Wilson’s career in Nigeria began at age thirty with his employment as a kind of managerial watchdog for a British retail firm. The company had established itself earlier in the century by engaging in the trade of palm oil for use in the manufacture of fine soaps, sold in Europe for handsome profits. Later they found that the direct sale of consumer goods to Africans was a growing and even more profitable business. The production of protein yielding crops decreased under the European demand for coffee, palm oil, cotton, and other cash crops from African soil, and so within two decades from the start of the sale of dried milk, sugar, and dried fish—all processed, repackaged and marked up in England—the company for which Wilson was later to work was reaping embarrassing profits and had begun exporting the same foodstuffs to less efficient colonies. With the later routing of peanuts to Europe as a cash crop, the systematic taxation of indigenous agriculture, and the destruction of the remaining local agricultural base by a crippling war of independence, the transformation was complete. Nigeria didn’t even manage to maintain the bitter irony of a “dessert economy” of cocoa, sugar, coffee, and cashews. Little was left for the bellies of children except starchy tubers, a few wild herbs, an occasional fish from the rivers, and the milk and other dried protein foods imported from Europe, which were beyond the reach of the poor, unless the reach was to the giving hands of a missionary teacher or a UNICEF staffer.
In those years just before the civil war, just before this process of underdevelopment was complete, it was Wilson’s job to travel from city to city, from village trader to village trader, to make sure that a fair, impartial price was offered for the company’s goods. His efforts were meant to counterbalance the tendency of traders to sell goods to members of their own tribe at reduced prices and to inflate the price for out-of-tribe buyers. Critical goods were often hoarded until the artificially produced scarcity forced prices into the starvation range for thousands of families. Part of this price-gouging included blocking proper delivery of goods from England by bureaucratic manipulation, theft, destruction of products at the entry port, and at times by piracy on the highways and river ways. Government corruption made private monitoring of the products at the local level almost a necessity.
Wilson succeeded in keeping prices fairly stable in the region. In doing so, he stifled a few rich men’s dreams of getting richer and made many enemies. A few big men even claimed that the company itself created periodic scarcities using information gained from Wilson. This allowed the company to reap even larger and crueler profits than had the hungry and, in their minds, naturally deserving market keepers. They saw themselves as like the buzzards after a lion kill that had waited their turn so long that the gnawing hyenas that were there before they arrived began to look like the main course. Liked or not, Wilson had survived twenty-five years in the region as a capitalist watchdog, and was by any measure a success. As he recounted the difficulty of those early years in the dingy parlor of our bush hotel, I knew that he owned a mansion on an island not more than an hour’s flight away—a fact that I learned from a mutual acquaintance of a wealthy lady and hotel resident in a good position to know some details of Wilson’s life. I had never heard of the place, but the lady claimed that it overlooked the last mile of a stream that plummeted from the island’s quarry studded hills of black basalt to cascade over a craggy coastline of pure-white caulk that, to her, was nothing short of Africa’s own White Cliffs of Dover.
It was in the seventh year of his duty in Nigeria that Wilson could no longer doubt that he had made the right decision to try to win a fortune in the Africa trade. It was a boom year for his firm, and Wilson had expanded his duties to oversee the two major shopping and resort hotel sites that his firm developed in conjunction with the Colonial Development Corporation. Along with the newly educated and partially empowered African elite and middle-class had come the demand for all the paraphernalia of mock-British culture that was integral to the orthodoxy of British superiority taught in every mission school. Colored raincoats, rubberized boots, Oxford shirts, and fashionable shoes and bags made of second-rate English leather now filled row upon row of the new shops. The department stores were considered quite a wonder by the inhabitants of the two fortunate cities, who were used to open air markets where you could get a huge scoop of homemade ice cream just four or five feet from hangers of freshly butchered fly encrusted meat.
The company was more far-sighted than the colonial regime and less inclined to pay inflated salaries for a white skin. So they had taken to the Africanization of many middle and lower levels of operations in the country, and had placed Wilson in charge of the supervision and training of these African recruits. Wilson approved of the company’s policy, believing that it would pave the way for another half century of English-African cooperation in the Protectorate. Wilson seemed to take a special liking to young missionary-trained men, and investigated their backgrounds intensively before hiring them, knowing that it is impossible to know fully what a Nigerian is like until one has seen him in his ancestral village and measured his regard in the faces of his kinsmen. It is hard to deny that he had learned how to ferret out the hidden flaw in almost anyone he came into contact with, such was the education of seven years of monitoring petty corruption and graft.
