The British Empire Library

Lake Chad Versus The Sahara Desert

by Sylvia K Sikes

Courtesy of OSPA

Trevor Clark (Nigeria 1949-60)
A cursory glance suggested this was a worthy technical examination of the Chad phenomenon, 'a huge puddle in the south Sahara, 55,000 years ago Africa's largest lake, whose level regularly rose and fell over three cycles, climatic, seasonal and tidal, but whose average decreasing size stabilised 12,000 years ago. Recently its area diminished further until a very sharp decline began from about 1973.' Why, and does it matter? Of interest to geomorphologists, hydrologists, climatologists, geologists, yes, probably to students of biodiversity, and of course to global warming ecofreaks, but hardly to the general run of colonial pensioners? Wrong.

Dr Sikes is a remarkable lady. A zoologist and lecturer in Africa, expert in elephants' cardio-vascular disease, who had done time in Canada's wildlife service, she became intrigued by earlier informal visits to Lake Chad, on the edge of Bomo, the farthest northeastern state of Nigeria, and surrounded by Niger, Tchad and Cameroun. In 1969 she won a bursary to explore it on a yacht, not a craft familiar in the region. Of course, she happened to have to learn to navigate it, to understand maintenance of the mechanical motive power, and to master the necessary scientific instruments. And she could shoot 'for a pot'. All was done with a friend or two, and Malam Mohammedu Shehu, a 'huntertracker' and factotum from Zaria and his wife. The result was a book published in 1972 by Eyre Methuen (Eyre Spottiswoode and the Guardian sponsored the bursary - do such terrestrial exploration grants still exist?). Before retiring she then worked in wildlife conservation in Nigeria. The present volume emphasizes what was written then, but adds final commentary on the great changes and threats of thirty years on.

Apart perhaps from some diagrams of eco-soundings taken, there is nothing daunting to the general reader in the technical data set out. The scientific names of lively and vegetable matter may be ignored, since the familiar descriptions are there too. The many pages take little time to cover, for the font is large enough for the visually challenged. 36 colour pages each hold half a dozen pictures, little larger than 35mm slides but clearly reproduced. The joy of the book lies in the sheer readability of the whole narrative. For anyone who escaped from the Sokoto/Kano or Middle Belt dominated regions of northern Nigeria to the peoples and cultures of Borno, among the Kanuri, Shuwa Arab and others, particularly the distinctive Yedina folk who lived on the lake's floating islands, fading memories will be immediately brightened. The author's observing eye and sympathetic judgement of the entire picture will recall so many small details of daily life in much wider parts of 'The North' that one feels that readers familiar only with other parts of the 'developing' world will happily empathize. The detailed but vivid descriptions of the flora, fauna, people and environment, material and social, ring true, reminding us of what many of us knew, leaving ex-Nigerians also bemused to hear that among the interloping influences of the changed today are Jukun immigrants from distant Benue. There are references to the French side, and to Christian missionary work, but they are understated. It was an unexpected pleasure to see a book unlikely to be on many ordinary bookshop shelves, well worth seeking out.

British Empire Book
Sylvia K Sikes
Mirage Newbury
0 9544079 0 3