How on earth to describe this incredible evening? We arrived in what we thought was our finery to find 500 or so people amazingly dressed in a mix of European dress (DJs, sharp lounge suits, heavenly evening frocks like the red satin strapless number at the next table), ladies in bright prints and traditional headties, venerable old Tribal Chiefs in kaftan/trousers and bowler hats, and everything in-between. Our first lesson was how it feels to be a Minority: apart from an American woman who had been married to a Nigerian for 17 years we (i.e. six of our group) were the only white faces there.
I must say that I’ve never been had quite so much fun at a diplomatic party. There were choirs (I scored over my colleagues in being able to join in the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness”), dancers, stand-up comedians (we understood about 50 percent of their jokes which all seemed to be about the misuse of mobile phones … same the world over …) and an amazing dinner with plenty of wine (Spanish!) which, as Nigerians don’t drink much, drifted our way quite a lot.
Then there were speeches …. The occasion for the Banquet was the celebration of Democracy Day: ten years since military rule ended in Nigeria and also since Rivers State was founded. It is no secret, of course, that Nigerian politicians have had a bad press among their own people as well as foreigners for corruption and greed but there really does seem to be a hunger for change and we sensed a general feeling in Rivers State that the Governor (H.E. Rotimi Amaeche, who was elected two years ago) really is trying to do some good and to change this image. He stressed the need for transparency and access to Government, but also reminded us that the Administration can only do so much by itself: it needs the commitment of ordinary people to bring about change. Of course, it’s easy for politicians to spout fine words, but we later talked to a very impressive female entrepreneur (she of the red satin dress!) from the opposition party who obviously had a great respect for him and what he was trying to do.
Governor Amaeche’s speech was interesting but loooong and we were tired soapmakers, but of course that wasn’t the end because we had not yet had the customary speech welcoming – us! Luckily we didn’t have to step forward and introduce ourselves, but we were filmed for local telly – so we were soap stars indeed!