Saturday, August 1, 2015
Arrival in Nigeria
On our way to take up teaching positions on the Nigerian Airways flight the featured film, which, though I did not watch, I saw on a dozen monitors, was, I swear, Raquel Welch wearing a fur bikini as Loana the Fair One in One Million, B.C. Why this was shown so long after its production I cannot say. What I do know is that it complicated the already peculiar knot of associations for “the primitive” which I carried with me to Africa. We had left New York snowed under, only to be enveloped by heat and humidity the moment we stepped off the plane at Mohammed Murtala Airport, then a modest and shabby place, filled with touts and other small businessmen. Many if the affluent Nigerians on the flight carried vast amounts of merchandise while we had shed many possessions. Five-year-old Clare had even happily given many most of her toys.
We made our way to the Palm Heights Hotel in a remote neighborhood amid goats and chickens wandering free down lanes of shanties and more substantial workers’ homes and then, unaccountably, this second or third class hotel, rather grand by contrast. The neighborhood’s fishy odor mingled with the scent from the open sewer in the center of the roads. I thought of Shakespeare’s London and all the other pre-modern cities that did for so long without running water. It is little wonder that many of the old homes have the plainest of facades on the street, holding courtyards and gardens within.
The Palm Heights was a proper place, running water and all, though its pretensions had moderated. Towels and half the signs bore the prior name The Paradise Heights. It had the odd characteristic of much ritzy Nigerian architecture: expensive materials and shoddy workmanship. The marble stairs, for instance, were set so awry as to challenge footing in a few places. Months in the future Mr. Elempe would explain the phenomenon: “They are paid so little, they are sloppy most often on purpose.”
The room was just fine, however, and we set out to get a sense of where we were. There were no businesses except a few tiny shops. Clare began to get acquainted with a little goat until several people who had settled in to enjoy the afternoon by observing us shouted cautions, “No! No . . .worms. The goat has hookworms.”
Once we returned to our room, the youths who worked at the hotel and their friends and hangers-on had heard of our arrival and came calling. We asked whether it were possible to hear Fela and his band at his famous club in his compound the Kalakuta Republic which the army had assaulted only a few years before. While I cannot pretend to know the facts, we were told that he was indeed in residence, but the show would not begin until after midnight. Each concert-goer receives a basket, we heard, in which to store clothing since nothing but undergarments is permitted inside the shrine-like hall. We did not make it to hear Fela.
One of our guests had spent the last half-hour of his visit in our toilet. Once everyone had left, we found that the toilet was plugged and on the verge of foully overflowing. A call to the front desk seemed to inspire no action. Repeated requests eventually brought a helpful lad up carrying a chamber pot. The toilet was never fixed during our stay, though it doubtless needed nothing more than a good plunging.
The next morning I woke to the song of the mosquitoes. After a single conscious inhalation, I wondered whether it was our toilet or the world outside that so emphatically struck my nostrils. Our spell in the tropics was undeniably underway in either case.