British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Janet Wimbush
Who's Afraid
Birom Tribesman
When you leave the Plateau Province in Nigeria by the road to the West, you come to the Escarpment. You then drop three thousand feet and three thousand years.

The Plateau is the tin-bearing district of Nigeria, and it is the only part of the country where Europeans have ever made settled homes. And very lovely and very sophisticated many of their homes are. The indigenous people of that part of Nigeria are the Birom (Berom) tribe, known then as the Pagans. Their standard of living must have been something like that of Neolithic man.

Thirty years ago, when my husband was stationed at Jos on the Plateau as a Government Surveyor, there was a district at the foot of the escarpment called the Marma country, which had for some years been closed to mining. There were two reasons for this. Some of the Pagans had been so hostile to Europeans that there had been violence and bloodshed. And sleeping sickness and yellow fever were rife. It was before the day of inoculation against yellow fever.

Who's Afraid
Birom Homeland
The day came when the authorities decided that the hostility and the disease had both abated and that the district could be reopened to mining prospectors. Before that could happen survey beacons had to be erected. That was where we came in. My husband was despatched to do the job, which was to take about a month, and I went with him.

I was rather excited at the thought of going to bush for the first time. "We are going to the Marma country tomorrow" I said to the Nursing Sister, when I met her at the Club.

"I hope you are taking a doctor with you" she replied facetiously.

On the appointed day, we set off in our Ford truck, with the cook, steward, and odd-job boy, and the inevitable sordid-looking paraphernalia of beds and baths, lamps and filters, tin trunks and camp chairs. Our own luggage looked grim enough and the servants' loads crowned it. Among their bedding rolls and tin kettles there were always some muddy yams rolling about and a couple of squawking hens with their legs tied together. Behind our truck came the lorry carrying the survey gang. This consisted of a Headman, two chainmen and a dozen labourers. They were all Hausas, and their chief characteristics were cheerfulness, beautiful manners and bone idleness. I was very fond of them.

The name of the Headman was Mallam Dogo, which means literally the Tall Teacher. Anyone who could read and write was given the title of Mallam. He and I became great friends. He used to carry me on his back over the streams when we were on trek, and seemed to look on this as his privilege. But the really important member of the party was the Dan Sander. The literal meaning of this title is the Man with the Stick. He was a policeman in the service of the Native Administration, and was lent to us to act as interpreter with the pagan tribes.

Who's Afraid
Road off Plateau
We drove on the first day to the bottom of the escarpment and went on till the road came to an end. From there the journey was to be done on foot, with carriers recruited locally, and our nights were to be spent in resthouses. The word resthouse is a misnomer. They were neither houses nor restful. They were circular mud huts with a thatch of palm leaves. Doors and windows were rectangular openings in the mud walls. They contained no furniture. But all the same a resthouse can look like home to you when your camp beds and chairs are erected and your books and crockery set out on camp tables.

Each resthouse was on the outskirts of a pagan village. The way of life in these villages was primitive in the extreme. The men went naked. The women wore two bunches of leaves attached to a bit of leather around their waists, which waggled as they walked. They carried their babies on their backs in slings of monkey skin. By way of ornament they threaded short pieces of stick through their nostrils.

The Pagans ate what they could grow or kill and had little use for money. In order to earn the few shillings a year that were needed to pay their tax, the women would walk for days to the nearest township with bundles of firewood on their heads. The men carried long knives fashioned from any strips of iron they could lay hands on. Barrel hoops were a favourite material.

We had been moving on for several days and were three days' walk from any road when the cook reported that our tinned food was running out. He had taken for granted that the usual local food would be obtainable and he had miscalculated. The Marma country seemed to provide no food that could be faced by Europeans. Feeling that Cook was being defeatist, I told him in English to find some chickens and eggs. Cook told the Dan Sander in Hausa to find some chickens and eggs. The Dan Sander told the village head to find some chickens and eggs. (I never knew how the Dan Sander managed to communicate, for the language of the Pagans changed every few miles.)

The answer that came back was quite clear;-

"There are no chickens. There are no eggs."

"Never mind" said my husband. "I have heard guinea fowl squawking up on that hill. I will take the gun up there tomorrow morning."

Next morning at first light he had gone, taking some of the gang with him. Others had gone off to cut firewood. The cook was presumably out looking for chickens. The odd-job boy and I had the camp to ourselves. He was an engaging child of about twelve, called Audu. He put out my deck chair, put a table beside me, and made me some tea. I relaxed with a six-week old copy of the Daily Telegraph. It was deliciously cool and there was a faint and pleasant scent of wood smoke wafting from the village. I was at peace.

After a quarter of an hour, something caused me to put down my paper and look up.

Fifteen yards away stood silently in a straight line ten naked Pagan men. Each one had his eyes fixed on me. Each one had a leather thong round his waist into which was stuck a long knife. None of them moved or made a sound.

Very deliberately I picked up my paper again and disappeared behind it. Perhaps I had dozed off and dreamed it? I would count twenty and look again. I counted twenty and looked again. They were still there.

I looked round for Audu. There was no sign of him. I looked at the resthouse with its open gaps for doors and windows. There was no sanctuary there. The bush round the resthouse had been cleared and we were in the middle of a large open space. It looked to me about the size of the Sahara desert. I could not run away. There was nowhere to run.

Not a flicker of expression appeared on the ten faces and the ten pairs of eyes never left me.

After twenty minutes or so I found that I had torn the front page of my newspaper into small shreds. I folded the remainder of it neatly and told myself that my husband would be back any minute now. But then I heard the distant sound of his gun from the hill-top. The hill-top was at least half-an-hour's walk away. The sun was up now, but I was very cold. 1 found I was biting my nails (a habit of which I had been cured at the age of six). I folded my hands, shut my eyes, and sat rigid.

It was half-an-hour later that my husband got back, flushed with success, laden with guinea fowl, gossiping cheerfully with his Hausa men. He looked in astonishment at the row of pagans. They had relaxed now, and ceased to stare at me. They were talking to each other. They did not look like the same people at all.

"What do these chaps want?" asked my husband.

I forebore to say that I did not know whether their object had been rape or murder. "Perhaps" I said "we could start the process of asking them?"

"What do they want?" I said to Mallam Dogo in English.

"What do they want?" said Mallam Dogo to the Dan Sander in Hausa.

"What do you want?" said the Dan Sander to the pagans in their own tongue.

The answer worked its way back to me. They wanted money for their tax. They had heard that we were moving on the next day. They wanted jobs as carriers.

"Why did they stand so long and stare at me?" I asked.

And the answer came laboriously back. "They have not seen a white woman before. They were afraid."

Afraid? Of me?

British Colony Map
Map of Central Nigeria
Colony Profile
Nigeria
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 45: April 1983


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