The kindness of strangers …

A matter of days after we arrived in Nigeria (see “How to make an ecologist #11”) a battered old Peugeot 504 station wagon pulled up alongside us as we walked from our hotel to get a bush taxi across Jos to the university campus. A North American voice called through the open window (we were later to discover that it never closed properly) and asked if we wanted a lift. We clambered in gratefully, the vehicle crunched into gear and pulled out into the traffic again. As the car lurched forward a whisky bottle rolled across the foot well and the driver, a lean man in his fifties, introduced himself as Alvin, a worker with CUSO, the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps or VSO. The whisky bottle, he explained, contained local honey (invariably sold with honeycomb and a few dead bees included). By the time we had made the mile or so journey to the centre of town where our routes diverged, he had invited us back to his house for dinner the following evening.

A week at the Plateau Hotel had been enough to exhaust our enthusiasm for their rather limited menu so we accepted with alacrity and, the following evening, his Peugeot grumbled up the driveway to the Plateau Hotel to collect us for the short drive to his house on the edge of the town where we met his wife Sylvia and ate her home-cooked food. They had had a furniture business in Kenora, Western Ontario, we learned, but had sold up to take a career break teaching in a technical college. Officially, Alvin taught woodwork (which he wryly summarised as showing students how to make long pieces of wood shorter) but he had an unofficial sideline in demonstrating how random acts of kindness made the world a better place. They and we bonded despite the age difference and, at weekends, we joined them in their elderly Peugeot to explore the region.

Fishermen on the River Benue, early 1990.   The photograph at the top of the post shows rock formations near Riyom, south of Jos (but taken some months later, during the wet season).

A few days ago  we heard news that Alvin had died after a long battle with cancer. Once our initial sadness had passed, we found ourselves smiling again as memories that had faded with time reasserted themselves. One trip, in particular, summed-up Alvin’s indomitable attitude, taking us south off the Jos Plateau into the heat of the northern Nigerian plain. I can’t remember the motivation for this trip, only that we spent the night in a guest house belonging to a mission, but only after a hair-raising crossing of the Benue River. Our first approach to the river was presaged by a sudden improvement in the road surface as we drove up an incline towards a very modern-looking bridge before Alvin stood on the brakes to bring us to a halt just before the road ended abruptly with just a few traffic cones between us and a vertical drop.

From this narrow escape we made our way on smaller roads to the ferry, where a narrow barge barely wider than the car itself was tied up with some planks bridging the gap to the steeply-sloping riverbank. At this point, the rest of us climbed out declaring our intention of recording the occasion on film, leaving Alvin to line-up the car at the top of the slope and then to slither down, across the rickety planks and onto the barge.  We followed him onto the barge and were shown into the open boat lashed to the side, from which the ferryman started up the outboard motor and pointed the ferry towards the line of trees that marked the opposite shore.

Boarding the ferry across River Benue, Nigeria, 1990.

We shared the broad river channel with a few small boats carrying foot passengers and a skiff from which a local fisherman and his son were casting seine nets.  There are reports of manatee and hippopotami from the river, though we did not see any, and there are almost certainly crocodiles too, though they kept out of sight.  Our ferry moved slowly diagonally upstream across the broad river channel towards the southern shore where the exercise was repeated (the river bank on this side was far less intimidating) and we were in Benue State.  This was the heartland of the Tiv ethnic group whose distinctive round huts were the subject of one of my very first watercolours.   The Tiv are the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, a farming people, proud of their yams.  Inside the round huts it is easy to imagine the scenes related by the anthropologist Laura Bohannan in her fascinating article Shakespeare in the Bush.

Having got to Tiv country on the Saturday evening we had to turn our eyes back towards Jos if we were to be back in time for work on Monday.   We took a more circuitous, albeit faster, route this time, crossing the river by the modern bridge and heading back along roads lined with mahogany plantations.   We stopped at a roadside stall beside one of these and haggled for a small pestle and mortar, which our Nigerian friends dismissed as hilariously inadequate and which imparted a tinge of brown boot polish to our first few batches of pounded yam.   And then Alvin was changing down the gears so that the Peugeot could haul itself back up to the milder climate of the Jos Plateau and we were passing familiar landmarks again.

A reconstruction of the Tiv village at the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture in Jos, circa 1990. 

Recalling Alvin and Sylvia at this time of year is apt, as hospitality to strangers is an integral part of the Christmas story.  They helped us find our feet and we, in due course (I hope) followed their example with other new arrivals.   After leaving Nigeria they moved to Minnesota, to be close to their children, where we visited them in November 2012 (I watched Bill Clinton’s first election victory from their front room).  Distances were too great to see them regularly but we kept in touch by letter and email.   Though I had not seen him for over twenty years, I felt the bonds we forged in Nigeria were strong and knowing that he is no longer here to share his dry humour and practicality is enough to give me pause for thought.

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