Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our Stay in Port Harcourt - Nigeria

There is an old saying– “If the king dislikes you and wants to covertly punish you – he gifts you an elephant”. In the navy, if they like you very much, they send you to Africa. So in December 1985, as a result of navy liking me very much and in recognition of my good performance, I was specially selected and sent on deputation, to serve as the ‘Chief Instructor’ (CI- being somewhat comparable to a principal of a collage ) in the Nigerian Naval college (NNC) – ‘Onura’, Port Harcourt. Five more officers and their families joined me on this deputation. From the Indian side I was designated as ‘Senior officer Indian Naval Training Team’. NNC Onura was commissioned on 25 Sep 81 for the training of naval cadets which entailed a two-year military and academic program. Seventh and last batch of cadets passed out from NNC Onura on 11 Aug 88. We were responsible for training cadets in1986 and 87.

Figure 1 Port Harcourt marked in red

A word about Port Harcourt - Capital of Rivers State and a port town in Southern Nigeria. It lies along the Bonny River (an Eastern distributary of the Niger), 41 miles (66 km) upstream from the Gulf of Guinea. Founded in 1912, in an area traditionally inhabited by the Ijaw people, it serves as a port, named after Lewis Harcourt - the British colonial secretary. Port Harcourt has long been an important merchant port and is today the centre of Nigeria’s oil industry. Its exports include petroleum, coal, tin, palm products, cocoa, and groundnuts. Among the industries of the area are timber processing, car manufacturing, food and tobacco processing, and the manufacture of rubber, glass, metal, paper products, cement, petroleum products, paint, enamelware, bicycles, furniture, and soap. Situated at 4 deg 40 min North, the weather is very similar to our coastal towns such as Kochi – hot and humid throughout the year with lots of rains and lightning.

The attraction of going to Nigeria was a very favorable pay packet and the idea of travelling abroad with your family. The whole family was excited with the thought of travelling and visiting new places. As a part of the Nigerian naval routine I was to join their Navy 10 days prior to our departure from India. Those 10 days we were put up in posh hotel in South Delhi. Staying in a star hotel was a very welcome change not only for us but also for all our kith and kin, who came visiting us. We entertained like there was no tomorrow, until one day a naval acquaintance who had been through the same routine earlier, told me “Pubs the Nigerian Navy (NN) does not foot the liquor bill which you have been merrily signing away”. Soon there was a temporary halt in my breathing system, followed by profuse sweating and loss of vision. The next evening when I was entertaining another friend (this time without any alcohol) I happened to narrate my predicament. The friend assured me that the hotel manager was a class mate of his and he would speak to him. The helpful manager was good enough to show the consumption as 'Compliments of the hotel'. A few days after we left the hotel, unfortunately, a devastating fire broke out in Siddharth Continental Hotel in January 1986 killing 41 people.

We flew JAL from New Delhi to Cairo. A good thing about NN is that, all officers of the rank of commander and above travel 1st class. The air hostess quickly changed the children into Kimonos as we relaxed with a single malt. Cairo airport was like a fish market and Egypt air was so scary the children mistook the hostesses for mummies and never asked for anything from them till we reached Lagos the Capital of Nigeria.

After a brief stay in Lagos, we landed in Port Harcourt airport. There was nobody to receive us and were left stranded in a new country - some 35 Km away from the city without any transport, telephone or any means of communication - hungry and restless children adding to the overall chaotic situation. This was the beginning of our ‘Nigeria Experience’. While patiently waiting for someone to come from the college, I noticed the marble plaque which loudly proclaimed “Port Harcourt International Airport, Inaugurated by his Excellency the Governor of Rivers State – Commander Suleiman Saidu on ………”.Prior to coming to Nigeria I attended the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, Ooty in 1982. There I had met a NN officer who used to talk big and walk tall, he used to often say – “brother I wrote the constitution, inaugurated airports, built bridges” and what have you – his name was Suleiman Saidu.I was happy that his claims were true and was thrilled to see his name on the plaque. As I settled down in Port Harcourt I came to know he was now the Home Minister. I went and called on him at the ‘Dodan Barracks’ the seat of power of the military government ruled by President - Major General Ibrahim Babangida.

