DOWRY PSALMODY NIGERIA
To secure approval from the family, a box packed with whisky, rum, gin, champagne and fine wine was a pre-requisite. Also, a dozen lengths of the fabrics used to make traditional clothes (the ubiquitous plagnes), a fat wallet of folding money and a few other ceremonial bits and pieces, all prescribed in a neatly typed list of items required for the dowry. It seemed a good bargain for my English friend John who needed the family’s permission to marry the beautiful Benedicte after a couple of years of what I am sure they would both call courting. She was serene and smiling throughout the high-spirited reception that followed the hilarious debate between the bride’s family and John’s hastily acquired local advisers. John was smiling as well – but nervously. The dowry discussion was the single traditional aspect of the nuptials on the day, and had more than a hint of pastiche about it (I believe that all traditions develop into parody then pastiche before ending in complete farce). John, facing his first marriage in his 50s, told me that this discussion was where it could all break down: was the whisky a good enough brand? Were the plagnes good enough quality? Was there enough money in the wallet? One of the witnesses had, in a crowd-pleasing aside, enquired loudly after the expected (but unlisted) goat; another chancer had hidden one length of fabric inside another to make the dowry look insufficient; another stormed out of the meeting dramatically shouting over his shoulder to a totally confused John to “just leave the stuff here, elope with the girl and be done with it”. Once everything was double-checked, the father brought the play to an end with a wide-ranging prayer partly in French and partly in Baoule, part-Christian and part-animist, calling on the spirits of the forest and the Holy Spirit and a host of saints, sinners, seers and celebrities. While intoning, he was carefully dribbling good rum onto the linoleum, and offering tots from the bottle to the witnesses, including me.
At last the ceremonial was over. The pleasure could begin. John had won the girl for a mess of pottage and received the blessing of her extended family (one of whom still looked doubtful, to say the least – although her expression lightened considerably over the next few hours). We all trooped out from the dark stuffy room into the dappled sunlight and light breeze for the reception party, with John blink-squinting rapidly like a liberated pit pony in relief and refreshment. Here, one hot Saturday under a marquee and generous tree-cover, the conjoining of the happy couple was made almost complete, their pleasure witnessed by around 120 guests on some 12 tables decorated with flowers and fabrics in the colours of the ceremony in the rural village of Gbagba in the district of Bingerville. The excited bride and worried groom underwent a total of four complete changes of dress over the next few fun-packed hours, variously themed on classical Cote d’Ivoire, Neptune and the Sea, the spirit of the forest and, impenetrably, Ancient Rome. With each change they had to rumba and sway their way around all the tables to a Eurodisco beat, John gaining in confidence with each unexplained change of
Wedding of John and Bene, Bingerville, January 2018
apparel. Music blared all day from over-egged amplifiers. Various DJs commanded performances, toasts, public humiliations and other rituals. There was dancing, drinking and delight. The nuptials will be completed with a sober Protestant wedding somewhere in Surrey in a few weeks when Benedicte may in turn also wonder what on earth is going on in the stained-glass psalmody and dusty sunbeam profundity of the High Church Home Counties.
Back in harness I joined the Presidential delegation in a short visit to Liberia, where I met and shook hands with George Weah, the new President who took over in a uniquely peaceful democratic transition from the previous President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. George Weah is already well known as the greatest footballer of his generation, the 1990s, winning the Ballon d’Or, the Onze d’Or, three times the African Player of the Year, and FIFA World Player of the Year. After a pitstop in Abidjan, I was off to Nigeria in the same week, on my first visit there since 1981, and before that, since 1960 when my family moved back from Nigeria. We were in Abuja, the official capital, where a mix-up at the customs on entry led to the extraordinary result that after paying $175 for a visa to enter the country, I was somehow and rather suspiciously allowed entry but did not get the visa stamp or a receipt for the money. Our delegation had long departed. In a bewildering series of further transactions which involved me giving some money to another Englishman who did obtain his visa but had paid too much, I was then reimbursed with $200 and welcomed into Nigeria with a smart salute. I actually ended up a few dollars wealthier. This makes me surely the first person in recorded history to leave a Nigerian customs post with more money than when approaching it. My fears on exiting the country visa-less two days later were justified but ultimately needless; I was waved past with a smile. Clearly, I should go more often.
The weather became hotter through the month as the rain came less often and the Harmattan abated. I joined the Hash House Harriers on two occasions, but made a hash of it on the first occasion by starting at the end point, marked on the map as A, and making for the start point 14 kilometers away, indicated as B. Long before I got anywhere near the real start point, I had tired of jogging on my own on the side of a busy motorway in 30 degrees, but just then a police car stopped beside me and I was asked what I was doing. I explained the predicament, and got one of those stares from the two policeman indicating that they thought I was raving mad. They had seen me from the control tower, and must have thought I was some sort of drugged vagrant in my plastered shirt, floppy hat, running shorts and tennis shoes. They offered to give me a lift, so I arrived home in the back of an Ivorian police car. The guardians of the building, with whom I often share light banter as I come and go, stared at me in total amazement, and my popularity with them has risen to new levels. For them I am indeed a man of influence, high standing and good connections, and not batshit crazy after all.
Yours from the eaves,