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What follows is the final episode of Shep in Nigeria. Just as we’ve all heard him retell his fictional stories from time to time, here is an example where he tells somewhat the same travel narrative based on encountering an American in a Nigerian post office, but he remembers it a bit differently. He expresses how, whether one is a Caucasian traveler such as himself, or an African-American he meets in Africa, we Americans recognize ourselves as truly being American.
“No Matter What I Do, I Am an American”
Well, fellow Americans, it’s the Fourth of July. Good evening fellow Americans. I think that since it’s the Fourth of July tonight, we might as well admit we’re all Americans.
We may be bugged—but we’re Americans. We may be demonstrating, we may be getting ready to blow up the courthouse, we may be ready to burn down city hall, but we are all Americans. You really can’t escape that, no matter how many years a guy lives in Paris, he is still an American. You really cannot escape it.
Well, one day I was in Ibadan, Nigeria, and this is a great kind of a day to tell this story. Ibadan is extremely hot, steamy hot, even your skin is hot. You want to take your skin off like you take your BVDs off, and your socks off—you want to strip your skin off. Somehow your feel your bones will get cool.
I’m in the outskirts, and there are millions of people, it’s teaming, oh steaming, it’s just like a gigantic cake of yeast. Life is everywhere. Life is crawling, it’s flying, it’s humming, it’s buzzing, it’s coming out of the ground. You breathe it in, it rains on you. Life is just everywhere. Just all kinds of life. Bugs, insects, fungus, bacilli, the river, the crocodiles, people, everything—oh, the whole business. It’s really alive. You just don’t know how it is in Africa—no wonder people believe that life all sprang from Africa. It just had to come from there because—is it ever going on there!
I’m standing in line in a post office to buy some stamps and I’m surrounded by thousands of Nigerians, all waiting to send stuff and get things stamped. I’ve found, in most post offices, no matter where you go, you stand, you just stand. You wait. I’m waiting and waiting and waiting, and boy, they never heard of air conditioning in an Ibadan post office. It is hot.
I finally get up to the window. Up to this point nobody has said a word to me. Of course English is the language there in Nigeria. They all speak English, with varying kinds of accent depending on where you go. Some of them speak it with an Ibu accent, some with an Oxfordian accent—oh, some of the most fantastic English accents you have ever heard. “What kind of stamp you want, sir?”
I say, “I’ll have five airmail stamps.”
“Five airmail stamps, thank you, sir, thank you, sir, five airmail stamps. That will be seven shillings, sir.”
And I give the money and I turn around to go. (It’s very exciting to be in a place where there’s a lot of life. Absolutely, life everywhere. You cannot help but be excited.) So I turn around and start to go, when suddenly, a guy in the line reaches out and touches my arm. A great big black guy, about six-foot-six. He’s wearing a white shirt, and he’s got a pair of these beautiful shorts that everybody wears over there, black shoes, and high white socks, all of which is a kind of dress uniform for hot weather. He touches me and he says, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”
Immediately he could hear the American accent—he is an American!
I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Man, you got any time? Wait. I want to buy some stamps. Just wait for a second.” He goes up to the counter and buys some stamps and he turns around and he says, “Man, you’re an American!”
I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Ya got a car? I got a car. Can I take you anyplace?”
I told him where I was going. Oh boy, we get out in front of the place and the sun—booooom! The sun hits down on us as we get out on the concrete steps of this little post office and little winding road and shops going up one way and the other way, and all kinds of people are swirling. Pigs are running around oiwowoiiiii and the sewers are running over our feet, but it’s a wildly exciting place! You have an idea that would be terrible, but it isn’t, it’s very exciting when you’re there, and it has no parallel to what it would be like if the same things were going on here. It’s very different, very exciting.
The street is teaming—bicycles, Volkswagons, guys on pogo sticks, guys carrying other guys in sedan chairs, oh, you can’t imagine! A sea of humanity flowing and people yelling and hollering, big yellow robes and purple robes and blue robes and sun helmets.
