British Empire Article

by R. G. Lowe
Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
(This account is taken from letters written at the time, and describes the work of a Forest Officer in making a Forest Reserve. Trekking with carriers had a long tradition in Nigeria

20th January 1959

Unguwan Rimi, Maya, Kassan Birnin Gwari (hamlet of the cottonwood tree, Muya village, Birnin Gwari District).

Joyce and I are sitting outside the doorway to our rumfa, on deckchairs in the pool of light cast by the Tilley lamp, hissing above our heads, where it is suspended from a projecting rafter. The rumfa is a good large square shelter, walled and roofed with grass affixed to a framework of gofas (forked sticks). The grass is held in place by corn stalks laid horizontally, inside and outside the grass, and tied with grass rope. The kitchen rumfa is close by, and the B.G. (Bayan Gida = behind the house = latrine) a little way off.

Our reason for being here is to demarcate the Mando Road North Forest Reserve: i.e. place beacons, and cut lines where necessary to show the boundaries. We mostly use streams, connecting them up with cut lines, in which we fell a 30-foot wide strip of trees through the bush. Beacons are placed at each end of a cut line and at 1000-foot intervals along them. The Mando Road forms the southern boundary. The aerial survey map has proved to be inaccurate: villages are wrongly named, and the bearings and distances bear no relation to what is an the ground -- which led to the dog-leg in the line between beacons 19 and 18.

Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
Joyce and Judy (the dog) and I walk at the back of the procession. This is very necessary to keep moving those carriers who fall by the wayside: due to loads coming untied, or because they feel tired, or wish to commune with nature. Owing to a meeting in the morning, we did not leave until 10 a.m., and with various halts we arrived at our destination at 2.30 p.m. The first task was to pay off the carriers. Each sat by his load and received 2/6d for his trouble. The two boys who carried the lampbox and the vegetable basket only got two shillings each as these loads were much lighter. Joyce produced the money out of the cash bag and I gave Pinder (our cook) the money to give to each person, and Joyce crossed them off her list.

A. R.G.L. and shotgun
B. Judy
C. Joyce in large hat
D. Pinder and attache case and hen (live)
E. Usman (small boy) with bed
roll and shooting stick
F. Galadiman Daji
Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
Mando Road Forest Reserve
G. Forest Guard
H. Galadima's boy and camera
J. Bush oven and kerosene
K. Primus stove box and laundry basket
L. First bedding bag
M. Box of books and papers
N. Snail food box, drawingboard, medicine bag
P. Planks, deckchairs, spade, surveying poles
Q. Food box
R. Kitchen box (pans, filter, water bottles)
S. Second bedding bag
T. Plates & kitchen utensils
U. Food box
V. Suitcase and grip
W. Vegetable basket
X. Lamp box
Y. Flasks in knapsack, rifle
Z. Guide, with bow and quiver

Round the sides of the rumfa we placed firewood to raise the boxes off the ground, to protect them from termites, and to discourage other insects. Pinder put the bush stove together and began the cooking, while I helped Usman to assemble the camp beds. I also put together the deckchairs, and camp chairs and table. As the kitchen rumfa was not yet built, we had to cook in the open under a tree. Nevertheless, soon all was ready and just over an hour later we were sitting down to lunch.

Yesterday we moved all our belongings here, from Rumana about 12 miles away. These were carried on the heads of fifteen carriers, mostly in old beer bottle crates to which I have fitted hinged lids. The procession wound its way in single file along the narrow path through thickly wooded country, with trees arching overhead. Most of the grass has been burned off and the ground is black with powdery ash, with a yellow stubble of unburned stalks. In places the dark green of the tips of the new blades is peeping through. After the passing of the fire, the trees produce new leaves and the light green foliage glitters in the harsh light. The harmattan blows penetratingly from the north-east and the sun is transformed to a pallid orb by the haze, through which the light filters whitely so that one can stare directly at the sun.

Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
We began last Wednesday from the Mando Road Resthouse at Zonkoro, where we stayed when building the Uniport house at Afaka. Next day, we made our first move, a short one of about 5 miles to Rumana, where the accommodation consisted of a round thatched hut (in which we slept) , and a nearby square rumfa (where we ate). Between the two, the villagers also erected a shelter for cooking, walled in behind with zana (grass) matting. When we had put up the two beds in the hut, there was no room for much else. During the day, we had to take one mosquito net down or we should not have been able to get in! The hut had one small window, and a door at each side, which ware closed over by an asabari mat suspended from the lintel. These mats are made from a stout grass woven together with string. About 400 stalks go to make one mat, 6 ft. long, with 10 or 12 rows of string.

