Barry S Eisenberg

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Ask Not

A chapter of 'Deep Fool' by Barry S. Eisenberg (Nigeria 1, 1961-63)

(subheading are not those of the author)

Contents

Before Nigeria

One day I came home from an aggravating job as an investigator (read: snoop) with the welfare department, extra frazzled and frustrated by my only mediocre fluency in the clipped Puerto Rican Spanish, and there was a letter from Washington telling me I’d been accepted into the Peace Corps. The government didn’t want to send me to Latin America, though, but to Nigeria as a secondary-school English teacher.

Ours was only the second Peace Corps group to be formed. Partly due to this newness, the training program extended over all of five months. On the serene banks of the Charles River at Harvard University, we studied the geography, history, ethnography and culture of Nigeria. In West Africa, meanwhile, endless consultations were taking place with the Ministry of Education over the locations of our assignments. Long drawn-out bungles in the jungle made it unfeasible to give us instruction in any of the host country’s two hundred and fifty local dialects.

"Nigeria I " lands in country

As we finally stepped off the airliner in the city of Lagos in the fall of 1961, white faces in a dark place, we were hit with a blast of the redolent, steamy breath of Mother Africa. The thirty-five million inhabitants of Nigeria had just gained independence from Britain. The country was in a nationalistic ferment.

The impecunious new nation was divided into three regions: the coastal, rainforested, strongly missionary-influenced and relatively progressive East, where the Ibos predominated; the coastal semitropical more marginally Christianized and mostly Yoruba West; and the vast Sahelian Moslem/Hausa North, with myriad smaller animistic pagan tribes scattered everywhere. The total tribalistic crazy-quilt had been woven arbitrarily into a single sovereign entity under colonial rule. The Brits left a modest infrastructure of communications, roads, schools and a marginal client-state economy (oil, with all the trouble that followed, had not yet been found), a veneer of democracy and a lingua franca, pidgin.

After a few days of being wined and dined by the Lagos politicos, we were sent upcountry to the squalid, sprawling, congested tin-roofed city of Ibadan for three months of in-country training at the university there. Located at the edge of town, it was a world apart with its clean, modern, airy buildings and ambitious Western-oriented students who morning, noon and night seemed to live, eat and breathe politics. They welcomed us as friends and taught us a few things missing from our curriculum, such as how to shuffle dance the highlife and how to eat fufu, gummy-pounded cassava root with its mouth-searing gari sauce.

One day a volunteer, Marjory M., a debutante type, wrote a postcard home describing the primitive rusty shacks, open sewers and public urination in teeming Ibadan. She lost the card on the way to the campus post office and it was found by some radical students who duplicated a thousand copies, circulating them around the school. They began mau-mauing for our immediate departure from the country. For a while it was touch-and-go as to whether there would be a riot and we all gathered nervously in the project director’s home to await word on whether we would be expelled. Nigeria, however, was desperately trying to upgrade its educational system and really needed the Peace Corps, so it was decided that to save the program poor Marjory would be sacrificed. Oh, she didn’t go into the soup pot or anything and she wasn’t even booted out of the Corps for her indiscretion but in the inimitable way of government agencies was kicked upstairs, becoming, of all things, public relations director at P.C. headquarters stateside. Things settled down and, after a scant two weeks of practice teaching tacked on almost as an afterthought, it was at last time for us to go out to our assignments.

The Provincial Secondary School at Dekina

I was posted to the Northern Region, near the confluence of Nigeria’s two great rivers, the Niger and the Benue, to teach English language and literature at a boys’ boarding school, The Provincial Secondary School—Dekina. The people of Dekina, a one-store dot of a yam farming village located on a lonely laterite clay road, lived in mud-and-thatch huts, went almost naked, ritually scarred their faces and bodies and filed their teeth. They represented a sort of bush cosmopolis of many conjoining small tribes. My students were trying to make a cultural jump of centuries. Their results in the all-important West African School Certificate exam, set in faraway Oxford or Cambridge, meant the difference between a white-collar life in the city as a government clerk or teacher or being stuck in the sticks as a yam farmer, trader or lorry driver.

“Joseph Okpanachi, would you please stand and recite Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy.”

“Sah! ‘To be or not to be, dat’s da big question. Whethah tease no blah in da mine to suffah da stinks and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing dem so o’erwhelming dem...’”

