Mark Webster (1979): How to Survive Lagos

I'm slowly catching up with my notes on the various issues of West Africa magazine that I'm flicking through between writing sessions. Here's a short commentary on life in Lagos by Mark Webster, then of the Financial Times, where the piece had first been published 1 October 1979 – in a special issue on Nigeria that I still have to get my hands on.

In the spirit of all things lorries and lorry art, here's the bit of the piece that laments the city's road maintenance.

Questions: History and Reception of (Japanese) Anime in Nigeria

On a completely different note. – I have recently stumbled on an article/blog post about (Japanese) anime in Arabic over at Muftah. Written by Razan Idriss, an avid fan of anime as a child, the article notes that

'by the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Arabic speaking children watched dubbed anime daily, featuring then-contemporary shows such as Detective Conan, Slam Dunk, and Ana wa Akhi (Aka-chan to Boku). […] Yet, anime in the Arabic-speaking world has gone unresearched by academics and pundits alike.'

Buchi Emecheta: What Christmas Carol Singers are Missing

I admit, I haven't really been in a Christmas mood for the last few years – by all means, let's celebrate the solstice, the birth of Jesus and New Year! But, this is not (yet) the time of the year that I need a break to settle down and succumb to festive stodge, hibernation and SAD. I need that break later in winter, well into the new year. If you're based in the northern hemisphere you probably know when I am talking about – that time in February/March when cold days of sunshine, crisp air and snowfall give way to grey clouds of ice-cold rain; when formerly white snow has turned into wet-grey mush without any hope for another white shower re-freshening the scenery; when snow and ice melt but the ground is still frozen turning the upper layers into no less grey mud; when melting snow and ice reveal grey dead grass without the fresh green tips of new spring growth emerging yet and when the lights and greens of spring still are but a distant hope. – That's when I'd need lights all over the place, cheesy-soothing songs, stories of hope (religious and otherwise), time in the kitchen fiddling with the receipes of Christmas cookies and pies and a lazy break with friends; and family and heaps of the last of good winter stodge to look forward to (Thank God, I'm not alone in that!) - rather than carnival season (Where do people get the energy THAT time of the year?!).
But, hey, let's celebrate those holidays as they come! And, in that spirit, let me share with you a rather lovely article about Christmas by Buchi Emecheta I stumbled on in West Africa magazine. - What Christmas Carol Singers are Missing: Buchi Emecheta Recalls the Christmas of her Nigerian Childhood. (This is one of a series of articles Emecheta's published in the magazine. Did I share the one where she writes about her expectation to see cowboys? - Oh, yes, I did!)

'I was busy debating with myself and a few friends the other day, when my door bell rang. I went reluctantly towards the front door because I was well aware I was not expecting anyone, but since one can't tell with one's relatives from home in Nigeria, one had to have an open mind and a ready smile for any unannounced visitor. One's relatives and home friends are wont to spring such pleasant surprises by announcing cheerfully, "I want to surprise you with a visit. I left Lagos six hours ago." But this time, I was lucky. For as I opened my door, a group of young people burst into "Adeste Fidelis". I stood there smiling from ear to ear, enjoying my first listen to this year's carols.
As I looked at [the carol singers'] run chubby read faces, and their mischievous eyes my mind went back to the village carol I sang in my parents home town in Ibusa, a long time ago. The carols were sun in the real African style. We collected empty bottles, on which we hit tin spoons; we had empty cigarette tins and used their covers to make rattling musical sounds. There was an old man – Okonkwo was his name, I think – who my mother told me was a retired dock man. This man had a mouth organ which he played only on Christmas Eve. With the old man as our leader, followed by the vicar, and many young members of the church, we would set out, after an elaborate prayer, from our mud church with thatched roof visiting all the important members of the church and the rich people in town. We usually sang classic carols, or tried to sing them, but with so many unorthodox embellishments that usually come out, was a kind of Africanised classical version.
Any listener could tell from the words that we were singing the carols, but it was hopeless trying to guess what we were on about from the tune. You see, our kind of carol was not the type one hears where the Salvation Army sing their carols to near rigid military beat; our kind was not churchy type in which people sing to order. Our kind was our kind of carol, Ibo-Ibusa type. You could pull the chorus the way you felt like, you could invent your own second part, or your Alto or Bass or even Soprano. Strongly enough they usually went down well, so much so, that I used to remember my mother saying that she could  not stand the rigid church carol singing we had in Lagos. She preferred the village type where it was the norm to sing to one's heart content.
We did not sing for money, but gifts and little eats were plentiful. The older men were given "esimesi" (our local gin). It was not surprising then, that by midnight a great proportion of the townspeople would be dancing to the carols as the esimesi grew. I remember that the last year I was there, old Okonkwo lost his mouth organ. He made do with his cupped hands, and only just managed to get back to his hut, but was still able to come to the church the following morning.
As I gave a few coins to the white children singing by door, I said to myself, "Oh poor kids, you don't know what you're missing."'
(West Africa, 24/31 December 1979, 2385-86)