One of the great sights that I’ve seen is a guy riding a bicycle and he has some kind of almost translucent, light blue silk robe. It is the color of very light, sun-shinning blue sky. Their colors are all like that. Some day American people are going to discover Nigerian colors. Incredible. This light blue robe with a light blue skullcap. On top of the skullcap is a gigantic wooden bowl, and in this enormous wooden bowl there must be forty-five yelling, hollering pigs. Little pigs all tied up with their feet. And they’re looking out of the bowl and wiggling! Eeeee! Eeeee! Eeeee! This guy is riding down the street on a bicycle that has wheels that are four times the size of any bicycle wheels I ever saw—going like the wind, and his robe is flowing out back of him like an enormous flag whooooooh! He’s going along and his feet are going back and forth and he’s got this bowl on top of his head and the pigs are yelling and he’s just going along as calm—the wind is blowing shooooooh! He goes down the street. Boy! Now there’s skill. Guts!
So we’re out on this street and this guy turns to me and says, “Let me tell you, man, I can’t tell ya how great it is to hear an American.”
And I say, Man, what are you doing in this area? Wow!”
We don’t know quite what to say. I am so glad to talk to somebody who—for a strange reason you get very hungry for American things when you are a million miles away. No matter how hip you are, you just do. You get hungry for them.
We get into his car, which is a Nash. Every car of any consequence at all in this place, the sun has practically beaten the paint right off. Just pealed it right off. They’re a peculiar slate color.
We set off and he says, “Man, you got any time?”
I say, “Yeah, I’m not going anyplace.”
He says, “Let me tell you how great it is to talk to an American.” He says, “I’ve been inland, I’ve been here for seven months. I just can’t tell you how great it is.”
Of course, I am delighted. A big, handsome guy, about twenty-five or so, and I believe he went to Brooklyn College, and he’s working for an American film company as some kind of an export expert.
So we go over to a place and we’re having a drink and it turns out that he is, of all things—a “listener” from Brooklyn! In the course of the conversation, this is what he said—I’ll try to reproduce it almost verbatim.
I tell him my name.
He says, “Oh boy, man, you’re putting me on!”
I say, “No, I’m Jean Shepherd.”
He says, “The ‘night people,’ man! Oh no! Listen—oh no, it’s impossible!”
We’re hollering and yelling and drinking gin and tonics. In the course of the conversation he says to me, “You know, I had to come all the way over here to realize that I am first and foremost, no matter what I do, I am an American.”
It was a very strange thing to hear in Ibadan. Not strange at all though, if you understand really, what you are. If you really understand what you are. You often don’t really know.
“In A Year or Two He was Right in
the Same Boat With All of Us, You Know.”
I came across a notebook which I kept when I was in Nigeria. It was not quite a diary, it was a notebook of things that I felt, which is quite different from a diary. A diary says, “This morning I took a trip to the museum. Wrote letter. Talked to L.” That kind of thing. This is a notebook where I really put down impressions of things that I wanted to remember, and then I immediately forgot about the notebook—which says something about life there too. I took this notebook out today and I looked at this thing for a minute. It didn’t occur to me what I was referring to because, when you’re in a place and you see all these things, you write in a kind of shorthand, because you forget that one day you will not remember. You just sort of write it down.
Shepherd spoke on the radio several times about the notebooks he kept on his travels. It would be such an extraordinary find to encounter some of them!
Well, here I’m trying to tell you what heat does to people, in relation to some time ago when we were talking about how a place will change even your morality. Whether you know it or not, or whether you want it to or not, it will. With the heat, with the kind of sand there is, with the kind of leaves there are, with the sort of caterpillars that crawl over your shoe. All of these things will combine to change you into another kind of person. And I was in a place—Bagady is a place that is closer to the equator than Legos, and is south of Legos on the Bay of Guinea—or the Gulf of Guinea.
