Travails in Nigeria

(15th -18th August 1978)


by Roger Davies

Tuesday was a normal working day and I went back to my digs in the evening for my tea.  At quarter to eight I left again and drove back to Stoke Poges, from where Jack was going to take me to the airport.  Less than five minutes before arriving, the heavens opened and I became soaked in just the short time taken to transfer from my car to the chauffeur-driven one.

We arrived at Terminal 3 at about half-past eight, and I lugged my luggage to the Nigerian Airways check-in.  I waited for ages in what appeared to be complete disorder — people and bags everywhere.  Africans, as I found out later, queue, if that’s the word, horizontally (plan-view) rather than vertically and no holds are barred.  Check-in time was 21 o’clock but, because of an argument between the check-in girl and the party of eighteen in front of me about excess baggage charges, I wasn’t cleared until 21.30 (note the change to 24 hour, heathen-time!).  Rushed through Passport control – OK – bought some rum and baccy and then ran to the departure lounge.  Needn’t have bothered because there was another one of those queues, this time for the bomb-detection security check.  Some nasty little beast had broken a bag of what seemed to be Marvel or Polyfilla because there were small white footprints all over the floor.

Eventually I moved into the waiting area, having passed through the metal detector without, for the first time in my life, having set off the alarm bells.  About ten minutes later, passengers with children, who were most of them, were let onto the plane, after which it was my turn.  I had a window seat because that’s what I had asked for but, as usual, it was over the wing!

Take-off was due for 22 o’clock but, whilst we were waiting, the pilot, a laid-back American called Captain Jones, announced that  “pushback” would be at 22.25 because of the controllers’ strike “somewhere in the France area.”  We started moving, backwards, at 22.25 and then, whilst taxi-ing we had some in-flight or, I suppose, more correctly, on-ground entertainment where the Marcel Marceaus of the cabin crew gave a less than straight-faced demonstration of the use of oxygen masks and life jackets to a scripted voice-over.  They seemed to find it as amusing as I did, especially when they referred to the  “eight exits, four on the right” (point)  “and four on the left”  (point). They were all clearly marked anyway!!

Take-off was at 22.36 and we climbed to 33 000 feet.   At 11 o’clock Captain Jones announced that we had been re-routed to avoid the bolshy frogs and that we would fly over Brussels, Germany, Italy, the Med, and Algeria, stopping off at Kano in Northern Nigeria before completing the journey to Lagos.

A steward came round, hiring out in-flight entertainment headsets at £1.50 a throw.  I hired a set and plugged into the seat-arm.  The sound was transmitted through plastic “speaking-tubes” rather than electrically.  This meant that whenever there was a change in air pressure, such as when changing altitude, a mighty thud hit the eardrums; – but more on that theme a little later.  There were eight channels of music plus a channel for the film sound-track when it was shown later on.  The music was quite good with some reasonable popular classics, some more “poppy” stuff, modern jazz, earthy African fertility rite drum-bashing and general music-to be-bored-to stuff.

The drinks trolley came and I had a 275ml can of Pale Ale for 50p, that’s over £1 a pint!  Didn’t have any more after that  ‘cos I don’t like being ripped off, even on expenses.  About midnight they served dinner.  It was the standard tack you get on just about any aircraft leaving Heathrow: a bread roll, a sort of prawn cocktail thing, chicken, potatoes and peas followed by a sort of trifle and ending up with a cup of coffee, a toothpick and a Cologne-soaked tissue.Then the film started.  “The Island of Doctor Morrough”, starring Burt Lancaster.  Load of tripe!  Listened to the music instead!

I tried to have a doze but that didn’t really work. I’m a bit too big for aeroplane seats and it didn’t seem to be the most conducive of surroundings for kipping and, in any case, neighbouring Africans kept on gassing in loud voices.

At 4.15 we landed at Kano where we were told that the transit time would be one hour and those passengers who wished could go to the Transit Lounge. A few of us trooped off to the aerodrome building at “Kano International Airport”. Very tatty and the place was only half awake – lots of armed soldiers though. Filthy hot so made for the bar. No beer so I had a half litre of tonic water. They claimed to have no change for a 10 Naire note (why is it that Bureaux de Change don’t include a few low denomination notes?) so I paid in Sterling – 20 pence- did I rip off a Nigerian? Gosh, I do hope that he had undercharged me- later on it will become clear why, despite my well-known tolerance and even temper, I have feelings that are less than benevolent.