One of Wilson’s mission school protégés was selected as the future service manager for the mountain region resort hotel. Just as he neared the completion of his training under Wilson’s guidance, he suddenly died from a parasitic disease that had been dormant since his early childhood. This was a major setback for Wilson. He invested seven months of training in the youth, and now he was faced with the difficulty of finding a suitable replacement. While this matter would appear to be a minor snag, Wilson encountered initial embarrassment in his first inquires to potential recruits that seemed conceal a cloud of suspicion stemming from the trainee’s death being taken as an ill omen—some kind of bad medicine associated with Wilson. He quickly decided to borrow some talent from the hotel complex in the Administrative Capital, thus solving both of his difficulties at the mountain region site. He could then leave to concentrate fully on the more difficult problem of running the Lagos department store, the jewel in the crown of his firms retail operation.
Air flight schedules not being what they are today, Wilson ordered a company jeep capable of making the 700-kilometer journey to the north. It was February in the midst of one of the harshest harmattan seasons in decades and shortages of nearly all essentials were occurring almost everywhere along his route, so he made certain that he had spare tanks of petrol and a large quantity of potable water. Wilson decision to make the two-day road trip was influenced by his plan to interview some current trainees that seemed like suitable candidates for the position. He intended to induce the selected one for the job with an extra “dash” or bribe to be kept quiet between the two of them, and return to Jos within a week with an almost fully trained operations manager to follow in a few days. He even found himself looking forward to working with the new man, because he genuinely felt that it was his duty to assist in “stretching the foundations of the better elements of native society.”
Wilson drove the 700 kilometers in easily half the time it would take today. The roads were in much better repair before independence when the abolition of forced labor as a form of taxing the local villages that were connected to the main North-South highway by dusty or muddy unpaved roads. He arrived early in the afternoon, and immediately began his inspection tour of the facility. He found everything in good order, complimented the white operations manager, and scheduled interviews for the next day. The Lagos hotel manager, a Yoruba, had recommended a young Ibo who had once been his assistant. The man had been born in the North, (far from the eastern Ibo homeland) and his immediate family was essentially Northern except in terms of blood ties. It was an easy choice, and by four o’clock on the day after his arrival in Kano he had arranged for the young man to return part of the way to Jos with him, where the new manager elect could stop at his village of origin and to arrive at the new resort in a week. Ostensibly, Wilson and the company were delivering the trainee a kindness in the form of a paid week off and a comfortable ride to his family home before requiring him to move to the secluded resort area. Wilson was also interested in the man’s village because it was the location of a cassava processing plant, built entirely by native labor and run by the village big men. Cassava, the plant from which tapioca is made, is a fibrous and starchy tuber. When cassava isn’t processed correctly, there is a danger that one of its components will be converted into cyanide in the stomach and people could die from ingesting it. There is a big incentive to take shortcuts in the processing, because the tubers are highly perishable and the production demands are high. For a decade, the indigenous processing plant had produced large inventories without any reported health hazards. Local ingenuity was an interest of Wilson’s, but the stop would give him the chance to learn more about his new, as well as an opportunity to indulge his acquired taste for short stints of village life.
It ended up that Wilson and the young man spent most of next day touring the village, spending time drinking stout beer and watching the women who worked for the factory as they climbed up steps carved into a cliff overlooking the Jos River, a cliff whose outline as seen from the fishing boats was said to replicate the profile of the village founder’s stern, enigmatic, ancestral face. Young girls who carried calabashes overflowing with fresh water, occasionally stopped near Wilson’s jeep to wipe their bare chests with dampened cloth, smooth mud over each other’s faces and shoulders as natural sunblock, and tell jokes about the unlikely pair who arrived in the vehicle. Their daily duty was to carry fresh water to their homes in the unyielding harmattan sun, since they could not effort to tap into the pipes that supplied the cassava processing plant. At dusk, the angle of light from the swollen tropic sun turned the growing shadows near the cliff wall into a skin of burnished bronze. Wilson descended the cliff wall, as he had seen the water carriers do, and was surprised at how clearly the clay-heavy water at the river shore reflected his image in the same red ochre color as the glaze worn by the water carriers.
