A Writer Writes
Teachers Room Sex Farce
Larry Lesser (Nigeria 1964-65)
[Note: The author maintains that this is a true story except that he's changed everybody's names except his own and his then-wife's. No need to change their names because they come out smelling like a rose.]
It’s January 1964 when Harriet and I arrive in newly independent Nigeria, peacefully unyoked from British rule. We’re Peace Corps Volunteers, deployed as teachers at the Government Technical Institute (GTI) in the provincial capital of Enugu. Our school is preparing young Nigerian men for careers in engineering and business. Our principal is ex-RAF wing commander Maddox, who resembles the caricature Colonel Blimp in physiognomy and demeanor. The deputy principal is a Nigerian named Otuagbo. More than half of the faculty are expatriates, representing an assortment of Anglophone nationalities … including the two American PCVs, Harriet and me.
Nigeria is being hailed for its successful transition from colonial status to membership in the family of nations — a federal state, a parliamentary democracy with loyal opposition parties, and a promising future based on a vibrant and talented population, traditional trade in agricultural commodities (peanuts, palm oil), and the promising new oil industry just coming on line.
The first week after arriving I’m cornered in the teachers’ room by John Monahan — Irishman, math teacher — and cautioned in hushed tones not under any conditions to allow my pretty wife anywhere around Qureshi, a teacher from Pakistan. Qureshi, Monahan tells me, has scandalously seduced the wife of another teacher, the Canadian Arnie Corning. The scandal is still unfolding. They’re all still in town, including the three young Corning children, but the Cornings will be leaving soon. Maddox, our principal, has taken action, John Monahan tells me conspiratorially. Maddox ordered Judy Corning to move out of Qureshi’s house over to the Catering Rest House a couple of miles away, while arrangements are made to return her and the children to Canada. Maddox has ordered Qureshi to pay the rest house bill.
Monahan assures me he’s telling me for my own good, to give me fair warning that Qureshi is a homewrecker.
Later that week Judy Corning and her children fly away back to Canada. Harriet and I never lay eyes on her. I hear that she’s pretty. Twenty-one years old. Married at sixteen and then quick as a wink the mother of three and living in Africa - for a while anyway. Maybe she’s “clinically depressed”. Maybe her husband was making life in her marital home intolerable. (But I have a conversation with Arnie Corning in the teachers room and he’s the one who seems depressed - with reason. He’s a very mild young man. Diminutive in stature. Polite. He has a boyish look. I’m only 23 myself, but Corning seems young — yes, and vulnerable — even to me. He seems like a nice guy.)
In another couple of weeks Arnie Corning closes out his local affairs and follows his wife and kids back to Canada.
John Monahan tells me — and I in turn tell Harriet — that the crisis reached its climax when Judy Corning moved out of her own house and into Qureshi’s, which was just next door across an expanse of grass. All the expats and a few of the Nigerian teachers have single-story two-bedroom colonial cement-block bungalows on generously proportioned compounds. The houses have plain wooden furniture and basic appliances: little electric refrigerator, wood-and-screen meat-safe, two stoves (one gas, the other wood-burning), indoor plumbing, ceiling fans, iron grillwork on every window. Each compound also has quarters for two servants, usually a cook-bearer and a housekeeper. As PCVs, Harriet and I are a little embarrassed to be given such a luxurious setup, but it isn’t up to us. Peace Corps had to provide volunteers for the well-financed government schools for the sake of its own credibility; if PCVs went only to desperately poor schools in the bush it would look like these American teachers were too incompetent to make it at home. So Harriet and I should take it as a compliment that we were sent to a school where we’re teaching alongside expats with high credentials. And it was out of the question to insist on living under humbler conditions; that would be pretentious.
For the Nigerians, the price of their orderly transition to independence is putting up for a while longer with the persistence of colonial arrogance and condescension. It doesn’t have much impact on Harriet and me, since America has pretty well demonstrated it can hold its own in the world even in competition with the heavy hitters from the British Isles. But Fazl Qureshi of Pakistan is another matter. He isn’t even Christian. (Well, neither am I.) He isn’t really white — more a kind of sallow brown-gray. And yet Judy Corning apparently walked out of her own house and into his, and stayed there, until Maddox ordered her to the Catering Rest House (at Qureshi’s expense), and thence home to Canada. In the Pidgin English spoken in the local marketplace, the word for this turn of events is “wondaful.” (The same word was used to exclaim at the assassination of President Kennedy only a couple of months earlier. The word was for hard-to-believe news, even for horrible news: news so amazing that it was a wonder.)