Back at the plane my seat was occupied by a very large black man and, rather than kick up a fuss, I sat elsewhere. We set off again for Lagos. Breakfast was served – bread rolls and marmalade, grapefruit segments and coffee, toothpick and Cologne.The flight time to Lagos was 1 hour 15 minutes and, quarter of an hour before arrival, we were issued with orange juice and hot face-cloths.

It was a dreadful landing – the cabin pressure was not properly balanced so kids started wailing and passengers that knew about Eustachian tubes blew their noses, swallowed, banged their heads on the headrests and tried all they knew to relieve the pain. I went nearly stone deaf!

Out of the plane at 6.30 am and we trooped off to the Arrivals Hall. Soldiers everywhere and an African queue to get inside. I moved into some sort of line but the pushing and barging seemed to carry me sideways. It really was an extraordinary and peculiar feeling. From inside the building a black youth beckoned to me. I ignored him to start with but eventually I became so fed-up with the “queue” that I forced my way in. He ferried me round and pushed me into the line for Health-Control. Surrendered my documents, the vaccination certificate was inspected and then the whole lot was returned to me. Then to Immigration-Control. There were two counters, one for Nationals, the other for Aliens. There were two officials on the Aliens counter, both on a platform about three feet off the ground so that they looked down on their hapless clientele. First stage of psychological disadvantage?

I surrendered my documents again and my Visa was inspected.
“How long are you staying in Nigeria?”
“Two or three days”.
“Show me your airline ticket! …….There is no return date – this is not in order!”
“For a short stay in Nigeria you must have a return date.”
“But it’s an open ticket – it’s valid for a year …..!”
“This is not in order. This is the stamp I must put in your passport.”

Piece of paper, rubber stamp – ENTRY TO NIGERIA REFUSED.
“Oh! Hmm! –    I have a booking made for Friday, made through a Travel-Agent” and I showed him the piece of paper.
“This means nothing! This is just writing – it’s not a ticket.  Are you here on business? I do not wish to interfere with business. For twenty pounds I will not use this stamp.”

I knew that this was not a legitimate objection to entry but what could I do?   Armed soldiers everywhere, 6.30 in the morning, hot and sweaty, headache, not having slept and partially deaf.  All it needed was for him to call a soldier over, say that I was insulting to him and I would be taken into a room.  I coughed up!!!
“Fold it up, fold it up!  –  Where are you going to?”
“Poly-Products in Lagos”
“How are you getting there?”
“I’m being collected.”
“If your car doesn’t come, come back and see me and I will get you a Taxi.”

Next step was to claim my baggage but first there was the currency declaration. I had to fill in a form declaring Sterling (and any other currency) cash and travellers’ cheques plus any Nigerian money. It took about ten minutes to fill in the form, using a ball-point so that the duplicate would be clear. Handed the form to the official but the carbon paper hadn’t worked!  A defective batch of forms!  After another ten minutes the top copy was accepted and I was given the other top copy to retain for my exit.

Then I was pestered by black boys.
“Where is your baggage -I carry”.
Push, barge, rummage “Ah, there it is, good, I’ll get it”
“No, I carry!”

Through customs without any trouble, then the Taxi Rank.
“Where you go? I take you, I have fast car.”
“No thank you, I’m being collected”
“I take you”
“Where you want go?”
“You want Taxi?”

I’m almost in tears by now, then a voice says “Calm down – what is the trouble?” It was the black priest to whom I had nodded in the departure lounge at Heathrow. I explained to him that I was going to be collected and, suddenly, all of the pests disappeared, fearing fire and brimstone. Then my contact found me and introduced himself, an Indian called Mr N. (I never was able to catch his full name, let alone spell it).
“God bless you” said the priest as he moved off.
“God bless YOU, sir, and thank you!”
We walked to the car, the boy who had been clutching my suitcase was paid off and we drove away from the hell-hole.

