British Empire Article

By Greta Lowe
Letter From West Africa
Owa Visting Ilesha Hospital
Mud Mansions,

November 1927

Dear folk everywhere,

I have just been in the colony six days so I am making a fair start as far as writing is concerned anyway. Whether or not it continues remains to be seen. At present I am having quite an entertaining time trying to train a raw bush boy to be my steward - that is the high falutin term which is applied in this country to what in Sierra Leone is known as a house boy. This boy William has never been in a European house before and he speaks only a few words of English. You have no idea how difficult it is to tell one such to sweep the verandah, make the bed and prepare the bath when he does not know the words "brush", "sweep", "verandah" "bedroom" etc. and you yourself have to go off to the hospital and trust to luck that during your absence he does not polish the floor with blacking or use your hairbrush for cleaning your shoes.

Once more I have alighted in a decidedly spacious edifice in fact it is in many ways similar to my Sierra Leone abode, only it appears to be much more solidly built being of mud with a covering of cement. The verandah is not open but has five large arched windows each six feet wide and there is an extra window at each end, the total length of the verandah being seventy feet. I am the first person to inhabit this wonderful mansion so it still lacks many of those touches which go towards making a house into a dwelling. There is not a single hook or shelf in the place, the walls are bare and somewhat rough cement with no covering of paint or distemper. The furniture is quite sufficient for me but it looks rather like a little set of dolls furniture in a barn and I feel like a mouse lost in an empty church. At present I am having meals with the other doctor's household, but I am hoping to have my breakfast and tea over here soon. The chief deterrence at present are my cooking range does not possess a chimney and I have only a coffee and not a tea service.

Mrs MacWilliam has just brought out her little son aged ten months and I do not think there is a native in this district who has seen a white baby before. If we take him outside the compound a crowd collects and follows us wherever we go. Sometimes there will be thirty shouting and gesticulating natives, men, women and children around us and it's necessary to find someone we know in the mob to clear the way before us. Fortunately baby thoroughly enjoys it. He has had quite a number of "dashes" or presents including, money, a chicken, a puppy and a bar of soap. Last friday we three newcomers Dr and Mrs and baby MacWilliam and myself were taken to salute the king of this the Nigeria district. A messenger was sent in the morning to see if he would receive us in the afternoon and the reply came he would do so at five o'clock. We happened to know that his clock had been an hour wrong the previous day, so we did not quite know at what time he would really expect us.
Letter From West Africa
19th Century King of Ilesha
The palace is approached by a straight drive through the compound which is laid out like a rather crude park. In front of the low building is a dais on which the 'Owa' or king receives important visitors. We went round to a side gate and entered the courtyard which was surrounded by low dwellings some of wood and some of red mud but all had "pan" i.e. corrugated iron roofs. It is only recently that the king has adopted pan roofs in the place and until he did so no one else in Ilesha was able to do so. In the corner there were three large doors gaudily painted and heavily carved. The embossed figures gave the impression of having been stuck on after the door was made but on closer examination the whole door together with the figures were seen to be carved out of one block of wood. The pillars supporting the roofs were similarly fashioned. At our approach one of the men gave a tom-tom salute whilst another ran to inform the king of our arrival. Others brought rugs and skins and a humpty and placed them on a small platform in front of one of the doors as the king reclines to receive visitors. Yet others again brought chairs for us. We happened to be examining the pillars when the king entered so that I did not see how he dropped into his graceful attitude on the rugs and really he looked quite regal in his amply draped white robe and coloured turban, holding in his hand a short sceptre covered with goats hair. He and the whole court were intensely interested in the white baby and could scarcely take their eyes off him for a moment. The Gorulas have a salutation for almost every occasion. Each time the king coughed the drummers struck a few notes on the tom-tom and the whole assembly clapped. This suited baby finely and he too clapped much to the pleasure of the king. When we had each made our little speeches through the interpreter and proffered our small gifts and were about to depart the king called for kola nuts and these were presented to Dr MacWilliam who split them up and handed them round. As a sign of good will each should take one or two and chew them, the remainder being taken away with one on departure. It was really quite an interesting affair. We of course used the English salutation, the handshake, but all the natives who came in prostrated themselves upon the ground. I believe there are five such rulers in this country, all of course subject to the British government. People speak very highly of this one and he certainly struck me very favourably in that brief interview.

In this town of Ilesha there are at present eight Europeans including baby. We are all missionaries and it is possible that in a few months time there will be only four of us. For Christmas we expect to be only three. Our nearest European neighbours are at Oshogbo twenty miles away.

