House on Fire

House on Fire by William H. Foege

Book: House on Fire by William H. Foege Read Free Book Online
Authors: William H. Foege
read up on our new home as we traveled south. We disembarked at Lagos, at that time the capital of Nigeria. Lagos was hot, humid, colorful, noisy—and crowded. People were accustomed to moving in very close quarters, whether on the street, in queues, in taxi cabs, or in the market. My brief experience in India was somewhat of a preparation, but this was all new for Paula and of course David. After several days in Lagos, we traveled to Nigeria’s Eastern Region, stopping for a night in the city of Enugu, the region’s capital. Though much smaller than Lagos, Enugu nevertheless offered shopping and amenities that, on occasion during the coming months, would lure us into making the three-hour drive from our village home ninety miles northeast, over dirt roads that seemed to test our body parts’ ability to remain connected.
    Dr. Bulle had arranged for us to spend our first six months in the village of Okpoma, about fifteen miles from Yahe, so we could learn the local language, Yala, and learn about the culture through daily contact with the villagers. Our home in Okpoma was a mud-walled house with four rooms: a living room, a kitchen, a “master” bedroom, and a bedroom for David. There was no electricity, running water, or indoor bathroom. For washing up, we put a tub on the floor of David’s room and carried in water. In the village, the living room of every home was considered communal. It was not only accepted but expected that village members would enter our living room and sit down to observe and learn about us. This they did daily, so the learning was reciprocal.
    The village was far quieter than the cities, except at night. Every night resounded with drumming. An important chief from our village had died just before our arrival, so drumming occurred nightly for the first several weeks. We quickly became accustomed to the noise and found that it actually provided a soothing background to sleep.

    Map 1.
Nigeria, 1966–67
    We had been instructed on how to behave when the current village chief made his first visit, including offering him a glass of palm wine. We also were informed that he much preferred beer. One day soon after we arrived the chief came to the house, sat in our living room, and conversed with us through an interpreter. When we offered him a glass of beer, he was obviously pleased. The custom with palm wine was to sip off the top layer of the liquid, which could contain foreign material and insects, and spit that mouthful out before consuming the wine itself. Following that practice, he sipped the beer’s top layer and, to our surprise, spit it on the living room wall. Our three-year-old son was obviouslyimpressed. That night, before going to bed, he asked for a glass of powdered milk. He took a mouthful and spit it on the wall!
    It was September when we arrived, shortly before the rainy season yielded to the dry season. As the dry season progressed, we came to appreciate the sheer luxury of year-round water available at the tap at home in the States. The village’s name, “Okpoma,” means “place of the salt.” The ground contained so much salt that it provided a commercial industry for local inhabitants. However, the well water was too saline for consumption. Water catchments were used during the rainy season. In the dry season, the villagers would walk to streams and water holes to get drinking water. As the hot, dry weather continued and nearby water sources dried up, they had to travel longer and longer distances on foot to access larger water sources. This work most often fell to the women.
    Life was not easy for any of the villagers; however, the women worked incredibly hard, while the men could often be seen resting. During the dry season, the women’s day would start early with a three- to five-mile walk to a water source; the women would return with heavy pots of water balanced on their heads. Two morning water trips were followed by work

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