Mr N told me that he had only been in Lagos for four months. He was the Chief Engineer at Poly-Products and had previously been living in Bombay.
“How do you like it here?” I asked.
“It’s terrible. Every day I want to run away.”

He drove me to the Maryland hotel and left me in my room saying that he would return at  9 o’clock to take me to the factory once I had washed and freshened up. I looked around the room and saw one curtain where there should have been two, the telephone cable ripped out of the wall and the air-conditioning controls dangling from their wires. A boy came in with my suitcase and showed me the bathroom with a bucket of water under the sink. I asked him if it was drinking water and he said no, so I asked him to fetch some. He returned a few minutes later with a dirty old whiskey bottle filled with water. I didn’t like the look of it but I took a swig. Then I went for a mooch around. The bathroom had a bath, an electric water heater, a sink and a lavatory. No water came out of the taps – in that case, what about the lavatory? I lifted the lid and, oh dear, not good! I used half of the bucket-water to fill the cistern so I could flush it and then, hurriedly, shut the lid. After that I had to be as sparing as possible with the remaining water. There was no sink-plug so I had to stuff the hole with paper. They have yet to learn of the strengthening effect of perforations!

At 9 o’clock Mr N arrived back, this time with his driver. We drove to the Poly-Products factory and I was mystified by the driving habits. The cars are all LHD and so they should drive on the right. However, the system is to drive anywhere there isn’t another car and to use the hooter every 5 seconds. If a car comes the other way the hooter is used every 2 seconds and if there is a traffic-jam, or, as they call it, a go-slow, the hooter is used continuously. The driving is appalling – the average life of a car is two years, after which it will have become completely wrecked, and that is due solely to bad driving because, surprisingly, adequate maintenance facilities are readily available. It’s amazing that in a poor country there are so many cars but, as I learnt, although there is a telephone network, it doesn’t work – at all!  A letter posted in Lagos will reach its destination in Lagos a week later at the earliest but it’s an odds-on chance that it won’t ever get there. Telex is available at a Post Office in Lagos between 10 o’clock and 3 but they require bribing to co-operate. Because of the inadequacy of the communications system, the only way is to go by car to visit people and if they are out, visiting someone else, you’ve had it. It’s pot luck trying to conduct business because it’s impossible to make appointments. Even if an appointment can be made, go-slows can make a nominally 10 minute journey last three hours.

Lagos State Transport runs about 6 1950’s buses, with people hanging out of the windows like you see in the old newsreel films. Many of the military personnel run mini-buses as a side-line. There is a railway but,  –  not unpredictably  –  it doesn’t work. So, with a lack of proper public transport, there is a huge number of cars on the roads. In Lagos city itself, the solution is to allow odd registration numbers one day and even numbers the next, with a free-for-all at weekends.

At the factory I met the boss and the first thing he did was to send out for bottles of mineral water – no tea machines and no running water – and power cuts 16 hours a day. We had a chat and then got down to the job in hand. At 1 o’clock Mr N and I went to the “Golden Crown” Chinese restaurant. Moses, the driver, took us there in the company Datsun. A bit ribby but it was 6 months old! I still felt dreadful because I was tired, had a headache and although not stone deaf, I had difficulty in hearing and my voice sounded to me like one of those telephone disguises, but amplified. Didn’t have much appetite but the Nigerian Star Lager was good, and only 60 Kobo a bottle (about 60 pence a pint). Poor old Moses was waiting in the car when we came out into the hot, very bright sunlight and off we went, back to the factory.
“Moses”  said Mr N. “What is your problem? Why you are going this way?”

Moses half turned to explain but then thought the better of it and did a sort of double U-turn on the main highway, setting up a go-slow! Arrived back at the factory at about 3 o’clock! I went outside and pottered about around the generator, which was my reason for being there. Being a newcomer to the country I hadn’t become used to not moving about too quickly and so I kept getting overheated. Perspiration was dripping off me and filled my eyes so that I just couldn’t see properly. We knocked-off at about 7. Mr N said he would call for me at the Hotel at 8.30 and we would have dinner. He really was very good indeed and I just don’t know what I would have done without him.

