An academic navigates the great and small encounters of Ex-Pat life in Nigeria.
Yesterday, I loaned my car to Joy and Julius. She said it was her birthday, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, actually, it seemed like the best way to get rid of her, as it was 9am and I’d only been in bed for 3 hours. When I woke up properly at 12, I realised that the remainder of my month’s salary was in the glove box, which at N200,000 (about £800), represented almost half a year’s wages for Joy. At this point I was too concentrated on getting my day in order to really worry about it, but when 10pm rolled around with no sign of them still, I was starting to get seriously worried that they might have disappeared into the sunset with my car and all my money.
Fortunately not, and I awoke to find an extremely grateful Joy and a glove box still full of cash. She was asking me for money as well, which I took as a reassuringly normal sign, and they’d also washed the car, which I just took as a bonus.
It was another good weekend, encompassing a Finnish film, two nights out clubbing, and a party at the US Marine House. This is exactly what it sounds like – the house where all the US Marines live – and is weirdly like being in a rugby club bar or school disco. There didn’t seem to be many actual Marines present, just the usual group of expats. I only met most of them a week ago, but already I’ve realised it’s a pretty small (and welcoming) circle.
In fact, when we got to a club a bit later, I realised that it’s a lot like being a student in the first year of university. A small(ish) group of people thrown together, who wouldn’t normally meet, all looking to have a good time, and all therefore going out and drinking. A lot. Everyone ends up in the same places, and you (hopefully) start to fit in quite quickly.
By this point I’d been told “anyone under 5’4” is a Marine”, and this turned out to be largely true. Of the few who had followed us clubbing, two seemed to think they were Patrick Swayze, and proceeded to dirty dance with each other, and any girl who’d let them, in an extremely camp fashion. They managed to be incredibly meat-headish whilst at the same time almost asexual. A strange combination. They also showed a complete inability to detect irony when people gathered around and start chanting “Marine Corps!”, “America” and “U-S-A” whilst they showed off. Even when me and another guy turned it into “Ameri-ca, fuck yeah” they completely failed to spot that people were taking the piss.
Probably for the best really.
The university has now been open for a week, and I’ve done 3 lectures. All have gone surprisingly well, although I’m realising that things may have to be changed quite dramatically. Getting them talking isn’t going to be the problem I thought it was (I hope – the first seminar on Wednesday will determine if I’m tempting fate there) as they’ve been pretty responsive so far. After the second lecture (on Greek tragedy) one of the students told me “that was really interesting sir, like a movie”. Which was both a bizarre thing to say, and a bit arse-licking, but as it came from the only lad who comes across as far too cool for school, I thought I’d take it. And today I did a proper discussion section on a much less interesting subject, and they were really keen to get involved. Promising.
However, their standard of English is appalling. In conversation they’re OK – at least in terms of making themselves understood. But I set them an English Competency Test last week, and the results were hugely mixed. What was most revealing, in a way, was the fact that their knowledge was so inconsistent. What some would sail through, others wouldn’t have a clue about, and vice versa. And their writing is uniformly terrible – equivalent to a 12 year old in the UK, I would say. As part of the exercise I set them I asked for a summary of their education to date, and I now know that one of them was a bully, then joined the army but left on the first day because “it was all inhumanity and torture”. Another told me what every single one of her nine siblings did, whilst another took me through every year of her school life to date.
Year by year.
Very sweet, but slightly disheartening. And 7 out of the 9 thanked God. Which given my propensity for using religious belief as the epitome of irrational absurdity is probably worth bearing in mind.
I also chaired the first meeting of the General Studies Department today. This was done entirely at my own behest, but even this clear indicator of academic responsibility has not stopped me feeling completely out of place as these people’s manager. Still, the meeting went well, and it was extremely encouraging to know that all my staff (see?) are well aware of the problems. In a sense this just places more pressure on me to get things sorted, which I’m not sure I can, but such are the burdens of management, eh?
Last Monday, the night before George left, “the university invited us for dinner”. This was the first time anyone other than me had done anything to make the guy feel welcome, but I guess you have to take what you can get. I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been here – but perhaps I should take that as a compliment. There seems to be a general belief that I can take whatever is thrown at me, but at times I would like it if it felt like this ship had a captain.
Halfway through the evening, Debare asked us if we would mind going to visit someone after we’d eaten. We all said yes (I don’t think we had a choice), and so at 11pm, we found ourselves rolling into a compound in Maitama. This is the posh bit of town, and this was a posh house – which was apparent not least because the servants clearly lived in a state of rigid terror, and were practically making obeisance when we arrived.
The house, or rather mansion, was truly bizarre. Stuffed to the gills with portraits, dinner services and hugely ornate furniture. I half expected us to meet a dowager Miss Havisham type pining for the lost days of Empire, but instead we were ushered into an inner sanctum to meet an old man wearing what can only be described as a nightie and looking a bit like Gandhi. This room was even more bizarre. It had a battered fridge in the corner, so many sofas and armchairs that there was no free wall space left, and more pouffes than any one man could possibly need.
I also counted 5 ornate tissue box holders.
The entire time we were there the host lounged on his sofa in impressively louche fashion and refused to turn off the TV. To be fair, he was an absolutely fascinating guy, who had been involved in Nigerian politics since Independence, and clearly had a huge wealth of experience and knowledge. He also had a pithy sense of humour and a good range of anecdotes, although his delivery was peppered with weird vocal and physical tics which made me seriously worried that we were going to see more of this distinguished gentleman than was truly necessary. A nightie only covers so much, especially when one is semi-horizontal.
Amidst the stories of Ahmadu Bello (a respected statesman and kind of founding father for Nigeria) it became clear that the reason we were here was so that Debare could ask one question, regarding some political matter. After he had done this, he pretty much looked disinterested, and left the talking to the rest of us, which I found a little bizarre. I only realised how much he had wanted to leave afterwards (I had turned my phone off, polite boy that I am) when I got a text from him, sent half an hour earlier and saying “when you have finished your tea, ask if we can leave”.
We got home from this encounter at about 12.30, and I was rudely awoken at 5 so that Julius could ask me something about giving George a lift to the airport. At this point I found myself thinking, “I am tired of being woken up by servants at all hours of the morning”, and didn’t even feel any great shame. I am clearly settling in.
I have worked something out with regards to driving here. The truly insane aside – those who treat driving like a game of Burnout – stick the average Abujan driver on a clear road, and they’ll happily pootle along at between 60-80kph. But put some traffic, or a potential hold-up, in front of the same driver and they’ll turn into Jason Bourne. They will accelerate towards red traffic lights, or gridlocked junctions, desperately hoping to gain one car length. Then, afterwards, they’ll pull away like someone’s grandma and resume the pootle.
The other day I had one car – one car – behind me at the “diversion” halfway up Ahmadu Bello Way. This is basically a roadwork contra-flow type affair where they’re building a new flyover, but there was no traffic around and really no reason to get excited. I was just about to pull away from the
last speed bump when a guy nearly took off my front wing trying to cut in on the inside. I let him in, after an exchange of sign language that went as follows:
(me) “Come on mate, don’t be silly.”
(him) “I know, but you left a gap, I couldn’t help myself… I’m sorry.”
(me) “Ok, on you go.”
(him) “Thanks my friend.”
Mollified by this pleasant exchange (still just one car behind me), I went to pull away and this time missed being hit by literally a coat of paint. The same guy drove out of the other side of the “diversion” and in the half mile that I followed him, never exceeded 50kph – on an empty dual carriageway.
I actually wanted to get out and eviscerate him.