A large pile of firewood was provided, and little girls brought water for us every day, carrying it in gourd bowls on their heads. They had to go about half a mile to the River Damari, which was a muddy brown colour. So was our filter after 3 days there, and during the last night only 2 bottles full filtered through. We had to wash and boil the filter-candle before we left, to get rid of the brown slime. One of our first tasks after arriving anywhere is to boil water for the filter. (Even after filtering, it may be somewhat yellowish.) We cool the drinking water overnight by immersing the bottles in the canvas bucket. Then in the morning, we fill up the Thermos flasks. Here at Muya, there is a well, so the water is much cleaner.

We seem to be on higher ground at Muya, but it has been much warmer at night than it was at Rumana. The people in this area have not seen many white people, and the children regard us with great interest. One tiny girl was brought by her father to see the spectacle of the bature (Europeans) and evidently found Joyce's appearance quite devastating - she happened to go out of the rumfa and the child took one look and rushed away screaming in terror! The onlookers were vastly amused. A very old man dragged himself to visit us. He could hardly walk and was nearly blind, but was determined to greet the white man. Unaided, and leaning heavily on his stick, he slowly came up the path to the rumfa from the village. Hesitantly he asked Pinder if he might see us and Pinder said, "Yes, cone, they are here." He approached the doorway, removed his shoes, and asked after our health, our wealth and our family as is the custom. Pinder gave him taro [threepence] on our behalf, and the old man was quite overcome with gratitude, and with arthritic fingers put it deep in his pocket. He requested leave to go and tottered off down the path calling, "Thank you, white nan, thank you, l am very glad."

22nd January 1959

We are woken every morning at 6.15 a.m. and leap out of bed at 6.30; at least, Joyce does - I tend to dally a little longer. By 7.30 a.m., I am ready to be off, having eaten breakfast, and the N.A. (Native Authority) Forester and Forest Guard together with the labourers come to the rumfa. We set off in single file to the workplace seme 2 to 4 miles away.

Our guide is an ancient hunter called Tanko who is never parted from his bow and quiver of arrows. His sense of direction is phenomenal and I just tell him to line up the Forester's surveying pole from another pole with the source of the stream wa are heading for, and he squints down the poles, moves his head from side to side, directs the Forester to move his pole a few inches to east or west, and off we go. This is despite the fact that our objective is invisible in broken and wooded country and half to one mile away! Usually we hit crack on. Today, I trusted the aerial survey map to cut from a fork in one stream to a fork in another for a distance of 4,500 feet, and I ended up, 1,000 feet wrong!

Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
Setting off with Carriers
He, and others of the labourers, are able to point to a place several miles away, with the accuracy of a compass bearing -- I have checked it. The old boy is mystified and amused by the fact that l ean extract this same information from a piece of paper. He thinks I am a marvel because I can describe the forking of a stream which I have never seen, and views ire with growing respect. Actually he is even beginning to get the hang of the map and can orientate it to the north for my benefit.

He smokes a tobacco pipe which consists of a cornstalk about two inches long and cut off at the end like a bamboo whistle. This he lighted with ash from a smouldering fallen tree, and sucked at it like the butt end of a particularly resilient cigar, held delicately between thumb and finger.

In one place where we had to put a beacon, the grass was unburned. This hampered the work, so we set fire to the grass and retired to the streambed. In the brisk wind, the flames roared up, accompanied by sounds like pistol shots as dried branches and twigs caught fire. Soon the opposite slope was bare and black with the ever-widening ring of flame retreating from us. Occasionally if the wind faltered, the hot smoke filled the clearing and made breathing difficult. We cut down a small tree and erected the beacon post, and collected stones still hot from the flames to make a cairn round it. Then came the problem of getting out of the fire! As we approached, a gust of wind whipped the flames into a wall of fire so that we started back, but then the wind died and the flames shrivelled to a few inches high; we ran like a herd of antelope at the barrier, leaping over the flames — like passing through a suffocating furnace to emerge in the cool of the other side.

Further on, the party stopped as two gwanki (roan antelope) ran off through the speckled shade of the trees. I failed to spot them, but I was shown the place where male and female had lain in the ash under the shade of nearby trees. I saw clearly their hoof mark like that of a pony's but pointed. "Kai! Naman daji ke nan, yana da girma kamar doki" (Gracious! this is real bush meat, it is as large as a horse.) They described to me the narrow elongated horns. The Hunter told us hew he had slain one with his poisoned arrows ten years previously near to this very spot.

