NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 29 - THE STEWARD

The steward was the senior servant of the colonial house and continued to be so in what was in effect the post-colonial era. Richard was no exception. All other servants knew he was the man to be consulted about decisions, who passed on instructions and who generally considered himself responsible for the smooth running of the house. Mary allowed this perception to continue while ensuring that things were ordered in the way she wanted it. Wise women, and men, showed trust toward their servants and never held on to the keys to such places as the drinks cupboard as some unhappy expatriates did.. Even the cook in his specialised domain realised that he had to defer to the steward if interests conflicted. Most managed to find an accommodation of sorts. My first cook, Nathan was passing good but could not work harmoniously with Richard and eventually had to go when the heated arguments disturbed the tranquillity of the evening. My second, an ex-service Cameroonian called Max with an immense sense of humour, received a call to his village where he was to assume a senior role subsequent to the death of his father, and this provided Richard with the opportunity to press for the combined job of cook/steward. During the probationary period which we agreed, Richard produced some very palatable food and it was obvious that all the time he had spent in the kitchen had not been wasted. He called for assistance and that was when I took on David Aggreh as a ‘small boy’. David was a willing but slow learner in Richard’s view. He couldn’t have done so badly for David would stay in my employ until we left Nigeria.

As he instructed David, I seemed to note an extra vigour in the example that Richard showed him. Polishing the floor with the half coconut husk, he demonstrated with unaccustomed vigour how he wanted the job done from that moment on. Sometimes Richard’s patience was sorely tried as when David failed to draw the sinews of the turkey as instructed. This was a very simple process. The feet of the bird were jammed in the top of the kitchen door and the sinew-drawer merely had to clasp it with his arms, take his feet off the ground and the sinews came away readily. This creative piece of improvisation was my sole contribution to the efficient running of the kitchen.

Richard complained to me in his exasperation ‘Dis damn small boy, he never de heah (understand). Not one time I tell him, not two time, not t’ree time; one, two, t’ree, four time I tell him’.
Then, turning to David he said ‘How many time I tell you?’
‘Four time sah’ said David.
‘Na so’ Richard enjoined, turning back to me, his body language signalling that he awaited my very positive reaction to this affirmation of his complaint.
When David passed jam instead of marmalade at the breakfast table, Richard pointed to the jar it had come from and said ‘You never see de lettah?’
‘Sorry sah’, said David to him, ‘I make mistake’.
‘Go get am one time’ Richard commanded.
David was the one who had been to school and could read. It was he who made the entries in Richard’s book in which he recorded how he had spent the week’s market money, a custom Mary discontinued. On one occasion I queried an entry in the market book for ‘chewing sticks’ which many Nigerians cleaned their teeth with. David had mistaken ‘stewing steak’ for the object he was more familiar with. Richard explained ‘I tink massa know I no de savvy book’. I was always careful after that to make sure Richard did not lose face and the pretence was always maintained in the presence of others.

Sometimes early in our relationship it was difficult to understand some of his words. Native speakers of most West African languages find it difficult to put certain consonants together unless preceded by a certain kind of vowel. Milk can be pronounced ‘meelk’ or ‘millik’. Richard always had a problem with the combination of ‘r’ and ‘t’ and and usually omitted the’r’ altogether. He laboured over the pronunciation of words like ‘dirt’. Nzeocha, the departmental driver, often talked about the ‘fan bellit’. He must have recognised that this was not the standard English pronunciation as he sometimes referred to it as the ‘fan bet’, the unfamiliar combination of consonants requiring an adaptation of pronunciation for communication purposes. In similar fashion native English speakers have difficulty with African language pronunciation. The Yoruba town Ibadan, for example, is pronounced in the way the French would speak it with a nasalised ending - something the average English-speaking tongue seems to find difficult.

