by Ian McCall

Chapter 21 - WARRI

If Port Harcourt was on the left flank of the mouths of the Niger delta and Calabar a bit further away to the left, Warri was at its heart and took in the right flank. I was now going to be responsible after leave and transfer from Calabar for the quality of export produce in that other part of the Niger Delta to the west of the area I had worked in when I was in Port Harcourt. I was to become, almost involuntarily, extremely knowledgable about the produce of the whole Delta area and the way it was marketed.

My first few days in Warri were spent in the Catering Rest House there while my predecessor and myself went through the handing-over process. There I met someone who would give me further insights into the workings of the local markets as far as imports were concerned. Bill Hayes owned a company called Hayes, Green and Bryden. I had seen his premises in Lagos some years before. He was an enthusiastic and charismatic man of 68 years who continued to work in Nigeria when others of his age and generation were enjoying a gentle game of golf in places like Crieff or Hastings or had died. Presumably, the other partners in the company had either retired or had gone to the great godown in the sky and Bill had managed to find the finance to buy out their stakes and run it on his own. He enjoyed conversation and was as gracious to relative newcomers to the Coast as to the Resident’s lady. Bill didn’t tender direct advice as did some the old hands I Had met. He preferred to quote examples of how certain situations had been handled and questioned their usefulness if he did not agree with them. This appealed to me in that it brought my own views into the discussion. His philosophy was to enjoy the country to the full and to do this he implied that you needed to know a whole lot more about it. He had come out to Nigeria as a young man before the first world war. He had fallen heir to photographs of men much older than himself whose recollections must have gone back to the 1870s, and appeared to carry them around with him, perhaps to remind him of what he was trying to do if he felt the weight of his years. He had so much respect for their staying power and their ability to adapt to their environment even if their clothing of plaid or worsted in what was patently a West African scene suggested Hexham or Harestanes in deep mid-winter. In some ways he resembled them, particularly in their durability. I suspect he drew inspiration from them. He travelled all over by plane and kitcar (not the self-assembly, sporty machine but the sturdy, open backed pick-up with wooden canopy and expanded metal grills at the sides and doors of similar material at the back secured by a stout padlock). Kitcars had the high ground clearance necessary for negotiating the muddy terrain in the wet season and the heavy springing needed to cope with the uneven and bumpy road surfaces. He was in the textile business which had a long history of trade in West Africa and drew particularly on Indian designs which had the most striking colours and were greatly favoured at one time. Manufacturers in Manchester had copied Indian ideas, and incidentally put many of the Indian mills out of business, and had become more and more important in trade with the Guinea Coast. This could be profitable in those latter days for those who knew their markets. Bigger firms Bill could not compete with unless he knew something more about the market than they did, such were the economies of scale they could create.

There was also the growing competition from local companies supplied by Japanese producers whose cloths were cheaper than those from the United Kingdom. I noticed that the khaki cloth from Japan was lighter in weight and poorer in quality by my lights. It was only much later I was to realise that ‘fitness for purpose’ was to become the classic definition of quality. When I was in Lagos it was not unusual to see Japanese ships with names like Asama Maru arrive in Lagos laden to the Plimsoll line, and leave in ballast making me wonder if the Japanese would ever become buyers of things Nigerian. Among the cargoes were thousands of bales of cloth.

In all this Bill remained true to his suppliers and his origins. Once a year he would make the journey to London and go on to Manchester to view the latest textile designs and feed the designers with ideas from his own experience. He would collect samples of all the cloths he felt might be of interest and would return with them to Nigeria. Perhaps one of the reasons for his remarkable survival at his age was the fact that he returned to a temperate climate every year when most others were there for a tour of up to 24 months or much more in the case of the clergy. I am more inclined to think it was because he was at ease in the country and consequently was not affected by stress which can afflict the toughest physically in an alien environment.

Anyway, Bill returned to Nigeria and proceeded to take his samples down into the Niger delta. It was to the country of the Itsekiri people he went, going from town to village and showing his wares to the womenfolk. We were now in the heart of that country. He had absorbed the lesson that conversation is good and produces information. He knew from experience that the Itsekiri women, from a minority tribe, were leaders of fashion in the country. If he could find out what their preferences were, then he could go ahead and order in quantity the cloths they liked best. He knew that what the Itsekiri women wear today, the vast majority of women in the highly populated - some would say over-populated - Ibo lands will wear tomorrow. Given his knowledge of this, he was in a position to steal a march over his bigger rivals and place the rolls of cloth he handled in the markets that mattered - in Onitsha and Aba and the entrepot of Lagos where the market women knew their wares and their customers. And the customers knew what they wanted.

I didn’t see him again. When I was to return to Lagos some five years after from my sojourns in Port Harcourt, Calabar, Warri and Ibadan, the firm of Hayes, Green and Bryden would no longer exist, but I would think of him later when I read about social and market research techniques. How he would have lifted back his head and laughed his characteristic, infectious laugh if anyone had suggested to him that he administer a questionnaire, conduct a structured interview, establish a test market or facilitate a focus group research among potential customers. But that’s what he was doing in effect. I liked his philosophy and enjoyed his company.

