I had spent the day with Mr. Varghese, a pleasant and kind Indian Christian from Kerala. He and his wife were the only other foreigners at Unity School in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. We had idled away the day in the offices of bureaucrats at the provincial Education Ministry in Benin City. Mr. Varghese and his fellow Indians had mastered, so far as a mortal may, the techniques of survival for the expatriate in Nigeria. His favorite gambit when he had to visit the capital of Bendel State was to avoid the officials, instead bringing seven or eight cold Cokes to the file clerks in the Records Department. He regularly cultivated these lowly workers, expressing his faithful friendship with a gift always welcome in their sweltering rooms, where the files had overflowed their cabinets and were stacked on the floor as though the entire government was a compulsive hoarder in need of immediate intervention. When Mr. Varghese wished to accomplish anything, he would simply get his file from the young workers (though how they located anything was a marvel). He could then make whatever adjustments he required without bothering to go through channels.
On this occasion, though, this method could not serve and we had spent eight hours in fruitless waiting while our classes, of course, did not meet. We may both have been somewhat weary. On our way we passed a river with wide belts of vegetation as profoundly green, surely, as anything ever has been since Adam and Eve, and so extremely dense one could not see a foot into the bush. Not far further was a palm wine stand with enormous calabashes hung in clusters. We looked at each other, but passed on only to see another palm wine spot, and at that point we could not resist.
Mr. Varghese pulled up, rolled down his window, and inquired “Sweet one?” (as opposed to “strong one”). Satisfied they had his drink, we went under their thatch, still dripping from the recent rain and joined several other patrons on a wooden bench.
For twenty kobo (maybe twenty-five cents) our waiter (a boy of perhaps seven years) brought a gourd holding at least a pint. It was colored with coarse red specks, cam wood or something like, and had the yeasty, “working” fizz of fresh palm wine.
We sat in this place, feeling as though we were present at the dawn of the world, still just poised before tumbling into the endless “nightmare” of history (as Joyce’s Stephen had it). One could hear the nearby stream purling on. Now and then a drop fell from above like a benediction. We did not speak.
A woman dressed in neatly tied and knotted fabrics, including an elaborate headdress, strolled over from the nearby fire where she prepared food for the palm wine customers. She seemed shaken to see me there and once her comments had begun, they did not cease and her fixed gaze never left me: “Why are you here?” (A good question, I do not doubt.) “Do you drink palm wine? Is bad, very bad for oyibo [white person]. Oyibo, give me money. I need money to drink for myself. Why are you drinking and you don’t want me to drink too. Oyibo, palm wine is not for you, give me mooooney. You are bad oyibo if you no give me moooney.”
Eden had slipped away once more from right between our fingers. We finished our drinks hurriedly and returned to the dusty car. We hadn’t been stopped long enough for our sweat to dry on the seats.