NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 24 - ON TOUR ONE MORE TIME

It was always interesting to see how colleagues adapted to the demands of touring. I never ceased to be amazed how people reacted differently to similar situations. A load-carrying estate car or a pick-up truck with expanded metal cage on the back was normal. When Charles Simpson arrived at Ibadan on his way back to his station from leave, he turned up at Jim Brown’s house while I was there complete with a Rolls Royce hearse he had ‘bought for a song’ in the United Kingdom. When we inquired if he was anticipating a funeral, he claimed nothing was further from his mind. It still had its rollers which he asserted would be of considerable assistance in stowing his touring loads. ‘Handy too for loading the crates of beer’ he added with relish.

Not all touring officers had that same eye for an application other than its intended function. Others like myself concentrated on the detail of ensuring we got there - and back - by attention to more mundane detail. A prized possession was the long-handled touring axe that was honed to a sharpness to meet most contingencies. If there had been a heavy squall, the wind could reach quite high speed and the tops of the oil palms in particular looked as if they had moved through ninety degrees. It occasionally blew trees across the road. Sometimes they had to be cut with the axe to allow passage. The best situations were when there were lorries in front of us and others would cut away the obstruction. I think Richard was secretly pleased when I let him use it for the first time. In the course of our travels we used it to construct small bridges on a couple of occasions when the rains had washed away the road or to fill in with brushwood and logs a ditch that had appeared overnight. If we had a hold-up, Richard would sometimes ask questions about the UK.
‘You get garage for your compound in Scotland?’ The fact that this was my first full-time job apart from my stint in the Royal Navy, and that I had been in various digs or staying with my parents was the truth of the matter.
‘No, Richard, I used my father’s car but not very often as he needed it for his work. I hired a car once or twice.’
‘What you do for go work?’ The idea that I had had no transport of my own was something to deplore. That I might have gone to work on a bicycle or by bus or, say it quietly, on foot, was too awful for him to contemplate. He would lose face among his peers if it got out.
‘When I was in London for a short time I went to work by train’ I volunteered.
‘Na true, sah?’
‘Na true’, Richard. Trains run like buses in Lagos to take you from one street to another. I go by the underground’.
‘Underground sah?’
‘In London the trains run under the ground and take millions of people to work each day.’
Richard laughed. ‘Massa make joke. Train never go for under de ground’.
‘Na so’.
‘How you go down?’
‘You go by stair that moves. You don’t need to walk until you get to the bottom where the trains are.’
Richard doubled up. This was hilarious. Trains that went under the ground, stairs that moved. I would be telling him next that you could sometimes go down in a cage that moved when you pressed a button.
‘I tink you make we laugh too much’ he said.

The exertions of building small bridges were kept to a minimum in the Warri area as a result of the provincial engineer Jim Brown constructing floating bridges made of empty oil drums lashed together with planks laid along them for vehicle or bicycle access across shallow water liable to flooding in the rainy season. It was no mean feat where access is difficult, funds are limited and materials not always available. This was the kind of improvisation that contributed to the development of the local infrastructure and general welfare of rural areas and was also the kind of activity that went unrecognised, largely, I suppose, because it was the big projects that caught the eye. Jim`s improvising abilities were reflected in the way that he harnessed his interest in being a radio ham with a daily communication link to his wife and daughter in Cardiff when they were not with him in Nigeria. His ability to turn his hand to anything rebounded on him on one occasion when a home-made burglar alarm went off in the middle of the night when the electricity supply failed to his, and his wife Anna Maria’s, consternation.

