British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by A. S. Webb
He Needs a White Cloth
Aerial Shot of Zungeru
The office of the Railway Engineer at Zungeru was behind the railway station, whilst the yard and office of the Inspector of Works was on the opposite side beyond the goods yard. The two offices were connected by a private telephone.

One morning, soon after nine, the phone rang. It was the Inspector of Works, Johnny MacCracken, who greeted me with, “Morning Mr. Webb. One of my carpenters fell down dead this morning in the joiner’s shop.”

“You’re working your men too hard,” I Joked, but John was serious.

“No, honest Mr. Webb, he’s dead. What shall I do?” It was a new situation for me and I advised him to do nothing for the time being, I would go to see the Emir.

The Emir’s ‘palace’ was the only structure of any size and importance in what was otherwise a collection of dilapidated mud huts, the sad remains of Zungeru town. It fronted on to the road with a long mud wall, blank except for one opening near the centre giving access to a bare room, the far side of which led into a central square courtyard. The sides of the courtyard had rooms for servants, goats and chickens whilst across the back was a two storey building in which lived the Emir and his family.

I greeted the figure squatting on a mat inside the room and explained in Hausa I wished to see the Emir in connection with the death of a man in the railway workshops. He indicated I should wait and offered me the mat to squat on but never having mastered the art of sitting cross-legged, lotus fashion, I elected to stand.

He Needs a White Cloth
Zungeru Station
The wait proved to be a long one and it was well over half an hour before a few people began to arrive, some with mats and rugs, until eventually a dozen or so had assembled, wearing a variety of what I took to be their best rigas.

The Emir came in, turbaned and dressed in a very fine embroidered white riga. I had met him several times, in fact, he used to call on me at least once a month and I would enjoy discussions with him on quite profound subjects conducted in impeccable English without a trace of accent; he had finished his education at an English University. He greeted me in Hausa and continuing in that language, enquired about the man who had died; it was clear these official proceedings would be conducted entirely in Hausa. I told him the little we knew, including his name, and he turned to one of his councillors who gave a lengthy reply which I could not follow. The Emir had thoughtfully provided an interpreter who informed me the official ‘Registrar’ to whom the Emir had spoken, recognized the man, he had arrived from Minna three weeks ago, was about thirty five years old and had no known relatives The ‘Registrar’ apparently relied entirely on his memory to keep track of all the people in the district.

The Emir then appointed the interpreter, two councillors and the Sanitary Inspector, who had to be collected from his home, to accompany me to the railway. We set off to pick up the Sanitary Inspector, who lived at the far end of the village and who, judging by the time he took to emerge, was asleep when we arrived. He came, hot and flustered, wearing an enormous brown riga. I had a small 1946 Ford Prefect at the time and the two large Hausamen in rigas already filled the back seat, but somehow he squeezed in and we set off. Before we had gone a hundred yards, a yell came from the back seat which had me standing on everything, bringing the occupants of the back seat over us in the front. Before I could ask what was wrong, the Inspector was out and tearing back up the road like a huge brown moth with his riga flying in the wind. The interpreter explained he had forgotten his apparatus and a few moments later the Inspector emerged waving it above his head, a Flit gun!

It was well past eleven when we arrived at the yard. Johnny MacCracken met us and conducted us to the joiner’s shop where about a dozen occupants were sitting on the benches nonchalantly eating whilst between two benches lay a middle aged man looking very dead. We all stood back a little to allow the Sanitary Inspector to step forward and make the most of his moment. He walked slowly round the body, bending now and again to peer at it more closely, then finally satisfied, he announced in firm tones and in English, “He’s dead.” He followed this pronouncement by walking slowly round the body, vigorously pumping with his Flit gun. His part in the proceedings was clearly over; he joined the councillors and they all prepared to leave.

I quickly spoke to the group, “Is that all? Don’t you have to give me a certificate?” They looked blank. “A taketa?”, I pursued but they still looked blank and a look of impatience flickered across their faces: he is dead, what more does he want? Eventually I got a curt, “No more,” and they moved off.

Johnny and I walked after them and caught them up. “Who buries him?” I queried. This brought them to a halt and definite signs of annoyance showed on their faces. The interpreter slowly and deliberately gave the reply, “He was employed by you so he is your responsibility.” They moved on.

Once again we gave chase and they sensed we were not satisfied. With growing impatience they waited for us to catch up. “Where shall we bury him?” I asked. The effect of my query was dramatic; the looks of resignation and impatience changed to ones of incredulity, - how could this master race be so ignorant? The leader of the councillors, standing several inches taller than Johnny and me, his bulk emphasized by his black riga, turned to the two of us and adopting the attitude of a teacher faced with a couple of very stupid pupils, slowly raised his arms before him, palms turned upwards and dramatically swept the horizon to left and right, the whole of Africa before you and you ask such a stupid question?

They moved on but the interpreter had a last thought. He turned and after a suitably pregnant pause, delivered what was obviously intended to be the closing speech, “He is a Muslim and needs a white cloth.”

Johnny and I exchanged looks, yes and we know who will have to buy that. That is the end of the story except the only cloth in the UAC canteen (store) was a six yard length of double width best quality white drill so we reckoned a third each would give us a pair of shorts each and a shroud. Then it was only a question of bribing four of his workmates with four hours’ overtime and a ‘dash’ of a few shillings to bury him. Where, we never knew!

map of Nigeria
1950s Map of Kaduna Region
Colony Profile
Nigeria
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 59: April 1990


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