I recently wrote a piece for the Portland Press Herald based on their Meetinghouse theme of mistakes. They allow 500 words, and several of my friends, wrote that they wanted to hear more. Pleased to do it, and what follows is the original piece, and “wait, there’s more….”
Life is filled with them. We learn, or sometimes swear we will never learn when we repeat the same stupid one. They are fertilized by: haste, laziness, naivete, fog, distractions, and are woven into our lives. I’ve made mistakes while thinking myself smart. I have a hunch that happens to everyone. Spoiler alert: mistakes also have surprises, twists, and alternate interpretations.
Trading dollars for Naira via the “grey market” in Nigeria in the early 80’s, I made a legal exchange on the side of on a wind-swept hill; where I knew I could get a distinctly favorable rate. I had worn around $500 American cash in a money belt, flown into the country, and now needed Nigerian money to go to market. If I’d have used an official bank, I’d get 360 Naira per dollar, but on the “gray” (as contrasted with the black) market, I’d get 490. Very smart to do it this way suggested my Nigerian colleagues. On my first foray to the “gray market,” I brought half of my cash. This resulted in 122,500 Naira. I was cash rich as never before. The huge amount had me with five or six stacks of 100’s, 1,000’s, and more common denominations of 20’s, 10’s, 5’s, and singles. It was a grocery bag full of cash.
My housing there was as assigned to visiting professors, in that I was given a sparsely furnished half-duplex in a remote part of the huge campus. (I was at Obafemi Owolowo Univeristy in Ile Ife in southern Nigeria). The furnished bed had impossible springs, so I decided to sleep on the mattress on the floor. Next to it was a low bookcase. Perfect spot I figured to store the multiple stacks of Naira till I would use them.
I had learned that electricity would predictably black-out every night, and my mattress on the floor was then lit by a low gas lantern. In my fitful sleep I registered the sound of rain. (Not unlikely in the “rainy season”). Slowly coming awake next to my glowing lantern, I realized that where my stacks of Naira had been stacked was now an empty shelf. I got up, and realized that my back door was standing wide open to the dark African night. When My flashlight spilled out of the door it’s beam revealed that the rain was a hand pump in back of my house dripping slowly. (I was later told that the “bad guys” probably had used this sound to help cover the noise created by unpinning my back door from its hinges. Thinking this bookcase a safe place to stack money had obviously been the mistake. But wait.
As the sun rose, and the rain began to fall in earnest, it dawned on me that I had been totally naive to think this house secure. The choice to leave the stacks of money in plain sight, however, turned out to not be a mistake at all. Having them out in plain sight made this “snatch and grab” obvious and easy. No need to bash me over the head. Blissfully asleep next to stacks of Nigerian “Naira” money out for the taking.
How to identify the mistakes? Exchanging $250 in a “grey” or open market? Flaunting easy cash in a third world country? Assuming a simple door lock to be secure? Hearing running water, and mistaking it for rain?
Mistakes amid warnings…the rest of the story
As I have said, it seemed like I was in the middle of an ominous dream. I gradually awoke to the sound of water. Raining again, I thought, half-asleep. I wonder what time is it? I stretched and reached for my battery operated clock, and froze. The clock was there on top of my little bookcase, but the other shelves were empty. Last I looked there were stacks, stacks, and more stacks of Naira…adding up to approximately 122, 500 in all denominations. Stacks of them. I sat up.
In the dim light of morning, the glow of my gas lantern barely reached the back door. The door was open to the dawn. I walked over, and recognized that the door had been sprung open from its lock, and that it was still pitch dark Africa out there. The door was open wide. I had been robbed, and this was the door they used to get in and out. I turned up the gas lantern, and walked slowly around the silent one bedroom house. Pulled on my shorts and shoes, and began to breathe normally again. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. They were gone. I was o.k.
As I surveyed single floored house, I decided that I would stumble out for my morning run. I needed to do something to shake myself awake, shake myself from fear. I began most days with a run of several miles. The campus itself is vast, around 14,000 acres. My two miles were entirely along a red dirt road that bisected some of the acreage. I had continued my running habit when I arrived in Nigeria, finishing very early because of the heat of the day. A red clay dirt road was my typical route. Habit can provide solace. It helped me to shake off my sense of being violated; even though nothing had been physically done to me. “They,” whoever “they” were, had simply snatched the money and disappeared using the back door. Silently to myself on a loop, I kept saying, “no harm’s been done. If they had wanted to harm, my head was right there next to the bookcase.” I didn’t really miss this money, I’d enough left from funds deposited in the official bank to support my residence. Small comfort, such thoughts proved, though on continual repeat.