First I will have to tell you what kind of place the Gulf of Guinea is. It is one of the most interesting looking seas I have ever seen. The sea comes rolling in and is almost frighteningly innocent looking. Because the combination of the white sand ion the beachhead and the kind of sun that shines down two or three degrees north of the equator, combines to make the sea look almost like milk. It is not blue, it is not the color of the sea off Coney Island, which is a kind of slate gray, sometimes gets a little green, sometimes a faint blue, but mostly gray. No. This sea looks almost white—it’s an illusion of course. A blue sea is literally reflecting the blue sky and that’s why you see it blue.
But the sun and the sky in Africa, particularly right after noon, does not stop—there’s no place where you say, “There’s the sun.” It’s like the whole sky is the sun. Oh boy, I’ll tell you! It just comes down. It hits you on the top of the head with great big hammers.
Well, the sea reflects the sun and at the same time, the bottom of the sea there happens to be very white sand, so you wind up with the sea looking as though it were sort of skim milk. It rolls up in great, long comers, just shrooooooo—long, rolling comers. Shrooooooo! It rolls up and it looks very innocent with this little white foam and it recedes, and that sun is beating down and that heat has got hold of everything you own and those palm trees are hanging down and behind you there are huts that are sort of conical, made out of rattan and bamboo and palm leaves. Shrooooooo—water’s coming in. That’s Bagady!
I’m walking along this beach and I met there an Englishman who had been in Nigeria and that area for many years, working for some kind of paint company. We’re walking along the beach and talking about the sharks. I don’t know why, whenever I read about sharks, they always talk about the sharks along the Great Barrier Reef, they always talk about the sharks in certain parts of the Pacific, but they continually ignore the Gulf of Guinea where the sharks are truly legendary. Apparently these sharks have been known to come up and just leap right out of the water, bit off fourteen-hundred pounds of bananas, and leave. That kind of thing. Giants.
And all the natives in this area are fishermen. They fish out of long, the most graceful dugout canoes I’ve ever seen in my life. Probably thirty feet long and sometimes four feet wide, carved out of a gigantic tree. They soak these in salt water for a long time and then they dry them and then cover them with some kind of pitch, so they’re black and then they paint over the entire length of them in big white and red swirls. They paint big red eyes on the front of them and they name them, like “A Very Truly Love,” in big, white English letters on the side. Or something like, “Never Trust a Woman—boat.” A great name for a boat. Or, “Trust Only A Few.”
About ten guys at once will push these things out, run like mad, the big comers go shrooooo!—push them all back on shore. Then they get the thing pointed out again. They run as soon as the wave goes out, they run like mad—shrooooo!— pushes them back again, and finally they get the thing going and a wave will take them fifteen feet up in the air shrooooo!— shrooooo!—they’re paddling like mad with their little wooden paddles, they’re insanely paddling straight out to sea and they’ll get going. About three of these go out and finally make it. They’ll be a couple hundred yards out from the beach where the water has stopped being big comers, and is comparatively calm, and they put up a little, dirty, rotten, crummy sail like cheesecloth that’s been used to clean a lot of old Oldsmobiles, and they’ll put these things up and they’ll start floating away and they’re going down, way down the coast someplace to fish.
They will be out three days—never come back and boy, is that a sea! They tell stories about sharks. When the guys are launching their boats, sometimes two or three will get belted at one time. Oh boy, these babies just lay off shore there and they’re about twenty-eight feet long—they’re long , white, and cool. They just lay there and they strike like lightning.
This kind of place, of course, does different things to people. It is not quite the same as, let’s say, Queens. Not at all. Very little parallels between Queens and Nigeria. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is they occupy the same planet. That’s about all. Other than that—wow! And a few of the same physical laws obtain. Like gravity. They have gravity there. Everybody there, unless you’ve been around the sharks too long, you have two feet, or nearly. But all the while that sea— shrooooo! and it just looks great. You lie on your back and you think, Oh boy!”