I had a wash and made some tape recordings of the local Lagos radio. Most amusing, with adverts for worm remedies – “gets rid of worms, more than 5 kinds of worms, in just one day” and a news item about it being the first anniversary of the death of “the local rock giant, Elvis Presley”. They must have pinched that directly from one of the American radio overseas broadcasts. Mr N arrived on schedule and we went to the Lagos Airport Hotel. The grub was adequate, but not memorable, and the service, grudging. Back to the hotel  room, where I stripped off, turned on the air-conditioning which, mercifully was working, and flopped onto the bed. After 36 hours without sleep I went straight off.

Next morning I woke up at about 6.30, still partially deaf in the left ear after the rotten landing. Listened to the wireless and then, at about 7 o’clock, got out of bed, had a wash and scrape, took a malaria pill and generally pottered. Didn’t bother with breakfast and, at about 8 o’ clock, went out to the front  and waited for Moses. He came at about 9, held up in a go-slow, and we went to the factory. I sat in the boss’s office until, shortly afterwards, he and Mr N arrived. I jotted down various notes and had a bit of a general think until, at about 10 o’clock, Moses drove Mr N and me to the workshop where they specialised in the overhaul of generators like the one that we were concerned with so that I could see one in a dismantled state. Afterwards we went to Head Office, a well-appointed bungalow in the suburbs.

We, except Moses, took tea with one of the Directors, made in cups by a factotum called Innocent using Liptons’ tea bags, hot water from a Thermos flask and whitened with evaporated milk. We had a bit of a jaw and then moved on, with an invitation to dinner that evening at the Director’s house. Went to Casa Pepé for lunch. The food was good, very expensive, slowly served but in gloriously air-conditioned comfort.

After lunch we went back to the factory where I took photographs of the accident scene, collected samples and marked the areas where I wanted pieces to be cut out. Knocked off at about 7 o’clock and Mr N drove me to my Hotel with a promise to return at 8.30. I sat about, listening to the wireless and having a couple of tots of rum whilst unwinding. Had a wash, changed and then waited for Mr N, who was as good as his word. We drove to the Director’s  house, from where we went over the road to his brother’s, the M.D’s house. Through patio doors into a large room with a full-length bar at one end, stocked with just about every imaginable spirit and liqueur as well as a selection of Nigerian beers. I settled for another tot of rum, having got the taste for it.

The family brought in all manner of Indian savouries, all of which were delicious. Then, at about 9.15, we all piled into cars and I, Mr N, the Director, the M.D., his wife and the two sons and daughter of the Chairman, an Englishman, piled out again at a rather posh Chinese restaurant somewhere or other. It was obvious that the Directors were regular and respected clients and the atmosphere were very jovial and pleasant. The Director took charge and ordered. I had a beer and so did Mr N. Mrs M.D. and the children had lemonade whilst the two directors each had Scotch and Soda.

We were seated at a large, round table with a turntable in the middle. The food was brought in and the turntable started to whiz as we all took bits and pieces of this and that. During the conversation we talked about when they lived in England and the M.D. mentioned something about Southall. I told him that I had been born in Chiswick but brought up in Southall. This delighted him and he declared,
The Three Horseshoes – my wife and I always go to the Three Horseshoes!

I too used to go to the Three Horseshoes and I recounted the story of how, when I was at  school, I was in there with a couple of cronies when the Headmaster and two of my teachers walked in. They saw us and we saw them but nairy a word was spoken. We managed to escape a caning and, as far as I can recall, we didn’t hear any more about it. Never-the-less, it was a jolly close shave! Ah! – Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be! We left at about 11.30, all a bit the worse for wear. I was dropped out of the Mercedes at the Maryland and I just toddled off to bed.

Moses and Mr N came to collect me the next morning and Mr N settled the hotel bill. Off to the factory where I collected the samples I was taking, and took my leave of the Director in his office. As is common on these sorts of occasion, there is always something that sticks out in the memory. My particular recollection is the embroidered sampler on his office wall, an illustrated Indian proverb.
“Worry is like sand and the oyster-a little can produce a pearl, but too much will kill the animal!”

