NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 20 - ON TOUR AGAIN

The rainy season gave a nice contrast to the heat and dust of the dry season. The rain came as a welcome relief and people celebrated it by going out and revelling in it. For the government official, or anyone else whose work took them round the countryside, the relief was short lived. The touring officer found himself developing new capabilities to cope with the changed weather conditions. Just driving normally on the roads required the acquisition of new competences. Driving in mud and in snow have much in common. In order to exercise control you quickly learn the golden rule that you should drive at the lowest possible speed in the highest possible gear. That is only a starting point for it still requires the judgment of the individual in a given situation. The Land Rover in the Cameroons overcame many of the problems associated with mud. The four-wheel drive was a bonus, not a necessity. Outside the trusteeship territory we had to soldier on, but didn’t see it as much of a drawback, with rear wheel drive; and inside the territory too when we arrived by car from Eastern Nigeria.

Another drawback to the rainy season was the tendency for windscreens to mist up. The blowing of hot air had not arrived and occasionally I applied a demisting stick to them of the kind used inside gas masks. The rain often came down like stair rods and that precluded the winding down of windows. This in turn made it warm inside the car, for the humidity was high in such circumstances and with two or three bodies in addition to give off heat, it created an uncomfortable physical atmosphere reminiscent of the smell of wet humanity on the old Glasgow subway. We were always relieved to get to our destination. We could while away the time in the car with conversation in a way that was not possible when we toured by launch when Richard would share the crew’s quarters much of the time.

‘What you do in the evening in your village, Richard, apart from telling stories?’
‘What we do for evening time, sah?’
‘Yes, when you are not telling stories’.
‘We do plenty ting’.
‘Like what?’
‘We wrastle.’
‘Are you a good wrestler?’
Richard laughed in a self-deprecatory way. ‘I de try’.
‘Who is the best wrestler in Iboland?’
‘Ikolo, sah’.
‘Is he another of your brothers, Richard?’
At this Richard convulsed with laughter, his whole body seeming to crease as he did so. ‘No, he be fine fine wrestler for Ibo story.’
‘What did he do?’
‘He fight de spirit. He win him and break his head for a rock. Den he fight one with two heads, den four heads and he win them all. And den he lose for de spirits tink eight time wit eight heads and dey break Ikolo head for a rock. Den juju man from his village put stuff from de bush for his eyes and he get better.’
‘Is that the whole story?’
‘No sah. Den de spirits follow. Just before Ikolo reach his compound from de spirit country, dey cut him for back with matchet’.
‘Did he die?’
‘No. But dat is why every peson get line for his back.’

Even in the rainy season there could be bright and sunny days. On one such occasion we put up at the rest house at Bansara. There the local John Holt agent, Jimmy Pryde, didn’t get many visitors and insisted on having a celebration. This not only included roasting a goat on a spit but also arranging a musical accompaniment to the alfresco meal - provided by the local brass band to which his predecessor had sold the instruments. As most of the members had not played until the last year or so, the notes that emerged were far from what the composer of the music intended. Nevertheless, it was played and listened to in a good spirit. I gave Richard a couple of cartridges earlier for the 12 bore and he came back with three guinea fowl and one unspent cartridge. He was very responsible with a shotgun and always carried it broken as I had instructed him. I gave a brace to our host as a token of my appreciation of his hospitality. Richard was right royally entertained by our host’s servants and I think they polished off the remaining dinda bird. The savannah country was good growing land for cassava and you just had to walk into it and the guinea fowl rose up in front of you. You had to be careful how you walked in the cassava as it was a preferred haunt of snakes. If you gave them warning by beating the bush they would slither away. It was only if they felt under attack that they would bite.

When we returned from tour in the rains, the car would be caked brown with mud more than half way up the side and was an indication to those who were in station that I had done a good many miles on that trip, the implication being that if I had done a lot of miles, then I would be collecting substantial mileage allowance. There was a myth that at one time a touring officer could live on his allowances and bank his salary. Such was the view of some of those who did not have to leave the station. Would that that had been so but, sadly, what it did was to increase concern about the state of the car and the cost of repairs. I am reminded of something I later saw on the staff notice board in the UTC garage in Ibadan. It was a letter signed by a man calling himself Lawyer Koofrey whose suspension had parted company with his car in the bush after it had been serviced there. He was threatening all sorts of dire actions if it was not put right immediately at no cost to him and in such a way that he could have faith in his garage in future. There are certain things that can’t be proved or disproved and that is where the costs arise. In fact my car broke down seriously only two or three times in all the time I was in Nigeria. Once was the incident in the Cameroons. Another time was also very far from home when I got a broken differential through fitting town and country tyres for the rains. Of the minor irritations, the worst was punctures of which I must have had 30 or 40 in my years in Nigeria. We therefore had to take tyre levers and patches for inner tubes which were a necessary part of the loads on any tour of inspection as well as a footpump, a tyre gauge and the like. This problem of punctures was perhaps compounded by the custom of running the tyres until the canvas showed, there being no law at that time which said you could not and the economics of maintenance dictated the custom. The safety equation did not enter into it in the dry season as a smooth tyre had more contact with the road surface and provided good road-holding and braking.

Breakdowns in Nigeria were never without their attendant experts. On every occasion of a breakdown there was no shortage of willing hands who claimed to be mechanics. They would be seen beside broken down lorries where the fault could be a major one like a big end having gone. I was never quite sure whether they were chancing their luck in the hope of a reward or whether they really believed they could resolve any mechanical difficulty given time and patience. From time to time you would see a lorry with its bonnet up and parts laid out in a line on the sandy road in the order in which they had been removed. This was to assist in the reassembly of what had been dismantled by putting the parts back in reverse order. If in the process a broken part was identified, the driver would send a runner to the nearest town with the broken part for identification and supply.

If a breakdown took place in an area of population, no matter how small or scattered, a variety of onlookers, not only self-designated experts in the workings of the internal combustion engine, would gather round from nowhere. Local women would set up makeshift wayside stalls and start cooking items like baked yams, pepper soup and palm oil fritters for the temporarily marooned travellers who accompanied any load carrying vehicle as paying passengers, abandoning whatever activity they had been engaged upon. Other enterprisers, often women too, would emanate from nowhere with their own productions for sale like lemonade and home-made beer while boys materialised from the bush peddling cigarettes and palm wine to create a social event out of a minor crisis. Younger males would hawk betel nut and gum. The news of the gathering would percolate to the children who would come to play around their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and duck and jump under and over the incapacitated vehicle. The witch doctor purveying his amulets, feathers and bat wings might also arrive to promise cure for any ailment or curse, protection from a juju or revenge for a perceived wrong. Animated conversations would ensue even if nothing was sold giving the impression that the meeting and talking were more important than the sale. Laugher, banter and argument pierced the humid silence of the day. Passing lorries might stop to take advantage of the victuals on sale or participate in the activities, further increasing the number of bodies and sounds and colourful movements. A breakdown, like any other unusual circumstance, had become a community heaving with life itself.

Hold-ups were not only caused by mechanical failure. Progress could be halted by the terrain and the weather. Fortunately, the human species displays the capacity to adapt to all manner of circumstances. This is exemplified in Nigeria by the way products for one purpose are used for another or have a secondary use, whether by organisations or by individuals.

One such product is expanded metal sheet, sometimes referred to as expamet or XPM which were favoured initials of a partly illiterate society that liked to shorten a description of a few words into a combination of easily recognised and familiar symbols. Its original function was for security to prevent unauthorised access to property and to protect windows vulnerable to penetration by thieves. It was linked together in large sheets to make landings possible on grass runways during the rainy season. More familiarly, it was used to make a cage, with doors that could be padlocked, on the back of kit cars. These were pick-up trucks, often but not exclusively of American origin, which allowed loads to be carried in safety to wherever they were being transported and which were usually capable of negotiating pot-holed and muddy tracks.

