April 1972. Lagos. My new posting. The arrival in the African capital is sensational. I am processed and released in a chaotic arrival hall and from there accompanied to a waiting Peugeot 404 station wagon. Over here, this particular work horse is very much sought after. I am told that expatriates who import one, specially the version with a thick bottom plate (protection against potholes and stones), can sell their new car at an enormous profit upon arrival. In this car I am taken to a hotel in the city, all windows open. There is much to see, hear and smell. In order of emotional impact: the deafening noise, the overwhelming smells, the loud images.
Colourful signboards and slogans all over the place. They adorn buildings, trucks and mammy wagons, collision with which can only be avoided at the very last moment. The local passion: dangerous overtaking. Some slogans on mammy wagons and trucks try to be helpful, like: ‘Hornb4 Overtaking’. A truck, full of mobile toilets, has an artistic painting on the back: ‘Shit business is serious business!’ Slogans on the cabins of mammy wagons are philosophical, practical or religious, like: ‘Time shall tell’, ‘No condition is permanent’, ‘No destination, why hurry!’, ‘Safety is of the Lord’. Indeed! A cattle truck packed with people admonishes the drivers behind: “No Standing”. All this leaves me breathless and I sympathise with an a enormous painting on the back of a truck: ‘Oh, my Mother’.
Rows of men in long robes stand along a ditch, having a community pee, and rather visibly, too. We have to stop frequently. Traffic jam. Fights between drivers. These stops offer business opportunities to newspaper boys and sellers of clothes or smuggled cigarettes, who surround the car, arguing and elbowing. Some two or three boys simultaneously offer their services to wash the wind screen. Pandemonium all around.
The hotel. From a distance it looks attractive, it is surrounded by palms and it has gardens along the waterfront. Inside, no airconditioning, it is broken, no spare parts until the next ship arrives and is cleared through customs which takes ages. The smell in the room is more difficult to suffer than the heat.
The next day, I am picked up by an expat colleague. Near to the office, we park his car in a large empty space along the water. As we get out of the car, we are surrounded by a band of cheerful but mutilated lads. “They take care of my car collectively,’ says my new colleague, ‘it costs very little, I pay The Chief and he takes care of the rest.’
The Chief is a smiling young man without legs who propels himself with ease and rapidity on a wooden board on four old metal rollerskate wheels. It is evident that my colleague is on very good terms with this team. He knows them all by their first names, he cracks crude jokes with them which I find a bit shocking but which are obviously much appreciated by his friends and returned in kind. Rather startled, I follow my colleague to the office. The culture shock continues.