A Portuguese hat in Nigeria

The devil is in the detail or is it, it is the little things that are worth paying attention to in life? Both have a slightly different meaning, but minor details and little things can make big impressions here. The sign at the entrance of my hotel in Port Hartcourt was one of those. ‘No firearms beyond this point.’ You wonder why someone thought it would be necessary to put that up in a hotel called ‘Beverly Hills’. Another sign inside the lobby made me wonder again. ‘This hotel is anti-money laundering compliant.’ What kind of clientèle do they actually intend to serve here?



The restaurant made me wonder again, as it was serving excellent Lebanese food, next to the Nigerian interpretation of continental food (and meat and poultry filled Nigerian platters). This riddle was solved quickly. The manager of the hotel and restaurant was a Lebanese and made a real effort to show his Middle Eastern hospitality. I ate a fattouche salad, falafel and humus that I can recommend to anyone.

Looking out of the restaurant there wasn’t much to see besides a road filled with traffic, but a clicking sound caught my attention when I had breakfast the first day. It drew in closer and closer and when it past, there was a man with a ‘clipper’ in his left hand, and holding a sewing machine with his right hand on his neck. The tailor announced his presence in the street. It made me smile.

I never walked on the street, besides not knowing where to go or having the time, I had to be inside. I was providing training for the partners of Oxfam on Monitoring and Evaluation to help them show the results of their projects. This is a process which is all about paying attention to details. With the excellent help of my colleagues of Oxfam Nigeria, our partner organisations worked through the training with much enthusiasm.

Some of the details told about the projects left those big impressions. Like the man that kept on referring to ‘the restless youth’ that needed to be addressed in the communities they worked in. It turned out that the ‘restless youth’ were actually youth with firearms in the Niger Delta. They are part of the Economy of Oil as it is referred to, with lots of young men with guns, a.k.a. militia trying to get their hands on oil spills and threatening anyone that gets in their way. Maybe this would explain the sign at the entrance of the hotel.

It explained as well why the restaurant served mostly meat and poultry, but no fish. A woman in the training remarked ‘There’s so much oil pollution, there’s just no fish anymore in the Delta.’

I’ve only seen scraps of what the Delta might look like on my way to and from the airport. Luscious green patches with palm oil and coconut trees, papaya, tropical forest and marsh lands with white birds on their stealth legs, picking their way through the mud and grass – like they did in front of the airport.

An airport with peculiar details as well. The arrival hall was in a tent, but the departure hall has been done up recently, but with the usual not so logical check-in process. Especially, the part when one of the ‘airport’ officials asked me and my colleagues for a bribe. We were all quite shocked as it was such a blatantly open attempt. She saw my luggage, asked who the owner was and said ‘I need money for transport and food.’ My colleague reacted immediately, ‘Excuse me what is this country coming too? I don’t believe what I’m hearing,’ and looked really angrily at her. She backed off, but it was certainly a devilish detail.

Since then I’ve been waiting for three and half hours for my flight back to Abuja. All thanks to the President of this country, who carries the auspicious name of Goodluck Jonathan. His decision to fly out of Abuja (where we need to go) affects the timetable of almost every other flight, including ours. What a detail is of no importance to him, is a big thing to us.


Fernando Pessoa
Fernando Pessoa

Fortunately I did find out one little thing about this man that made me smile. The President always wears the same black ‘bowler-mix-of-western’ hat in every picture I have seen of him, which I saw quite often with other guests in the hotel. When I asked one of the participants for clarification, he explained, ‘This hat is a sign of being a Southerner and was originally brought here by the Portuguese.’ I realised this was true, as I’ve seen that hat many times on pictures of my most favourite Portuguese poet: Fernando Pessoa. Now isn’t that a nice little note to leave this seemingly gloomy Delta on?

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