The British Empire Library

An Attempt

by R H Lewis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Richard Barlow-Poole (Northern Nigeria 1947-68)
This is a fascinating book: a book of memoirs by an expatriate Government Education Officer whose date of first appointment was 20 September 1956 and who, after nearly 50 years, still lives in official quarters of the Government Science School Kuru, near Bukuru in Plateau State.

Self-government for the Northern Region came not long after his arrival in 1959, followed by Independence on 1 October 1960. These events are recalled because the Keffi Government College Choir provided the background music for the Childrens' Pageant in 1959 and there were the usual local celebrations in 1960. But other great events, the two coups of 1966 (and many later and attempted coups), the Biafran civil war, the creation of States out of the Colonial Regions, and then of yet more States; none of these are mentioned except where they impinge on the author's educational activities or on his postings (eg when new States were created). The book is entirely concerned with the life of a schoolmaster who is in his own words "essentially the servant of his pupils and of their parents".

In the course of his Service career in Radar during the 1939/45 war, Lewis had visited Kano briefly in 1943 en route to the Middle East. This visit had been sufficient to inspire in him a wish later to return. So, despite happy teaching experiences at Felsted School and then at Wellington College, he applied in 1956 successfully to join the Education Service in Nigeria and found himself posted to Keffi Government College where he remained for 10 years. Then he moved to the Government Secondary School, Ilorin for 2 years. By then the first new States were being created. Ilorin, capital of the new Kwara State, was to have no need of expatriate civil servants. Where was Lewis to be posted? He was first informed that it was to be Birnin Kebbi in the Moslem North and then secondly to Ganye. He informed the Ministry that he would go back to the United Kingdom rather than accept those postings. The posting was then changed to be that of Vice-Principal of the Government Secondary School, Kuru, not far from Jos and Riyom, from where several Keffi pupils had come. And there at Kuru he is still living, aged 87 by the time this review appears.

When he left Wellington College in 1956, Lewis had come to Nigeria with one object in mind: to make friends with and help to educate the African young. Concrete proof of his success in this came in 1999 when he was given (i) a beautiful wall shield and plaque awarded by the Keffi Old Boys' Association on the occasion of the school's Golden Jubilee, (ii) a carved wooden trophy and plaque presented by the National Association of Plateau State Students, and received (iii) a very official letter from the Federal Government at Abuja appointing him a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), a Nigerian honour comparable to the British MBE.

Lewis was a mathematics teacher; his hobbies were training choirs, organising Sunday evening services, and making friends with pupils (his choirs were a great way of doing this). This is the reason why he did not want to be posted to the Moslem North as by experience he knew they would not have much use for choirs. He regards singing as one of the best training in discipline that he knows. He had no ambition to be a Principal, the most he accepted was to be a Vice-Principal. In the end he ceased to be a Vice- Principal and became an "Inspector of Music": a misnomer as there was nothing to inspect, there was only what he might do himself.

As an example of his musical work, he arranged a "Grand Concert" for the Head of State, at that time General Gowon, and the State Military Governor of Plateau Province in 1971. So successful was this, that he and the combined choirs were ordered to perform at the State Banquet in the Plateau Hotel ten days later. This was also a great success but at a price; it led to him being twelve weeks in bed at home and later in Vom hospital. Incidentally, in his Acknowledgements at the beginning of the book he expresses particular thanks to General Dr Yakubu ('Jack') Gowon for all his kindnesses over the years, especially in connection with the present book.

In a final chapter, rather diffidently, because he has been a guest of Nigeria for nearly 44 years when he wrote the book and it ill becomes a guest to voice criticism, he nevertheless does so. Because otherwise he felt he would betray his many Nigerian friends who yearn for a change (he writes before the publication of the book in May 2000). The greatest national disease, he writes, is corruption which "has spread, like an uncontrolled gangrene, throughout the land". What could he do about it himself? He's convinced that true education must include a closer and better understanding between different peoples. And the book shows how well he did this. Finally he quotes Francois Villon, the French poet (1431-c. 1465), "Everything in this world passes away except friendship". And his final sentence is "And that is really what this story is all about".

British Empire Book
R H Lewis
West African Book Publishers
978 153 099 5


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe