Fun and Revelations in West Africa—Part I

As a Peace Corps Volunteer during my two-year service, they allowed me to take 45 days of vacation time.  My understanding (although no one actually instructed me so) was I was allowed to go anywhere in Africa at my own expense.  Of course, since my pay was a limited allowance that corresponded to the relative economic level of my host country, that meant that I was not able to travel extravagantly.  It also meant that I needed to save money from my monthly allowance to be able to afford any travel.  In addition, I needed to figure out ways to conserve my money and to find ways to travel as cheaply as I could—just like all the other PCVs.  This discussion will assist the reader to understand why I did what I did while traveling around Africa, including West and East Africa.  The reader needs to realize that my travels occurred over fifty years ago.  So, these descriptions are over a half of century old.

In 1966, I decided to take my first vacation traveling to Ghana, Nigeria, and East Africa.  On a Friday evening I began by flying from Abidjan to Accra, Ghana.  Accra was the capital of Ghana.  In 1966, the population of Accra was close to 523,000, but it has grown to an estimated 4.2 million in 2020.  After my arrival, it was so impressive at how quickly customs processed me.  Luckily, it was not necessary to inspect my suitcase.  Right away, I found a cab and asked how to exchange some money.  A semi-official gave me two cedis (the money in Ghana) for two dollars, slightly higher than the official exchange rate of the Ghanian money to a dollar.  Since the taxi driver knew where the P.C. hostel was located, that proved convenient.

While flying into Accra, it surprised me to find the landscape so barren.  I spotted green fields with trees scattered here and there.  That typified the scenery.  It was unexpected that I found no forest.  Also, the city of Accra appeared to consist of patches of buildings instead of one metropolitan area like Abidjan.

The ride from the airport seemed long to me.  Several things struck me most.  First, it felt so weird to drive on the left side of the road since I was so used to driving on the right side, both in the Ivory Coast and in the United States.  Second, the headlights were so terribly white and bright, compared to the more orangish, less bright lights in the Ivory Coast and even in the United States.   I also observed that people did not bother to dim their lights while driving.  In addition, the cars were unusually large compared to the cars in the Ivory Coast.  Finally, it struck me that the cabbies drove incredibly fast and gave me the impression of being a little reckless.

In the evening, I ate dinner at The Chicken Bar, which cost me 1.62 cedis.  After dinner, I met a newfound acquaintance, after which he and I wandered around the city together.  We saw some modern buildings and some very shabby buildings.   People slept on the sidewalks.  [Note:  people sleeping on the sidewalks was exactly the problem that our school gardens program in the Ivory Coast was trying to prevent or at least minimize].  Streets appeared narrow to me.  Sewers ran half-opened along the sides of the streets, cluttered with rubbish.

In the morning, I wandered about Accra again and focused on taking some decent pictures.  Later, I visited an art museum.  There were beautifully displayed works and objects from all over Africa, from Egypt to South Africa, from West Africa to Somaliland.  I saw many embellished masks, hair combs, statuettes, and other great works.  They displayed drums in many styles.  They also had highly colorful woven robes similar to those in the Ivory Coast.   Head masks, carved elephant tusks, snuff boxes, snuff spoons, pottery, embellished boats, and hats constituted more items on display.  I also noticed a figure sitting atop of a horse representing Kano, Nigeria.  A special excavation site showed fantastic art discoveries of pottery and other items.   Mummified heads and crocodiles represented Egypt as well as pottery statues of pharaohs.  Everything was so beautifully displayed and well-labeled in modern glass cases or along the sides.

While I walked around town, it was astonishing how shy the Ghanian women were when I tried to take their picture.  Every woman I asked refused to allow me to take her picture.  So, most of my pictures showed the women walking away from me.  I liked seeing the women wearing colorful robes.  The style of dress was very similar to that of the Ivorian women, a blouse with a pagne (a long cloth) wrapped around their waist hanging down.

While passing a Ghanian supermarket, I decided to stop in and look around.  It was an interesting, enjoyable tour.  There were items from several Communist countries:  fish and mushrooms from Communist China and canned goods from Yugoslavia, Hungary, and the then Soviet Union.  American goods were not as extensively represented as they were in the Ivory Coast.  One exception I saw was Anacin pills.  They had Johnny Walker whiskey, but the prices astounded me.  One bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey was 10 cedis, which was the equivalent of $12.  In the Ivory Coast, the same bottle sold for 1575 francs CFA, which was approximately $6.00, about half the price.  Because my authorization to stay or my 24-hour visa for Ghana was so short, I couldn’t stay in Ghana any longer.

