The last time I had time to reflect on my professional life, I wrote about my time as a postdoctoral researcher studying the history of Mediterranean landscapes (see “How to make an ecologist #10”). That was just an 18 month contract and as the months ticked down towards the conclusion, I had to think about what I wanted to do next. Heather and I shared a desire to see more of the world but, rather than just follow the standard backpacker’s routes around the more exotic parts of the world, we wanted to settle somewhere (preferably warm) and live and work for a couple of years. But where, and what would we do?
The sad truth is that, having spent several years learning more and more about less and less, I had relatively few transferable skills that would make me employable outside my narrow specialism of freshwater ecology and, outside of the developed world, this pretty much limited me to work in universities or research institutes. Ten years earlier, there were ample opportunities for British academics to work in Commonwealth universities, but there were few opportunities by the late 1980s. I scanned the job vacancies in New Scientist and the Times Higher Education Supplement, but there were few that were worth pursuing. As the time to the end of my contract started to be counted in weeks rather than months, I heard from someone that Nigeria was still recruiting lecturers. I wrote a letter more in hope than serious anticipation and, to my surprise, both Heather and I were invited to interviews at the Nigerian education attaché’s office amidst the computer, hi-fi and photography shops on Tottenham Court Road in central London. A letter arrived a couple of weeks later offering us both jobs at the University of Jos in Plateau State, central Nigeria. I was to be a “Senior Lecturer” and Heather was “Lecturer #2”. The prospect of two jobs made this doubly attractive even if the salaries on offer were miniscule. Friends who had worked in Nigeria in the early 1970s had earned good salaries by UK standards, with plenty of benefits. The Nigerian economy had, however, crashed in the early 1980s and local salaries were about a tenth of their UK equivalents. However, we were young and idealistic, and living on local salaries would be no great hardship for a couple of years. The point of our endeavours was to immerse ourselves into the local culture rather than just observe from the outside. Living on the same – or similar – terms to those around us was a part of the deal.
The dusty backstreets of Kano, in northern Nigeria, photographed in 1990. The top photograph shows calabashes on display in Kurmi market.
And so we landed at Kano airport in northern Nigeria in late November 1989, just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The university had given us an extra baggage allowance so we travelled with two trunks and a couple of suitcases each, along with an uneasy sense of problems ahead as we got this all through customs. Serendipitously, we had met, via a friend, a Nigerian Anglican minister called Henry who was doing an MA in Theology in Durham just as we were preparing to leave. He had told us that he had a sister who was a customs officer at Kano Airport and took our names and flight details. We thought nothing more of this at the time but, as we were queuing at passport control, a Nigerian official pulled us from the line and we were introduced to Henry’s sister and then fast-tracked through immigration. It was our first experience of the myriad byzantine pathways by which one navigated Nigerian bureaucracies. In two years we never had first-hand experience of the corruption that is rife in Nigeria’s public sector but this was the first of many instances where being a friend of a friend eased our way through the complexities of Nigerian official life.
And so we emerged into the noise and heat of the arrivals hall, wrestling to keep control of our baggage trollies from the many taxi drivers and touts, and looking for representatives of the University of Jos who we assumed would be waiting for us. There was nothing. Crowds milled around us, offers of taxis and hotels were shouted at us, but no-one came for us. The mass of people slowly thinned out as our fellow passengers were met or found themselves taxis, but still we waited in the arrivals hall with all our luggage. Eventually, after consultation with an airport official, all our luggage was piled into two taxis and we were ferried to the Central Hotel, the biggest and (at the time) most superficially luxurious of Kano’s hotels (the assumption being, I presume, that we were rich bature [white people] who would settle for nothing less). We unloaded our luggage, paid the taxi driver in dollars, not having any local currency at this stage, and checked into the hotel.
Indigo dye-pits in Kano, northern Nigeria, 1990.
Kano is an ancient, dusty city, sitting at the south end of the trans-Saharan trade routes. It is a fascinating place, with an old town still dominated by buildings in the traditional Hausa style, with traders lining narrow lanes selling a huge range of traditional and modern goods. We would have our chances to explore Kano on later visits but this first visit saw us confined to Central Hotel, trying to contact the University of Jos by telephone and, then, waiting for their driver to cover the 300 kilometres between the two cities to collect us. It was mid-afternoon before he arrived and stared askance at the heap of luggage that he had to cram into his Peugot 504 estate along with us. We were, however, about to get our first lesson in the ability of Nigerian drivers to wedge enormous amounts into what appears, at first glance, to be an impossibly small space. Finally, we squeezed ourselves into the small spaces that remained once our luggage had been installed and the car pulled out of the Central Hotel’s car park and we headed into the northern Nigerian savannah for the last stage of our journey.
A reconstruction of Zaria mosque, built in the traditional Hausa style, at Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA), Jos, photographed in 1990.