NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 44 - WARM BEER AT FIVE

Nigerians on the whole are a hospitable and chatty people, certainly in the south of the country. This is seen not only in the family and social life in general but is carried over into the world of work. This world is punctuated by events which have an associated ritual like celebrating the wife of a colleague having ‘put a child to bed’ (having completed the process of parturition) or recording appreciation of a colleague on his departure to another station or job or perhaps overseas to further his education. This was extended to Europeans and took the form of an invitation to join the staff in an occasion to mark a significant event like completion of a tour of duty or transfer elsewhere. If the officer’s wife was on station with him, she too was invited together with a number of his known friends.

Such events would take place at about five o’clock. It could be held in a local hostelry or in the office. It was characterised in my case, outside the special circumstances of being stationed in a city like Lagos, by the arrival of staff from outstations which of itself was flattering as many had to travel long distances by various means of transport to attend. The fact that they might have something better to do in the evening was not something to cross the mind at the time. It was also an occasion on which everyone got dressed up whether in traditional dress or modern. To turn up in shorts and an open necked shirt was not on. A necessary respect had to be shown for the formality of the occasion and for the people who organised and supported it.

If held in the office, the place was not recognisable. A transformation had taken place. Colourful cloth appeared from somewhere to decorate the walls, and trestles were set up and the tops hidden by an appropriate cover. On top, someone had stood bottles of beer at close intervals and a bottle of whisky was put beside the guest of honour. Nuts and other accompaniments to such an occasion were placed within reach of everybody and the scene was set.

A master of ceremonies had been appointed by prior arrangement and it was he who called the participants to order and set events in motion. The MC was likely to be someone from the immediate office who had worked closely with the honoured guest and who was of standing in the community. He would launch proceedings with the usual reminder why we were all there and invite everyone outside while the daylight was good enough for a group photograph to be taken with the guest of honour in the middle of the front row. This would later be given to him with the names of all the staff added which I thought was a nice touch.

Return to the tables was the signal for the speeches to begin. The MC would resume by enjoining everyone to start and everyone helped himself to beer and passed the nuts round. He would then launch into an encomium on the officer who was leaving - so flattering that if it didn’t make you glow, it made you blush if you were the officer concerned. If you were cynical you might ask yourself if he was going to ask for a reference before you left. He would end with a toast to the guest’s health. The officer would respond by trying to make suitable references to the various people who had come, some at great inconvenience to themselves, to grace the occasion and sit down to a round of clapping. He could be excused at this stage for feeling a glow of satisfaction in what appeared to be a job well done.

The glasses would be recharged as the beer got warmer. The guest would then take the lid off the bottle of whisky and shake a tiny drop on the floor to symbolise the casting out of the devil - a harmless custom I am tempted to practise whenever a bottle of whisky is opened - and invite the others to have some. Then the speeches would begin again. If they were organised then you could fool me, such was the spontaneity of the speakers. I have always felt that a European in a corresponding job wouldn’t have as good a command of spoken English. And the speeches are eulogies, so much so that the glow of satisfaction can burst into a fire of self-importance.

But there is a balance. If you are made to feel good in the first instance, then when a speaker gets up and proceeds to address your perceived faults in a friendly way, the starkness of the contrast somehow underlines the message. It was always a source of amazement to me how many of my staff took a magazine called something like ‘Practical Psychology’. In my case my faults included ‘being accustomed to command but not to consult’. I wonder if my belief in the consultation process stems from my time in Nigeria. That was not so. My father’s example was always one which sought consensus even if he did not always achieve it, so I must have learnt bad habits elsewhere. Concrete examples would be given - how I rushed into a prosecution when one of my junior staff had, unasked, advised caution ‘and he lost the case’. The twilight occasion would end with a presentation. I was given two books on one occasion - one by Maria Corelli, a highly regarded author in Nigeria and a book on the life of Mahatma Ghandi which somehow symbolised the aspirations of Nigerians everywhere. In Lagos, on the very last of these occasions, my wife and I received, as a parting gift, traditional Yoruba robes and headgear. The Alapa of Apapa had arrived!

It was all very well for Burns to have said ‘O wad some powre the giftie gi’e us, to see oorsel`s as ithers see us’. It took a Nigerian, or a number of them, to remind me that my Scottish brethern would have ensured that I didn’t get above myself. If one’s gas gets too high it has to be put on a peep (i.e. reduced to a minimum flame). The classic Scottish put-down is ‘I kent his faither’.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 45