NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 28 - QUARTERS

To have reasonable housing was a pre-condition of a satisfied government official. No matter how much you enjoyed being on tour, it was good to come back to a base where there was a social life. The SP17 (Southern Provinces 17) is a type of house that comes to mind. There was a number of standard houses built by the Public Works Department for the use of government servants and the one I am thinking of had an integral garage, an unusual feature for these days and is the only type I can remember. The space could have been more usefully used as an extra room. Not that I lived in an SP17 but it does suggest a multiplicity of types. My first house after rest houses in Ikoyi was a flat in Apapa which looked as if it had been designed by an architect of the City of Birmingham Corporation during the post-war shortages and transferred holus-bolus to Nigeria with the addition of a ceiling fan. Thankfully, it lasted only a few weeks. Things only got better. I lived in houses built entirely of wood and raised on stilts and in more modern ones of the brick and mortar (or rather concrete block) variety with integral kitchens as distinct from the older ones which had kitchens away from the house. They tended to be smaller than the more traditional houses where you had a feeling of space and freedom. The latter lent themselves to an active social life which was important in smaller stations where people came together in biggish numbers. Most had verandahs where the relative cool of the early morning and early evening could be enjoyed. Another design had a balcony upstairs with a lavatory off. One officer in Akure, who lived in such a house, kept an African Grey parrot on the balcony. It talked only a little but regularly repeated the most familiar sound it knew, that of a flushing cistern.

Furniture was also by kind favour of the Public Works Department. You signed for it when you arrived and had it checked off when you left. There were usually four easy chairs of a standard and basic design which varied with their age. Older ones were made with slats to take cushions on top. They had long wooden arms, long enough indeed to stretch your legs on and wide enough to stand a glass of beer. Later models were more Swedish in design but not so versatile. An occasional table was included in the Marketing Board house I occupied in Apapa and this of an unusually acceptable appearance, incorporating the kidney shape perceived to be the last word in the ’50s. Anything outside that, like drinks stools and occasional chairs and table or standard lamps, you as the householder had to provide. A dining table with one carver chair and three ordinary dining chairs and a form of dumb waiter or sideboard completed the official provision. We relieved the bareness of the table by buying locally made dinner mats, woven in Ikot Ekpene under the tutelage of ‘Raffia’ Smith (to distinguish him from ‘Cocoa’ Smith and ‘Gorilla’ Smith). The more creative among us, usually the womenfolk, rang changes with home-made mats using glass or celluloid, an ordnance survey map of the Niger Delta cut into an appropriate size and passe-partout.

Older houses had hardwood or parquet floors. Concrete floors were normal in the more modern houses. To make these easier on the eye and more comfortable to the spirit, it was customary to have them polished with Cardinal polish. This was a brand without challenge in the territory. The servants, usually the ‘small boy’ applied it liberally on first application and worked it into the concrete. He polished the floor using half a coconut husk which raised a shine and eventually a skin which was much easier to maintain than establish. The colour was usually red but a green variety was introduced during my time there. Some of us aspired to a carpet in the middle to soften the appearance of the room and I eventually achieved this even if I got one cheap because it had a hole in one corner made by rats. I had it patched and the offending corner stayed under a chair.

When we moved from government quarters in Ikoyi to a Marketing Board house in Apapa, there was a decided improvement in quality if not in style. The move coincided with an office move from downtown Lagos to Apapa where a new and more suitable building was made available. At the house long metal windows could be rolled back to give access to the verandah which extended the lounge to accommodate a good number of guests. There were troughs round it to encourage the cultivation of flowers which was a rewarding occupation as seeds germinated in 48 hours. We planted them in half petrol drums cut longitudinally for the purpose and painted on the outside. Minute tree frogs as they were called (but closer to the toad family) balanced on the growing plants and provided a diversion as you sat on the verandah and conversed or communed. There were tiles of a kind of plastic on the floor which had to be kept clean with a proprietary cleaner. The roof covering the house was made of the exciting, new and easily affixed asbestos tiles. It had a self-contained guest wing with separate access which was a boon for departmental colleagues and friends proceeding on or returning from leave through Lagos and a pleasure for us mostly.

To these various quarters would come callers plying their wares and services who would in European circumstances be called upon. Tailors would bring their references which they had cajoled and pleaded for when a good client went on leave ‘You go give me good book sah?’ They would produce their written reference ‘Mr Lawal is the best palindromic tailor in the business’ and solicit your patronage. Most references were good ones. One doubtful one I read was ‘Joseph Oluwole has worked for me for four years to his entire satisfaction’. A bad one might have read ‘He has done me well’.

Barbers would call to give a tropical short-shorn haircut on the verandah. Hausa traders would display their carvings of dramatic heads in king ebony even as your hair was being cut and enjoy the ritual haggling on price, being more likely to reduce the asking price if they had had a bad day at the races. Many of them were excited by, and addicted to, gambling. Others would lay out their delicate thornwood figures or beautifully made crocodile skin bags sewn with a very special leather thonging. On the odd occasion, Indian traders would appear with exotic items for sale like camphorwood tables inlaid with contrasting woods and ivory lamps exquisitely carved from elephant tusks brought in from Asia long before the idea of banning the trade in ivory was even considered - we looked on them as works of art. The creation of each one was obviously a labour of love, such is the intricacy and delicacy of the carving and the story it sought to depict. Car cleaners would negotiate a regular contract and strip down the car to the barest of paintwork and then put on a polish that lasted for months, coming back to touch it up every Sunday. Others would offer anything from baby crocodiles, whose tails were reputed to be a great delicacy in curry, to salvation from itinerant evangelists. One of the latter typically created theatre by inviting a young assistant to read from the Bible ‘Boy, makee read de verse from Revelation twenty two’. And the assistant intoned ‘...they shall be his people and God shall be with them, and be their God. And He shall wipe away the tears from their eyes’. At this point the evangelist took the index finger of his right hand across his eye and shook it towards the ground going through the motion of casting away copious teardrops. Your quarters were part and parcel of the passing show.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 29