It was nearly nightfall before Wilson was willing to pull himself away from the simple innocence and primitive order of the village. I could tell from the way he had often described such villages that they seemed to him a sufficient justification for the colonial system. The system had, in his view, protected these simple people and made it possible for them to live as he himself as a younger man had dreamed of living—without responsibilities beyond those of procuring one’s own needs and those of one’s family. Giving his farewells to the new recruit with almost open envy for the additional week of leave the man would have in the village, Wilson begrudgingly started off for his trip South, taking advantage of the coolness of the approaching night.
The first night was uneventful, and Wilson found a decent road inn with air conditioning where he spent the day. He then rose at dusk to drive the remaining desert miles in the cool darkness. The next day, he reversed his plan to spend most of the driving hours in daylight. He had entered the forest areas that kept their own atmosphere of humidity and septic smell even during the dry season. Halfway through the heavy mangrove forest, as the last minutes of sun ebbed away a day of quiet and contemplation, Wilson was jolted from his reveries by a cloud of steam rushing from the engine bonnet. After limping ahead a few kilometers, he realized that the engine would soon give out and he would now be stranded at least fifty kilometers from a village large enough to carry even a used water hose. He cursed himself for not having had the foresight to carry an extra hose or at least something to patch it with. Surveying the road for a place to pull over, he realized that he was sure to be stuck for the night wherever he stopped. Any passing traffic would surely hit his vehicle if he didn’t pull off the road into the tall grass, and doing so insured that he wouldn’t be seen at all from the road in the shelter and security that the cab would offer. Although he savored many aspects of village life, he had never grown accustomed to the African bush.
Finding a level spot off the right side of the road, he crossed over so that his jeep would face any oncoming vehicle. He hoped that in the morning his distress could be easily read from the undershirt that he tied to the radio antenna. Using a machete, he cleared a small space around the jeep and settled down to keep watch, comforted by the fact that should he fall asleep, the vehicle’s reflectors might be seen from the highway, and that, due to the bright moonlight and his attempt at making a clearing, no large animal could approach the cab without his knowledge. Roving bands of baboon had been known to shred a stranded driver in this transitional zone between the delta forest, savanna, and semi-arid lands that led to the mountainous North. He sat there for more than four hours, his Luger on the seat beside him, before he heard the droning of a straining motor shifting gears to mount one of the hills in the road ahead. In a few minutes, he could see the twin headlights speeding toward him, and was glad that he had pulled fully off the road. He made no attempt to draw any attention, not wanting to take the chance of being mowed down in the darkness, or risk the chance of meeting highwaymen.
The vehicle passed quickly, stopped abruptly a few hundred meters away, and slowly backed toward him. In the moonlight, he saw the familiar pipe frame of a van converted into a mammy wagon and the outline of its driver in the cab.
Wilson stopped in his recounting of the incident and mumbled, “Now, do you understand?”
“Understand what?” I replied, “That there is a similarity between this and my experience last night? I guessed something to that effect when you started. I even suppose that you suspect that it was the same man that…”
“Not a man”, he interrupted, “That was no man that you saw, that I saw—not a person.” He paused, leaving me to draw in the cryptic implications.
As you can imagine, I was totally nonplussed. It wasn’t his absurdly fanciful interpretation of the two events in Africa on the night roads. It was that such a superstitious interpretation was being presented by such a disciple of materialism. Wilson was no starry eyed romantic, no hysterical post-Christian missionary virgin hunting for the exotic (in lieu of the erotic) in African superstition and myth.
Wilson had been severely criticized the local newspapers on several occasions for ventilating such clap-trap as the hoax of the bleeding trees of Obonnepenni, documented by a European psychologist and so-called Jungian. At the start of the last rainy season, I could recall his annoyed jibes during the festival of the Black Hen. The blood splattered Juju doctors danced in the streets enacting a more literal doctrine of transubstantiation than the Pope could live with. Their steps announced the approach of the first rains in a somnambulant grace that was converted at the fatal moment into a shrill mockery of the death frenzy of the sacrificial cocks. The possessed birds cleared the throngs with their headless running, the spasmodic crowns and beaks protruding from the dancers’ bloody teeth.
I laughed heartily, thinking that I had finally gotten the practical joke being played on me by Wilson’s telling of an African version of a Washington Irving tale. But just as soon as the twinge of self-ridicule and amiable annoyance began to glow, I stifled my response with a half-mocking snicker. The emotion was blotted from my face, as I began to fear that I could not exhume the dark tapestry that he had woven with silent, deceptive threads under that blank exterior for so many years. Even as he anxiously continued his apologia, I could remember his earlier opinion of the Black Hen Festival: “Fear, damnable fear, and superstition have been the living hell of this continent. It took all the might of the Empire to get their minds out of the swamp long enough to build a few ragamuffin cities, and now they climb back into the mud every spring.”
