British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Dogon Yaro (Ronald Bird)
The Day's Work and Odd Jobs
Jebba Island
We all remember the odd jobs that came out of the blue to relieve the monotony of the usual routine duties of the day's work. Some of those odd jobs are still quite vivid in one's memory. I recall late one Saturday morning in the District Office in Ilorin as I was trying to get rid of a mound of files before the week-end; the Divisional Officer was away on local leave and I was standing in for him. It had been a tiring morning; the usual prison inspection, a long meeting with the N.A. Tax Assessment Committee, and then even more complainants with lengthy stories than usual. The telephone rang and it was the Resident warning me he had a job for me, something that would get me away from the files, and would I come up to his office right away.

As I entered the Resident's office I saw there was an oldish African in a tattered white gown slumped on the floor. He had a short grey beard and though the face was drawn and haggard there was a gleam in his eye. The Resident showed me a dirty sheet of paper on which a rough note was scribbled. It said "Hanson and I are held prisoner on an island in the Niger above Jebba. Have been attacked by our labourers. Please send help urgently. Richard Strange, Geologist, Northern Mining Association". It sounded almost like a joke; who could imagine in these days of settled administration that two prospecting miners would be held prisoner on an island in the Niger? The tattered figure in the corner was sufficient to dispel any doubts particularly when his story poured out in clipped Sokwoto Hausa. He said his name was Moman Gwadabawa and he was orderly and messenger to the two miners who were prospecting along the Niger a long way above Jebba. He did not know exactly where they were as most of the country was uninhabited bush except for the odd fishing settlement on the river. They were on an island where there was also a small village; he thought it was a lot south of Bussa but they had come across from the Kontagora side. The work took them and the gang of labourers up and down the river and some of its tributaries. The labourers had been causing trouble for some time, refusing to work although they were well paid, and thefts of property and valuable equipment had taken place. Five days ago the two miners had intended to come down to Jebba to report the thefts, but as they got into their canoe the labourers surrounded them, yelling and shouting, held on to the canoe, dragged them out, and stove in the side of the canoe. The two miners had then retreated to the small mud rest house where they were living, which the labourers, getting more and more truculent, besieged, yelling abuse and demanding two months extra wages and gratuities so that they could go off home. They threatened him and the miner's boys, and the people of the small hamlet on the other side of the island, and set a guard on the canoes. He said what they were really after was the miner's cash box which contained cash and gold dust. The ringleader was a man called John Umeh, a plausible rogue who they had only discovered too late had served several sentences for theft and robbery. The position had been a stalemate as the miners had a shotgun but Umeh had openly boasted he would steal it at night and they could make off with the money. All attempts to get a message out had failed until the third night when the miners had staged a diversion and he had managed to slip out of the back with the note he had brought. He had got away in a small canoe and had then landed at a fishing hamlet and had persuaded them with the money given to him to take him on down to Jebba. It had taken them most of the day to reach Jebba but he had not been able to get a 'mammy wagon' on to Ilorin until the next morning, and so here he was, ranka shi dade!

The Day's Work and Odd Jobs
Nigerian Police
The Resident had no information about any miners prospecting on the Niger but then they had probably been working mostly on the Niger Province or Kontagora side of the river. On the western side it was all a vast uninhabited stretch of thick trackless bush forming part of the Borgu Division of Ilorin Province. Getting at them from Kaiama across 50 miles of trackless bush in the rains when one did not know for certain where they were was quite impossible. The Resident had already made up his mind that he would launch an immediate rescue attempt up the river from Jebba. There was no time to get in touch with Kontagora via Minna and they would have to be informed later. He had already asked the Superintendent of Police to get ready a small party of Police who I was to take up river on a rescue attempt. There were few directions the Resident could give me except go and investigate and do what I thought best, but he was clearly most envious that he could not go himself. No time was to be lost and he wished me luck as I left. We did not know exactly where the miners were and were dependent on Moman the orderly to lead us but it might take at least two days from Jebba by canoe as the Niger was already in flood.

I rushed back to my house and not long after as I was having a hurried lunch the police truck drew up at the front of the house. I went out to see an old friend who had been out with me before, Sgt. Haruna Fakai of the Nigeria Police. He had with him four constables of the Nigeria Police with their long batons and four Ilorin N.A. Police. I was glad to have Sgt. Haruna, he was a tough policeman who had served his twelve years in the R.W.A.F.F. I told Sgt. Haruna as much as I knew of the situation and we decided he would go on ahead in the police truck to Jebba and organise with the Sarkin Kwata three or four canoes with a sufficient number of strong polers for a long up-river trip. I would follow in my own van as soon as I was ready and my boys had packed up, and meet him at Jebba waterside.

