Trebuchet's Academic in Africa is amazed by the talents of Nigeria's ambulatory merchants and sedentary guardsmen. Plus nostalgic reflection on Wine Gums.
There are a huge number of things here that I’ve probably never bothered to describe that have, I realised recently, despite their utter strangeness, been rendered so familiar as to be invisible.
Take, for example, people balancing things on their head. From the guy who runs up to you as you get in the car trying to sell you one of the fifty mangoes he has on a tray atop his noggin, to the women carrying three cool boxes precariously jenga’d in a stack. My personal favourite are the mobile tailors that wander round clacking scissors to advertise their presence, with old cast-iron Singer sewing machines carried utterly smoothly on their heads. It’s genuinely amazing.
My personal favourite are the mobile tailors
Also, there is the constant presence of a retinue, staff, or general associated hangers-on. Every compound, every workplace, every shop, every restaurant – everywhere you go has its own random assortment of people employed, seemingly, to sit around, or perform remarkably specific tasks. Like open a gate, or a door, or carry your shopping to the car. I don’t know what all the ones who live in our compound do, but there sure are a lot of them.
We have three gate guards, all of whose names I have asked, but unfortunately forgotten due to the fact that I was a bit drunk every time I had the conversation. One is tall and relatively charming, whilst another is even taller, with a ferocious squint and a general air of slight misfortune. Those two both definitely like me, because when they’ve helped me carry in shopping I’ve tipped them with beer.
someone who has seen the world, and doesn’t much like it
The last guy is short, always looks like you’ve just dragged him out of a crack induced coma (whether at 2pm or 2am) and has the general air of someone who has seen the world, and doesn’t much like it. I’m not too sure how he feels about me, but he does make me laugh.
I see one of these guys at least four times a day, yet I know precious little about them. The litany of interchangable women that sit around the place are even more of a mystery to me (as is their purpose), but they all greet me with a “you are welcome master” every day, and decline any other attempt at conversation.
My tendency to say things like, “Hey man, you alright?” in greeting to anyone that I meet probably doesn’t help. I know that most of the time they genuinely find it almost impossible to understand a word I’m saying. Although sometimes this is down to vocabulary as much as accent.
they genuinely find it almost impossible to understand a word I’m saying
For example, not long after I got here I went to try and buy some blank CDs so that I could burn music for the car. The only place I found that looked like it might sell them was a photo shop in Ceddi Plaza, so I went to the desk and asked her if she sold blank CDs. She looked at me like I’d offered to spit in her face.
Do you sell rewritable CDs? I asked. No. Recordable CDs? No. A CD (gesture in a circle around my finger, pause when I realise this might not be helpful and then do a hand-over-hand “nothing on it” type motion)?
Nope. OK. So I looked around, saw one lying on a nearby table where someone had been downloading photos and went and picked it up. With a fair amount of trepidation that this still wasn’t going to work, I pointed at it.
“Oh!” She said, eyes lighting up, “You mean an empty CD. Yes, we have those.”
Life at university is settling down, but still a bit strange. I have moved to a new office that is stupidly big, and has a desk that is equally oversized. I keep inventing new piles of paper just so I can fill it up.
The new intake are an interesting bunch. Overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with them so far. There’s definitely a good number of really able kids, and from the classes that I’ve had and some of the ones who’ve come to see me in person I think there are a lot of people that are really keen to learn.
But there’s also the huge number of achingly too-cool-for-school kids, that are trying so hard it almost hurts to watch them. Because you can see that they don’t quite have the confidence to go with it yet. Very funny, especially when you see how terrified some of those same ones are when you ask them to open their mouth in a classroom. Watching them walk around campus is even more hilarious, and if the choice of sunglasses is anything to go by, Kanye West has a lot to answer for.
achingly too-cool-for-school kids, that are trying so hard it almost hurts to watch them
We’ve been gradually adding students day by day, so now here we are in Week 4 and we’re up to around 180, with potentially 100 more to follow by matriculation in Week 6 (although I doubt that’ll happen). It is, of course, no way at all to run a university and it creates absolute chaos for both teacher and student, but hey ho. Money matters the most, and on that score, we’re probably going to have another intake in January, which is mental.
The other day I rediscovered the joy of wine gums, which are god’s own food. They remind me of my Grandpa, although not as much as American Hard Gums, which are frankly scandalous. I hadn’t had them for years before I got here, and started to investigate the nostalgic potential of snackage.
Next week I’ll see if I can find some Kola Kubes. But that might a bridge too far for Nigeria, I fear…