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Home » Nigeria » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel to Nigeria Part 4

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel to Nigeria Part 4

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“How are You, Sir?  How?  Hi, hi, hi, Sir”

Probably the greatest experience I ever had in traveling is the moment that I landed in Lagos, Nigeria.  The minute I came down in Lagos and that door swung open on that plane, and you could smell Africa!  Africa has a smell all of its own, too.  Just like Asia does.   When the door opened, whooooo—this heat came in!

This particular part of Africa was the part that Edgar Rice Burroughs had used for the background for the Tarzan stories.  Tarzan_of_the_Apes_in_colorThis is Tarzan country.  When you go into the bookstores in Lagos or Ibadan they are loaded with Tarzan stories.

Now, the reason I’m telling you all this about Nigeria is because I had one of the most insane eating experiences I ever had in my life.  I could not believe it!  Unbelievable—what happened to me in Ibadan.  I was in Nigeria at that point for about a week and I decided to take a trip inland—in-country.

I got myself a driver who was willing to take me into Ibadan, a trip of about a hundred-and-fifty miles inland.  That’s a lot more than a hundred-and-fifty miles along the Jersey Turnpike, which is nothing.  But a hundred-and-fifty miles through the bush of Nigeria—that’s a trip.  I got together with the guy who was going to take me.  Fantastic dress.  Long, flowing, purple and white robes.  Wild flowing robes.  And a peculiar, wild sense of humor.  Instantly, the minute we got together, there was something that clicked.  He found what I said very funny and I found what he said very funny.

So we began to dig each other within five minutes of getting in the car and taking off into the bush, and so we must have gone about two hours, and oh, it’s hot, boy is it hot!  And now we’re getting into the area where there is very little population, just a lot of bush country.  We see these plains, you travel further, you’re in the high trees.  The trees in Nigeria have to be seen to be believed.  Some of them are, I’d say, two-hundred feet tall, which is a twenty-story building.  That’s a lot of tree!  and they just sort of hang there, lean over the road, and they’re so big, the canopy that they cast is so powerful, that nothing can grow under them, so you get the sense that you’re always traveling through some surrealistic park.

And once in a while you hear the sound of some animal in the distance go Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!  Just Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! it echoes.  Then you see a great yellow bird or red bird Raaaaaaaaaaaaa! across the road.  Then occasionally you see some kind of wild pig.  They have many wild pigs, and some of them are very ferocious.  You see this wild pig with big tusks run along the road.  Ohghohghohghohgh!  They run right alongside of the car!  Ohghohghohghohgh!  Into the bush he goes.

And then we stop for about five minutes.  We’re hot and he has some water in the back of the car so we stop, he throws open the trunk and we walk around and he pulls out the water bag, so we have a drink of water.

And out of the bush come these guys, they just drift out.  It’s a hunting tribe.  A tribe of bush natives.  They’re dressed only in these short loincloths.  Tall, magnificent!  Wow, do these guys have muscular development.  Magnificent, they come floating out.  And they all speak English of course, because English is the national tongue, see.

They say, “How are you, sir?  How?  Hi, hi, hi, sir.”

They stand around and laugh.  Everybody laughs continually.  The most laughing, wildly funny country.  So we talk a little bit, and one of them is carrying a beautiful muzzle-loading rifle.  Beautiful thing that he had made! They make their own rifles.  And you would never guess where they get the barrels.  Sears Roebuck.  Sears Roebuck has a special African catalog.  Oh, what a collector’s item.  I saw one of the African catalogs.  You know, people walk past a Sears store and don’t realize what a world-wide thing their business is.  I never knew it and what very special things they have for all parts of the world.  So they have these rifle barrels, special rifle barrels that are not even rifle barrels.  Actually, they’re lengths of specially treated pipe.  Very straight, but they’re pipe, and you go in and you buy this if you’re a native and you want to make a rifle.

You buy it and you season it with heat—they temper it until it gets that dark blue color, and they polish it and they carve it with all kinds of little tools and they make this thing into a beautiful piece of metal sculpture, which is what it really winds up being.  Sometimes they even inlay silver in it.  And they get a special kind of wood that grows deep in the heart of the jungle.  It’s a very rare kind of hard, beautiful wood that’s almost the color of dark, clotted blood.  They call it bloodwood.

It’s a very tiny gun that’s no more than, I’d say, it doesn’t weigh more than two pounds.  It’s a shotgun.  They buy these tiny cartridges which they fill themselves.  And it’s a flintlock, and you’ll never guess what they use for the flint in this thing.  Zippo lighters.  They take the guts out of a Zippo lighter and they make a little pan out of sheet steel where they put the powder.  It’s a flintlock muzzle-loader.  When this little spark lands on it, it goes punk! like that.  The little cartridge has a cap in it and it explodes and shoots out through the barrel a tiny charge of birdshot that is so fine that it’s almost like mustard seed.

