For Christmas, my sister Janet and I got matching red bicycles. Everybody else in Nigeria rode full-size men’s Raleigh bikes with black frames, even the kids whose legs were too short for them to sit on the saddle, so they stuck their feet through the frame and rode sideways in an incredible trick of balance and ingenuity. Dad ordered ours special from the Raleigh assembly plant in Zaria, and his choice of bright red for the frames was not too surprising since he had previously ordered a fire engine red Ford Falcon station wagon directly from the Ford plant in Windsor, Canada, the only place they made them right-hand drive. So we rode the only red bikes, and Janet probably had the only girl’s bike, in town. He certainly wasn’t concerned about us looking conspicuous, any more than my mother had been concerned about dressing the whole family in homemade Howdy Doody red and white checkered outfits on the 4th of July.


We'd landed in Northern Nigeria shortly after independence, back when giant pyramids of 100 lb. burlap bags of peanuts landmarked the Kano airport, before the oil boom turned a pastoral agricultural country into a boisterous traffic jam of greed and corruption. We spent our first night in the government rest house in the residential section of the Samaru Agricultural Research Station recovering from the long flight from Tehran. We had a brief layover in Rome where my mother phoned the air freight office to make sure our German Shepard, aptly named Shep, had arrived safely and had settled into the airline’s kennel to wait for the connecting flight to Kano.


“Please, madam, come quickly! He has broken out of his crate,” the shaken freight manager replied. The Rome airport kennel for pets turned out to be a fantasy of the booking agent in Tehran. We piled into a taxi and found Shep barking and howling for revenge behind a pile of shipping crates erected to keep him from escaping through the hole he’d clawed in his plywood shipping crate. He was delighted to see us, lapping up quarts of water and wolfing down plates of spaghetti, the only food the sheepish freight manager was able to provide. Then we took him for a walk so he could relieve his tortured bladder. (He had been in the crate for over a day, and when we released him the crate was still dry.) Finally we had to leave to catch our flight, and the freight manager promised that Shep would be on the next cargo flight scheduled to leave that night. We somehow enticed Shep back into the hastily repaired crate, had a tearful farewell, and climbed back into the taxi to catch our flight.


Janet and I were exhausted when Mom sent us to bed in the Samaru rest house, but sleep was out of the question what with the excitement of the journey and our worry about Shep in the hands of the airline cargo workers. We pretended to sleep while Mom and Dad carried on a whispered conversation in the sitting room when there was a knock on the door. The door opened and closed several times and we could hear a heavy box being lifted from a truck and deposited on the veranda. We huddled behind the door to listen to the commotion in the sitting room when suddenly it opened and in bounded Shep amid much clattering of toenails and licking of our faces. To make up for their blunder, the airline had put Shep on the next available flight and had him delivered that night to our delight. They also brought the crate used to ship him, and for months after whenever Shep came near it in the garage he bristled and growled at it.


We lived in a spacious airy bungalow with Shep, an African Gray parrot whose name eludes me, a cook named Sebastian, and his assistant Anthony. Designed for the tropics before air conditioning became common, the house had thick concrete walls, polished concrete floors that left Shep sliding and clawing for traction when he rounded a corner too quickly, many windows, and a long hallway bordered on one side by a long row of concrete louvers open to the outside to catch the evening breeze. This also left the house open to mosquitoes, so each bedroom was equipped with a wooden canopy over the bed to support a mosquito net. We slept under mosquito nets and took our weekly malaria suppressive religiously, even after carpenters had been summoned to figure out how to retrofit house screens over the louvers and security mesh on the windows.


Pine trees didn't grow in those tropics, so for a Christmas tree we had a potted decorative palm with needle-like leaves, and for lack of a chimney we hung our stockings on the back of the sofa with care. I like to think we plugged our Christmas lights into a transformer to bring the 220 volt mains down to 110, but more likely we sourced the lights locally. Yet I’m sure that Christmas carols were everywhere, from the reel-to-reel tape recorder or the always-out-of-tune piano rescued from the Club where it had been pounded on by drunken homesick scientists on research sabbaticals for decades. Mom made it work regardless, pounding out Jingle Bells and Silent Night to make sure her kids felt the Christmas spirit. And the parrot joined in, always out of tune but just waiting for the chance to whistle for Shep just to see him run from one to the other of us trying to figure out who had called him.


We couldn’t wait to try out our new bikes on the roads around the research station, so we saddled up in the driveway to familiarize ourselves with the Sturmey-Archer three-speed system, since coaster brake cruiser bikes were all we’d ever ridden before. After a few tumbles and scrapes on the laterite, we mastered the system and set off for adventure on the mean streets of Samaru.


There weren't many kids our age to play with on the station. A few children of Dad’s colleagues at the agricultural college, a few of Janet’s classmates from the local elementary school, and once in a while we met up with other kids left to their own devices while our parents played golf or tennis, or whooped it up at the bar at the Club. I spent my days at home finishing up sixth grade by correspondence while Janet went off to a one-room English schoolhouse complete with ink wells and dip pens set up for the children of the British staff at the college. I had the run of the house with plenty of time to tinker with my ham radio gear, and Janet would come home with ink-stained fingers and the beginnings of a British accent.


We set off on our bikes exploring the station’s hard packed dirt roads bordered by pigeon pea hedges, venturing a little farther each day. One day the lure of the open road was too strong to resist, so we embarked on the short journey to the nearby village of Bomo where the groundskeepers and laborers for the college lived. I’d been there once before when I followed our gardener home, so I led the way along the narrow footpath between the fields that surrounded the cluster of round mud houses off in the distance. Women with heavy baskets of produce balanced on their heads approached, so we dismounted to let them pass. We answered their greetings with the little Hausa we’d managed to pick up from Sebastian and Anthony, but when they tried to engage us in conversation we could only smile and nod.


At a small earthen footbridge over an irrigation ditch we were greeted in English by an old man with a load of sugar cane stalks strapped to his back. He offered to sell us one for thruppence, but I couldn’t see how we could carry such a long stalk home with us. Then he offered to cut off a short piece for each of us for a penny. I fished in the pocket of my shorts for two pennies, large copper disks with holes in the center, and handed them to him. He whacked two foot-long pieces off one of the stalks and handed them to me. Janet looked at them helplessly, not sure how to remove the hard outer shell to get at the sweet pulp. The old man laughed and peeled back the hard cane skin from one end of his stalk with his teeth, bit off a piece of the pulp, and chewed it with obvious pleasure. We did the same and, once we had chewed all the sweetness out of a bite, spat the fibrous pulp out on the ground and took another bite.


The sun was dropping lower in the sky, and the air was turning yellow in the harmattan haze. Darkness would descend on us quickly if we didn’t start for home now. We turned our red Christmas bikes around and pedaled back along the narrow footpath toward the road, clutching a handlebar in one hand and a half-eaten piece of sugar cane in the other.