My first nights in my own quarters in Warri were during the rains when four inches (10cm) could fall in a night. You quickly became accustomed to the rain beating on the corrugated iron roof like a quartet of tambourines and you eventually fell asleep to its regular pulsation, occasionally changing into a higher key as a particulary heavy deluge swept across. It was more difficult to get accustomed to the noise of the bullfrogs that persisted during the hours of darkness. First a single frog would lead off and then the others would take up the chorus. There was no rhythm or soporific drumming to it. It was as if there was a cheer leader whom the others willingly followed in irregular and unpredictable din. The frogs were most appreciated by the snakes which found them tasty morsels. On one of my first evenings in my house I sat at the top of the steps leading up to my house and watched a snake mesmerise its victim and then snatch it with a lightning strike from the position it had frozen in. It then digested the frog over a period and it was possible to see the bulge where the frog lay inside the snake.

Warri was a river port rather like Calabar was but without the same docking space. Like other rivers along the delta coast giving access to ports, where the mouth breaks the white strip that marks the coastline, a solid green wall is all that is seen from approaching ships. Local knowledge was indispensable in moving ships up the Forcados River into the creeks of the delta and getting them berthed in a narrow channel. It required the services of the Nigeria Marine pilot as they approached the port. At one point in the channel up the Forcados River there was a spot where a great letter V was cut into the bush. This was on a bend of the river which was difficult to negotiate and masters chose to ease the vessel into the mangrove and let the tow of the current bring the boat round until the bow was aligned with the new direction when `Slow ahead` would be signalled. Ships were mostly Palm Line and Elder Dempster Lines operating out of Liverpool and specialising in West African cargo. Elder Dempster subsumed the British and African Steam Navigation Company, set up to exploit the Glasgow interest in palm oil. The shipping business to West Africa at that period was conducted by a good old-fashioned cartel known as the West African Conference. The exports of the region were principally palm kernels and palm oil, the latter being bulk-handled and shipped. There were also groundnuts evacuated from up-river when the water was high which was during the months of August to October. Activity was frenetic to evacuate all the stocks before the dry season and fall in water levels prevented the river steamers from plying the upper reaches of the river as payment to the companies was finalised on delivery to the ship. As much as 35 feet between high and low water has been recorded although the average is just over 20 feet. There was a grandly named laboratory for which I was responsible where a laboratory assistant tested the oil content of the groundnuts. If by any chance the previous year`s crop had not been fully evacuated during the high water season, the nuts would lose a significant percentage of their oil content and lose value on the market. Some of the palm oil was still bought in wooden puncheons of 50 to 70 gallons although these were being fast superseded by 44 gallon metal drums. Both could be lashed together and either rafted downstream up to ten days or more to a buying point or were secured to the sides of a river boat where the water was wide enough to take it to an appropriate place of purchase and inspection.

The gradual elimination of the wooden casks meant also the end of the road for the men who made them. The coopers who fashioned the staves and shrank on the hoops had been important people in the development of the palm oil trade. There were expatriate artisans needed in the early days to make the casks and carry out repairs on ships, and indeed to build boats and instruct Nigerian apprentices in the secrets of their trade. The development of the skills needed for making the casks were among the earlier trades taught at the Hope Waddell Institution in Calabar. It was similar in nearby Sapele, approached from the sea by the Benin River. It was another important river port which I had to visit regularly. From here bales of ribbed, smoked rubber sheet from the Benin area and timber in log form but more often as sawn billets or as plywood were shipped in addition to palm kernels.

The timber-processing industry surrounded itself with associated trades and brought in saw-doctors and specialists in the production and processing of the wood. They too had skills to pass on to willing learners. It was just as well they did so as a matter of policy as the cry for Africanisation or Nigerianisation became more strident as the 1950’s wore on. ‘Indigenisation’ was the word eventually adopted and used as the expression to mobilise support around measures to eliminate competition from established foreigners like the very hard-working and successful businessmen of Greek-Cypriot, Asian and Syrian/Lebanese origin. Names like Raccah in the groundnut export trade, Thomopoulos in rubber exports, Armel, Khalil and Zarpas in transport, and Chelleram, Leventis and Mandillas in retail services, contributed in no small measure to the development of trade in the country. In Benin, a Lebanese entrepreneur started to make crepe for use in the manufacture of shoes and sandals from cup lump rubber. This was rubber from latex that had hardened in the cup before collection from trees that had been tapped. Prior to this, there was no industry associated with cup lump and no value-added activities in the country. It was considered unexportable in unprocessed form.