It’s what they use to hunt monkeys and very tiny birds.  They don’t fight lions, they don’t fight rhinos, they don’t fight boars with this stuff.  They drift through the woods like shadows, hunting with these tiny rifles.

My guide had said, when they come out, they often come out for the purpose of selling something to you.  That’s why they’re there.  Well, I see this guy’s rifle and I say to him, “You have rifle, you want to sell rifle?  Beautiful little rifle.”

He says, “Oh, you want rifle, oh?  Very expensive rifle.  Very expensive.”

I say, “How much?”

He says, “Oh, more than one pound, very expensive.”

I’ll have to tell you that the pound is three for a dollar.  So that means the rifle went for about forty cents, see, and I felt terrible, so I said to the guide, “You know, I don’t think we—that’s terrible!”

And immediately there is a lot of conferencing going on—four or five of them— and one of them turns and says, “Well, ah, one pound.”  It’s now coming down!  I feel worse.

Finally the guide says, “Oh, no.  No, no.  Too much.  No, no.  We get in the car.  Bye.  Bye, bye.”

In the car we go and they laugh and off we drive.  End of scene.

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So we drive on about another fifteen miles and I’m talking to the guide.  A great guy.  We’re talking back and forth.  I say, “You know, from what I’ve seen around, the food look very interesting.”   I’d had a little bit of, let’s say, borderline true, native African food.  Borderline.  I didn’t know it at the time.

So he says, “Oh, you want try real food.  I know very good place.  Very good place.  We be there maybe four or five minutes.”  And we are driving through the jungle at about ninety miles an hour.  I’ll tell you, if you think that Madison Avenue cab drivers are insane, if you think that Sixth Avenue is the ultimate in the Gran Prix department, you should sit in a car anyplace in Central Africa.  They just don’t know of any other speed than top speed all the time.  So you go ninety miles an hour.  And it’s very scary when you’re going around an S-curve and you’re meeting other cars going ninety miles an hour and they yell at each other when they meet.  We go past, skid, and around.  Ahhh! Oh !   And I’m trying to play it cool.

“You want to try food?”

I say, “Yes, I want to try food.”

So we stop at a place—of all the places I’ve ever been in my life, I will never forget.  To begin with, there was probably the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen in my life!  What a girl!  I mean, she was like—have you ever seen somebody or something so beautiful that it’s unbelievable?  It’s like an apparition.  Really, it’s like a genuine—live—living—work of art!  Magnificent girl.  (And, you know, I hate to admit this—she kind of dug me.)  I’ll tell you, it was a very funny moment.

We arrive at this place.  It is open, and he knew the people.  And the lady came out and she had a big red dress with big yellow flowers all over it.  We did great!  They gave us bananas, we had a wonderful time.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country that I dug more—than Nigeria.

And as we’re sitting there eating the bananas, my guide said, “Mammy, you know how to make”—and he gave two or three lines of beautiful native dialect.

She said, “Oh, ya, ya, you want this?”

And I said, “Yes.”

Five minutes later they brought out three dishes and all of us sat around.  The girl, Mammy, the father, the guide, and me.  Three great big bowls of this innocuous-looking stuff.  One was kind of white, and then there was a kind of a dish full of brownish red—it looked a little like Hungarian goulash or beef stew, and so they just dip in.  They said. Dip right in.”  They took a piece of bread and they dipped in and started to eat.  “Eat, eat, eat!”

So I dipped this piece of bread in—oh, did it look beautiful and oh, did it smell great!  They use peanuts in it.  It’s got peanuts and all kinds of herbs in it.  I dipped in, I put it in my mouth and—boooooooom!  Wow!  Have you ever wondered how it feels to be ionized?  I’m telling you, I was turned into a total mass of positive and negative ions.  I was reduced to a gaseous—owhhh!  and I had to be polite.  I was sitting there and my eyes were watering and my guide was laughing his guts out, ohho, ho, ho!

Oh, wow!  There’s a lot of things in this world.  Not only cabbages.

Thus ended the broadcast.  Not the only time Shepherd has had his mouth burned out by spicy food.  But one had expected the best-tasting food he ever had!

And what about: “the most beautiful girl” he had ever seen in his life?  He leaves us hanging. And how did his beautiful wife, actress Lois Nettleton, feel when she heard that? And how did Leigh Brown, his cute little producer-chick in the control room, feel?  We will never know.

In the following Nigerian tales, Shepherd elaborates on the short comments he had made in his travel notebook the year before, suggesting how physical environment—especially, here, the heat—can change our very character, and then, in the finale, how, being in a strange cultural environment can make us realize that we are truly formed by our national heritage.

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