25th January 1959

On Friday, together with the N.A. Forester and the Forest Guard and eight of the local people, I set off along the main stream, which was to form the northern boundary of the reserve for about 10 miles. The party proved distinctly bibulous, for along the streambanks grow the bushy tukurwa (raffia palms) which they tap for palm wine. A slit is cut deep into the main bud of the tree and a long wooden gutter inserted. From this a white opalescent fluid drips into the waiting pot. I did not try any, though it looked a cool refreshing liquid — and clearly very potent. The expedition was rather like tottering from one brewery to the next, and before we were halfway, it was a very merry one, running through the trees shrieking and hallooing, falling into holes, or stopping in some clearing where an ecstatic individual stamped out a solitary dance. The village blacksmith joined in with ribald steps singing in a high falsetto, while the others shrieked with laughter. Another ran about banging his head on trees or trying to pull them out of the ground. He seized a stick and assured me it was his bindiga (gun) exclaiming "boom, boom", pulling my leg because I was carrying the rifle. Another of the company had brought a dane gun, which the blacksmith fired for my benefit (I think the owner was a little afraid of it). It made an enormous bang and belched smoke and flame from the most unexpected places. Then the stick became a trumpet and someone else began to sing, and the two of them danced and postured beside me as I walked, wagging their heads oafishly from side to side.

The N.A. Foresters, being Muslim, were coldly disapproving of this intemperance, though sometimes abused despite themselves. Periodically we had to wait for someone who got left behind supping from a particularly inviting pot, and then, finding themselves lost, stumbled along calling after us pathetically.

The village blacksmith was a lean Hogarthian figure, with headgear resembling that of "Marianne", but yellow with age and grime. He had a real boozer's nose, and the grating corncrake voice of a tippler. His beauty was not improved by the blue catswhisker tattoo which mark his tribe (Qwari) . "Why do you live in the bush, Blacksmith?" they asked him. "How else could a man drink bammi (palm wine)?" he replied. "Idan mutum bai sha bammi, zai lalace. " (If a man doesn't drink palm wine, he'll spoil.) General laughter. I could not understand all they said, as they mostly spoke Gwari and only occasionally Hausa.

We constructed beacons at points along the stream, and even this was a huge joke. Stones were not available and we had to use pieces broken off termite mounds. They worked furiously, bringing embarrassing quantities, which sometimes had to be removed from their hands as they fell into an oblivious trance.

At one point the hunter's quiver, poison gourd and leather pouch all fell to the ground owing to the leather bindings coming undone. Everyone's eyes shone. "This is an omen that we shall catch meat," they said. Unfortunately, owing largely to the rowdyism, the nearest we got to meat was a kada (crocodile) which hastily slithered into a pool off the rock on which it was sunning itself.

Trekking in Northern Nigeria, 1959
Bush Cooking
We found two different sorts of traps and they showed me how they worked. One consisted of a round grass mat about 9" in diameter which was placed over a hole dug in the ground. Round this was placed a loop of wire which was attached to a log through which a hole was drilled at the centre. The rat and wire were covered with soil, and an animal such as a bauna ("bush-cow" or buffalo) treading on the mat would be caught by the ankle and either held or at least impeded.

The other trap was for makwarwa (francolin) and consisted of a springy stick from the end of which a piece of string was ingeniously looped round a circle of little sticks and pegged with a forked trigger. Food was placed at the centre and if this was disturbed, the unfortunate bird was whisked off the ground by a loop of string round its neck.

Fortunately the return journey was along higher ground, and somehow we got all the party hone at 5.15 p.m. having walked about 25 miles.

Altogether in the evenings, I shot about nine francolin, and these form an important addition to our diet. On the way to Rumana, I saw a bustard, a large bird, similar in size to a small turkey. We are told there are guineafowl here but we have not seen any yet. One of the villagers took Joyce and Usman for a long walk one morning, but they did not see a thing. We saw a flock one evening at Rumana, but could not get near enough for a shot.

The people ware impressed by my ability to kill makwarwa in the air, and I opened a cartridge and showed them the little balls of lead. They were even more impressed by Joyce's performance with the rifle. I stuck a piece of cardboard up in a tree 50 yards away and she knocked it down every shot. Sighs of appreciation were uttered by the spectators each time she hit. They were most impressed by the fact that I usually missed!

They showed us how their dane guns worked. These are muzzle-loading muskets about 5 feet long and often gaily decorated with beads.

My spent cartridge cases are valued for holding the charge of black powder which they pour into the barrel and tamp down hard with a long rod carried under the barrel. The shot (usually three large lumps of lead about a quarter of an inch across) is dropped in and a piece of cloth or cotton wool pressed down to hold it in place. The powder is fired by pieces of safety match head and box which are stuffed In the touch hole. To fire the gun, a spiked plate is placed over the hole and the hairmer drawn back. When it is released, by pulling the trigger, the gun goes off. The ancillary equipment is tied to the gun by leather thongs. They fired two blank rounds to demonstrate, both very deafening.

Yesterday with many farewells, we had to pack up and leave. We walked the 15 miles to the road, taking a direct path from Gidan Tanko to Zonkoron Rumana and on to Zonkoro, packed the loads into the car, and paid off the carriers. We cooked some baked beans and made tea, and then set off to drive the 90 miles back to Zaria.

British Colony Map
1955 Map of Kaduna Region
Colony Profiles
Also by the Author
Making Forest Reserves in Bornu - Northern Nigeria - 1956


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