As far as I can gather in so short a time the natives seem to be of a far nicer type here than in Freetown, I had expected and hoped for that. There does not seem to be the same danger of unpleasant individuals intruding into ones houses unbidden or of petty thieving on the part of the house boys. On the other hand the latter are not so good at their work as the Sierra Leone boys and they have not the idea of keeping themselves smart. I have often wished that I could have my boy Brimah back now I am here. Feeding is far more difficult here than in Freetown, the natives live on a very monotonous diet and that means there is very little variety for the Europeans. The only fruits are oranges, a poor variety of banana, pineapples (rarely) and pawpaw. For the last few days I have not been able to obtain any fruit at all. Yam takes the place of potatoes and onions, pumpkin, native beans and pawpaw are the only fresh vegetables. A few very tough tomatoes are grown. There is no fish nor mutton to be had and of the bullock the only parts eaten are the hump (not rump), kidney, liver and tongue. Chickens are our chief standby. Eggs are very small and dear. All the remainder of our food has to be brought from Lagos or from home in tins; tinned butter, tinned milk, tinned vegetables, tinned fruits, tinned flour, tinned meats, tinned lard, tinned sago etc. Ground nuts and rice, the great Sierra Leone standby, are very scarce. The other evening I wanted to find something suitable for tea for a European who was not very well. I am afraid the meal would not have been appreciated at home. Ideal milk diluted with hot water (that is really quite nice), palm-wine bread toasted and tinned butter which was rather salty and oily. Moral of the story: don't need an invalid diet.

Of course insects abound unfortunately the sandflies have a very 'Lowe' taste. They are little brutes and somehow they manage to bite me despite the fact I have to resort to two pairs of stockings and russian boots in the evening. There are mosquitoes and tsetse flies and wasps too, huge ones. The other morning I put my hand under the pillow for my watch and found a sandfly had built it's nest there. Again this morning I could not put my foot into my shoe because there was a nest in the toe. Though we have the tsetse fly we do not have sleeping sickness I am pleased to say. At night the compound is flecked with fireflies and glow worms in thousands. They are so pretty. The lizards are very long and brightly coloured and somehow more objectionable than those in Sierra Leone. They make a great noise running about in the false roof of my house. In fact this is really quite a noisy house, being new the boards begin to creak and strain about 11am in the heat of the sun and again at night when they cool, they make terrific reports and sounds as though someone was tearing up the boards. Added to this the night brings some most weird bird and animal voices. There is one said to be a tree bear which begins just like a sleeper breathing heavily and gradually increasing to a loud Rhythmic snore and eventually terminates in a series of barks. The first time I heard it I could have declared there was someone sleeping in the house. Of course no one ever sees these animals. Here too one is troubled by the goats and cattle in the compound and their remarks are not all together soothing in the night.

This hospital is much smaller than the Princess Christian Hospital but the type of work is quite different. Our cases are fewer but generally speaking more serious. Already I have seen here more fractures than I did in a whole year at the P.C.M.A. Here we do a small amount of major surgery, there we did not. Firstly, because we had not the requisite staff and secondly there is a better equipped government hospital within two miles. Motor transport, though still in the initial stages is growing rapidly. Native drivers are apt to be reckless and pedestrians are not used to swiftly moving traffic. The result is we have quite a large number of road accidents brought in, often from long distances. A girl whom I used to know in London is stationed 56 miles from here and the other day she sent me a boy with a crushed finger as this is the nearest medical station. Several days previously she had posted a letter to me but I did not receive it till five days after the boy arrived, the postal arrangements are so remarkable in this district. Another man with a fractured thigh was brought 100 miles in a lorry to us. There are five main buildings in this compound.

Letter From West Africa
Ilesha Dispensary
1- The out patient department which comprises a little clinical laboratory, a dispensary, two doctors consulting rooms, two rooms for dressing and treatment, an opthalmic dark room (at present not used) and a large waiting room in which a service is held every morning and a theatre where all the operations are performed.

2- The ward block with the male ward below with about fourteen beds and the female ward above with about ten beds. The former is nearly always overflowing and the latter is rarely full. There is one room set apart for infant welfare and one for maternity.

3- The sisters bungalow.

4- The doctors' bungalow.

5- The second doctors' house.

second doctors house. There are also small houses for the three women nurses and for the men nurses and for some of the house boys and there is a hospital laundry and kitchen. At first glance there seems to be an enormous number of buildings in proportion to the number of patients treated. That was how it struck me at first but then one has to remember that so far from civilisation much more has to be done on the compound than is necessary elsewhere. We have to draw our own water from the well and distribute it. All carpentry and repairs are done under the supervision of the medical officer. All refuse has to be disposed of within the bounderies of the hospital compound etc. However I am not yet convinced that our buildings are in correct proportion for our work but I have scarcely been here long enough to judge.

