British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by B.A. Babb
Journey to Yola
MV Accra
On 11th September 1929, I found myself walking up the gangway of Elder Dempster's m.v. ACCRA, bound for Lagos. This was the start of a journey which was to end in Zanzibar 25 years later.

It had come about almost by chance. In the spring of 1929 I was doing a term's teaching at Christ's Hospital, as part of the course for the Cambridge University's Diploma of Education. During that time The Times published a West African Supplement and while having a fairly casual look at this, I noticed a report on careers opportunities in the Colonial Education Service - the one that appealed to me most being in Northern Nigeria - the main reason being that shooting was good and horses cheap, both of which I loved and saw no prospect of ever being able to afford as a schoolmaster in England. Lest it should be thought that these reasons were unworthy, it must be remembered that I had already decided to become a schoolmaster! I also recognised the fact that the starting salary of a schoolmaster in England was about 180 pounds sterling p.a., while Nigeria was offering 480 pounds sterling!
Journey to Yola
Ralph Furse
Without much delay I applied for Northern Nigeria and was called for interview by the Colonial Office Selection Board, whose Chairman was the famous Major Ralph Furse, a keen devotee of cricket. I have often wondered if the fact that I had played county cricket (albeit Minor) added some weight to my extremely modest academic attainments! I was duly appointed and with my 60 pounds outfit allowance I felt passing rich. Visits were paid to Griffiths McAlister to get my kit together, and a Banker's Order of 10 pounds per month arranged to pay for it. This remained in force for several years and it was often said that "Griffmacs" were almost as much our masters as the Colonial Office!

Before sailing I had received a letter from Randall Ellison, at that time Education Officer in the Assistant Direction Office, Kaduna, telling me that I was to be posted to Yola, Adamawa Province, and to report to Kaduna to be told how to get there. The fourteen day voyage passed very pleasantly, with the added interest of first sights and sounds of Africa at Sierra Leone, Takoradi and Accra. Naturally a few "old Coasters" did their best to terrify us beginners with lurid tales of life (and more usually death!) in the "White Man's Grave".

On arrival at Lagos I was bidden to lunch with the Director of Education, E. R. J. Hussey, father of a famous Chairman of the B.B.C., and later pick up the night boat train for the two day trip to Kaduna, where Randall Ellison met me and put me up. Next day I met the Assistant Director, G. A. J. Bieneman, whose widow remained a dear friend for many years. He told me I was being posted to Yola since I had read Modern Languages at Cambridge and Futam, spoken in Adamawa Province, was considered a more difficult language than the more usual Hausa, Next day, Ellison produced a cook, Kadiri, and a steward, Musa; the former a useful cook who remained with me for many years and the latter a very short time indeed!
Journey to Yola
Niger Company Steamer
I then boarded the evening train for Makurdi and was told to take the first available Niger Company Steamer for Yola. These boats were stern-wheelers, their main function being the transport of stores and trade goods to trading stations on the upper reaches of the Benue River, returning with the annual ground nut crop, loaded into barges and lashed alongside. They had the wonderfully evocative air of boys' adventure stories, which I was still young enough to appreciate. They provided no food and only basic accommodation for two to three Europeans, i.e. unfurnished cabins and communal galley. One used one's own camp equipment. The lower deck provided seemingly unlimited space for Africans - men, women and children and their assorted livestock, including cattle and the odd horse. Kadim, I found, had the extraordinary talent, possessed by so many African cooks, of producing good meals from often poor materials, under very difficult conditions. The basics, flour, sugar, tea, etc., came from "Griffmacs'" chop boxes; meat, chickens, eggs and fish from the riverside markets, when we anchored for the night.

It was not possible to steam in darkness as all navigation was done by the African skipper, clad in pyjamas and sitting in a deck chair in the bows of the ship. He had an unerring eye for sandbanks and too shallow water and gave all navigational directions by shouting to the man at the wheel. Some days later we arrived at Lau, to be greeted with the news that the boat would not be going on to Yola since the river was too low and would not be navigable again until the next shipping season. This left me a six-day trek to Yola. The District Officer, Captain L. C. Schlotel, M.C., had been sent a telegram which asked him to provide carriers and point me in the direction of Yola; thus a lorry was waiting at Lau to transport me and my loads the short distance to the Muri District H.Q. at Jalingo. On reaching there I was delighted to find that the Cadet there was Jack Gill, an old Cambridge friend, who had already been in the country a couple of months. Jack put me up and then took me to pay my respects to Schlotel. We found him trying out the effects of an arrow on a home-made shield, made of corrugated iron (or "pan", as I soon learned to call it). Apparently, on his last visit to the pagan Mummuze country, some bright young spark had had the temerity to flick off an arrow at him and he wished to be well-prepared for his next tax-collecting visit! At this time, Mummuze country was "closed territory" and I had a nasty shock when told that part of my trek to Yola would be through it but that I would be given an escort. I began to ask myself if I had made a mistake in not sticking to schoolmastering in England!

Journey to Yola
Next morning I awoke to the sound of clanking chains to find a gang of prisoners in leg-irons from the Native Administration gaol cutting the Station grass - all singing very cheerfully! A horse, carriers and escort, were ready and we set off on the first day's trek of about 17 miles - the average, for which carriers were paid 9d for carrying a 60lb. load and 6d for returning "empty". My natural apprehension (windiness would be the more appropriate word!) was in no way diminished by finding on arrival at the first rest camp in Mummuze country that the pagan chief of the village and most of his subjects were very drunk indeed and were carrying bows and arrows! However, eggs and chickens were forthcoming and everything passed off quietly (apart from the drunken belching!) It cannot be denied, however, that I was happy a few days later to see the thatched roofs of Yola in the distance and a little later to be having breakfast with my new master. Captain Jeremy Taylor, the author of Fulani and Hausa Grammars and the Fulani Dictionary.

This "breaking-in" trek taught me the joys of trekking on horse-back, once a daily routine had been established. In my case this meant picking four of the heftiest carriers overnight to start off at 5.00 a.m. with the cook and his equipment, and for him to set up camp and table under a shady tree at about 8.30 a.m.
Journey to Yola
Abu bakr Tafawa Balewa
I would set off with the rest of the carriers about 6.00 a.m. and have breakfast about 2-3 hours later. Having reached camp about mid-day, it was pleasant to take a gun out in the evening to shoot a guinea fowl for the pot. A very enjoyable first tour followed, which included much trekking in distant parts of Adamawa Province, since during the heavy locust invasion of 1930, many departmental officers were seconded to the Administration for locust control duty. Having passed my Fulani exams, I was looking forward to a second tour in Yola, but was posted to Bauehi, not to return to Yola for six years.

Incidentally, a bonus of the three tours in Bauchi was the privilege of having Mallum (later Sir) Abu bakr Tafawa Balewa, the first Nigerian Prime Minister, on my staff for that whole period.

British Colony Map
1955 Map of North-Eastern Nigeria
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 57: April 1989


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