The only hooker of it is that they seem to loose on the average, one to five people a day! Life is very different in many parts of the world. And people laugh about it. “Oh yeah, we loose many people, ha, ha, ha, ha, many people in the sea, ha, ha, ha. Stay away water. Water no good, sir. Water no good, ha, ha. I tell you, my aunt one day, she—oop, gone, gone, like that.” They don’t lose them to sharks—they have an undertow that has been known to draw in entire African villages, right into the water! It’s like the ocean itself comes out and grabs you! Whooo! Down you go. And they’ve been carried as far away as Portugal in fifteen seconds under water all the way. Holy smokes! You get so you’re afraid to go down there and just stick your foot in the water. You think either a giant fist is going to come out and grab you—it’s the ocean itself—the Atlantic Ocean grabs you by the foot—with teeth that run all the way back to its stern—starts eating you like a corn on the cob.
It’s a different thing. The sun is coming down. And now you want to get to the point of my somewhat sinister and very, very enigmatic writing in my notebook.
This Englishman and I were walking along on the beach—he’d been there for about ten years and I said, “What does this heat do to you—after a while?” I meant, how do you—I feel like all the time I was there I felt half-sick. Like something wasn’t working right all the time. Of course, if you’re there a year or so, I suppose, even if you’re there a couple of months—that you get over. But other things begin to set in.
He says, “Actually, old chap, things happen. Oh, a chap, Henderson, he was working for Shell Oil in Ghana, and the heat—very little energy. Heat actually. This chap was in Ghana and his wife was getting a bit irritated—had no energy at all, actually. And so one day she announced that she had taken a lover, you know. A man from Luxemburg who had just arrived. And I—I asked, ‘Henderson, old man—‘ actually thirty years ago—not very good show, actually. And Henderson says to me, ‘Oh, oh, Fred is—oh, no, no, I’m actually very relieved, actually. It takes a lot of pressure off me, you know. I’m very relieved—I—yes, it’s all right. Takes some of the pressure off me.’”
Well, we walked along a while there and I began to realize that the world of Graham Greene is not exactly the world of Babylon. If you wrote a play about that, no one would believe you. They’d say, “Nobody acts like that!” Oh no? When you’re in Ghana and the temperature is one-hundred-and-four, and you’ve been there nine years, I suspect you do not quite act the same as you do on McDougal Street.
So I looked at this little note in my book. My note reads, “Men in tropics have no energy whatsoever. Relate incident of Ghana friend of Luxemburger, whose man approved of wife’s lover.”
The Englishman carried the story a little further when I said, “What about the guy who was the lover?”
He said, “Oh, actually, you know, in a year of two he was right in the same boat with all of us, you know. This damned heat, you know. Let’s go over to the club and have a drink. I feel like a drink of gin. What do you say to a little gin?”
“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. This 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.
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.
Nothing works like at home
One of the funny little incidents that happened to me one day when I was in line at the post office. I was buying Nigerian stamps. I said to the clerk, “I want seven Nigerian international airmail stamps for regular letter-weight.”
As he was getting them, I looked around and couldn’t find the place to mail the letter. I was in the post office so I expected to see the slots, so I said, “Any place where you mail this?”
Before he could answer, the guy behind me, who was wearing Western clothes, said, “Oh boy, dad, nothing works like home. They got a box out front there.”
I turned around and this guy behind me was an American and he was a negro. So we went out and he said, “Can I give you a lift anywhere?”
I said, “Sure.”
It turned out he was a listener, by the way. He was astounded to find me in a post office in Nigeria. The guy was from Brooklyn. We started off in his little car. He worked for an American film company.
We started to talk about Nigeria and he said, “Boy, you know, I’ll tell you, when I first came here I thought I understood everybody. I’ve been here now six months. And every day now, I realize more and more that I understand less and less about the people, the place, the way they think, the whole business.”