Yoruba is a most abominable language. It has all kinds of peculiar sounds in it like "piv" "hn" "gbw" and words have different meanings according to the tone in which they are said. I have met two people who have been here ten years and have really tried to master the language, but neither is able yet to give an address without the aid of an interpreter. When I go to church I feel as though I was in my second infancy, I can't follow the lessons a little bit so I have to work down till I find a word I know and then listen carefully till it comes. That is exactly what I used to do at church at home before I could read. It really is quite an amusing game. Then the hymns - as soon as I hear the tune the English words go right out of my head and the Gorula give me no clue at all. They have a number of their own tunes and chants used with suitable words and they are very fond of these. They sing a little better than the Sierra Leone folk, i.e. from an English point of view. They have not that tendency to drag out a line to the length of a verse.

I find I have not told you anything about the journey and I had intended to do so. Fortunately it was very calm and no one was ill. The worst day of all was that on which we rounded Cape Verde. There being a following wind, there was not a breath of air to be felt. The heat was terrific. Down in the cabins we were steamed and when we came up the decks just radiated the heat intolerably. However we survived - just. Of Freetown I have told you before so will say nothing except that I awoke just in time to witness the most wonderful sunrise I have ever seen, not that I have seen an enormous number. I'll not try to describe because I am not skilled in word pictures. Suffice it to say that it was sufficiently alluring to keep me standing on tip - toe on some pipes with my neck craned through a port hole at a most strained angle with my head in a shower bath of dirty water from the deck above which was having it's daily swill. I do wish some of you could have seen it - the sunrise I mean. It appears so often and is so seldom seen. The next morning we called at Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and there was a quite exciting morning for we had on board the President, king and his wife and family returning after their visit to Europe. I am afraid he found us passengers very indifferent to his presence after the reception he had on the continent. However the Liberian navy, which consists of a few rowing boats and a steam launch, came out to receive him and with flags flying we gave him a farewell salute. As he approached a gun was fired on shore with much labour at long and irregular intervals causing us considerable amusement. It is said that Liberia once had a gunboat but it was sunk near to the shore. I do not think she claims to be a great sea power. Our stay outside Sekondee was interesting owing to the reefs and surf on that coast. We had to anchor two or three miles out and numerous surf boats and two or three steam launches came out to us. A surf boat is like a very large rowing boat strongly built but instead of being propelled by oars paddles are used. Three or four men sit on each side of the boat on the gunwale and each is armed with a paddle which has a short straight handle with a large flat three pointed blade at the end. With these they strike the water sometimes in rhythm and sometimes not. Most of the boatmen are more or less naked but those from the customs and from certain farms have uniforms. One farm insists on it's black surf boys wearing scarlet caps, jerseys and shorts and wielding white bladed paddles. They look veritable demons. There is always a big swell on the sea in that part. Consequently it is impossible to use the stairs to go down onto the surf boat. A mammy chair has to be used instead and human freight is loaded and unloaded in much the same way as luggage. A mammy chair is just like a swing boat that will hold four persons. The passengers step into the chair on deck and then they are hoisted up into the air and over the side of the boat by a crane. Then comes the tricky part of letting them down into the surf boat. The sea is rocking and so falls a considerable number of feet in relation to the larger boat. It also moves from side to side despite all efforts to prevent it. Just as the chair is descending beautifully the surf boat will rise with a bound and to prevent a dangerous impact the chair has to be shot up into the air again. There is no comparison with Lewis's lifts. This goes on until the chair is deposited safely in the middle of the boat. When the passengers step out, the chair is returned to the deck. After that there is a not too steady passage over the rolling sea in the boat and glare of the tropical sun. I did not go ashore! In the meantime crowds of men and boys swim about in the water shouting and gesticulating waiting to dive for coins, bread, chocolate or anything else they can get, for all the world like ducks in a public park pond. They like cigarettes but those should be thrown into a boat or put in a tin. If they get a cigarette they never fail to ask for a match unless their mouths happen to be too full of coins, but they are clever at talking with their mouths full.