Merry Christmas!

Vehicle Decorations: 1961 Photograph from the Harrison Forman Collection

I know, I know, I have once again neglected the blog. What can I say? Well, I can apologise: So, yes, I am sorry. – I have stumbled across a few interesting things in the meantime but I haven't get got around to writing about them. Here, is a first attempt to do just that, sharing a photograph with you that I found thanks to the industrious Kehinde Thompson at the Nigeria Nostalgia Project (Facebook, TumblR, Twitter) - which is a really great group to follow if you're interested in anything regarding Nigerian history!
The photograph is part of at the University of Wisconsin's Digital Photo Archive, in particular the Harrison Forman Collection. There's a number of beautiful and interesting photographs in the collection that are accessible from the comfort of your local library or home office. - Including this wonderful photograph, depicting a bright blue mammy wagon with an inscription in white on its left side, 'Asaba Do Exelsior.' The photograph was taken in 1961, documenting early developments of vehicle decoration.
(Nigeria, Street Scene in Igbo Village, 1961, AGSL Digital Photo Archive - Africa, acc. 18/12/2017)
The photograph – and, in fact, others in this particular collection – has been subject to heated debate among members of the Facebook group (see here for the original photograph and here for a second photograph taken at the same location) . It's titled 'Nigeria, Street Scene in Igbo Village' but many commentators seem rather convinced – on the basis of the fashion of passers-by that the scene was actually recorded in southwestern Nigeria, prompting a debate. Suggestions included Benin and Ilorin in the Southwest but also Asaba, Onitsha and Sapele in the Southeast. I wouldn't want to weigh into this debate – I do not know these regions well nor the fashions of the time and places suggested. But, do note that the vehicle's inscription refers to Asaba, a south-eastern town in today's Delta State.
I am, anyway, much more interested in some of the recollections of life and transport at the time that the photograph prompted. Here's a particularly beautiful comment by Olabunmu Sadiq:

'This looks like the southwest version called "boolekaja" translated "come down and fight". The conductors were always rude and riotous and would always crave for a fight, inviting any stubborn passenger to come down and fight.
The seats were made of long benches, double sitter in the middle where passengers back each other, while single seaters were directly behind the driver, and the other behind the front passenger seat.
The conductor or drive wold most often want to park the passengers like sardines which the passengers most often want[ed] to resist. The driver would should "e sun" meaning "compact yourself" and at the second prompting without compliance, the driver would step sharply on the break and the momentum would shift the passengers forward involuntarily.
Very interesting era in our transportation history.'
(17/12/2017, Re: 'Street Scene in Igbo Village 1961, Harrison Forman Collection, American Geographical Society Library © UWM Libraries' [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved: Nigerian Nostalgia Project, acc. 18/12/2017).

'He was nicknamed Gary Cooper' (A.O. Uzokwe 2003 Surviving Biafra)

There's another reference to the movies – and possibly Westerns – penetrating popular culture in Nigeria. This time the reference is to Western actor Gary Cooper (1901-61) in a biography of the Nigerian Civil War/Biafra War by Alfred Obiora Uzokwe (2003).

A 'common salute to the Americans is "Hello, cowboy!"'

Here's another reference to the Cowboy that I stumbled upon while looking for something else. This one comes from American foreign and war correspondent Archibald.T. Steele of the Chicago Daily News and mentions the Cowboy and American movies in relation to French colony adjacent to Ghana.

