As I’ve said before, memory is a tricky thing, blurring out reams of happy days, etching other experiences so deeply that we can still smell the odors and feel their texture. Like this one:

We called it the armpit of Africa not just because of the geography but due to the smells, the heat, the humidity and worse. The week I arrived on temporary duty, a civil war still sputtered along in Nigeria’s east, a bomb had landed in Lagos canal, my Deputy Chief of Station had survived a home invasion by thieves, and I was stopped by a gun-waving policeman and forced to act as his chauffeur.

Elsewhere, General Gowan, new to power, had bulldozed thousands of pounds of freight into Lagos Bay. He said, wrongly, that it would solve his economy-killing demurrage issue. Soon, he would address another problem and hold a mass hanging of teef men on the beach.

I’d never been abroad before. I’d also never lived in such a big house – a small palace that came with dog, one situated in a lush garden on Ikoyi Island.

“Paradise complete with wormy apples,” I said more than once that first week, laughing. Then, those worms turned virulent one tropical night, heralded by the dog’s full-throated barking.

Lights from the garden filtered through sheer curtains. Shadows rippled across the floor – movement where there shouldn’t have been.

Noise came from outside now, loud enough to be heard over the young Labrador. I joined him at the doors, seeing an empty balcony beyond glass doors. But climbing up the trunk of a palm, just feet away, was a man. Below and beyond, figures ran about. Others crawled over the outer walls or came up identical trees bordering the house.

A grill barred the stairs. My bedroom door was locked, but the balconies ... . The man came higher. Something crashed downstairs. Then, the main gates screeched open and I saw the people rushing through brandishing clubs.

It was a scene from a noir film – all shadows and half-seen movement. The fragrance of frangipani and bougainvillea weighed on the dark. What was happening? Colors flashed as accents caught by garden lights.

Shots! Someone had a gun. Screams! Shouts! Unintelligible noise. Five minutes? One minute? A truck roared away, its exhaust pipes blasting acrid fumes. The men in the trees fell off like giant coconuts, landing on bare feet, disappearing. More time. Minutes?


I leaned over the balcony railing to see my night guard, a man who usually slept until dawn. The teef men were gone.

Later I would learn that guards up and down the road had come to our rescue – men angered by thieves who’d become so confident that they’d broken an unspoken law and killed a guard. Lucky me, they had massed for revenge just when I needed them.

Thus, my overseas’ career began with a story to dine out on. The first of many – long ago but unforgettable.

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