[Note: This is the story of a trip that a teacher took in Nigeria just prior to the Biafran War. Roy and I attended Normal School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the same year. He has given us permission to use his story. A more detailed story about Roy can be seen in After School: Lives of Manitoba Normalites, Class of 1950-51.]
It was spring break at the Teacher Training College at Wudil, in northern Nigeria, where I was teaching. This was Hausa country on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Here, we would see camel trains going past our gate. We had been there for a year and a half on a programme sponsored by C.I.D.A. Now, I was taking my wife Edith and two of our sons to Lagos, the capital city, which lay 750 miles south of nearby Kano City. From Lagos, they were flying home. Our third son had gone home earlier. Because of the break at school, I had one week off. We loaded our family and their luggage into our 1964 Ford Cortina, which we had purchased when we arrived at this place, and headed south.
The roads in Nigeria were not superhighways, but the one to Lagos was about as good as any in the country. The drive passed quite well although there was one little incident. You may not know what a mammy wagon is. It is a truck-like bus that carries passengers. Women had money and owned these big trucks. These were used in the Christian community, thus explaining the Christian slogans that were painted on them.
Keep in mind that the roads are very narrow. Thus, if one of these is passing, there is no room for anybody else. That happened to us. I had to get off the road, right up against a stone fence. The mammy wagon barely put its truck box over the car’s hood without touching it. That was too close. Then we went back onto the road and continued to Lagos without further incident. We spent the first night in a rest house along the way. It was like a little motel, where the hosts also feed their guests. It was actually very pleasant there. In the morning, we got up and made our way to Lagos.
On arrival, we made arrangements to spend the night in a hotel. In the evening, we went down to dinner. As we were sitting in the restaurant having our dinner, a gentleman came and said, “I couldn’t help noticing that you are a family. I’m from Louisiana. I am homesick. Can I join you for dinner?”
We said, “Sure. Sit down.”
We learned that his name was Louis LeBlanc and that he was a Cajun of direct descent from the Acadians who were moved to Louisiana from Nova Scotia. Louis was working for the Texaco Oil Company on a supply boat going out on the Bay of Benin. After having a pleasant dinner, we retired to bed.
In the morning, I sent my family off on their adventure to home. Then, I came back to the restaurant for lunch. Louis was there again and came over, sat down, and said, “I’m going back to Port Harcourt, which is some distance away.” This place is down the coast to the east.
I said to Louis, “Sure. I would like to go with you and go on your boat.”
He replied, “Okay, I’ll follow you.” That is what we did.
By way of explanation, there are three main tribes in Nigeria: Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo; but there are many other smaller ones. About halfway down from Kano, we had entered Yoruba country. Lagos is in Yoruba country, while Port Harcourt is in Ibo country. At the time, the country was in turmoil. The Biafran War had not yet started, but it was bubbling.
The southern part of the country is tropical; but, where I lived, it was dry savanna. This particular night as we drove, it was dark and rainy a miserable night to travel. About ten miles from Port Harcourt, we came to an obstruction which completely cut off the road.
The blockade had a purpose. The revolution had not started, but Nigerians were very active in politics. They had two parties in the south. If locals came into town, even when riding a mammy wagon, the guys from one party would stop them and had them show the party card. If someone did not have one, he had better buy one or he would suffer injury. As they left town, the other party would stop them and demand them to show their card. One had to guess which card would be the one to show. This was the beginning of trouble as they were checking on locals.
Normally, if a person minded his own business, it was all right in passing through. I was stopped by the police more than once. I pulled the car up and stopped. It has always been my feeling that it is a good idea wherever one is to remain in the car and not become too excited. That is what I did.
Out of the dark on one side came a fellow with a bow and fixed arrow. On the other side appeared a fellow with a gun made out of plumbing. Here I was with these guys and Louis behind me, snuggled as close as he could get to my car. What would they do?
I rolled down my window, and the guy with the gun came to it, looked inside, and then looked at the back seat. I said, “What can I do for you?”
He said, “White man. Get going.”
I promptly rolled up the window and drove through a small opening in the blockade, having to push away a little debris. Louis was right behind me. He had been in the turmoil before; and, by the time we reached Port Harcourt. he was relieved that nothing else happened.
As soon as we arrived, we went to the wharf to his boat and boarded it. Immediately, Louis said, “We are going to start out tonight. There are sleeping accommodations on board. I’ll show you your room.”
He worked on the boat with two Nigerian helpers. The boat started down a small river that had mangrove swamps on each side right to the water. It was pitch black out so that I could not see them, but he had radar on board. As I watched the radar screen, I could see fish nets, the odd canoe, and the shore line. Louis cheerfully made his way down to the Bay of Benin, which was open water.
I watched for a while and then I went to bed. Sometime during the night when I was sleeping in this bunk bed, I woke up certain that someone was there in the room. I very gently reached for the light switch and turned it on. To my surprise, no one was there. I did not sleep much after that. Later, I told Louis about this, but he replied that no one had been near my room. I must have been dreaming.
I recalled that, at college at Wudil, students would put on plays under the mango trees. There would be hanging electric lights formed in a circle with the audience around the circle and the action inside it. When a student moved from the light into the dark, it was like the fading into corn fields which I once saw in a movie. The hairs would go up on the back of my head when they did that. One moment there was no one, then they were there. That came to mind this night.
When I awoke in morning, it was daylight and I could see the oil rig that Louis was servicing twenty miles out into the bay. I thought that this was quite exciting! We passed canoes which had come from the shore out to the rig. Some of the people in them would barter their goods in trade at the oil rig.
When we arrived, members of the crew on the island let down a rope basket. After we had climbed in, they hoisted us onto the platform, which was like those off Newfoundland. There had been drilling in the sea in this area for some time and a good supply of oil had been obtained. As a result, Nigeria is a member of O.P.E.C.
After I was given a tour of the platform, Louis announced, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going back to Port Harcourt as I have been assigned to go to Lagos for supplies, but I’ll find you a ride.” He did.
Before leaving, I bought a paddle from a canoeist who had come on board. I asked him, “Do you want to sell your paddle?”
He said, “Sure.”
I have it on a wall in my house; and, when I look at it, it takes me back to those days. When guests come, I say to them, “Why do you think the paddle is shaped like that?”
Usually, they will say, “It is a weapon.”
Although it is a very pointed paddle, that is not the reason. It is used on those streams when the men are hunting. The paddle goes into the water and out without a sound in order not to frighten the prey. The canoes were dugouts made by burning and could travel down streams silently.
I received my ride back to Port Harcourt and found my car where I had left it. Then I returned to Wudil Teacher Training College really without incident, except that I learned one thing. I had been there for two years and felt that I knew how things worked there. The roads were just wide enough for one car; thus, when you meet somebody, one has to go off onto the shoulder and let the other guy through. I decided that since everybody had been making us get off the road, let us play a little chicken today. When I saw a car coming at me, I said to myself, “I’m not getting off.”
At the last moment, the other car swerved off onto the shoulder; but, on going by, the driver threw a rock at my windscreen. I never tried that trick again. I made it back to Kano and put in my next two months at the school. The trip had been a very good break.