Sunday. Telephone rings - 9.15am, with 9.30am church service ten minutes' drive away. And this is the day of peace and rest? Crackle crackle crackle.
"Hello. It's John here. Who? Oh, hello. What? Yes. I'm still planning to visit you next week. What can I do for you?" I am about to visit several higher education institutions in Nigeria and Ghana as part of the University of Glasgow's extending work in West Africa. Buzz ... crackle I silence. The phone rings again. "Hello. Yes. What? Hankies? What? Not hankies? Panties?" The voice on the other end of the line sounds exasperated: "No, John - knickers, KNICKERS. Bring with you as many pairs as you can carry."
We are inundated with ladies underwear and cash. Our friends in Nigeria are involved with a post-natal hospital up country. It depends on voluntary contributions and serves the needs of young women cast out by their families. It is short of all supplies, especially underwear. An announcement at the end of morning service that "John and Christine would welcome donations of certain items of ladies clothing" has us fielding parcels from various parts of Glasgow and sorting an amazing variety of knickers: spotted, striped, large, small, dainty, not so dainty, white, red and multi-colouredI I tire of jokes about getting my knickers in a twist. I begin to wish that the hospital needed bandages, medical supplies, books. Anything but 250 pairs of knickers.
Heathrow. The furore of tying up loose ends in the office, checking tickets, taxis, papers and schedules begins to recede. In its place is the cold reality that I am heading for West Africa with two suitcases, one stuffed with an amazing assortment of brand new clothing clearly not for me. I am convinced that I shall be arrested at customs, probably imprisoned. Did she really say "panties"? Perhaps it was "hankies"?
Emerge unscathed from the usual battlefield of the baggage hall at Murtala Mohammed airport, Lagos. In fact the whole airport building is a bit of a battlefield. Convincing 47 taxi drivers that I have been to Nigeria before and am not the soft touch that I might look, I head for a mildly battered taxi that looks reasonably safe and not for a posh one that would betray the hard currency-holding nature of its passenger. (Such taxis are prone to unscheduled stops on the badly lit road between the airport and Lagos centre.) Arrive at the hotel to find that - of course - reception has no knowledge of my reservation, although I have a copy of the fax sent to them and of their fax back. Equally unsurprisingly, the missing booking is retrieved when somebody notices that I am conveniently holding some dollars. Tired, I unpack only to discover that the bottle of water that I had in the boot of the taxi with my suitcases has leaked, and much of the donated clothing is wet. Hooks, lamps, curtain rails, and door knobs are soon festooned with drying underwear. "Can I turn down your bedclothes, sah?" I think the lugubrious face of the room service man, as he sees the multi-coloured variety widely displayed, will follow me to my grave. He withdraws, clutching the bunch of naira that I give him in quiet desperation.
Back to Murtala Mohammed and the domestic terminal for the flight to Enugu. Again, dollar notes protruding from the shirt pocket are the means to acquire a boarding card. However, a boarding card is not a guarantee of a seat. The ability to run faster towards the aircraft than the other two people holding the same seat allocation as yourself is always an advantage, and my regular jogging proves an invaluable asset. However, lots of flights are disrupted today because of the harmattan wind. Eventually there is only a handful of travellers left. Many have given up, gone home, or gone to sleep. A wonderful piece of African philosophy asserts that "Europeans keep time, Africans have time". Flight numbers are irrelevant and, as an aircraft lands, I wander on to the tarmac with my (hand) luggage. I call up to the pilot: "Are you going to Enugu?" "Sure am, hop on", he beams at me. An uneventful flight to Enugu, and the relief of being met there by our friends. I look forward to a day or so with them, and to offloading my suitcase of "contraband", before embarking upon the real educational purpose of my trip.
Saturday (four weeks later)
The mail includes a thick envelope from Nigeria. We are delighted with a set of photographs of me handing over the "panties" and joyful and grateful patients proudly holding up the clothing which they needed desperately.
A collage of photographs appears at church and everyone is overjoyed to see the successful fruition of the "St Ninian's Knickers to Nigeria Project".
Principal of King Alfred's College, Winchester. Former dean of law and financial studies at Glasgow University.