After a three hour wait Lieutenant Commander Gagariga the Training coordinator of NNC arrived with the transport to take us home. We were driven to Hotel President, as our houses were not ready. We stayed in the hotel for almost a month. It became increasingly difficult for the hotel cooks to cater vegetarian food to six members of my team. LOH gave a stern warning and told me that she could not survive any longer on boiled eggs, bread, butter, jam, cheese, milk, fruits and fresh vegetables. I ordered an emergency meeting to solve this life threatening problem. Cdr Ghanti Narayanan volunteered to liaise with the cooks and in no time we were served the much needed Rasam, Sambhar, Baigan ka Bharta, Okra curry and many more. He was an instant hit with the team, especially with children.

Fig 2 - Some of the children of the team. Vivek and Akhila are at extreme Left and Right

Figure 3 - Indian Training Team and families
Finally we moved into our own houses after weeks of stay in five star hotels. What a relief to be in your own home. The newly constructed NN Officers Quarters had 12 houses, officers’ mess, swimming pool, tennis court and hundreds of king size chameleons in every nook and corner including the garage.

The children enjoyed home food after a very long break and LOH along with the other ladies were busy preparing curd under the directions of Jyothi Hariram. For the uninitiated – drop a broken red chilly into a bowl of warm milk. Next day take a spoon of the half set curd and add to warm milk – continue the same process for a day or two and abracadabra you will end up with the best curd in town.
Miss Patience joined us as the domestic help. We gave her quarters to stay and she was available 24/7. A smart and hard working girl with an impeccable sense of hygiene. She spoke Nigerian Pidgin which is an English-based pidgin and a Creole language spoken as a lingua franca across Nigeria. It was difficult to follow her in the beginning but got used to her slowly. Have you had breakfast and she would say –‘I go no have breakfast’ ‘I go land you slap’ meaning I will slap you, and scare the children by saying ‘mamy water go come’ – mermaid will come and so on. One day I told her “go to Geetha’s house and get me a suit case as I am going to Lagos – do you follow me” and even after I had repeated it twice there was no response so I asked her if she understood, to my surprise she said “I no go follow you to Lagos masta (meaning master)”. She was very good with our children who were aged eight - son and six - daughter. She learnt Karnataka cooking very fast and would have our dishes piping hot when the children came home. One morning she told Jai that “curd go walka walka” meaning it had not set. Four years after returning to India and posted in Naval Head Quarters, New Delhi I received a letter which was addressed “To – Camder Pabakar, Navy, India”. A remarkable feat by Indian Post and Telegraph. She had written to Jai, saying she was unhappy that we left her behind; life was very bad in Nigeria etc.

Figure 4 - Patience with all of us

My children initially went to Port Harcourt Primary School and did very well in Bible Knowledge and came home every time ‘Mamy Water ‘visited their school. Later on they joined Indian Cultural Association School where Jai joined as a teacher along with Mitalesh and Geetha. All the children used to be driven 35 Km to the school by my driver ‘Friday’ in a ‘Peugeot Saloon’. My car used to log a whooping 200Km every day. They never cleaned the spark plugs – they just threw it out. I am told that an Indian collected all these old plugs, took them to Ghana and got it cleaned – repacked and sold them as new.

Figure 4 - Jai with Mrs. Aikhomo wife of Admiral Aikhomo Vice President of Nigeria in white dress