Difficulties in progression are not confined to the roads. The many branches of the Niger delta and the estuaries of other rivers are all linked by a network of creeks that provide navigable channels of smooth water from west to east. These open out from time to time into wide lagoons that make canoeing relatively easy. It is possible by these waterways to go by canoe from Calabar in the east to Badagri in the west and indeed beyond to Porto Novo in Dahomey (now Benin). A colleague, Charles Pridmore, recounted the story of the chief in Okitipupa who used to send a canoe the 150 miles by creek and lagoon to Lagos to collect his tins of Barney’s tobacco. Presumably there were also other commissions to be carried out and other requirements to be met. Charles, who was intrigued by the trouble taken to get supplies of his favourite tobacco, wrote to Barney’s with this snippet of information and received a pound tin of tobacco by way of acknowledgement of yet another genuine appreciation of their product.

Sometimes a creek, if it was slow-flowing, got blocked by sudd or lettuce weed that grew right across the waterway. You could from time to time see small birds running or hopping across it and small frogs hopping from leaf to leaf. While travelling by launch on one of these creeks, somewhere on the Siluko River I think, clearing a channel of water in the green carpet as we went, we attracted a woman paddling her canoe like fury to keep up with us while there was still a good wake and clear water, her breasts or ‘bobis’ (reflecting the influence of an English regional expression?) as they were referred to in pidgin, swaying rhythmically in time with the movement of her paddle. When she changed hands to push the paddle into the water from the other side to make any corrections of direction, they made a kind of circular motion before taking their cue from the new movement. She appeared to be enjoying it but eventually it was an unequal struggle and she ceased her exertions, her top or buba which had worked its way up to her neck as a result of her exertions, falling back down to its normal position. Even launches could get snarled up in the weed if the roots were long and became entangled with the propeller and the snag had to be cleared from the propeller by hand which meant someone going over the side to do so. This became an increasing problem as outboard motors became more available and facilitated travel on water for a growing number of people.

When on tour in the remoter parts of my area, life would be more like it was before the coming of the white man. Women wore only the lappa and it was an eye-opener to me to see how the configuration of their breasts changed with age from the high carried bosoms of the young women and the rounded fullness of young motherhood which I was aware of, to the ample bosoms of the mature women and the cracked pepper pots of the old grandmothers. I was flabbergasted on one occasion early on in my trips to the bush when a matronly woman with big breasts lay down on her back with her head on her hands and they just flopped under her armpits That reality had not been captured by the classic paintings I had glimpsed in galleries or in the more libidinous photographs in the Men Only of my youth. From that moment the American mammary culture has not impressed me. Since then, ample bosoms in brassieres suggest to me a conflict between an unstoppable force backed by the laws of gravity and an unyielding restraint.

In far Ogoja and the Cameroons, young girls just reaching puberty would walk past unselfconsciously and with a natural dignity. They would have firm, well-rounded breasts and a string of beads covering but barely concealing their pudenda.
‘What do you think of that girl, Richard?’ I asked on one occasion,’ nodding in the direction of one of the nearly nude young girls with a slender neck, perfect figure and an easy, graceful walk.
‘They be bush people, sah’ Richard replied in his more superior tone, ‘they nevah go learn for dis place’.
‘Do you fancy that young girl?’ I pursued my original question.
‘I no de heah’ said Richard
I restructured my question ‘You like to take her home for second wife?’
‘No sah’ said Richard in his scandalised voice.
‘Why not?’
‘They no be Ibo people’.
‘Why do you say they are bush people?’
‘They never weah cloth’.

