In Nigeria, the company I worked for operated very large cutter-suction dredge. It was a barge-like vessel with a long arm hinged to one end and a winding tail of two-foot-diameter pipe stretching from the other. A rotating cutter on the end of the arm chewed up the bottom material, and a centrifugal pump sucked the sand, clay, and water from the bottom and forced it through the pipe to the landfill where it was to be deposited. At the dredge’s heart, below the living and control spaces, a huge, slow-rotating diesel engine generated power for the cutter and the pump. A crew of five Americans and 30 or more Nigerians operated the dredge. The Lagos office, of which I was the Assistant Manager, provided logistical and administrative support, but cost accounting and payroll were the responsibility of the dredging operation.
On the dredge’s crew, Babatunde Salami, with a degree in accounting from a school in London—the longest, coldest year of his life, he said—kept the accounts and payroll. He had two clerks, Jimmy Igbo and Fred Dudu. Neither had more education than enabled him to read and write, do filing, and answer the radio. Jimmy was unremarkable in dress and appearance, deferential, happy to have his job, competent in English but not comfortable. Fred was a dandy in the Nigerian manner of the time. He wore his hair three inches high and flat on top. His shirt, always open halfway down his chest, was fitted and colorful, his pants tight down to the bell bottoms, which did not hide two-inch-high platform shoes. He spoke English better than most of the crew. He clearly believed himself far above his run-of-the-mill peers. As far as I could tell, surprisingly, his Nigerian peers put up with him. The American crew thought him ridiculous and not very bright, and his name did not diminish that impression. However, an incident occurred one day, when Fred had been employed for several months, that caused all of us to question our estimation of him.
The dredge was working in Lagos harbor, deepening a channel and reclaiming part of its shoreline. This made our support convenient; the dredge was only a couple of miles away from the office, across the waters of the harbor. On this particular day, as had become routine, Fred was dispatched to the office in a small boat run by a crewman to pick up mail, minor sundries, and the bi-weekly payroll for the dredge crew and replenishment of the dredge’s daily operating funds.
As it had done before, the small boat took Fred up Ikoyi Creek to a place where there was a lane between the houses and beached there. Fred hopped out and walked the two blocks to the company’s office. There the Nigerian office manager handed Fred a cardboard box of sundries and a satchel containing a little over 9,000 Nigerian Naira, about 14,000 U.S. Dollars, in cash. Fred returned to the boat, and the boat recrossed the harbor to the dredge. As the boat came alongside, the swells and chop of the harbor made boarding the dredge tricky, especially for Fred, who said he could not swim.
As the boat lifted and swayed, Fred, with one platform-shod foot on the boarding ladder, the other on the boat’s gunnel, and the satchel in one hand, fell in. In the thrashing around of being rescued, he let go of the satchel. It sank like a rock, in fact, sank much more like a rock than some of the crew, especially the captain, thought it ought to have.
Fred got very little sympathy for his mishap. The captain, who had witnessed the event, and the other Americans immediately suspected that the satchel had contained only rocks and that Fred had made a little switch between the office and the boat. The Nigerians did not venture opinions. The possibility of sending a diver down to find the satchel was longingly considered, but the dredge had no diving equipment, and the water of the harbor there was deep and murky. Nothing could be done. The payroll was replaced, the mail was lost, and Fred, who had never been a particularly valued employee, soon—but not immediately—was let go.
I wish I could resolve the doubt that remains. I can’t. But it is suggestive that two years later Fred Dudu showed up at the company’s Houston office looking for a job. A windfall of some kind, perhaps an inheritance from a rich uncle, had come to him and enabled him to come to the U.S., every working Nigerian’s dream. His application was not regarded favorably.