Principal Maddox had taken charge. He ordered Judy Corning and her children to the catering rest house, and she obeyed. (There’s a lesson there for husband Arnie.) He ordered Arnie to arrange for his family’s return home to Canada; Arnie did so. He ordered Qureshi to pay for Judy’s catering rest house expenses; Qureshi complied.
John Monahan reports that the night before Arnie Corning left Enugu he sent his cook-bearer to Qureshi’s house with a note inviting Qureshi to come over for a farewell drink. When Qureshi knocked on the door Corning opened it, came forward and punched Qureshi in the face, then withdrew and slammed the door. The next morning Arnie Corning flew off to Canada to rejoin his family and look for a new job. (Some weeks later, Monahan tells me that Judy has written several letters to Qureshi from Canada, apparently telling him she hopes they’ll be reunited. Qureshi didn’t respond.) (I don’t know how Monahan comes up with all this gossip information and I don’t really know if it’s true. I haven’t tried to check.)
Harriet and I can easily walk the half-mile distance between our house and the school compound. The Peace Corps has issued us a chunky Lambretta motorscooter, which is exciting for me to operate but too unwieldy for Harriet. One afternoon at the end of the teaching day a week or so after the Cornings left Enugu, Harriet is walking home alone in the oppressive mid-afternoon tropical heat, and she spots Qureshi driving in the same direction in his rattly little car. She waves to him to stop and give her a ride. Qureshi keeps looking straight ahead and doesn’t stop. Harriet stands there, momentarily offended, and then she realizes what must have been in Qureshi’s head and she starts laughing. Not again, Qureshi must have been thinking, not another one.
As time goes by, Harriet and I get to know Qureshi rather well. John Monahan has nothing good to say about him, but we decide he’s OK. And he needs friends. Qureshi is under thirty himself, a lean, quiet, shy young man. I wouldn’t think he would be particularly attractive to women, but my wife tells me otherwise. Qureshi has this dreamy look that would appeal to women of the spiritual persuasion. Harriet says she herself considers Qureshi attractive, but that doesn’t mean he’s any threat to the stability of our own marriage. Harriet and I are secured to one another by bonds of trust, sanctified by our wedding vows just two years earlier. Sure there are lots of attractive people all around, male and female, some attracting me, others pulling her. Makes no difference. You make a vow and you stick to it, if you know what’s good for you.
Qureshi tells us he never wanted to get involved with Judy Corning. He knew it was a terrible idea, that it could only end badly. Judy was unstable. She fixated on him. She came to his house one night and begged him to take her in. She said she couldn’t stand being in that other house a few yards away any more and wanted only to be with him; she thought about being with him all the time. Qureshi sent her away that time, back to her own compound with her husband and children.
It was only when Judy came to his door again a couple of nights later that he relented, against his better judgment. “I’m a normal man,” he tells us months later, now that we’re friends. He’s a bachelor, she’s a good-looking woman, it might be a terrible idea but if he didn’t think about it but just obeyed his primal instinct, well . . . That’s what happened, and then Judy said she couldn’t go back — and didn’t want to go back — and Fazl Qureshi found himself in a very awkward situation. And adding insult to injury, after Arnie Corning told Principal Maddox what had happened, Maddox took charge like the RAF wing commander he had been and ordered Qureshi to pay for Judy’s stay at the Catering Rest House. Qureshi had taken a contract to come to Nigeria and teach mechanical drawing so that he could save money and then move somewhere else, and all of a sudden he was a pariah in the teachers room and stuck with Judy’s catering rest house bill. He could hardly afford it but saw no alternative but to follow the principal’s orders.
This may be emotionally shattering for the married couple but I can’t help thinking that it’s also the stuff of bedroom farce: teachers-room farce. The only people in this account who displayed exemplary behavior were the Peace Corps Volunteers me and Harriet; don’t you agree? Easy for us; we weren’t actors in the farce. We were on best behavior always conscious that we were representatives of our country.
The author was in Enugu, Nigeria as a teacher of commercial English and British economic history at a post-secondary school. He then joined the Foreign Service and served standard-length tours in India, Burkina Faso, Belgium, Rwanda, and Bangladesh. Since retiring from the active Foreign Service he has remained active in the international context with projects for the State Department’s office of inspector general, other stints in the State Department, two years with Peace Corps Washington, several years as a member of the Foreign Service Grievance Board, and a substantial number of overseas election observation missions with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He lives in Washington DC.