by Ian McCall

Chapter 30 - THUNDERBOX

Performing the natural functions under difficult conditions has long been a favourite focus for writers. Not as the main theme of their work but as something insinuated lightly into the fabric of their tales that strikes a chord with readers because it encompasses their experience at some time in one way or another. First world war stories of the trenches were interspersed with unfinished tales of the tree trunk that gave way when a number of men were on it with their trousers down. Or the explosion in the privy in the comedy act when the performer appears from the smoke with his neck through the hole in what had been the seat saying ‘I guess it must have been something I ate’. This universal awareness is not unconnected to the lavatorial jokes beloved of youthful enthusiasts of the bodily functions but is mediated by maturity and education.

It can ascend into myth. So it was in colonial settings for a young wife arriving at her husband’s station for the first time. The first test of her moral fibre was her reaction to the tales of the thunderbox. The ritual was that some reference would be made obliquely to it and others would enlarge on it implying all kinds of terrors that lurked there coiled or with hairy legs and pincers. They would elaborate on this theme later with such tales as that of the woman who had just completed a function and was about to close the lid when a black face peered up at her and said ‘Good morning madam’. There is a saying in impolite circles that a person of undeserving character ‘isn’t fit to shovel sht’. The nightsoil man rises far above any such categorisation. He has to be the soul of discretion as well as the modest provider of a necessary service.

On one occasion I was staying at a rest house in Aba in Eastern Nigeria. Rest houses in these days were the equivalent of hotels. The ones which came nearest to hotel service as the pampered among us new it, were Catering Rest Houses. These only existed in cities and were only seen once in a while by junior officers, usually when they were going on leave or were returning from it. Those of us who used up-country rest houses had to make do with a building with a roof thatched with palm fronds or made of ‘pan’ (galvanised corrugated iron sheet), a kitchen with wood burning stove if you were lucky but usually with bare mud walls sometimes cement rendered, quarters for servants and a thunderbox. Come to think of it, Aba was an important market town, surprisingly without a Catering Rest House. After my first visit to that place I received a letter from the District Clerk asking if I would use less sand in future as the nightsoil man had found excessive weight on his head and neck when carrying the bucket. My dilemma on my second visit was to mitigate any odour while minimising the labour for the nightsoil man. The problem was heightened by the fact that something in my Sunday dinner the previous day had disagreed with me. Such were the dilemmas with which the touring officer was confronted and to which he had to bring to bear all his ingenuity, experience and education in search of a solution. The more thoughtful ‘small house’ controllers provided wood shavings which were much lighter but unfortunately not in abundant supply like sand despite the surrounding forest.

At a more public level, provision was made in Calabar for a concrete table to be built out over the creek on columns some 20 feet high with 12 circular holes in the concrete to accommodate a maximum of 12 persons at times of maximum demand - an alfresco communal convenience observable by all and sundry from numerous, if distant, vantage points. Designed and built by the Public Works Department (PWD), it was the epitome of functionality. Presumably the long drop and exposure to the rush of wind it created, helped to accelerate the decomposition of the waste matter in the water. For people who enjoy a close-knit social structure, it represented, I suppose, an opportunity for a chat on happily met occasions. Not so on a device at the fore-end of ships observed at Sapele (renowned for the mahogany named after it as used in post-war UK railway carriages) from which one of the natural functions had to be performed nearly half astride a precarious and solitary perch not unlike the leadsman’s chains (‘by the mark twain’) on ships of pre-sonar vintage which had to navigate narrow and shallow channels. There was a similar drop from the point of performance to the Jamieson River as from platform to creek at Calabar. Canoe traffic crossing the river was aware of the danger and skirted round the possible arc of flying turds with a dexterity and urgency born of perceived necessity.

When it came to leaving our government quarters, it was necessary to have the inventory checked and a signature that all was in order from the representative of the appropriate department before we could go. Among the items were ‘Goree jar and pail’ - the heart of the thunderbox. And a reminder that while we might be in West Africa, many of the items of equipment we used were designated by Indian names or so we thought. In fact, while Goree has a suggestively Indian ring to it, it is just as likely that it derived from the 17th century French military and trading post of Gorée, an island just south of Cape Verde., the most westerly point of the African continent. It was the first slave harbour to use a real currency as opposed to cowrie shells or manillas and may well have done a good line in the export of glazed pot jars right down the coast of West Africa.

When Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956 Warri was on her itinerary (did you know by the way that when a Scottish admirer in Edinburgh climbed a lamp post to remove one of the I’s to reflect historical accuracy at her coronation - there never had been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland previously - he was charged with treason?). Her visit there was preceded by instructions from government officers seconded for the purpose who advised on arrangements that should be made to accommodate the needs of the royal party. I remembered at the time that I had read somewhere that the only advice that Edward, Prince of Wales and subsequently Duke of Windsor, ever received from his father was to relieve himself at every available opportunity. If this was such a problem then when travel was relatively restricted with the added benefit of en suite facilities on the royal train, how much greater the problem in a country like Nigeria at that time with sometimes long distances by motor car between facilities deemed suitable. Her Majesty and attendant ladies were not clothed to perform the functions in the Nigerian manner and no one would have expected them to do so. It was only right and proper to ensure that any excessive tweaking of aristocratic sphincters was kept to an absolute minimum even in the line of duty. I did wonder whether the zeal to ensure the comfort of the royal party was triggered by some administrator’s knowledge of some such tale of the manner of departing this life as that of an eminent mathematician and astronomer, Tige Brahe, who was too embarrassed to excuse himself from his emperor’s festive table and died of a burst bladder. God forbid that the bad dream of one of the Queen’s entourage expiring in such a way should come to pass. Someone would have to carry the can. And the ultimate nightmare scenario that such an eventuality should befall our dearly loved young queen would be almost too unbearable even to contemplate. She would be consigned by history to join those scions of the blood royal who had drowned in a butt of malmsey, had died from a surfeit of lampreys or had declined to the point of death believing they were frogs rather than be remembered for presiding decently over the prolonged decline of Britain as an economic and political power while retaining the trappings of greatness. What would happen to any officer found responsible for failing to foresee and plan against such a contingency can only be imagined. The successful completion of the visit was marked, I believe, by the sighs of relief, whether loud or contained within a seemly silence, on the part of those responsible for its passing off without any obvious hitches.

I had an acquaintance, Bob Rapson, who had a certain responsibility for coordinating the visit and he received an MVO for personal services to Her Majesty. When he checked up in whatever book gives the order of precedence in such things he found that his gong, the MVO 5th Class, came between Master in Lunacy and a less familiar decoration. The upshot of his or someone else’s intervention was that the Resident Warri’s entire annual vote for maintenance of permanent and semi-permanent buildings in the station (never very big in truth) was applied, it is said, to the decoration of his bathroom and lavatory in anticipation of the short visit. I cannot say that his facilities included a thunderbox (‘shunkie’ or ‘cludgie’ are the more onomatopoeic Scots expressions that come to mind, the former being closer to the exact meaning) as I seem to recall that flush lavatories were installed in Warri quarters where the Public Works Department was expert in building concrete septic tanks just a foot or two above the water table. If I had been able to say that we had thunderboxes in Warri, then I could have recounted that Louis X1V, le roi soleil, had dignified them in an earlier era by holding court from his chaise percée, giving symbolic emphasis to the identification of the state in his person - ‘L’Etat c’est moi’. (Scottish intellectuals please note that ‘erse dichter’ is not a Gaelic poet but was, in its French translation at this epoch, a royal servant who performed his humble duties under the ad hoc throne of his king)

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003