Palm oil was stored at bulk oil plants at Burutu down-river from Warri, and Koko down-river from Sapele and pumped from them by a pipe to the ships. From time to time there was trouble caused by adulteration of the oil either by adding an adulterant to casks which could be interfered with more easily than drums as the tinplates used to seal them were not particularly secure. All kinds of vegetable matter from oranges to fibre could be found from time to time in these to make the casks weigh heavier. Proof of adulteration was hard to get. A more subtle means of adding apparent value in the adulterer’s view was to put an alkaline solution, usually lime, in the oil to reduce the apparent free fatty acid (FFA) content when the oil was inspected; the lower the recorded FFA within the different grades established, the higher was the premium paid. At Burutu on one occasion this form of adulteration, which results in the oil turning into soap, caused the stocks to bubble out of the flumes leading from the storage tanks in a froth that spread everywhere. As a consequence, the company operating the BOP as a bulk oil plant is known, incurred high cleaning-up costs which had to be met by the Board for which it acted as agent.

Water was also used as an adulterant to increase the weight for which an unprincipled seller hoped to be paid. It was detected by the use of a steel sectional ‘try-rod’ which permitted an employee of Licensed Buying Agents to sample the drum at a number of levels under the supervision of a produce inspector, and scraped the bottom of the drum where water or other adulterants lay. The try-rod had a slide which was withdrawn before the taking of the sample and when the open rod was drawn across the drum it was closed before it was taken out and discharged into a try-pan. By heating the sample put in the copper ‘try-pan’ and holding it up to let the oil run down, you could see evidence of water adulteration as any water bubbles ran down ahead of the oil. This would be confirmed by subsequent laboratory test. The UAC general manager in Warri showed me a photograph, from the time of the Royal Niger Company around the 1890s, of the testing of palm oil using similar try-rods, beautifully manufactured, which were being utilised even then. New testing kits were now available to produce inspection staff to measure the amount of free fatty acid content and used a solution of NaoH for testing and grading the oil in the field. The try-pans were magnificent copper pans with concave sides much coveted by Europeans with a view to their use in UK kitchens.

The ‘trying’ of oil was the expression used by the traders to the west coast of Africa 200 years ago; they obviously had similar problems. When several of the perpetrators of the Burutu adulteration were eventually caught, the local magistrate made an example of them which made our work much easier as news of such punitive judgments was soon picked up by the grapevine and acted as a deterrent to some of the would-be miscreants. On one occasion when trying to identify the people responsible for this I was travelling up the Assay Creek when I met my African Assistant Produce Officer on the way down. He had three pullers for the canoe carrying him and a fourth man who held an umbrella over his head to protect him from the sun. He had all the trappings of a panjandrum and was deferred to appropriately. Mr Olowofuyeku (not his real name for it escapes me) was a power in his own land. Woe betide the oil adulterer if he found out.

Warri was a small station with a good club and a pleasant atmosphere. People of various tribes worked side by side in the town and communicated with each other in pidgin English. There was a nice balance between government officers and businessmen. A mutual dependence fostered a good spirit with the Resident and the UAC General Manager setting the tone. Once in a while there would be a weekend when the entire expatriate population of Burutu, employees and families of an affiliate firm of the United Africa Company responsible for the operation of the bulk oil plant there, would come by the Gongola, a stern-wheeler that would not have looked out of place on the Mississippi of the 1900s and looked as if it was a working museum exhibit kept by the company for such away-days, or so the landlubbers of the Warri station believed. The visitors would be accommodated by their hosts and usually a cricket match and a special Sunday lunch would be laid on before they returned to the Gongola and their duties in Burutu. We openly cheated - it was in the unwritten rules - to incapacitate or otherwise reduce the effectiveness of the opposition by plying them with pink gins and a surfeit of curry. Tennis was also a popular means of relaxation and the time available for it always seemed to be foreshortened by the rain which started to fall at about the same time every day. It wasn’t unusual for an oil bean pod on the surrounding trees to split open and disgorge its contents on to the court which could disconcert the players if any should land on their heads.

My office in Warri had a picture of Her Majesty the Queen on the wall behind my desk, a reminder of the hopes for a new Elizabethan age on her accession. I was conditioned by upbringing to be a good Queen’s man. I had responded to the loyal toast on a number of occasions, had positively glowed with a British pride when she came to Moor Plantation just outside Ibadan during the 1956 royal visit to witness what was being done to improve export crops that were important for the economy and duly noted she had good legs. With many others I had deplored the coverage of it by the British tabloid press which diminished the United Kingdom, Herself and those of us who identified with Nigerian pride and aspirations, by its cavalier treatment of a hospitable people, appealing to the ‘superior’ instincts of its readers. My loyalty was stretched to near breaking point, I think, when a colleague in Warri showed me the original text of the national anthem, the first verse of which I had sung the bass of so lustily and for which I had stood still to attention, saluted or doffed my cap. This last verse, thankfully now omitted for obvious reasons, enjoins the Almighty to assist Marshal Wade in crushing rebellious Scots. Something I treasured died in me at that moment

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003