Walking on a bush path, we entered the village of Urohpokpo and waved greetings to a woman under a burden of wood, startled to see exotic strangers. Almost instantly, everyone knew we were passing though. An excited, giggling woman rushed from a hut holding a leaflet. The crowd grew and filled with elated expectation. She thrust before us a Christian tract depicting a white Adam and Eve. By gestures she conveyed the notion that we resembled the pictured couple. General hilarity and assent ensues.
Tales of Bureaucracy
As the trimly marshaled troops perform their smart ceremonies before the Remembrance Arcade war memorial in Lagos and the band played “Auld Lang Syne,” I sat in a seventh floor office of the Independence Building. I had been there already three hours while an official surrounded by heaps of file amused himself by pasting an occasional addition into one or another. He tires of my presence and dismisses me. I make my way down the seven flights. Files are piled in every hallway and on the landings of the stairway. Some are strewn across the floor. The walls are markedly soiled in a dark band corresponding to where a person’s hand might reach. Have these walls ever been washed or repainted since the British left? The next day the same thing happens, only this time the bureaucrat explains, “The problem is we have reached the end of our number sequence for files and haven’t received authorization to begin at one again. You will have to wait.”
The kola nut ceremony in the Benin City Public Service Commission passed from the benign (“May you have prosperity and good health!”) to the slightly sinister (“May he who wishes to speak against you find his tongue will not move! May your enemies become blind and crippled!”). With every wish the economic planner behind the desk chanted his concord.
When we had first arrived in Benin City, we were housed at the Hotel Philomena, an unlikely huge and modern establishment on a dirt road. Though the building is altogether modern, it was constructed by the sloppiest of craftsmen. Ever mirror, every board is seriously askew. An observer from across the room can see that the marble steps are visibly off-kilter. Heaps of dust rest in every corner, red with laterite’s iron oxide. Even manufactured furniture looks screwy – the chairs and tables all wobble. Later, when repairs were being done in our Agbarho home, the principal, Mr. Elempe lingered, overseeing their work. “You needn’t stay,” I told him, “You must have more important work.” “I must stay,” he answered. “These men are paid so little, they will stop work the moment I leave. If you tell them to get back to it, they may or may not. They will work as long as I am here.”
The Philomena was doubtless costing the government a pretty penny, but such waste was trivial in the system – the fabulous rewards went to a few at the top and payouts to many “little men.” (Working the system from the bottom, Mr. Varghese, a colleague from Kerala, the only other non-African at the school, made it a practice to bring cold Cokes for the clerks in the file office of the Education Ministry. When he felt the need to tweak his records, he would avoid petitioning officials, instead going straight to the clerks to obtain his files and make whatever changes he wished himself.)
The hotel was spooky apart from its geometric irregularities. For some time the only other guest in its spacious halls was an Indian physician named Reddy. Every day he sat in the Health Ministry, as though waiting was the true job for which he had been hired. After lengthy and mysterious delays, we received assignments, but our friend kept up his daily vigil for six months before being sent to the hospital in Sapele. When we spoke to him some time later, he described his frustration at the theft of virtually all ordered supplies, including, drugs, before they reached the hospital. Patients’ families would have to purchase the goods, sometimes, the very same merchandise, in the markets and bring it to the hospital.
One he had I both had to obtain the signature of the assistant commissioner for education of what was then called Bendel State. We entered his Benin City office early and were seated outside his office. After an hour or so, we were invited in, yet he did not give us a signature for our forms, a formality really. We sat while he chatted on the telephone or wandered aimlessly about the room. At about 10 a.m. some chief who was his friend appeared with a six-pack of Guinness. The two of them drank while discussing soccer scores. After a few beers, the chief left. The Assistant Commissioner called his daughter. He put his feet up on the desk and Dr. Reddy and I looked at each other, unsure whether he had fallen asleep. Around noon he left for lunch. We couldn’t depart since we had no idea when he would be in the mood to sign our documents.
The Assistant Commissioner must have had a good lunch as he returned in an expansive mood, ready to engage us. We discussed politics and world events for some time, and he then signed our papers.
The time was perhaps 1:30 when we left. Outside the Ministry Dr. Reddy turned to me and commented, “Pleasant chap, wasn’t he? I enjoyed meeting him.” “How can you speak like that,” I responded, “when he kept us waiting most of a day?” “Oh, well, of course he did. You must understand, he had to show what a big man he was. He’s a bureaucrat, what do you expect?”
The post office in Ughelli is filled with silent loiterers. I cannot understand why they congregate here doing nothing at all. The postmaster reaches an annoying point in his paperwork, rises, and irritably orders them out. No one speaks or moves. Only a few glance in the postmaster’s direction. He shouts again, tells them they must be gone. As a final gesture, he threatens to “take steps.” Still no response. He returns to his desk.