out on the services of a carpenter who received detailed instructions from Richard for the construction of such an item. The result was a substantial box with hinged lid and hasp and staple which would allow it to be padlocked. It was reinforced with cross-pieces and dovetailed to guard against its coming asunder. Much smaller than I had anticipated, it was more like a small safe than a container.

When Richard took on cooking duties, the box was kept in a prominent position in the kitchen. From time to time I would see it open and empty for the purpose of giving it a good scrubbing. Richard was a keen learner and his previous employment with the Deputy Director of Medical Services had obviously provided him with lessons in hygiene. It also helped to define standards for me for whom Richard had ambitions. We must have been compatible for, despite occasional differences, we retained a respect for each other. He would make individual requests for items to be carried in the box. Never did he give me a list.

So I was forced, cajoled, and shamed over time into buying a mustard spoon and then a salt spoon. After that it had to be a silver salver (which he called ‘slaver’). This was to pass me any letters or messages that might be received. The salver I bought was of stainless steel which seemed, to my relief, to meet the case. Richard even took it with him on tour. Then there was the teapot which figured large in daily use. I had no preferences in this regard and suggested he buy one he thought would be suitable. What he came up with was a large one with splotches of pink and gold that seemed to fill any room he produced it in. These items along with the necessary eating irons and glasses were somehow packed into the box. All this in addition to the flour and oils needed for cooking. There was no need to take meat as it didn’t keep even in an insulated coolbag with ice in it. If we couldn’t get it locally we took with us a live chicken duly hobbled which fed the inner man on tour of the outstations or we managed to buy a scratcher locally. The markets were every five to eight days and such was the number of stations we had to visit that it was impossible to arrange our visit to coincide with market day. If we did happen to arrive when it was market day, I enjoyed a local steak which even in these latter days had to be sold showing the hide to ensure it was not human flesh. As Richard said, ‘It be to make sure de meat nevah be from peson.’

Alone the chop box was insufficient for survival. The touring stove had to accompany us. Then we had to have a potable liquid. So we had to take beer along too. There were few occasions when I didn’t have a cold beer. We’d be in some remote place and the beer would still be cold.
‘How do you manage to make the beer cold?’ I asked.
‘I get broda (brother) for dis place’ he replied, ‘he make space for his master’s
fridge’. In the bush, and in many stations, the kerosene-fuelled refrigerator was the only means of preserving food and keeping drinks cool. Electrolux made a model that was convertible from kerosene to electricity and vice-versa. I was to have such a model in my quarters in Warri which was just as well since the local power station was a wood-burning one and shut down for whatever reason from time to time.

When we moved on to yet another station and again cold beer would appear, I would ask again how the beer came to be so acceptably cool.
‘I get broda for dis place’
‘Your father and mother, Richard, they must have plenty sons?’ The question had been nagging at the back of my mind for a long time.
‘No sah’ he laughed, ‘they no fit have plenty plenty son. Dis broda have same fada, different moda, but live for de same compound’.

The extended family is strong. A brother does not necessarily mean a male sibling. If it does, an Ibo will always add ‘Same father, same mother’, which in a polygamous society is essential for understanding. ‘Brother’ may mean just a man from the same compound or village. Even without brothers he would produce beer which, if not exactly cold, was not warm either. If we had been travelling by launch or canoe to some remote rest house, his solution to the problem of cold beer was to put it in a canvas bucket which was trailed in the water behind the canoe or launch. His was the perfect example to demonstrate that the connection between education and intelligence is a tenuous one at best. Where creative solutions were not necessary, he made sure that whatever had to be done was carried out with the same care. Drinking water as in gin and water and water for cooking had to be boiled and filtered. The candles of the filter he usually scrubbed regularly himself to ensure effective operation. He would explain the need for this to David who would take due note. Not once did I see the job delegated completely to him. If David did the cleaning, Richard was on hand to make sure it he did it properly. He took it upon himself to be responsible for my health.

You could not eat your dinner without a light to see it. The pressure lamp was another indispensable item of equipment on tour and on station. Together we mastered the intricacies and the vagaries of our Tilley lamp. We had to remember always to carry methylated spirit needed to get it going. Experience taught us to carry a spare vaporiser as the contingency of one wearing out could be trying even if it happened only rarely. I never did get round to an Aladdin lamp or its de luxe version the bi-Aladdin which gave a softer light than the Tilley. The lamp was put away from the table when I ate and placed in a basin of water when I retired to my camp bed. That was because the moths and ants were attracted to it and fluttered round it in their hundreds. When I reached out of my mosquito net to turn it out, the basin would be full of their dead bodies. What didn’t go into the basin went on the table it stood on or fell on the floor where the lizards had a midnight feast. They left the transparent wings, evident in the mornings, which the ants had shed when they vibrated round the lamp, but had consumed all the bodies.

No meal could be made on tour without water and the sources were unreliable. I had a folding canvas bath I took everywhere as it was a necessity after a day’s work and before a meal. I had resisted the temptation to buy a zinc bath, wicker-covered, as advised prior to my departure from the United Kingdom and bought the folding one from a Canadian who was returning to his native land after a short and unsatisfactory spell as an assistant district officer. In one rest house there was a place to suspend a bucket which had holes in it to make a very acceptable makeshift shower. I did wonder whose initiative this had been. Richard or David were not so keen on it as it required their presence to keep it filled whereas the sit-in bath could be prepared beforehand. It was good to remember that the servants needed time to themselves. On tour they did this by a kind of unspoken negotiation whereby in return for preparing all my needs in advance, they could have time off for their own purposes like seeing their brothers, making necessary purchases and accepting hospitality. In relation to the last mentioned, they were aware that there is a generosity in receiving which is not an innate European concept. Hospitality, especially from ‘brodas’ was of a most generous kind. The bath water was always improved by the addition of some Dettol disinfectant, carried in a gallon tin, to mix in the bath water to counter any bugs that might be there and also conceal any smell.

The chop box symbolises for me the difference between a collective society where every aspect of life is interrelated and a society that puts emphasis on the separation of events, people and responsibilities and the linearity of time. There is a common thread that unites people and distinguishes them from a society which specialises and then has to be coordinated, usually with difficulty. It is all encapsulated for me in the recalled destination board of a Lagos bus ‘Lagos All Roads’.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 18