Nigeria - Living and Working in Lagos, by Peter Jones (1975-1979)

Lagos was one of the more difficult places to live and work, but looking back on it through the prism of the years, we did have some good times. We made our own entertainment, and the social life was excellent. The incidents that one remembers were not necessarily the most spectacular, but caused great amusement at the time.

On one occasion we had a dinner party on our L-shaped patio, which was on two levels. I was seated on the lower level, which meant that I was directly facing (but naturally trying to avert my eyes from) the very shapely legs of the young lady who was our new neighbour.

At certain times of the year land crabs tend to migrate inland from the foreshore and would often use our garden as part of their route. I was suddenly aware of a crab the size of a small dinner plate, which was making its way slowly over the patio, under the tables and had paused for breath at a point very close to the lady’s foot.

Then, apparently in slow motion, she became aware of my gaze and her feminine intuition told her that the expression on my face was of something a little more than male admiration, realized that there was some creature under her table…and was immediately on her feet and standing on her chair, followed by half the other ladies in the party.

In Lagos we had the benefit of a small army of servants, who usually lived on the premises. Much could be written about the misunderstandings that have taken place due to difficulties in mutual cultural understanding. There was a tendency of Nigerians in domestic service to take literally everything that they are told.

Our steward, Martin, had been schooled by generations of BOAC ‘madams’ and spoke English very well. He was invariably immaculately turned out, scrupulously polite and totally trustworthy. Most of our friends and colleagues had the same experience. There were, however those whose understanding was less than perfect.

Among the expatriate population, many ‘servant’ stories were told, some of which must be apocryphal, and are certainly not politically correct, but have entered the folklore nonetheless. A favourite is that of the lady who wished to serve a suckling pig as part of her dinner party, and informed her steward that it was to be served ‘with an apple in the mouth’. (The personal pronoun was not normally used in the English spoken by West African house servants) He, of course, inferred that the apple had to be in his own mouth, and presented the suckling pig accordingly…

Another told her steward that dinner should be served ‘through the hatch’ and was alarmed to see him appear with the dinner tray in hand, climbing with his leading leg like a hurdler through the hatch between kitchen and dining room. A third, more alarming story, is of the lady telling her steward that if the baby did not take the bottle, it should be put back in the fridge. Yes, you guessed it.

Our own particular memorable experience is of the shorting of some wiring along the ceiling in our back kitchen. We called the electrician, who sent out a man to deal with the problem. Wearing fashionable clothing, slicked down hair, dark glasses and heavy metal-studded boots, he was every inch a real dude.

When my wife showed him where the problem was, he got his metal ladder and climbed to the ceiling where the wiring was. “Hadn’t you better turn the power off first?” she asked mildly. He gave her a withering stare. “What you know of electric? You are only woman!” Seconds later, he was thrown from the ladder and across the room by the short circuit he had just created and was lucky to escape serious injury.

I am am indebted to an 'old coaster' friend, Ian Beckett for the story of another mutual friend, a brewery manager who used to travel the country a lot. He was staying in one of the upcountry offices and found that he would have to stay the weekend to finish some business. It occurred to him to ask his wife to join him, so he phoned down to Lagos and suggested she make the trip as a change from the boring routine of the big city.

On arrival at the brewery rest house, she was met by the steward. “Welcome madam, I will run your bath,” he said. “Oh, no, that’s fine, I’ll just relax for a while and then take a bath later,” she replied. “No madam,” said the steward: “master say that when ladies come to rest house they always take bath before they meet the master!”

The ‘new’ Murtala Mohammed airport in Lagos, open since 1979, has been the subject of considerable television coverage through the TV ‘Airport’ programme. Most of our experience was at the old airport building, a ramshackle affair remarkable only for the obstacle course one had to endure to get on an aircraft.

Checking in for a flight was a nightmare. Queuing was non-existent. If you did not bring with you your own burly Nigerian retainer to ‘negotiate’ with the check-in clerk on your behalf, you were more or less obliged to employ a ‘tout’ who would push and shove other touts out of the way both in front of and behind the check-in desk to get the attention of the check-in staff first and eventually get you a boarding pass.

Passengers entering this unseemly melee themselves would very quickly have lost their dignity and probably more. Having negotiated check-in, your troubles were not over, as there were no fewer than eight checkpoints – immigration, police, customs, outbound port health (!) baggage identification, baggage labelling and a couple of other improbable checks before reaching the final departure lounge. At each one of these you would be asked for a ‘dash’ – a small amount of money – to ensure that you and your baggage got on the aircraft.

Even then you were not home and dry. We knew one manager of a large British conglomerate who was recalled to his head office for consultations over some dispute with the Nigerian authorities and was on the London bound aircraft taxiing out to take off. The aircraft was stopped at the edge of the taxiway, steps were put up and he was removed and taken away for questioning by the authorities. I don’t know the full outcome, but he left Nigeria for good shortly afterwards.

Domestic air services within Nigeria were fairly rudimentary but worked after a fashion. I heard of one man who used to take the same early morning Nigeria Airways flight to Kano every week, with the same cabin crew. Breakfast in first class consisted of a (very) hard boiled egg and a piece of bread.

He would say to the stewardess: “..and what do you have for my breakfast this morning” and she would say “boiled egg, sah!” After a while he would say to her “You know what I would really like – champagne, smoked salmon, scrambled egg and some nice fresh coffee”, and she would reply, “Sorry sah, boiled egg again.”

After a while this exchange became a regular little routine between them, with which she played along nicely. One morning however, he was astonished when she came up the aisle smiling broadly and placed before him a larger tray than usual containing - champagne, smoked salmon, scrambled egg and coffee, all beautifully presented. When he looked up interrogatively she said: “One first class passenger on Pan Am going to go hungry this morning sah!”

We were introduced on arrival in Nigeria to the Nigeria Police Dog Unit, a splendid group of people who trained dogs for police work. As we had a large and secure compound, we were good candidates to foster a puppy that would later be trained for police work. The police brought a regular supply of dog food and tended to all his inoculations and other veterinary needs.

The down-side was that after 2-3 years they would want him back for training, which was difficult for the family who naturally became very attached to ‘their’ dog, but for expatriates who were going to be leaving eventually anyway, the arrangement was ideal.

‘Our’ first puppy was a sweet natured Alsatian called Sammy, whom we acquired at the age of 3 months. He became a firm family favourite and my daughters spoiled him more than they should. When he was taken away for training we always enquired of the senior police officer after his progress, and were proud to learn after a while that he had become ‘top of his class in harassment!’ I suspect we would not have recognized our puppy.

One of the joys of West Africa was the occasionally, to our ears, quaint use of the English language. If a business associate were not available to visitors, the secretary would tell you ‘he is not on seat.’ A traffic jam was called a ‘go-slow’, and if a car broke down it ‘cease fire’, a thief was a ‘tief-man’ and if somebody were to behave in a silly or irrational manner, he ‘go for bush’. I have seen and can personally vouch for the headline that appeared in the national newspaper when the former leader General Gowon visited Kano and was well received by the populace – ‘Gowon Gets Clap in Kano’. I still have the newspaper cutting somewhere.

Anthony Farnfield relates another West African domestic exchange:
Wife to ‘small boy’ (domestic servant i/c dhobi),
”I can't find my bra which was in the wash”
”Madam?” I don't know! What is this thing - bra?”
”Bra, bra” says Madam pointing to her upper body area.
”Ah, Madam mean knickers for up! I have it here!”

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