Letter From West Africa
The Boat Train
This next year it is expected that the new port Jakorade will be used instead of Sekondee. It is about seven miles away and an artificial harbour has been constructed on a very fine scale. I hope to call there on my way home. There was a doctor on board employed by the contractors there and he has furlough in every eight months - the envy of the boat. At Accra the process of disembarkation is the same as that at Sekondee. Lagos is quite different. To us the trouble was that all these ports are entered at daybreak and it is not easy to be up at that time three or four times in a week particularly when the clocks have a trick of moving on an hour in the night as we travel in an easterly direction. At Lagos we crawled slowly along the main low islands, rounding all the time and at length after considerable delay owing to the turn of the tide, we came alongside a firm and steady landing stage almost worthy of Liverpool. The shore looked pretty and very green, but no place on the coast can compare with Sierra Leone for beauty of contour and colouring. I have yet to see any sight to compare with that scenery in the rainy season. I did not see much of Lagos though we were obliged to stay there the whole day. It was very hot and "gaspy" like Freetown. The boat train (does not that sound civilised) was to leave at 9pm but alas for us, it did not start till 1 am. Then once it does go it has a journey of three nights and two days to make. We, I am glad to say, only travel in it for about ten hours. It is just like a dingy third class corridor train at home. Two people share a compartment and for the sum of five shillings a sheet and very tickly blanket or rather a scrubly one and a pillow can be obtained. Our train was crowded and in consequence four men were put into each compartment; two upper bunks being fixed over the usual seats. Somehow I had been listed as a man and found myself with three male companions, but it was soon rectified. The facilities for washing are not as good as on an English third class train. One coach is fitted as a dining saloon with seating for twenty four persons. It is certainly crude compared with what you are used to having but it is a relief to have meals supplied and not to have to carry food for such long Journeys. There had to be four sittings for breakfast and the last folk must have been very hungry for it was almost eleven o'clock and most people had been at the station at eight the previous evening.

Letter From West Africa
Morris Cowley
That wait at Lagos had been very trying. We had all been up at daybreak and were dog tired. Until the train began to move the heat in the compartment was unbearable. Outside there was nowhere to sit down and the sandflies were gorging gluttonously at our expense. Our train, it was said had been built specially for the Prince Of Wales when he visited Nigeria - I pity him. Of course for him baths were arranged at various stations along the line and the train stopped while he had meals etc. People were looking frightfully grimy and dishevelled after one night, how they appeared after two days and three nights when they arrived at Jos I can't imagine. From Oshogbo we completed our journey in a Morris Cowley belonging to Ilesha's european minister and almost the first thing I did on arrival was to fall asleep and so did baby and so did Mrs MacWilliam.

I was just about to finish this epistle when Ojo walked in. He is a little orphan kiddie aged four years, his mother having died in hospital when he was born. He sleeps with one of the house boys, has his "chop" with the patients, is bathed (occasionally) by a nurse, is supplied with clothes by the sisters and generally does as he pleases. I am afraid that he is getting rather out of hand and will not be a credit to the hospital but the problem is what to do with him. There is no boarding school to which he can go. The fact that he is allowed to wander into our houses and that the Europeans take a fair amount of notice of him makes his attitude to the houseboys not what it should be and I fear if we were to understand some of his Garuba he uses to them we should be rather shocked. He understands English quite well but does not speak it. It certainly would not do to take him into a European household and there is very little chance of him being taken into a native one and being fairly treated. I am really sorry for the child for he has no playmates and no one to turn to with his troubles or his pleasures. When he came in just now he obviously had a touch of fever, but that is nothing unusual with these children. He sat down by my paper basket and began to put envelopes on his feet for shoes and when I made him a paper hat he shuffled up and down just as pleased as any white child. At last I took him to the mirror in my room and he was extraordinarily interested in himself, with his dirty white shirt and bandy legs. He invariably discards his trousers as the day wears on. He thought that turning me round in my revolving chair was fun, but he had no idea of doing as he was asked or bidden. Personally I find him more docile and pleasant when he has fever, he reminds me very much of "Kipling's" story of Mahammed Din with his "inadequate shirt", his lonely wanderings about the compound and our inability to converse.

I find I began this letter on 3/11/27. It is now 10/12/27 and for this year I think this must suffice. It is very disjointed but you know I am not a journalist or a reporter. l'm merely writing a letter to my friends.

Goodbye everybody
Best wishes for 1928
from Greta Lowe.

British Empire Map
Lagos Area Map, 1961
Colony Profiles
Further Reading
Ilesha and Beyond: the story of the Wesley Guild medical work in West Africa
by Arthur Southon

Front-line hospital: the story of Wesley Guild Hospital, Ilesha, Nigeria
by Andrew Pearson

Ilesha and Beyond A Pictorial Record of the Methodist Guild Hospital at Ilesha, Western Nigeria, 1935


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