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JEAN SHEPHERD Nigeria Part 2

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I’ve suddenly been deluged.  People have been writing letters and questions and stuff, and I’m not really working for the Chamber of Commerce of Nigeria.  I have no vested interest as far as the West Coast of Africa is concerned.  But I do realize now that hardly anybody knows anything about it.  It’s almost totally unknown to a large percentage of the American population, and, as matter of fact, the world population.  I don’t stand here before you as an expert.  All I can say is that I was in Nigeria, I was in Ghana, and I saw things, I absorbed things, and what I saw and absorbed are mine.  And being mine, undoubtedly they’re very prone to error.  However, I will say this, that a lot of interesting things happened to me there, and things which have made me alter my thinking about a lot of things, which have, from time to time occurred to me, which I’ve heard discussed.  And I realized it just isn’t black and white as far as the questions of political problems are concerned.  You know, one of the things that everybody seems to be interested about is the political situation in Nigeria.  Well, I don’t think anybody can really tell you about it.

 A Peculiar Kind of Flavor

Coming back from all this, I came away with a peculiar bitter-sweet taste in my mouth that is, I suppose, connected with the fact—you know, whenever you go as a traveler—I’ve traveled throughout most of Europe, throughout the Middle East and as far east as India at one time or another, and I found that no matter where I have gone in the past, there is a common base.  In other words, if you go to Sweden, even though you don’t speak Swedish, the people live the same way you do.  You can understand them.  If you go to Denmark it’s the same way.  If you go to France or Spain, it’s roughly the same.  There are little differences, but you know the foundation is the same.  And so, you can make contact with people.  It’s almost exclusively a matter of language.  But in Africa there is something there that is impenetrable.  You may think that you’re making headway, you may think that you are making contact with people but when you get away from it you have the sense that you haven’t really gotten through.  You haven’t really understood it.

It’s disconcerting, too.  A friend of mine is another traveler-type—Shel Silverstein—who has traveled all over the world.  And Shel one time told me a thing before I really traveled in equatorial Africa.  He said, “You know, you gotta see Africa.  You have to see it, you have to experience it.  But nobody can tell you about it.”  He said, “And furthermore, when you get out of Africa you will feel not so much like you have left Africa, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped.”  Now that’s a big difference.  I didn’t quite understand what he meant by this.  And now I do.

I do know that there is a feeling—and again, this friend of mine who does travel a great deal—he has the same sensation that whenever you go you can somehow make a  group of friends, you can somehow establish rapport with people.  But you just can’t in Africa.  There is a thing that drops down, there is a great grill or some kind of a fence that just comes down between you.  And the last couple of days thinking about this experience, it’s been the kind of experience that you can’t say is a good one or a bad one.  It’s a baffling experience. 

It had a lot of great moments and I had a lot of moments that were not so great.  And yet, on the other hand, overall, the whole experience is one of a peculiar kind of flavor that you don’t know whether is a good taste or a bad taste, and you don’t know whether it’s going to hurt you or whether it’s going to be good for you.  And as you taste it you have a vague suspicion that whatever it is, it’s habit-forming and can somehow do you harm.

Almost everybody I’ve ever talked to who knows Africa very well has said that same thing, up to a point.  When I say Africa, I’m talking about equatorial Africa and in particular, the west coast, which is part of the world hardly anybody seems to know much about these days, and yet is one of the swingingest parts.

An Almost Palpable Sense of Loneliness

A funny thing was said to me about this part of the world by a young man I know who is an executive over there, who has been there seven years in a very good capacity.  He said that the thing that begins to bore itself into you after a certain length of time is an almost palpable sense of loneliness.  A tremendous boring, knowing, devouring loneliness.  He said there are a lot of Europeans around here, but even they are lonely within that framework.  It’s like being marooned on a desert island.  He said, “They have a lot of friends.  I can’t understand it.  But there it is.”