Figure 6 - Meeting some of the girl cadets

Life at NNC was like any other Indian naval establishment, except when the unexpected happened. Ekpo the logistics officer once misplaced his revolver and went to the local witch doctor to seek advice. Unfortunately for him the concoction he drank made his body fold up in complicated contortions and the allopathic doctor had a tough time disentangling him. Nelson was a very strict Gunnery officer. One day I suddenly heard a revolver fire in the office lobby and to my astonishment I found that he being unhappy with the condition of the cadet’s shoes, had fired a round in the proximity of the leg. Talk about jungle justice. The college doctor Surgeon Lieutenant Afaloyan once operated a sebaceous cyst on my back without any local anesthesia and when I was howling in pain, he said ‘ah I think there go be no pain’. Later I came to know that Africans have a very high pain threshold. Lightning is very common and frequent in equatorial Africa and we had got used to it. One night it struck our colony very badly and all of us were jolted out of our sleep – the air around us was totally ionized and glowing. The lightning struck our house and discharged through the geyser. It was compulsory to attend ‘Happy Hour’ (tradition from the US navy) every Friday afternoon in the Officers mess. The HH started exactly at 1230h with the introduction of visitors, followed by jokes and riddles, contribution of money into the magic tray, endless tankards of beer, snails and suya (kebab). Ghanti used to regale them with jokes and riddles borrowed from my son Vivek. If house A - dries clothes in 1h and 20 min and house B – in 80 min – which house dries clothes faster? “Ah no paper and pencil oh – you go be no fair”. The only thing I could not partake was bush meat eating – ant eaters, rodents, lizards, porcupine, rabbits and other animals from the bush.

Figure 7 - Training Team - Both IN and NN officers

Nigeria is a very rich country with lots of oil, minerals and wealth from forest, sea and Niger River. The nation is still experimenting with governance, alternating between civil and military regimes. Their wealth is yet to circulate and reach all citizens. It is very heavily dependent on imports. In spite of all these shortcomings, Nigerians are a set of happy go lucky and friendly people with no tomorrow. They take life easy and are not unduly worried if something goes wrong. They brush it aside by saying “ah no go worry yo”. They eat whenever they feel hungry, not like us, eating at designated times of the day. They love music and dancing and one can see small children spontaneously breaking into an extraordinary rhythmic dance in the market place. Along with Ghana this part of the world was called the ‘Slave Coast’- who later on became the forefathers of Jazz. We were blessed to attend the ‘Pan African Jazz Music’ festival in PH.Their markets are called Mile 1, Mile 2 market and so on. They also have a ‘Go Slow’ market wherein you sit in the car and do shopping as the traffic moves at snail’s pace. Talking about snails they go well with chilled beer. They love their beer and stout and order by the crate. Never go and order “Give me one beer” it means one crate of 12.Their eating habits is very similar to Kerala – yam, dried fish, prawns, plenty of boiled rice, tapioca, pineapple etc. They love cars and fast driving. Their roads were built by the Germans and cars came from oil money – together it’s a very explosive combination. They are very clean and tidy. One day in the month, the whole nation comes out and cleans their surroundings – akin to our Shramadhan. After their school and college everyone does two years of compulsory service in ‘Youth Corps’ – a large body of manpower used for nation building. One should by chary of travelling at night in their cities out of fear of being mugged by armed robbers – a legacy from the Biafran civil war of the seventies. My very dear friend MC came to Lagos from Bangalore in the late seventies and on the very first evening in the city, the armed robbers took away all his belongings and did a ‘Full Monty’ on him. (Read my earlier blog – MC with pigeons in -

Figure 8 - Jai in typical Nigerian dress with Captain Davis NN

Figure 9 - Typical party in my house - NN officers and a few NRI

There was a sizeable Indian NRI community living off the wealth of Nigeria – essentially involved in FMCG trading, small time industry, doctors and teachers. Very regrettably the majority were not interested in contributing or giving anything back to the country. A lot of them did not even mix or socialise with the locals. They called all the locals ‘kalus’ and were generally loud, selfish, ostentatious and bordering on the vulgar.

One fine morning we read in the news papers that the Naira had been devalued from Rs 14 to 3. As we were being paid in Naira, it became extremely difficult and untenable to continue with the deputation and GOI recalled us back to New Delhi.

So our stay ended in Nigeria and we returned home rich with experience, lots of friends and tons of Nigerian navy goodwill.


  1. Fun times.
    Today 1 Naira is 30 paise :)

  2. Hi PraBhakar ( Pabbi). This is Vasanth from NC. I was in the Naval NCC at NC when you were the cadet captain and came across this blog. Are you in Bangalore? Can I have your email ID so I can write and reconnect?
    Dr. Vasanth K Joshi