My fear and my heart beat did a cross-fade with the gradual light of dawn. I should have known, given the warning signs. Some warnings were in plain sight. From 1992 through 2000, the US Federal Aviation Administration had literal signs posted at all US international airports advising travelers that security conditions at Lagos Airport did not meet minimum standards. I flew Lufthansa, as American carriers were flying to Lagos. Arriving in the country I was asked to“dash” the Nigerian national customs officers, to help make my entry smoother. Have you ever heard of having to bribe (tip) custom officers to get into a country? The airport was sweltering, filled with murky smoke. Ominous. Dangerous to even pick up a car. Instead, a colleague had offered to greet me, and we glided out of the auto compound on a paved three hour trip to the campus. Upon arrival in the village of Ile Ife, not in the campus itself, my “driver” took me to safe artistic compound which served as my temporary location while my campus “house” was being completed, made ready for my use.
Not only had I been given a car and now a driver, but half of a duplex house was being readied. Next, when I got there I was introduced to Josephina the part time maid and cook who’d shop the local market and prepare meals for me. Each of these three things should have flagged warnings about the economic realities in the Nigerian economy. In our own country, a college professor would never have been furnished with driver, house, maid, and cook. Such service is dirt cheap at Obefemi Owolowo.
I was given use of a well maintained and well used Toyota. Cars in Nigeria are like cars in Havana. Old to be sure, but maintained in fine mechanical and physical shape. I was told to: a) Use the “crook lock” or iron bar provided with the car, which when locked would make the steering wheel immobile, and b) to remove the distributor cap when parked, so that the car couldn’t be stolen without this missing part. Maybe a crook could get past the wheel being locked, but would’t be able to replicate the missing distributor cap. The car wouldn’t start without it.
When I reported to the campus officials that I had been robbed in the night, the common phrase I overheard was: “I knew you’d be robbed, I just didn’t know when.” It hadn’t remotely crossed my mind that I’d be robbed, and I promptly asked the campus officials to secure the back door.
Turns out the average Nigerian annual income was around $250 per year and this of course turned out to be very close to the exact amount exchanged and missing. The campus workers who’d been in charge of making my house ready, said they had run out of time. They’d painted the back door, it could be locked, but they hadn’t secured it with any additional method. This they proceeded to do now after my robbery. The campus police also arrived, and told me that they suspected my house-keeper/ cook of this theft. . (She was from Ghana not Nigeria, and as such was an “outsider”. They declared her a suspect, which she denied. They never told me why she was suspected, except that she was from Ghana).
One final detail seems needed to cap this story. Two campus cops walked myself and Josephina, my housekeeper, on a path to the guard post for this part of campus. While walking they whispered to me that if I would tell their superior officer that I suspected Josephina’s involvement in the theft, they would take her to the police station in town. Town cops, they said, weren’t mild like campus police, but would pull out her fingernails and make her confess to her involvement in helping the robbers. All I had to do was to voice that I suspected her to their boss, and he’d take care of the rest. When we arrived at the campus post I was asked the magic question by their sergeant . “Who do you suspect of this theft?” Having been prepped to voice my suspicion of Josephina, I hesitated a beat and said, “I suspect no one except all Nigerians.” They didn’t like this answer at all and quickly repeated his question, and I repeated my answer. After much delay, there was no alternative to releasing Josephina.
While we were at the campus police station, my back door had been supplemented with with an iron bolt as well as an iron bar on the door, and now was totally impenetrable. Josephina, my cook, returned each day all summer long to fix what she’d found available at the market. It is true, I didn’t suspect her any more than the campus cops, nor the campus workers in charge of making my house secure.. Further, I had decided that had she confessed while having her nails removed, it wasn’t something I’d believe.
Speaking of warning signs. I was told to tie little strips of red ribbon in a few tree branches around the house. It would give warning of “bad juju” to all who would intrude. (Maybe the iron bars would help, too, I figured).
I felt like I had been rudely introduced to residential life at Obefemi Owolowo, and it was painfully obvious all aspects of life in Nigeria were different my own. I had been warned, and $250 or 122,500 but a small price to pay. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.