After heavy rain the road to Jebba seemed even worse than usual and it took a good 2.5 hours to get to Jebba waterside and find Sgt. Haruna busy organising canoes with the fussy little Sarkin Kwata. Jebba, shut-in beside the river, was always hot and sticky but it seemed even worse that evening and clearly a big storm was coming as heavy dark clouds were building up in the N.E. It was going to be a long grinding haul against the Niger in flood and I thought we might make a start and stop for shelter from the storm at the first fishing hamlet but the Sarkin Kwata had not got his canoes and polers ready. At last the canoes were ready, four medium sided canoes with three strong polers each, but just as we were ready to load them the storm seemed about to burst and it was going to be a real heavy end of wet-season storm. The only thing was to shelter and start at the crack of dawn. Sgt. Haruna took his men off to shelter at the police post and I drove back to the little stone rest house as the first heavy drops clattered on its tin roof before the storm burst with all its savagery in the confined river valley.

The Day's Work and Odd Jobs
Juju Rock
The next morning was fresh and clear after the oppressive heat of the previous day and we embarked in the canoes just as the first light was showing in the east. We struggled slowly upstream against the muddy current, first under the towering steel structure of the great railway bridge and then past the sinister looking 'juju rock', vegetation and trees rising sheer from the swirling waters to the rocky summit. It was slow and tedious work fighting the current and the canoes crept along in the lee of the banks, the polers pushing against every vantage point with their long 'gongolas'.
The Day's Work and Odd Jobs
Jebba Bridge
On and on we went through uninhabited country, with just two stops at small fishing hamlets half-hidden in the long grass of the bank, while the canoemen rested and ate a hasty meal. They had been promised double wages and a bonus if they made good time and they poled away with a will, throughout the long hot day, hour after monotonous hour. Progress had been good and as night came down we reached a tiny village and rushed for shelter just as another savage evening storm burst. There was no room to lie down and keep dry in the few ramshackle huts but we rested and then made a start with the first glimmer of dawn. I reckoned that with 13 hours of steady poling we must have covered a good 30 miles or so and that we should reach the island camp sometime after midday. Late in the morning the river began to narrow between rocky banks with a mass of trees and luxuriant undergrowth and the current ran faster. This was the toughest part of the trip and the canoemen fought their way up against the current as they poled their canoes from rock to rock. Suddenly the men in the leading canoe dropped their poles and picking up paddles began to paddle the canoe frantically across to the other bank. Yelling encouragement to each other the canoemen battled their way across and when they reached the lee of the other bank resumed their poling. We followed into the seething water of the rapid, knowing that our bigger canoe would have a harder struggle to get across. It seemed as if we might be swept back but suddenly the current relaxed its grip and we crept forward into the lee of the far bank the canoemen gasping with their frantic efforts. On we went struggling along the bank, clawing our way from rock to rock and branch to branch of overhanging trees. At last the river began to broaden out and we left the rocks and the roar of the rapids behind. After another two hours we called a halt and Moman pointed out a blur of trees some 2 miles ahead which he said was the island camp. Sgt. Haruna gave orders to his men about arresting the ringleaders while I, keen to do things in style, hoisted the Union Jack on the makeshift mast of the largest canoe.

The Day's Work and Odd Jobs
Canoe Pulling
With the island in sight all our spirits rose and after a short rest we set off again, the canoemen singing as they paddled across to the heavily wooded island. As we got close I fired a couple of shots with my shot-gun into the air and the police and then the canoemen replied with a mighty cheer. As we rounded a promontory there before us was the landing place with a small mud rest house above the steep bank. There seemed an unnatural silence as we landed and Sgt. Haruna and his men dashed ashore and then I saw a crowd of men gathered on the path that led back to the village, their faces blank and expressionless and seemingly resigned. Then I saw the two miners outside their resthouse, quiet too but their faces drawn with the strain of the last few days. Gradually the whole story came out, they had indeed been held hostage and besieged in the resthouse until twenty minutes earlier when the police canoes had been seen. At first there had been pandemonium, the labourers rushing about in complete panic; then when they heard the shots all noise had ceased and the men had gathered silently to wait and watch. Sgt. Haruna reported that they had been unable to find John Umeh and we soon learnt that he and two of his henchmen had slipped out at the back in the confusion and made off in one of the village canoes. Two squads were sent off in canoes to search for them while we continued the investigation and took statements from the two miners, Moman the orderly, and others. Substantially the facts as reported by Moman earlier seemed correct and Sgt. Haruna took into custody 10 of the more violent labourers out of the original gang of about 25, while the rest were given a formal warning. I gained little more from Strange or the other miner except that they were having moderate success with their gold prospecting in an area that historically had produced a fair amount of alluvial gold. Next morning all efforts to trace Umeh and the other men having failed, we borrowed an extra canoe and set off back to Jebba with our prisoners. The passage down to Jebba with the current behind us was swift, and sweeping through the rapids without accident, we reached Jebba by mid-afternoon; then after paying off our gallant canoemen with a large bonus we got back to Ilorin by evening. The Resident was delighted to see us back and hear that his prompt rescue decision had resulted in a successful action to uphold the law in the remotest areas of the Niger valley. "I can now report to Resident Niger and tell him that all is quiet along our boundary", he said to me with a twinkle in his eye. The sequel to this account came not long after when the District Head of Jebba sent in a report that a burglar had broken into a house in the town and tried to stab the householder. In the fight that followed the burglar had been cut down with a machete wound to the head and had died the next day. The burglar had been identified as John Umeh.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of Western Nigeria
Colony Profile
Nigeria Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 76: October 1998


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