Arrival in Lagos, Nigeria

Guy M. Tombs

© Copyright 2019 by Guy M. Tombs


Classroom in Nigeria.

These are first impressions of what was to be a two and a half year stay in Nigeria. There are many more stories to tell.

I am writing now because I wish to set out my first impressions. I am well and have regained some lost sleep. Apparently I shall be posted to Northwestern State, the capital of which is Sokoto. I have heard of its extreme heat. The city is ancient. I believe I can choose to go to the south of the state, to Minna or thereabouts. I shall be teaching at a Teachers’ Training College. There is a dire need for teachers like me in the North. I’ll be teaching English, pretty much as I had thought and so carefully prepared for: English as a Second Language.

After two days I am more acclimatized than I would have thought possible. I have only been here for fifty hours now. Next door to me at this Owumi Guest House is Ted Bundred, a Welshman of 56 who also teaches English. Across the way are Sam and Annette Adeoba, an inter-racial couple from Birmingham in the UK. An Irish couple and their small child arrived today also. Some might say that the conditions here in Yaba suburb are frightful – there are open sewers and the sanitation facilities we have are quite unreliable. My electricity has just been cut off and with it my air conditioner. A bleak outlook is tempting, but I am not adopting it – I do not want to make a frustrating experience more so. The Adeobas have been lodged here for three weeks. We hear of unimaginable stories of discomfort from other expatriates, waiting in the halls of the Ministry of Education.

I have been extraordinarily lucky. I wasn’t met at the airport, despite assurances in the letter from Mrs P.A. Ogundipe, which had enclosed my air tickets. I have heard since I arrived that not being met is the norm. A friend I made on the Pan Am flight from New York, Mr Cedric Philipp, helped me tremendously. He is the President of Wyeth International, a worldwide pharmaceutical concern – he sat beside me on the Pan Am flight, and I had time to tell him my tale. His men met us at Lagos’s Ikeja Airport, an Englishman: Mr Drake, and an Egyptian dentist, Dr Cassis, who happens to be a cousin of my mother’s dentist back home. They performed for me the normally impossible feat of finding a room at the fully booked Airport Hotel, where Mr Philipp was also staying.

On the flight Mr Philipp told me that my salary was appallingly low and that I would be in a bind. He said I would have to re-negotiate my salary. It seemed what I would get was hardly more than he was paying his local drivers. Dr Cassis and Mr Drake concurred. This was immediately very worrying to me because the cost of living in Nigeria is in some ways higher than back home. I spent a sleepless night that first night, praying and cursing, dealing with indigestion, all to the tune of the constant loud rattle of the air conditioner right by me.

In the morning I got off to an early start. After breakfast I waited with my bags outside the hotel for a taxi. A Swedish mercenary was also waiting for a taxi – he was limping due to a nasty taxi accident the previous day and he counselled me to sit right behind the driver for better protection in case of impact. He negotiated the taxi fare for me – it is necessary to bargain with the drivers. A Nigerian I spoke to later said that I overpaid anyway.

I set out first of all for the Canadian High Commission at 1, Tinubu Street, to register my arrival in the country. There were two very smart young men I met there, who seemed at first a re-assurance in themselves. After hearing about my situation, one counsellor said I should not have signed this contract – and that they likely would be sending me home “in a coffin” before long. I thanked him for his observations but said I found that outcome very improbable. So they contacted the Ministry of Education and settled which office address I should go to. A driver from the High Commission took me to the Ministry, drove into the courtyard and helped me lug my heavy bags up the outside stairs to the open balcony which encircled the building. The Postings Committee was then in session, a marvelous coincidence, for once they learned of my arrival my destination must have been immediately decided. This speed is very rare. I actually was greeted by the affable Mrs P.A. Ogundipe, my erstwhile correspondent – and the well-known author of the country’s Secondary School English texts – as she is a senior official at the Ministry.

I should mention that I today learned my salary is being considerably raised due to huge cross-the-board civil service wage increases just announced by the Udoji Commission – increases which range from 50% to 110%. I’ll receive a car loan and a car allowance and I can take ‘home leave’ next year, all covered by the Federal Government of Nigeria.

The flight from New York, though long, was fascinating. Dakar, Senegal from above looked like a displaced North African city to me. Robertsfield, near Monrovia, Liberia, is suffocatingly hot and humid. Accra, Ghana, like Lagos, is the face of the ‘New Africa’. There was a crew change at Accra – the Pan Am stewardesses in their sweat-through white blouses left us and new well-rested stewardesses boarded for the rest of the flight, from Accra to Johannesburg, with multiple stops. We passed over so much jungle, so many tiny villages and serpentine roads and paths. It is jolting to make such a dramatic change in climate, culture and inefficiency. However, I feel very alert. I am aware of guilt-ridden feelings we have about impoverished countries and am working through them. No homesickness though.

The cook at Owumi Guest House prepared an experimental lunch today: curried rice with chicken. He garnished it with coconut slices, fried peanuts, of course curry sauce, fried bananas, and pineapple. We had heaping platefuls. This was his chef d’oeuvre. I thought this must be a sort of Nigerian dish, but as it turned out it was his attempt to please us by preparing what he thought of as a European dish. He is quite vain. When Mr Adeoba told the cook, via the boy Michael, that we couldn’t stomach this kind of mixture – and that Europeans liked peanuts separate in a dish – and that we didn’t eat fried bananas in European society – and that it was inane to pile a pound of fruits on top of rice never mixing it in, the cook replied via Michael that Mr Bundred had eaten just before us, and had eaten everything on his plate and praised it. Mr Adeoba – he is Yoruba – said that when he talks to the “thick-skulled cook” as he calls him, the cook always says of the upcoming meal, “I think they will like it.”

From the moment I entered the Ministry of Education I realized it is identical to the Law Offices in The Trial by Franz Kafka. There is I believe one chapter in that book called “The Law Offices” and it tells of the character K’s dealings with them. Kafka was a government insurance officer, and his understanding of bureaucracy was vast. The heat is sweltering; it is a cinch to get lost; there are peculiar, stuffy smells; files are by habit misplaced; the offices are crowded with clerks exactly like over-crowded classrooms; you are sent from office to office, and must wait; telephones are left off the hook for hours on end, the caller long since departed; runners sleep in the halls waiting for orders on little slips of paper; the clerks hardly work at all, joke or flirt or talk, as I heard one, about their first accident and imprisonment, all in a light vein; everything is by paper; the paper is moist or sticky; everyone waits and waits and as in Kafka is told to come back tomorrow. One erudite Brit told me that he had read the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn cover-to-cover while waiting at the Ministry.

All said though, I am happy to be here. It is good to be 22.

Guy M. Tombs resides in Canada and works in the USA and Canada. He holds a BA in English Literature and an MBA from McGill University and an MA in African Studies from Birmingham University in the UK. His wife Suzanne Ozorak is a classical musician and they have three accomplished adult children.


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