Fragments of a Life
A strange life taking me to places and experiences I did not seek. So I pick bits; I examine them carefully. I have to be careful not to give too much of myself away.
I was twenty-six years old when I made that uncertain leap from Sri-Lanka (Ceylon then) to the ‘bush’ in Eastern Nigeria. I remember that journey into the unknown.
I had two little boys in tow and a nervous husband. It was June of 1962 and there had been a slow exodus of professionals, mainly teachers and engineers from Ceylon to West Africa for two years.
The salaries were way beyond what we could get in Ceylon and it would be hard currency, when it was sent to UK for safe-keeping in good old Barclays. For a while the Ceylon government impounded the passports of qualified engineers who were rumoured to leave. After a while they stopped, unable to plug that steady leak. Most of these men and women never went back to live in Ceylon; they ended up in the UK. They brought with them the aspirations of the parents to gain educational qualifications, work hard, buy homes and prosper. Their children put down roots in the UK and became as British as the locals, sometimes more. George Alagiah, for instance, was one of them.
The Ceylonese who came to the UK were mainly Tamils, eager to get away from the communal strife in Ceylon as well as the invisible discrimination against them in their professions. But my family was Indian, ironically, second generation Ceylonese who had emigrated from India when India and Ceylon were all colonies of the ubiquitous British..
What no one told us was the fact that apart from three sizeable towns, Enugu, Port Harcourt and the half-way house of Aba, most of the rest of Eastern Nigeria were small settlements. We travelled to Ikot Ekpene, four hours by car from Enugu in the June of 1962. We had no idea what we would find at the other end.
A Ministry of Works Jeep carried our scant luggage – the magic of possessing so little – two suitcases and a small crate of old kitchen objects and Indian spices. Most of the roads were red mud-roads, kicking up dust as the cars went, so we travelled in front of the Jeep, bestowing our dust to them.
We reached the compound where we were to live late in the evening. Our home to be was a lovely colonial house, spread on one floor in an acre of untended land. A path past our house went to the home of the Scot my husband was taking over from – Gordon, the water engineer in residence.
Our house had neither water supply nor electricity. The kitchen had a cast-iron Garran Dover stove, the walls black around it. Bricks and firewood were scattered on top; I took one look and closed the door on it. The boys were tired – Kitta, at four, had sat on the floor of the back of the car reciting ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ through the journey, and Raghu, at two, had cried from start to end. He hated all this changing of homes and being whisked about. I sat in front and ignored both of them as I had my own issues.
Our escorts in the Jeep rushed off to the local market and came back with bananas and bread. We ate that and washed it down with Fanta orange. I did not know how to light the Tilly lamp left by the previous resident. My husband tried, and the filter tore immediately. We pushed everything away and let the men who came with us drive back to Enugu, before opening suitcases and looking for sheets and pillowcases. Sleep was indicated, anything to escape all the questions about making a home.