British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Dogon Yaro (Ronald Bird)
Bussa Rapids
Bussa Rapids
Bussa Emirate, the northern of two Emirates in Borgu Division of Ilorin Province, was bordered on the east by the River Niger and on the west by the Erench colony of Dahomey. The border along the Niger was about 130 miles long and contained the major series of rapids known as the Bussa Rapids between Bussa town and Garafini in Wawa District, as well as lesser rapids further north and south.

Communication in the Emirate before the opening of dry season roads in the early fifties was almost all along the Niger. Travel up-river by poling canoe was always slow whatever the height of the water in the river and when posted to Borgu Division in 1950 I began to think of ways of speeding up communication. Until money became available for major bridging it still took nearly three days to get to Bussa from Kaiama except for part of the dry season, so improvement in communications was always a priority. Apart from road building I felt we should be able to speed up communication on the Niger, as even to get to Agwarra some 40 miles upstream from Bussa took nearly two days.
Bussa Rapids
Bussa Rapids Map

Nigerian Marine Department had done a lot of work over the years clearing obstacles and improving the safety of navigation through the rapids, but even in high water no river steamer had ever been able to get near to Bussa. It seemed worth experimenting with powered local canoes, but in 1950 it was not possible to get any high-powered outboard motors and the most powerful available in Nigeria was a Seagull 5hp outboard. Bussa N A agreed to buy one and we fitted it to a medium sized local canoe, fastened to a beam over the side near the stern. This combination proved quite successful though under-powered against strong currents.

Bussa Rapids
Nigeria 1953 Stamp
Although Agwarra could now be reached in a long day's canoeing from Bussa, the local people were somewhat sceptical of the advantages. One day, to show how versatile the new N A craft could be, I decided to take it down the Bussa rapids. The one person who entered into the spirit of the experiment was the Sarkin Kwata or Waterside Chief of Bussa, and he agreed to pilot me through the rapids if I steered the canoe. We took a couple of stout watermen to paddle in case we got into difficulties and set off with the Emir's blessing. The water level was high and the first part of the rapids above Malali and near old Bussa where Mungo Park and his companions probably met their death in April 1806 was not too difficult. Having shot the rapids in canoes on several occasions before, I knew that the really difficult part was going to be at Bubaru, particularly as with the fierce current one had to go flat out in order to be able to steer the canoe properly. At Bubaru we cut through a narrow channel on the inside of the dog-leg bend, the Sarkin Kwata proving an excellent if rather excited pilot, and seemed to speed through, rocks and trees flashing past. We reached the dreaded spot known locally as Mutu Kabari or "death and a grave", and emerged in the calmer waters beside Garafini elated with our success. The secret of shooting the Bussa rapids safely was to know and follow the correct route for the particular height of water in the river and I was aware that a predecessor of mine as DO Borgu had wrecked a standard steel poling barge in the rapids before the War.

The example of a powered canoe did not I'm afraid catch on locally though I did hear that somewhat later one or two powered canoes from Onitsha with more powerful engines traded successively on the middle Niger. The whole area is now under the waters of the lake formed when the great dam at Kainji was constructed quite a few years later.

Colonial Map
1914 Map of Nigeria
Colony Profile
Nigeria Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 97: April 2009


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