The Bijou Rest Houses of the North

Courtesy of OSPA

by Malcolm F Anderson
(Survey Department, Northern Nigeria 1957-74)
The Bijou Rest Houses of the North
The Survey Rest House at Bukuru
In sparsely developed Northern Nigeria in the 1950s 'bush' conditions began only a very short distance from urban areas and surveyors were accustomed to the hardships of searing heat, sunburn, exhaustion, filthy water supply, sand, thorn bush, insects, the desiccating Harmattan wind, trekking, hill climbing, and living in tents and village rest houses.

For new arrivals, more often than not bachelors, the Survey Department's rest house on a hillock just off the Sabon Gida road at Bukuru about ten miles south of Jos was a pointed and gentle introduction to the privations they were later to experience in the course of their work. For others, already accustomed to periods of satisfying self reliance in remote places, it was a preferred and private haven from the conventions of station life. It had no running water, no electricity, no beds, no utensils and only a few items of basic furniture. During my time there my camping equipment was in everyday use. Cooking was done on a wood burning stove and I collected firewood supplies from the roadside sellers on my working trips to the forested areas off the plateau edge. In its favour were its peaceful and quiet location (except during thunderstorms), its fine views and its primitive but neglected laterite clay-surfaced tennis court (lacking a net, lines and fencing!). With a fellow surveyor I set about resurfacing the court with crushed and rolled termite mound material which, when set hard with its natural constituent of dried grass particles produced a fine, smooth playing surface. Our resources did not stretch to the purchase of a net but a length of rope stretched between two poles sufficed for the occasional competitive set.

On tour my tent usually accompanied me as an essential load in my 'pick-up' truck but when convenient I would stay in small rest houses, many of them without doors or windows, and often used as corrals for animals between the infrequent visits of people like me. They could be quite uncomfortable and cold at night when the Harmattan wind was blowing. There was a lot to be said for living in the privacy and comparative cleanliness of my tent, but there were many occasions when it was just too wet, too hot and too inconvenient to erect it. Over the years government officials had arranged for the building of these small unfurnished rest houses a short distance outside places to which they would commonly travel and where they might have need to stay overnight. Most were basic mud walled structures, rectangular or round, the better ones having inner and outer walls, sometimes cement-plastered and whitewashed, the space between the walls serving as a living area and, if in an elevated position, sometimes a veranda giving pleasant views. The better ones actually had glass windows and corrugated metal roofs, but the majority were thatched and generally had only gaps where doors should be and holes for windows and privacy was achieved by the use of grass matting. Thick mud walls and thatch were very good for keeping out the heat, but also good for keeping it in and needed high roofs to be reasonably cool.

Once in a while I came across a rest house in a delightful location. I recall crossing the River Niger on the Koton Karifi ferry and stayed the night in the local rest house which occupied an idyllic elevated position overlooking the big river. I was able to purchase from local fishermen a large Niger (or Nile) Perch, known locally as Giwan Ruwa (River Elephant), sweet succulent fish with which, in spite of his shortcomings, my cook prepared some excellent yam chips. Fish and chips alfresco on the Niger Riviera - such luxury!

Things did not always turn out so well. After some time making the filthy rest house at Monguna Arna habitable I was kept awake half the night by the incessant barking of a village dog. Utterly frustrated I could think of nothing better to do than foolishly fire off a single shot from my .22 rifle up into the night sky, whereupon every other dog in the village set up howling which kept me awake for the rest of the night.

Harvest time, October, can be a very hot month in Mallamaduri as I discovered to my great discomfort when carrying out a traverse survey linking Kano and Nguru. The tin-roofed rest house there was uninhabitable and infested with dangerous iridescent green blister beetles (cantharides) and the most incredible swarms of earwigs which in turn attracted bats and lizards by the score. I used it as a store and slept outside.

On another occasion, when engaged on topographic mapping of the country south of Kaduna I set up my camp at a decent little rest house with a concrete floor, glass windows and tin roof in scenic rocky surroundings at a village called Kajuru, less than an hour's drive from Kaduna. Its accessibility meant it was known to Kaduna 'townies' and my peace was disturbed by picnickers, particularly a coarse Swiss party from the Kaduna textile factory who spent a noisy weekend drinking and yodelling with scant regard for my privacy.

The Bijou Rest Houses of the North
Kujama Resthouse
A sarkin bariki (literally 'chief of the barracks' or caretaker) was responsible for the upkeep of a rest house and to provide visitors with an initial supply of water and firewood, for which a small fee was generally paid, but these duties tended to be neglected if visitors were very infrequent. It was not uncommon to arrive to find the place inhabited by bats, swallows, toads, and other creatures both domestic and wild, and a multitude of insects and to have been used at night as a pen for goats and chickens, the beaten earth floor thick with a cocktail of sickly-smelling excrement and debris from the disintegrating roof where termites were at work. Such rest houses were seldom completely free of leaks and a large survey umbrella was often very useful indoors, erected over the dining table or the bed. Toilet facilities were primitive and might consist of nothing more than an earthenware pot in a room at the back, hence the name biyan gida ('behind the house'), and I found a portable toilet seat was a luxury worth carrying on tour. The better class of rest house might have a thunder-box and pail system. The sarkin bariki, keen to demonstrate that he did not neglect his duties, once removed the pail through the trapdoor in the outer wall as I sat there. I was treated to a cheery voice from below "Good morning, sah" as he removed the pail from beneath me!

For a while my colleague Alan Wright lived in one of a group of three thatched rest houses at Wamba. I had spent the evening with him, enjoying a good yarn and several whiskies, and then retired for the night in one of the other houses. As he undressed and climbed into bed Alan accidentally knocked over his hurricane lamp and set fire to his mosquito net which in turn sent flames leaping into the tinder dry thatch above. In seconds the entire roof was alight and Alan stood outside, his nakedness silhouetted by a huge and very spectacular orange blaze with a great column of sparks rising high into the warm night sky, saying "I say, old chap, I think I have a problem, you wouldn't have a spare bed by any chance, would you ?"

In contrast to uniform modern hotels each of those little country rest houses and their keepers had ambience and character to be remembered, with something amounting almost to affection, fifty years later and I wonder if any of them have survived to this day, and if they have, who uses them.

map of British Empire
Map of Central North Nigeria, 1958
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)
Also by the Author
An African Experience in Retrospect

The Geographic Labourers Of Arewa: Remembering the Northern Nigerian Survey


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