My next stop was Nigeria.  I felt a little self-conscious that I flew to Nigeria instead of going overland because I thought I would miss a lot of experience by not traveling the overland route.  However, I rationalized my flight because I wanted to travel more extensively in Nigeria, which I did.  At this moment during my trip, I hoped that the trouble I read about a couple of weeks earlier in the Northern part of Nigeria would not interfere with my plans to visit there.  Newspapers and radio reported there was a massacre of people in Kano.  While I did not know it at the time, that reported incident was the beginning of Nigeria’s Civil War.

Saturday evening on July 9, 1966, I arrived by air in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria.  The Federal Territory of Lagos consisted of four islands:  Lagos, Victoria, Ikoyi, and Iddo, plus three mainland towns called Ebutte Melta, Yaba, and Apapa.  Lagos had a total population of 1,186,000.  The current population has grown to about 14.2 million people.  The Awori, a Yoruba tribe, originally settled in Lagos, in the fifteenth century, warriors Benin captured the city and settled there.  Until 1830, homage was paid to Benin although Lagos remained essentially self-governing.  European influence started with Portuguese traders in 1472, but remained insignificant until 1730, when the Oba or King of Lagos sanctioned slave trading.  In 1831, Lagos became a British colony and subsequently prospered eventually becoming the economic and political center of Nigeria.  It is important to mention that Nigeria had three prominent tribes, including the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausas.  While the Yoruba dominated the Lagos and Ibadan areas, the Igbos were mostly in the east, and the Hausas were in the north including Kaduna and Kano.

Since I arrived in Lagos so late, I had to wait until Sunday to walk around Lagos proper.  I used the regular, efficient bus system for round trips between the Peace Corps hostel in Yaba and the main island.  The waiting time was less than ten minutes at any time during the day.  That impressed me a lot.  Modern designed buildings sprouted up in a number of places and included the Kajola House, Independence Building, Supreme Court building, the National Hall (their parliament), U.S. Embassy, Electrical Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), NA1 building, Ghana house, and apparently an apartment building.  I got the impression there seemed to be cleaner, more modern-styled buildings in Lagos than in New York City.

One of my highlights for the day was my visit to the Nigerian National Museum.  In fact, I spent pretty much the entire day there.  It was a beautiful museum with great displays.  It contained a varied collection devoted to Nigerian art with excellent commentaries.  While the Ghanian museum showed art from the entire African continent, the Nigerian National Museum concentrated on indigenous art.  The museum showed that Nigeria enjoyed a bountiful art heritage that was wonderful to see.

There were so many items to see in the National Museum.  Work on iron began in Nigeria about 2,000 years ago, the sign said.  I saw statuettes and staffs.  For example, I saw a staff for which the upper part was made in recognition of the God of Medicine.  At the top was a witch-like bird riding on a horse.  Around it were tools and weapons, and below it were chameleons.  This represented the nineteenth century in Benin.  Another display showed ornamental pottery from the fourteenth century for a fertility cult.  Other things I saw included amazing ancient flat-based palm oil lamps, beads, quartz, stone axes, and soapstone bracelets.

Nigerians practiced bronze casting at least since the fifteenth century.   They used beeswax to make molds.  Carvings of men and women represented ancestors.  While they remained sacred, they were not idols.  I saw Igbo bronzes that were as old as two to three hundred years.  I observed highly embellished ceremonial bowls, drinking cups, and ornaments of priests.  While snakes appeared conspicuous, common animals such as lizards and beetles were absent.  I saw a brass head that was dated from the tenth to the fifteenth century and brass one and a half inch anklets that were decorated with circles, half-circles, and diamonds.

In another display, I saw masks.  Many Nigerian masks appeared colored with yellow, white, black, and red colors in comparison to Ivorian masks that generally remained black without any other color.  The museum displayed intricately carved and highly embellished door panels that illustrated scenes of practical life activities such as breastfeeding, sitting, pounding food, and holding weapons.  Helmet masks were also on display.  They displayed calabash bowls with designs of diamonds, circles, and lines, plus food bowls, trinket boxes, flasks, and ladles.