A use not always appreciated was as a means of recovering your vehicle when it was trapped in mud which was not an unusual occurrence in the Calabar area in the wet season. To achieve this it was necessary first of all to wire a number of two foot by one foot pieces (600mm x 300mm) together and fold them back on themselves in a kind of accordion for handy storage. When the contingency called for action, all you had to do was unfold the XPM under the drive wheels and it was odds on you would get clear. A poor alternative was to lay out under the wheels a number of gunny bags which would otherwise have been used for holding kernels or cocoa, a sometimes messy and uncertain alternative. I made one epic journey to the Cameroons in convoy with Josie Bull who worked for the Department of Rural Science in Bamenda. It was the rainy season and if I stuck at the top of a hill Josie stuck half way up. We ended up with her car being so bogged down it could only be released by specialist equipment. The XPM had to give best on this occasion. Together we drove to Mamfe in my trusty Vanguard with its 16 inch wheels and the same engine as used in the Ferguson tractor. We arrived late in the evening. The District Officer called out the manager of the Catering Rest House who had the staff cook us a meal. When the roads improved, Josie’s car was brought back to Mamfe by the PWD recovery lorry and she resumed her journey to Bamenda. I didn’t see her again. I remember her telegraphic address was ‘Bull Farmstead Bamenda’. There was a woman who acted in the best traditions of colonial service. She was aptly named. She had all the characteristics normally attributed to John Bull by the Scottish writer who created him and the traits he embodied. When the mud eventually dried and fell off my oil sump, I found it had cracked, presumably on some stone embedded in the mire of the rainy season, and had to be replaced.

It is a similar story with the humble four gallon kerosene can. Kerosene not ‘kerosine’ as spelt today and not paraffin because it was imported from the USA where the word paraffin is unknown. These tins were of square section and could be transported cheaply since they fitted snugly against each other. It is interesting to note that the supplying companies tried to replace them with cylindrical cans as these cost less to buy from their suppliers. The market in West Africa deemed otherwise and it was not long before the traditional tins were reinstated. They were after all cheaper to transport, easier to store, took up less room and, perhaps most importantly, they had a resale value after the kerosene had been used. This resale value was demonstrated in the use to which they were put. In the first place, if you removed the top with a tin opener and nailed a round piece of wood, cut to size, across it, there you had an effective implement for shovelling cocoa beans into a riddle or ‘shiftah’ which a second person shook vigorously from side to side and round and round to get rid of unwanted trash before emptying the beans remaining into a bag, or to fill bags of groundnuts or palm kernels.

It could be used too by a very special kind of transporter. That was the man with a bicycle who had a carrier over the back wheel on which kerosene tins of palm oil half to three quarters full were placed two on top of two for conveying along forest tracks to the nearest buying point. Hardier men or men with a shorter distance to cover, could be seen in the oil palm lands from time to time with another two tins hanging from the handlebars. When you consider that water weighs ten pounds to the gallon and palm oil is denser, you get an idea of the weight of liquid being transported. Nobody knew better than the palm oil carrier, who was often the erstwhile owner of the oil, which make of bicycle was the best buy. Not even those who used them as single passenger taxis experienced the same wear and tear. You bought your bicycle from an assembler who imported it in kit form or ‘completely knocked down’ as the export jargon had it, so attracting the Commonwealth preferential import duty. Then you took it to a repairer who tightened the spokes and ensured it was in good order and left the brown paper on the mudguards as a status symbol if that was your wish.

In the oil palm belt the straining figure of the palm oil carrier was a regular feature, his often frail frame fighting to keep the bicycle on an even keel under his heavy load of kerosene tins, a kenspeckle scene on the bush paths and roads of south-east Nigeria. His bicycle was the equivalent of the canoe in the creeks. Individual farmers sold their production to a bicycle carrier who took the output of a number of farmers and sold it on to a bigger trader who might be motorised and so on until the oil passed in commercial quantities to the ultimate buyer in the local representative of one of the Licensed Buying Agents of the Board. These were the many palm oil traders in the distribution chain of export produce and were the mirror image of the multiplicity of intermediaries in the Nigerian import trade.

Kerosene tins and expanded metal combined to serve a useful purpose when an officer was visiting his outstations. He generated his own supply of tins as a user of paraffin to light the Tilley or Aladdin lamps or provide the heat for irons (Tilley irons were the subject of horrific tales of alarm and destruction arising from their unreliability). His servants would take two kerosene tins and cut round three quarters of the top of each. They then placed these side by side about 18 inches apart and the three-quarters-cut top formed a lid with a hinge. Across this was placed a sheet of expanded metal which, when faggots of wood cut from the bush was placed under it and between the tins and set alight, provided the range on which pans could be boiled for the bath or the tea. When the lids were brought down, there were two ovens ready complete with doors, to receive the prepared food and cook the plat du jour. While Richard was so engaged, David, if he came with us, would take some embers from the fire for the charcoal iron that was a necessity on tour according to Richard. This was unquestionably true when we were away for ten or twelve days at a time. David would blow on the embers to keep the heat going and proceed with the ironing.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 21