When Richard was at market one day, Mrs Richard came to me in great distress with a howling Onyerije obviously in pain and shocked.
‘What’s wrong Mrs Richard?’ I asked
‘Dis pikin put stick of matches for her ear’. I looked closely at the ear and I could just see the end of a match-stick inside the ear. If we couldn’t get it out of her ear, then it could possibly be serious. I piled the two of them into the car and took them to the hospital where a male nurse wanted to extract it himself. I demurred and asked for the doctor to examine the ear. The doctor was not available. So we took them to a private African doctor who managed to retrieve the match-stick to everyone’s relief. David, who accompanied us in the absence of Richard, was open-eyed at what the doctor did. ‘Doh,’ he said, uttering the Urhobo exclamation used in all kinds of circumstances from wonderment to condolence depending on the inflection, ‘big stick of matches for small child`s ear’.

On another occasion, we tried to spare David Richard’s displeasure by not telling him of something David had done when he was out. We heard the most awful gurgling noise outside the kitchen door. On investigation it turned out to be David carrying out Richard’s instruction to kill a turkey - turkeys always seemed to get David into trouble. He was twisting the turkey’s neck until he couldn’t get his wrist round any further and had to let go and make a quick grab for the next turn of the screw. The turkey’s head would unwind in reverse spiral describing circles in the process, and it laboriously tried to draw breath which was what had caused the noise that attracted our attention. David was about to repeat the action when he was stopped. Mary my wife it was who, being more elegant and practised than myself in such matters, showed him how to do it properly. David marvelled at the effortlessness and simplicity of the despatch of the bird.

Richard’s routine varied with the weather. If it was fine he would give priority to airing the pillows and mattresses which would otherwise have smelt of sweat. Clothes in the wardrobe would equally need to be exposed to fresh air as mould was quick to grow. In the rainy season an electric bulb (if indeed there was the electricity to lead into the wardrobe) helped to protect the clothes. Then Richard would get on with the inside work like ironing. He insisted on having No 3 and No 13 flat irons as the minimum consistent with a well turned out employer. To assist this process he would liberally apply starch to shorts and longs. Mine were usually of ‘Kano cloth’ or Bedford twill made in Nigeria. The shorts and trousers had buckles and tapes at the sides to fix to the desired tightness and ballops with buttons. To make it easier I had an ironing table made at the workshops of the Hope Waddell Institution in Calabar under the guiding hand of Joe Blair. How many people I wondered had an ironing table made of solid mahogany? Not many if they had to carry them themselves, for it weighed heavy and did not come on tour with us. Richard was meticulous in his attention to my appearance and an outstanding role model for David in his attention to hygiene. He wore out two scrubbing brushes to my certain knowledge. I felt my starched shorts were his pride.

He was just as careful with his own clothes which he ironed tirelessly. He and David wore khaki jacket and shorts through the day. Early on in my employ when we had reached the stage of having conversations in which he volunteered information, Richard asked what the Scots word was for ‘knicker’ (shorts) and I jokingly said ‘wee breeks’ and he referred to them as such from time to time. He wore longs in the evening. He had brass buttons on his jacket from choice. But the joy of both was to get into their immaculate whites if visitors were coming and to show their skills serving drinks and at table. A successful party was planned, not only by the host or hostess but by the steward. He it was who arranged additional chairs or crockery (often a guest’s) and extra help in the kitchen or at table on a basis of reciprocity. He had social skills too, for the guests usually knew him and he responded to their banter which he enjoyed. You knew the evening had gone well if he said ‘It be too fine’.

If Richard had done particularly well I would give him a penny or two. These were the West African ones with a hole in the middle. He kept them on a string and the string got heavier and heavier until he had to have a spending spree. He would probably been relatively wealthy if he had held on to them for many of them had King Edward VIII’s head on them, the only coins ever minted which bore the head of an uncrowned British king. Collectors would clamour I’m sure to have such coins. I had one which I would later use to make a plumb line for hanging wallpaper in a fit of DIY enthusiasm but the coin would disappear with my enthusiasm for home decoration.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 30