The museum displayed very remarkable carvings of elephant tusks.  One on display illustrated a series of horizontal bands among which were representations of the Oba (king) in ceremony or as the deity Olokum.  It had attendants dancing and showed Portuguese people, leopards, catfish, and snakes as well.  That was a very enriching tour that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Several things struck me about Nigeria and its people when I arrived.  Coming into town from the airport in Yaba, immediately, as in Ghana, I felt blinded by the cars headlights because of the white lights.  After living in the Ivory Coast and getting used to their yellow headlights, it felt strange to me.  Another thing that struck me was speaking English to the Nigerians.  It was very trying to me at first.  I felt frustrated that I could not understand them, and they apparently could not understand me.  In addition, they used British expressions that I was not used to.  So that impeded my comprehension too.  Apparently, I was not alone in feeling that way when I met and talked with PCVs in Nigeria.  Along with the bright lights, I noticed a lot of advertisements everywhere including billboards and signs on the walls.  Also evident were a few electrical signs.  Furthermore, I was quick to notice that, like Ghana, the cars drove on the left side of the road, which was difficult to get used to.  When I walked on the sidewalk by people, I retained the tendency to walk on the right which came close to causing a few minor problems like collisions.  Like Accra, lotteries and sidewalk coke stands were prominent in Lagos.

Both the clothes and the people appeared to me to be distinctly different from the Ivorians.  The women wore much brighter colors, even more than Ghanaians.  The fabrics themselves consisted of richer materials. Rather than simple, light cloth and prints, the Nigerian women frequently favored sparkling, rich, dazzling materials.  The thought occurred to me that the materials came from Asia, but I didn’t know that.  Many women wore that type of dress.  Later, I realized the style of dress reflected mostly Yoruba women as opposed to Igbo or Hausa women in Nigeria or any other tribe.  Also, the Yoruba women liked lace material for blouses in white, yellow, green and other colors. Men wore long robes with long sleeves that they would flip back onto their shoulders and wear with the sides slit open.  Matching trousers and a hat completed their outfit.  The clothes were solid or plaid colors.  I found out the cost for such an impressive outfit started at five British pounds, the equivalent of $14; the exchange rate in the 1960s was one pound equaled $2.80.  I really wanted to get one of those outfits for myself, but I resisted the temptation this time.

Frequently, people, though mostly children, came up to me and asked where I was going.  They tried to assist me wherever I wanted to go.  In Lagos, when I tried to find the proper bus to take to go back to the Peace Corps hostel, almost immediately, a young man inquired where I was headed.  When I replied, he advised me to wait for the same bus that he planned to take.  I did.  Another young man, about my age, twenty-three, wanted to give me a tour all around Lagos.  Unfortunately, I could not accommodate him since I had already seen almost everything.

The next day, I did walk around Lagos some more since I had some free time.  In Kingsway, and Leventis, I observed two very modern stores that displayed and arranged things like any American store.  One very interesting thing I did was to observe the city of Lagos from the top of the twenty-three-story Independence Building.  It was a spectacular view!  You could see the entire island of Lagos.  Looking toward the mainland, the view reminded me of New York and a similar view from atop the Empire State Building.  In Lagos, you could see the older part of the city.  In one area, I saw a central washing area where people came to wash their clothes.  In the old section, buildings consisted of small, rickety, sometimes dirt-walled shacks, frequently with tin roofs.

During my walk around Lagos, I managed to see inside the Supreme Court building in the justices’ chambers where they met to hold court.  Five justices made up the Supreme Court of Nigeria.  Their court room was decorated in a modern though simple style wit the justices on an elevated platform.  Behind them was a brick wall painted blue with the national symbol centered on the wall with its motto, “Unity.”  For the other participants, there were padded, theater-type seats.  The public sat on stylish wooden chairs.  I attempted to enter the National Hall, their parliament, but failed because the new military government had terminated all tours by tourists.  The upper chamber was housed in a modern building and appeared to be plushy.  That’s all I can say.

That evening I ate in the Tam-Tam Restaurant, a very beautiful little Polynesian-style restaurant.  I ate a chicken in a basket for dinner that tasted tender and delicious.

More exciting stories and great pictures in Part II will follow soon in the next Blog.