Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Eastern Nigeria - Enugu

Today you mention Nigeria and what comes to mind? Oil bursting out of Port Harcourt -sometimes out of the road-side pipes too- and the abduction of oil workers for ransom. People dying when the local poor try to syphon off some oil from a gushing leak, which becomes a raging inferno. They believe the oil is their's, not the property of oil companies or corrupt politicians. They have a point.
   Money laundering, big time, is another quick association. (Hardly a monopoly of Nigerians, I must add.) The flowing Agbadas made from rich Kente cloth, on tall, confident men, striding the world with authority is another image that comes to mind.
 Still Nigeria must be wealthy now, I console myself. The Nigeria I remember from the early sixties was struggling to get its head above water.
   In 1963 Balan, my husband, was transferred from Ikot Ekpene to Enugu, the head quarters of Eastern Nigeria as the state was then known. From tilly lamps I graduated to full-time electricity. In this town there were phones and fans, fridges that ran on electricity, not kerosene, and broad, graceful avenues , near Works Road, where we lived. The Ministry of Works was within calling distance and my best friend Dorothy lived five minutes of a quick walk away.
   Dorothy,was like me, a misfit, an English girl from Upminister married to a Sri Lankan. And what was I? A square peg in a Lanka-shaped hole, a girl from small town Thalassery married to a Colombo Sri Lankan who thought he was an Indian,, whose first language was English, second was Singhalese, and Malayalam, my mother tongue, came an inefficient third. Still, he could quote Latin with ease because along the way Royal College, Colombo's elitist school, had made sure he was ready for the Western World, albeit a vanishing one.
   The land and the roads in Enugu went up and down. The Catering Rest House where we were initially housed had a football field sized depression next to it. This was full of wild brush and many-hued birds. In the cold harmattan of January, the dry brush moved as one and the breeze that reached me on the verandah of the guest house chalet smelled of dry grass and unknown herbs.
   I got a job at another Catholic Training College. (What was with me and Catholic Nuns?) At Holy Rosary College, Enugu, I felt I was a veteran at teaching and had the temerity to teach Bharatha Natyam to the girls.
   The nuns here lived a sparse life; we exchanged vegetables from our kitchen gardens and my boys went to the adjacent Sancta Maria Primary School, which was our Practising school. On teaching practice exercises I would often slip away to find my sons playing football or learning to read. My eldest, Kitta, was especially fun to watch. There would be twenty-three boys chasing the ball in one direction, and Kitta sauntering off in the other. Lone man, the teacher said to me once, and nothing has changed since.
   It was a good life for us, though the poor among the Nigerians struggled to survive. An abiding image of that time is of the women selling groundnuts on the road side, sitting on little rickety wooden stools with an equally rickety table-tray in front of them. There would be little toddlers and sometimes an infant on a piece of colourful cotton cloth on the grass next to her. This was part of the scenery, there was one under the orange tree behind my house, next to the main road.
   'For my sons to go to school' they would say smiling, if I asked. 'And the daughters?'
   'I make bride-price for them. Boys. Dey help me.'
   'Their father will help, won't he,? I ask.
   'He good man,'
   Another grin. 'Fathah. He have many children, many wives. He make house for me. And de junior wives.'
   Ah, well. What did I know?
   I, married to a Sri Lankan by place of birth as well as inclination, staggered uncertainly between the two cultures, Indian and Sri Lankan, a little dazzled by the sheer social energy of this group, suddenly with money to spare. Every family had a new car; many learned to drive in Enugu. Our trips to and from home countries were paid for, and on the way we stopped off at Aden and Bahrain and bought the inevitable bling. We also did quick trips to England and Europe and came back with M and S cardigans for the harmattan cold and expensive underwear. There was a crop of new babies - prosperity may have incubated them in that atmosphere of content. The Singhalese and the Tamils nurtured their sectarian grievances and quietly hated each other. I was an outcast as I had no one to hate.
   We joined the Enugu Sports Club and spent weekends  playing badminton. Or learning to play tennis.We tried to do the High Life, clumsily compared to the Nigerians. For me it was enough to watch the dance floor when the drums started. How did the fat, short ones among the Nigerians suddenly get transformed and melt into that rhythm?
   The Nigerian Pound was worth a British Pound. Food was cheap: four shillings for a pound of beef and a whole household could eat for a hundred pounds.Our children learned expensive pastimes and had Fisher-Price toys.
   You can see many of these children in the UK now, successful doctors, engineers, accountants, with a deep, inherited respect for education. George Aligiah of the BBC is the son of an engineer who went to Ghana rather than Nigeria.  The exodus of Sri Lankan engineers to Ghana had started a year or two before they started to go to Nigeria. The result was so painful for Sri- Lanka that the Government, at one time, impounded the passports of professionals who applied to leave.
   So the Biafra war, when it happened was an earth quake in paradise. All of us had to leave in a hurry. We ended up in the United KIngdom, most of us; we were no longer good for the meagre lives available then in our countries.

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