In sparsely developed Northern Nigeria in the 1950s 'bush' conditions began
only a very short distance from urban areas and surveyors were
accustomed to the hardships of searing heat, sunburn, exhaustion, filthy water
supply, sand, thorn bush, insects, the desiccating Harmattan wind, trekking,
hill climbing, and living in tents and village rest houses.
For new arrivals, more often than not bachelors, the Survey Department's rest
house on a hillock just off the Sabon Gida road at Bukuru about ten miles
south of Jos was a pointed and gentle introduction to the privations they were
later to experience in the course of their work. For others, already accustomed
to periods of satisfying self reliance in remote places, it was a preferred and
private haven from the conventions of station life. It had no running water, no
electricity, no beds, no utensils and only a few items of basic furniture. During
my time there my camping equipment was in everyday use. Cooking was done
on a wood burning stove and I collected firewood supplies from the roadside
sellers on my working trips to the forested areas off the plateau edge. In its
favour were its peaceful and quiet location (except during thunderstorms), its
fine views and its primitive but neglected laterite clay-surfaced tennis court
(lacking a net, lines and fencing!). With a fellow surveyor I set about
resurfacing the court with crushed and rolled termite mound material which, when set hard with its natural constituent of dried grass particles produced a
fine, smooth playing surface. Our resources did not stretch to the purchase of
a net but a length of rope stretched between two poles sufficed for the
occasional competitive set.
On tour my tent usually accompanied me as an essential load in my 'pick-up'
truck but when convenient I would stay in small rest houses, many of them
without doors or windows, and often used as corrals for animals between the
infrequent visits of people like me. They could be quite uncomfortable and cold
at night when the Harmattan wind was blowing. There was a lot to be said for
living in the privacy and comparative cleanliness of my tent, but there were
many occasions when it was just too wet, too hot and too inconvenient to erect
it. Over the years government officials had arranged for the building of these
small unfurnished rest houses a short distance outside places to which they
would commonly travel and where they might have need to stay overnight.
Most were basic mud walled structures, rectangular or round, the better ones
having inner and outer walls, sometimes cement-plastered and whitewashed,
the space between the walls serving as a living area and, if in an elevated
position, sometimes a veranda giving pleasant views. The better ones actually
had glass windows and corrugated metal roofs, but the majority were thatched
and generally had only gaps where doors should be and holes for windows
and privacy was achieved by the use of grass matting. Thick mud walls and
thatch were very good for keeping out the heat, but also good for keeping it in
and needed high roofs to be reasonably cool.
Once in a while I came across a rest house in a delightful location. I recall
crossing the River Niger on the Koton Karifi ferry and stayed the night in the
local rest house which occupied an idyllic elevated position overlooking the big
river. I was able to purchase from local fishermen a large Niger (or Nile) Perch,
known locally as Giwan Ruwa (River Elephant), sweet succulent fish with
which, in spite of his shortcomings, my cook prepared some excellent yam
chips. Fish and chips alfresco on the Niger Riviera - such luxury!
Things did not always turn out so well. After some time making the filthy rest
house at Monguna Arna habitable I was kept awake half the night by the
incessant barking of a village dog. Utterly frustrated I could think of nothing
better to do than foolishly fire off a single shot from my .22 rifle up into the
night sky, whereupon every other dog in the village set up howling which kept
me awake for the rest of the night.
Harvest time, October, can be a very hot month in Mallamaduri as I discovered
to my great discomfort when carrying out a traverse survey linking Kano and
Nguru. The tin-roofed rest house there was uninhabitable and infested with
dangerous iridescent green blister beetles (cantharides) and the most
incredible swarms of earwigs which in turn attracted bats and lizards by the
score. I used it as a store and slept outside.
On another occasion, when engaged on topographic mapping of the country
south of Kaduna I set up my camp at a decent little rest house with a concrete
floor, glass windows and tin roof in scenic rocky surroundings at a village
called Kajuru, less than an hour's drive from Kaduna. Its accessibility meant it
was known to Kaduna 'townies' and my peace was disturbed by picnickers,
particularly a coarse Swiss party from the Kaduna textile factory who spent a
noisy weekend drinking and yodelling with scant regard for my privacy.
A sarkin bariki (literally 'chief of the barracks' or caretaker) was responsible for
the upkeep of a rest house and to provide visitors with an initial supply of
water and firewood, for which a small fee was generally paid, but these duties
tended to be neglected if visitors were very infrequent. It was not uncommon
to arrive to find the place inhabited by bats, swallows, toads, and other
creatures both domestic and wild, and a multitude of insects and to have been
used at night as a pen for goats and chickens, the beaten earth floor thick with
a cocktail of sickly-smelling excrement and debris from the disintegrating roof
where termites were at work. Such rest houses were seldom completely free
of leaks and a large survey umbrella was often very useful indoors, erected
over the dining table or the bed. Toilet facilities were primitive and might
consist of nothing more than an earthenware pot in a room at the back, hence
the name biyan gida ('behind the house'), and I found a portable toilet seat
was a luxury worth carrying on tour. The better class of rest house might have
a thunder-box and pail system. The sarkin bariki, keen to demonstrate that he
did not neglect his duties, once removed the pail through the trapdoor in the
outer wall as I sat there. I was treated to a cheery voice from below "Good
morning, sah" as he removed the pail from beneath me!
For a while my colleague Alan Wright lived in one of a group of three thatched
rest houses at Wamba. I had spent the evening with him, enjoying a good yarn
and several whiskies, and then retired for the night in one of the other houses.
As he undressed and climbed into bed Alan accidentally knocked over his
hurricane lamp and set fire to his mosquito net which in turn sent flames
leaping into the tinder dry thatch above. In seconds the entire roof was alight
and Alan stood outside, his nakedness silhouetted by a huge and very
spectacular orange blaze with a great column of sparks rising high into the
warm night sky, saying "I say, old chap, I think I have a problem, you wouldn't
have a spare bed by any chance, would you ?"
In contrast to uniform modern hotels each of those little country rest houses
and their keepers had ambience and character to be remembered, with
something amounting almost to affection, fifty years later and I wonder if any
of them have survived to this day, and if they have, who uses them.