The remoter parts of my area also afforded us the opportunity to observe the local wildlife. ‘De cutting grass be too fine chop’ Richard would say every time we saw the large rodent-like creature resembling an outsize rat which has been used as food in extremis by Europeans and is greatly in demand among poorer Africans. The dead ones I saw all had yellow teeth and I wondered if they had been born with that characteristic or whether it was part of the maturing process.
‘How do you cook this cutting grass?’ I enquired.
‘We cook am with coco yam. It make fine fine chop.’ In fact, I did taste it subsequently and found it quite acceptable.
The land in the Warri area provided countless opportunities to see it. Any animal that was not domesticated was considered ‘bush meat’ and fair game if you could get it. On one occasion when I was just outside Benin in a place called Ekiadolor, a small deer jumped the fence into a ‘beach’ and stumbled in panic over hundreds of drums of palm oil. Workers in the yard immediately dropped tools and ran from all corners to surround it and eventually cornered it, held it by its antlers, and after a time cut its throat and let it bleed to death. I was given to understand the subsequent steaks were shared out amidst great argument. There were of course the bigger animals which could only be shot with a high-powered rifle. There was the bush cow, a formidable African form of bison reputed to be the most dangerous animal in the country. It differs from other big game in that when it is wounded, it waits for you and charges when it thinks it has an opportunity to get you. It will only give up when dead. The leopard was still a menace but was rapidly being shot out of existence.

I met a fellow Scot I could not stomach whose obsession was the shooting of bush cow and elephant. I always felt the shooting of elephant was a pointless exercise and hard to conceive of as a sport. No doubt it requires a steady hand and nerve. I much preferred the actions of a departmental colleague, Ken Masters, who found a Nigerian lion cub somewhere near Abuja, long before that place would become a new capital built out of oil money. He gave it to Regent’s Park Zoo in London and saw it placed next to one that had been donated by Winston Churchill. It must have been an odd feeling, and perhaps one of pride (no pun intended), that he experienced when he saw the brass plate that bore his name as the donor next to that bearing the name of Churchill.

The most prevalent weapon among local hunters was the dane gun, a long-barrelled, muzzle-loading piece of some antiquity the provision of which a Birmingham arms manufacturers had perpetuated over the years for the lucrative West African market. They were used to despatch the less aggressive animals. It formed a significant part of the range of goods used by the trading companies to barter for palm oil in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hunters could be incredibly casual in the pursuit of their prey. From time to time the press recorded unbelievable accidents associated with these guns. One was about the trial of a hunter accused of shooting someone. His excuse was that he had had a juju put on him. Another, on a similar charge, claimed he thought it was a monkey he was shooting at in the dark of the forest at night. I did in fact witness a monkey being shot and only winged and its screams of pain scar my memory to this day. It is one thing to shoot a guinea fowl for the pot at 25 yards with a 12 bore and No. 6 shot with a near certainty of executing the action cleanly. It is something else to aim for a deer or larger animal at a much greater distance and be certain of an outright kill. ‘The equaliser’ is an American expression for the Winchester rifle. To me the rifle is ‘the diminisher’, certainly for those who are not particularly good shots. The only true ‘equaliser’ is the human spirit and the mental strength it can engender.

But touring was not all difficulty and frustration enlivened by banter. There were pleasures that left a warm afterglow. To happen by chance on a group of Urhobo stilt dancers as they move to the steady rhythms of the drums and the repetitive note sequences getting imperceptibly faster and faster, was a memorable sight if slightly embarrassing for me at that time in mixed company as it moved to a climax symbolising the culmination of the sexual act. To be invited to judge the entries of cocoa farmers at the Ilaro show was a relaxation and an indication of the high quality of cocoa on presentation. Here was a centre of the cocoa-growing industry where awareness of best practice was at its highest and competition was an occasion for fun. You met some of the most interesting people on tour like Cy and Phoebe Ottenberg, anthropologists from North Western University, Chicago, I think, doing some research, I seem to recall, on the social implications of the yam festival. I enjoyed a swim with Phoebe in a cool, uninhabited pool (certainly by undesirable creatures) on a hillside by their house in Afikpo. Not least, you met locals of character who were the source of unusual information and the best of company like Ma Ayolu whose palm oil fritters, bean cakes and repartee were unsurpassed. You were confronted by puzzles like how did a British sailor come to be killed in action and be buried in a cemetery in Abakaliki, so far from the sea, as recently as 1924? Am I in danger of breaking my own principle that only fools make judgments according to their latterday values on issues that would have been adjudged differently when they happened?

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 25