Bussa Emirate, the northern of two Emirates in Borgu Division of Ilorin Province,
was bordered on the east by the River Niger and on the west by the Erench colony
of Dahomey. The border along the Niger was about 130 miles long and contained the
major series of rapids known as the Bussa Rapids between Bussa town and Garafini in
Wawa District, as well as lesser rapids further north and south.
Communication in the Emirate before the opening of dry season roads in the early
fifties was almost all along the Niger. Travel up-river by poling canoe was always slow
whatever the height of the water in the river and when posted to Borgu Division in 1950
I began to think of ways of speeding up communication. Until money became available
for major bridging it still took nearly three days to get to Bussa from Kaiama except for
part of the dry season, so improvement in communications was always a priority. Apart
from road building I felt we should be able to speed up communication on the Niger, as
even to get to Agwarra some 40 miles upstream from Bussa took nearly two days.
Nigerian Marine Department had done a lot of work over the years clearing obstacles
and improving the safety of navigation through the rapids, but even in high water no
river steamer had ever been able to get near to Bussa. It seemed worth experimenting
with powered local canoes, but in 1950 it was not possible to get any high-powered
outboard motors and the most powerful available in Nigeria was a Seagull 5hp outboard.
Bussa N A agreed to buy one and we fitted it to a medium sized local canoe, fastened to
a beam over the side near the stern. This combination proved quite successful though
under-powered against strong currents.
Although Agwarra could now be reached in a long day's canoeing from Bussa, the
local people were somewhat sceptical of the advantages. One day, to show how versatile
the new N A craft could be, I decided to take it down the Bussa rapids. The one person
who entered into the spirit of the experiment was the Sarkin Kwata or Waterside Chief of
Bussa, and he agreed to pilot me through the rapids if I steered the canoe. We took a
couple of stout watermen to paddle in case we got into difficulties and set off with the
Emir's blessing. The water level was high and the first part of the rapids above Malali
and near old Bussa where Mungo Park and his companions probably met their death in
April 1806 was not too difficult. Having shot the rapids in canoes on several occasions
before, I knew that the really difficult part was going to be at Bubaru, particularly as with
the fierce current one had to go flat out in order to be able to steer the canoe properly. At
Bubaru we cut through a narrow channel on the inside of the dog-leg bend, the Sarkin
Kwata proving an excellent if rather excited pilot, and seemed to speed through, rocks
and trees flashing past. We reached the dreaded spot known locally as Mutu Kabari or
"death and a grave", and emerged in the calmer waters beside Garafini elated with our
success. The secret of shooting the Bussa rapids safely was to know and follow the
correct route for the particular height of water in the river and I was aware that a
predecessor of mine as DO Borgu had wrecked a standard steel poling barge in the
rapids before the War.
The example of a powered canoe did not I'm afraid catch on locally though I did hear
that somewhat later one or two powered canoes from Onitsha with more powerful
engines traded successively on the middle Niger. The whole area is now under the waters
of the lake formed when the great dam at Kainji was constructed quite a few years later.