I said, “Gee, you shouldn’t have any trouble.”
He said, “Let me tell you, boy. I really discovered how American I am here.” He said, “I really discovered that I am really an American.”
I said, “You know, this is an interesting thing coming from you, realizing the situation.”
He said, “Let me tell you, I got friends back in the States. I would love to have twenty of my friends here who think they know all about this and bring ’em here for about six months. They would realize then just exactly what they are and they would know their own true identity.”
So we rode around town a little bit and he was sort of laughing and I was laughing, and finally he said, “Well, I never figured I’d see you here in Nigeria!”
I said, “No, well, I didn’t either, dad.” I got out in front of Kingsway and he drove away and I sat around and that was the end of that. But the thing is, you really realize how Western you are in a place like Nigeria, Ghana.
You also realize that the beliefs that Americans have—that any problem can be solved. You know Americans really believe that problems can be solved. They will not concede that there is an unsolvable problem—of any kind. Nothing is really unsolvable in the affairs of men. Wow. Boy. You stick around this place for about twenty minutes and you begin to feel that communication just doesn’t exist. Not really—on a very basic human level, maybe yeah. Like my friend from Brooklyn said, “Man, you really know that you’re an American. You really know it.” And he said, “They don’t know from an American here. They don’t understand us either.” I suppose we are the mysterious Occidentals.
“You also realize that the beliefs that Americans have—that any problem can be solved. You know Americans really believe that problems can be solved. They will not concede that there is an unsolvable problem—of any kind. “
[Wow! Shep really nailed it–even to today, with the issues of ISIS, etc., I still believe (maybe not as strongly) that any problem can be solved. What I recognize once again is that much of what Shep had to say about the nature of people in general, and Americans in particular, is quite true.–eb]
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.
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.
One never knows where Jean Shepherd will turn up next, what he will encounter, and how he will feel. It’s said that his producer (and other things as well), Leigh Brown, fearing for his safety, pleads with him not to go, but in early 1962 he writes a postcard from Nigeria to his wife, actress Lois Nettleton, expressing what a great time he’s having.
He talks about his Nigerian experience as soon as he returns to New York. He finds the experience puzzling—disconcerting, as no other travels have been for him. He is not sure how he feels about it all. Bittersweet he says.
Despite this immediate response, over a year after he returns, for the only time so far encountered, he says that he found one of the travel notebooks which he uses to remind him of his experiences. It is his notebook of his Nigerian trip. He comments, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country that I dug more—than Nigeria.”
Card from Shep to Lois:
Just got back from the bush in Eastern Nigeria and it is something not to be believed! I’ll have shows for the rest of the year. What a place this is. There are so many things to write about that I can’t even begin a card. Am taking a run to Ghana and Cameroon this week. The people are absolutely great! Will arrive home Monday around 5 PM–would love to see you at airport. Love Love J.
Quite a contrast from his somewhat troubled, perplexed feelings articulated immediately following the trip itself.
In one of these earlier broadcasts he describes his encounter with an African-American waiting in a post office line, who recognizes his speech as American. In the social unrest back home in these turbulent, confrontational 1960s, and now being in Africa for months, the black guy understands for the first time that “I am an American.” Shepherd’s travel notebook reminds him a year later of this encounter. He describes it again, and we have a unique opportunity to enjoy how Shepherd takes a little tidbit of abbreviated notation in his journal to jog his memory. He elaborates on it in a different context so that we find it well-worth reading about again, because it is so different. This time as a parable for patriotism on the Fourth of July. No matter where one goes, not only in his speech but in his very being, an American is still an American—and Shepherd is proud of it.
As an introduction to Nigerian history and life in the early 1960s when Shepherd traveled there, and to understand a bit about why Leigh Brown might have been worried about his safety, here is a BBC website’s description regarding the period:
1960 – Independence, with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government.
1962-63 – Controversial census fuels regional and ethnic tensions.