Diminutive, thirteen-year-old Joseph was the brightest of my thirty barefoot, kneepants fifth-formers, so impishly smart that he was not above trying to subtly challenge my classroom insecurities which the other boys merely noted in polite silence. A teacher was a figure of great respect, but a young and inexperienced American instructor was cause for some confusion and ambivalence. Our accents and inflections were so mutually baffling, our frames of reference so different, pidgin so strange to me and their vocabulary and syntax so limited that in the beginning we were really almost unintelligible to one another. Trying to teach the dry, prescribed, theoretical grammar by the customary rote method wearied me. So did the endless correcting of the same repeated flaws on their compositions, maddening “errors” that originated in pidgin, a valid language in its own right but one totally unacceptable for the foreign-set final examinations. I grew to hate making plans for lessons I knew were largely doomed to strained frustration.

Literature was less depressing. I had leeway to introduce into the syllabus Nigerian authors, for example, Amos Tutuola (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and The Palm Wine Drinkard) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart). The boys loved it. Even in the required English classics such as Shakespeare they could relate to certain elements, the political maneuverings in Julius Caesar, and the magic, machinations and madness in Macbeth.

Most of them had a great hunger for learning and would race to the library I founded to devour cover-to-cover the new World Book Encyclopedia. Their use of the King’s English slowly improved but they were still prone to malapropisms and inappropriate colloquial usage, terminologies they’d taken a fancy to and stubbornly fastened upon.

I decorated the walls with pictures showing the New York skyline, Cape Canaveral and other scenes calculated to showcase my culture. At the same time I began to have a few private doubts about being an agent of cultural imperialism. Contrary to the Peace Corps image of mud-hut privation, two fellow male volunteers and I lived a privileged life apart from the locals. We each had a brand-new, two-bedroom, prefab ranch house with several acres of surrounding land for gardens, fruit trees or open space. Although nothing came out of the electrical outlets or water taps, each of us had a manservant to do our water gathering, cooking, cleaning and shopping. We had generous living allowances, opulent by village standards, and a minibus, jeep and motorbike to get around on.

Dekina

People were friendly if we met them on the road or at market, reacting with pleasure when we exchanged greetings in the few words of Basa Nge, Efik, Hausa or Fulani we’d managed to pick up: “Oku,” “Awa,” “Shay ala fulani.” The market women loved it if we played with the babies on their backs, but really we were isolated. Occasionally we were invited to ceremonies in villages where the inhabitants hadn’t seen white people in a long time, terrifying the children who’d run ahead of our party warning everyone, “Oyinbo! Oyinbo!”

For further escape from our school chores and the boredom of everday life in Dekina, we went on supply runs all the way to Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region, or across the Niger by ferry to Lokoja. On these restorative jaunts we loosened up by visiting the local highlife bars where we sowed wild oats with the numerous bar girls. It only increased the loneliness.

Going to market was the big entertainment in the area and we sometimes traveled long distances to spend hours wandering through the larger ones, where you could bargain for fresh goat meat, odd feathered juju magic preparations, mysterious medicinal potions, handcrafted hunting rifles and knives, pet monkeys, colorful dashiki robes and caps, talking drums, thumb pianos, fly whisks or ebony and bone carvings.

Ime, my houseboy, was an outsider in Dekina like me, an Ibibio from the East. I grew very fond of him and on balmy, dry-season evenings, when the maddening harmattan wind with its fine, red dust from the Sahara had quietened down, we would be seen straddling our drums on my verandah, wailing awaylate into the night to an answering chorus of nightjars, crickets and cicadas.

One day I decided to go off exploring on my own and found myself entering a collection of Basa Nkomo huts a few miles down the road. The amazed inhabitants quickly fetched someone with a smattering of English who led me to the home of the chief, a greyheaded, twinkly-eyed, wizened old fellow. He showed me around the daub-and-wattle houses of his little fiefdom, introducing me to all his relatives and friends. After this tour we had a long palaver over an al tempo beer and shared some bitter kola nuts. I began to get some appreciation of the central role that hospitality and social discourse play in African culture.

I invited the chief to visit me and a few days later he and the interpreter suddenly appeared in my compound with a live duck and some eggs. He marveled at the construction of my house, listened wide-eyed to the BBC news and classical music that came out of my amazing battery-operated radio phonograph, clucking his tongue and exclaiming “Uh unh huh!” when I topped off the visit with a cold brew from the remarkable kerosene fridge. I can still hear this unique syncopated exclamation and see his smiling face full of friendship, curiosity and surprise, a most unforgettable character.