Check-in time was 10 o’clock but at 10.30 we were still stuck in a go- slow. The flight departure was at 11 and we arrived at the Nigeria Airways desk at 10.45.
“Too late!” said the man. I was desperate to get away and for 10 Naire he agreed to get me onto the plane. Hurriedly filled in forms, paid 5 Naire Airport Tax (the receipt said 1 Naire but it had been altered in Biro to a 5. This was, for once, legitimate but try explaining it away on the expenses claim!)

Through Health-Control, Immigration-Control and Currency-Control into the Customs area. Army Customs man, armed soldiers everywhere.
“Have you anything to declare?”
“No, the only things in the case are items of clothing and personal effects that I had brought into the country.”
“What money have you?”
“I’ve filled in the Currency Declaration—”
“You must tell me!”
“12 Pounds 56 pence Sterling, two hundred Pounds in Travellers’ Cheques and 20 Naire.”
“When are you returning to Nigeria?”
Rude answer thought, not spoken, discretion being the better part of persecution.
“I have no plans to return, I have completed my assignment and I want to go home.”
“In that case, the Nigerian money will be of no use to you. I suggest that you might like to spend it: – if you want this suitcase to be put onto the aeroplane!”

Rustle of paper, squeak of chalk then out of Customs into the Security Check. Briefcase OK, but the metal detector objected to me.
“Empty your pockets and walk through again!”
“Take the pistol from your trousers,  –  Ho, Ho, Ho!”

I took pens from my pockets, belt from my trousers, and watch from my wrist.
“Four Biros? I don’t even have one Biro!”
Thinks – “That’s tough, mate. You’re not having these – they’re not Biros anyway, they are Papermates and Parkers!”

Still the alarm hooted at me! Took my shoes off, having remembered that they were To-Tectors, and that kept the beastly thing quiet at last. Collected up my things, adjusted my “dress” and dashed off again, passed the Duty-Free shop – no time – and joined the queue for the Airport Bus. Waited about quarter of an hour and then, out to the aircraft.

Climbed aboard and, at about mid-day, we took off. The routine was almost identical to that a couple of days previous, – even the headset music programme was the same. Landed at Kano at 1.30 and I mosied over to the Transit Lounge. Haggled for about 10 minutes over some beads for my Mum. Came away with the beads and the feeling of having been ripped off, but at least I hadn’t  been intimidated into the position. I was about to get something to drink when we were summoned back to the aeroplane.

At Kano, a party of 5 Nigerian Army officers and about two hundred men came on board. They were all dressed in “Civilian” Uniform and were very smart and well-disciplined. I was seated next to a Captain, and he was obviously well-educated and his English was impeccable. They were on their way to Damascus for training and had to travel to Heathrow to catch their connecting flight. The airfares were £200 each. Crikey, that’s getting on for half a million Pounds! The Captain bought me several beers because the steward had not yet come back with the change from my last fiver, which I had used to hire the headset. I received the remaining 50p of the change half an hour before landing.

They served dinner at about 2 o’clock and then we settled down to watch the film, “Herbie goes to Monte Carlo”. The sound track didn’t work and I moaned, other people moaned and there were suggestions that we ought to have our headset money back, but no dice. There was no more free-issue food, which I thought was poor on a lengthy flight, and so I had to be content with watching a silent film and guzzling mineral water until we started our descent to Heathrow at about 7.15. Captain Shastri, the pilot, announced that we would be approaching from the West, but the position of the sun and the view of the Champion Spark-Plug factory told a different story. Anyway, the landing was faultless and my hearing was completely unimpaired.

Just before landing we were issued with disembarkation cards to fill in.  At Passport Control there were hardly any customers at the British-Passports desk where I was courteously informed that I didn’t need the card and would I like them to tear it up for me?

Whilst waiting for the baggage to appear, I ‘phoned the chauffeur to tell him I had arrived.  After about 20 minutes the cases emerged, I grabbed mine and then went through Customs.  As I normally found, they didn’t stop me and so, when I at last stepped out into the evening sun, I was pleased to see the car waiting to take me home.


Apr 2016

FRHG ref: V112