In the Gold Coast every American soldier is "Joe" to every African. In an adjacent French colony, a common salute to the Americans is "Hello, cowboy!" The trouble with those people is that they've seen too many American movies.
('Land of Slave Trade,' In: Negro Digest, Vol. 1(7), 28, originally published by Chicago Daily News, 17 March 1943)

Bits and Pieces from West Africa Magazine (Again)

I've been flicking through West Africa magazine in my breaks again. It's quite a useful exercise a change of pace when I'm stuck, a source that improves my grasp on Nigerian history, some of the developments that hadn't quite made my history lessons and at various times plenty of references (sadly) to the state of roads, accidents and (roadside) robberies in Nigeria. There is also this story of a manufacturer in Ogun State starting a business recycling motor scraps based 'entirely on motor scraps in its production.'

Cyprian Ekwensi (1973): 'Well, if you look at the North, you find that it actually is wild west country'

So, I've spent the second half of what passed for summer this year and the first half of autumn focused on my own health (and even though the mother of all colds still hangs on), that of my dad (thank God for the German health care system and the gifted surgeons at the hospital in Potsdam) and the (re-) construction of my parent's kitchen (yes, cowboy builders do exist in Germany as well!). That's not all I've done. Something had to give though – and as always it’s my personal writing including the blog that does give first. So, dear reader, forgive me for another period of neglect.
Nevertheless, I've still been reading (not as much as I usually do, but hey) and I've come across some quotes and references that I thought worth sharing with you, even with some delay. So, here goes one.

'Boom, Phuff.' - An Anecdote from Rex Niven's Nigerian Kaleidoscope

I admit that I currently lack the inspiration for a blog post worth your time, dear reader. I am currently struggling to organise my thoughts and put together an argument to the satisfaction of my collaborator in the lorry art project. And, while I suggested I'd use this blog to organise my thoughts I find that I am not quite at that stage right now. So, in the meantime I keep flicking through various books including, still, colonial and postcolonial memoirs. That may be part of the problem, you say? However, I usually do find it helpful to read widely – even if there is little direct relation to what I am working on at any one point. And, indeed, I do keep stumbling upon potentially useful paragraphs and views while I do that. 

An Aside: Western Clubs in Germany

I have joined a non-fiction writing class to get feedback on my writing, mostly stylistically rather than content wise. And, it's proven to be helpful to have a bunch of native speakers point out when I inadvertently slipped into what we call Denglish – broken English, the German version.

The wonderful Susanna Forrest who runs the group also pointed me to a helpful volume on 'stylish' academic writing by Helen Sword. Last week I tried out one of Sword's advices. She suggested that academic writers include anecdotes into their articles that make the subject more relatable and/or illuminate the author's relationship with the subject. I included a throwaway remark about Western clubs in my native Germany. And, the more I thought about it the more I feel that it’s the intellectually honest thing to do.

History Snippet: Padmore (1944) Black Cloud Over Berlin

I think I mentioned in a recent post that I scrolled through several volumes of the Negro Digest on microfiche the other day. I may also have mentioned that that technology rather frustrated me and that I therefore welcomed the distraction of any article that had even a tangential relation to arts, culture and – I realised flicking through my notes – the history of Nigeria or West Africa. One of them was George Padmore's (1944): 'Black Cloud over Berlin.' (Negro Digest. Vol. 2(12). 75-76.)[1]

'The wildness of color and fantasy of design of these cotton prints is the most striking thing' - Ernie Pyle (1943) on Ghanian Fashion

A while back I came across an incomplete reference to an article in the US American Negro Digest about, allegedly, a Nigerian student in that country being astonished that not all Americans are cowboys. Of course, I had to follow up on that. The other day, the relevant volumes of the magazine finally arrived at my local library. Unfortunately, they came on microfiche.

'[H]undred miles an hour ... only speed a self-respecting Nigerian considers worthy of him' - Theodore Dalrymple on his Travels in West Africa

I can't focus today. So, I have abandoned the more academic literature I was to read today and, instead, settled down with a travelogue. This one was written by Anthony Daniels under his alias Theodore Dalrymple (no relation of that other travel writer, William Dalrymple, as far as I can gather), a doctor, psychiatrist and journalist. After two years of working in Tanzania, Dalrymple decided to cross Africa from Zanzibar to Mali by public transport, by bus, lorry, train, boat and canoe. His account lacks the historical and analytical depths of William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain, another travelogue I have recently read and enjoyed. Nevertheless, the book contains some gems – and, indeed, some rather lovely accounts of busses and lorries.