I wound up employing a young relative of the chief’s as a helper to Ime and I almost went a step further into helotry when I sought to purchase this lad’s beautiful pubescent sister as a wife. I was saved from going native in a big way only by some small shred of discretion and by finding the bride price of thirty English pounds a trifle too steep.

What was I learning from this panoply of experience? The limits of my concupiscence maybe. I was dominated inside by a fear of and a sense of failure and it paralyzed me emotionally.

One day during the rainy season, the road slick and impassable from a storm pelting down the sweet rainwater which we collected off the roof in barrels, I came down with malaria. Wracked for days with aches, chills, fevered sweats and blinding headaches, I thought I was a goner but eventually, for the good of mankind, I recovered.

Kano

When summer vacation came I was glad to get away from Dekina. I designed a research project for an American consulting firm in Lagos, traveling to schools all around the Western Region assigning and collecting compositions for vocabulary analysis. Then I journeyed to the tiny neighboring countries of Togo and Dahomey, where I caught a German freighter to the tiny island of Fernando Po, one of Spain’s last remaining colonies, and to Douala in Cameroun.

I looked forward with distaste to returning to my lonely expatriate lifestyle in the sleepy village. I feared I might go around the bend there but was determined to finish out my two-year tour, so I got the Peace Corps to transfer me to another school in the large city of Kano, in the North.

Kano was an urban center with an ancient Moslem culture. The fanciful, castellated, whitewashed and stuccoed mud architecture of the walled city bespoke a tradition that in a way seemed more developed than that of the hinterland, yet it was even less accessible to a Westerner.

My new school was much larger and had many more “Europeans” working in it, so I didn’t feel quite so lonely. At midsemester break a girl volunteer, a young Outward Bound Englishman and I decided to travel to a nearby game reserve reputed to have lions and other large animals. I hadn’t seen much wildlife in Africa besides birds and a few monkeys and really looked forward to this expedition. Unfortunately, we had gone only a few miles when an overloaded lorry came roaring toward us smack down the middle of the high-crowned dirt road. The Englishman swerved the excessively speeding jeep at the very last second but it overturned, spilling us willy-nilly onto the roadway. The driver suffered a concussion and lay unmoving, the girl looked bad with blood streaming down her face and I hopped about on one leg, the other having been broken with an audible snap by the slowmo descent of the teetering jeep’s windscreen. The lorry disappeared in a cloud of dust as we lay strewn about, dazed. Suddenly people began popping out of the bush as if from nowhere. They righted the vehicle and took us to a nearby village clinic, where my leg was x-rayed and set in a cast. It took a very long time for this break to heal, the bone having to be reset, and I went back to my still shaky teaching on wobbling crutches.


End of service

I was beginning to feel snakebit in Nigeria and looked forward eagerly to the end of my service. It came at last in the summer of 1963 with parties in Lagos and kudos from the government. Inwardly I gave a big sigh of relief.

I’d managed to save up a good chunk of my living allowance and had a nice separation payment coming too. I still felt a great lust to travel and wasn’t nearly ready to return to the States to face the inevitable reverse culture shock. I planned a circuit of the Middle East, ending up in Israel, a grand tour of Europe and then a year in Spain at a university. The twenty-five-year-old Brooklyn boy had already had a precocious variety of experiences, and if he wasn’t sure where any of it was leading or what parts of his character were being revealed, he did know one thing: he wanted more.


Timeline

1962 — The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the brink of nuclear war; the US has 200 atomic reactors in operation, Great Britain 39, the USSR 39; thalidomide produces deformed babies; Rachel Carson: The Silent Spring; Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Charles Schulz: Happiness Is A Warm Puppy; Marilyn Monroe dies.

1963 — US sends financial aid to South Vietnam; Jessica Mitford: The American Way of Death; Joan Baez and Bob Dylan lead in popularity as singers; Andy Warhol has pop art show in New York’s Guggenheim Museum; the major world religions: 890,000,000 Christians, 650,000,000 Moslems, 365,000,000 Hindus, 200,000,000 Buddhists, 13,000,000 Jews; Clifford Odets dies; JFK assassinated in Dallas, supposedly by a lone gunman.

Citation

  • Deep Fool (Paperback)
  • by Barry S. Eisenberg (Author)
  • Paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Hara Publishing Group (January 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1883697050
  • ISBN-13: 978-1883697051
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