He told a story that was in many ways a duplicate of my own. An Osu had told him how he had lost a wife in a tragic situation and sought her return. The difference was that he saw no living children, although what he saw had a more moving effect on Wilson than the flesh and blood misery had on me the previous night. The Osu had explained to Wilson that his wife had given birth to a set of twins. Wilson unnecessarily explained to me the customs of many of the forest tribes that demanded the immediate death of twins, often by leaving them in the forest in a basket to be taken by wild animals. His wife had not had the heart for this, and ran away with the children to another tribal village where this custom was not observed. Instead twins were seen as a good omen. This meant, of course, the perpetual banishment of the Osu and his other wives and children from their own village, since the taboo birth had taken place in the village and involved his kinship clan. The twins were male and therefore under that clan’s authority. With no propitiation to the forest for the contaminating event, the Osu had escaped with a horrific beating, avoiding the loss of his life, which would have been the consequence in an earlier time.
“It still happens in the villages,” Wilson explained, “The church sometimes prevents it in the short-run. But some accident always happens before the children reach initiation age. Twins are hated in the forest. Considered abnormal, sired by demons. They upset the balance of nature on which everything depends. Two souls born at exactly the same time in the same physical form violates the most important tribal prohibition. Everything has its opposite: a good child in the flesh and an evil child in the spirit are held in balance. If they take on flesh at once, suddenly there is too much good in the world, and too much evil. The forest breaks its seams, spilling sickness and death into the village. That’s how the gods punish those who create imbalance and try to cover it from their sight. You see I have thought deeply about these myths that you lecture so glibly about. I have had reason to think about them.”
“My God, man. I didn’t know you had an interest in metaphysics,” I said as sarcastically as possible, hoping to egg him on, “I thought you were all percentiles and rates of exchange.”
“I am telling you this. I am showing part of my soul, you fool. Can’t you see that?” He slumped again into exhaustion. His body had moments before taken on a remarkable tenseness as if he were about to explode, or as if the old wooden chair he sat in were electrified and had transfixed him there. Now only his eyes expressed visibly the suffering and the humiliating yearning for atonement and understanding that had quivered in his voice. For the second time during our encounters, I was impressed with his humanity. I reminded myself that my own political writings demonstrate that the next challenge to African socialism is to incorporate these warped souls of neocolonialism—black, white, and colored—into a humane one-party system. This lofty goal must begin with basic acceptance of the person, which I strove at that moment to muster within myself.
He continued, “Just as he had offered to show you diamonds and ivory, he offered me the same. While you refused, I accepted. I also climbed into the back of his lorry despite the sleep aching in my eyes. I somehow knew that there would be riches there, even though I’d heard scores of other fakers hawking their bogus wares in every corner of the region. When I climbed into the box and removed the tarp from the chest and opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
An Osu, an outcast that I was surprised to see with even the ability to buy an old mammy wagon to haul the rabble along the highways, had fine bronzes, ivory, pearls, everything he had promised. I demanded that he tell me where he’d stolen them from, what museum or shrine. He simply told me that he knew the Leopard. He meant someone high on the totem of the Leopard society. You know their initiation, the head of a virgin and of a firstborn child.” He again stared at me as if I had a complicity in his slanderous imaginings.
He spoke again, his eyes now pale green bugs dancing feverishly on yellow ponds, and he again assumed the shade that had brought me to his rescue earlier. But now I waited silently for this ritual of confession to be complete.
“These were nothing like the caricatures of native art that you see in the markets, nor like those in the National Museum in Kaduna. No, these were fine, realistic works, but with a kind of artistry and technique of expression that were dumbfounding, wounding, that brought me to tears. In the moonlight, I beheld what I first took to be the bronze image of two African children holding a begging bowl larger than themselves. It was as finely wrought as anything in this world. If the Osu hadn’t been so devilishly huge, I would have killed him for it then and there.”
Wilson became less coherent, his poorly connected description delivered in exclamations rather than full sentences. Occasionally a phrase encapsulating some of the effect of the sculpture, accompanied with extreme exhilaration, enthralled me as much as the speaker’s disintegration. Slowly, I was able to construct what he believed he had seen.