He said that year after year it gets worse.  We were sitting having dinner at a place called Antoine’s, which is down Broad Street, right down through the middle of Lagos, and he said, “If I don’t get out in the next year, I know that I’ll never be able to leave.”

I said, “What do you mean you’ll never be able to leave?”

He said, “Well, it’s just that way.  Guys who are here too long can’t go, because they can no longer get back into life.”  He said, “It’s just like that.  I had a lot of trouble myself.  I had a vacation last year and I went back to Germany and I was like a fish out of water for about a month till I came back here.  It’s a sickness.  It’s really got me.”

“What is it that’s got you?”

“I don’t know.  I can’t explain it.  I just don’t know what it is.”  And then he said, “You know, there’s another thing.  There’s women trouble here.”

“What do you mean women trouble?”

He said, “Well, there are no European women to speak of at all.  I’ll go for months without even a date.  Every night—how long can you spend coming back to the club and drinking gin tonics till you go to bed?  Once in awhile you read an old magazine.  I haven’t had a date in a month.  And any date that I have is some girl who’s coming through here on a two-week tour and that’s about the end of it.”

I said, “What about girls around here?”

“Oh boy, that’s dangerous.”

He had a wild look in the eye.  Up to this point I had thought, this guy’s really made it.  He’s got the big house with the patio, the company has provided him with servants and the whole business.  He’s got this big sports car and he lives up on the hill.  The whole bit.  And he’s got a wild look in the eye.

“Oh, it Happens to All of Us.”

I went to the Lido one night, a local nightclub.  A real, swinging, open-air place.  Not a nightclub like we have.  In one way it’s far more sensual than any you ever saw, and on the other hand it’s far more Victorian.  Sensuality can be so pure that there is nothing wrong associated with it.  In its raw state, sensuality is pure.  You understand me, madam? No.  Well, that’s the kind of thing it was and I was sitting there at the table drinking Nigerian beer.  It’s the only beer I ever had that has fur on it.  Let me tell you, boy!  This is fightin’ beer.  It fistfights all the way down.  For twenty minutes later you can feel it kicking and struggling.  It’s real beer.  It comes in a great big jug and it’s called Star Beer.

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Star Beer and a few companions

I was sitting there drinking the Nigerian beer when I noticed the entire crew of an office in town.  That was the thing that got me.  These guys were the Lagos representatives of a very official organization that is world-renowned for its absolute efficiency.  You should have seen these guys.  There were four guys over there—the managing director, his assistant, the sales manager, and his assistant, and they are pie-eyed.  They were sitting there hollering, they were knocking over the glasses.  All four of them.  It’s Saturday night and it was wild.  I was with their boss, who had just arrived on the plane from Germany today.  He looked over there and he saw his crew falling under the table.  One would get up and another would slide under.

He looked over.  “Is that Herr Schultz?”

I say, “It is indeed.”

It was getting hotter and hotter, the music was playing, the dance was going on and it was like I was in a terrible scene out of a Humphrey Bogart movie.  The next thing I knew the sales manager was weaving his way over toward us.  He reached down and grabbed the boss.  Obviously jungle rot had affected the rear part of this guy’s brain.  He grabbed the boss by the tie and he said, “How are you, old blank-blank, how is everything back there in Cologne?”  He pushed him back in his seat and knocked the beer over his lap and went reeling back to his table.

For three hours that night in the hotel, I could hear reports being written out in the next room.  I know these guys are not that kind.  They all have that kind of very official look.  It’s like if you took the most official, Madison Avenue guy you know who never gives up—you give him two years in Lagos and his eyes start looking in two different direction simultaneously.  I had this terrible feeling I had seen something out of Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad.  You remember those great stories of guys going slowly downhill until you could barely see them on the bay rowing their dugout canoe, in the heat, and they’re drinking stuff out of a gourd?

The next day I was talking to my friend from the other outfit.  I said, “What about this?”

He said, “Oh, it happens to all of us.”  This wild look.

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