The British Empire Library

The Geographic Labourers Of Arewa: Remembering the Northern Nigerian Survey

edited by Malcolm Anderson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Trevor Clark (Nigeria 1949-60)
Wow! At first glance this large (A4) heavy, shiny and colourful hardback reminds one of those Christmas annuals. The Bumper Book for Boys and such, only manageable when sprawled out on the nursery floor (or in front of the fire for the majority of us not posh enough to have had nurseries). The opening pages reveal the potentially forbidding purpose, to "recollect Land Surveying, Mapping and related activities in the pre- and post-independence Northern Nigeria, concentrating on the work of the ... Northern Nigerian Survey ... during the 1950s and 1960s." There follows an extract from Wordsworth at his most meteorological to explain the title (the first of several appropriate poetic or literary quotations bedecking the text), and "a broad outline" (fully detailed in fact) of Nigerian history, incidentally embracing the creation and ultimate dissolution of the editor's department. Readers fearful of academicism or unattracted to professional surveying must not give up there. Some valuable primary sources follow to fill out the lead into and follow through of the 1966 tragedy. There are many identifiable parallels to what pursuers of other disciplines experienced.

The first thing that strikes about this book is how well and easily it is written, and how every departmental instance is set firmly in the context of the currently surrounding events and vital humanity of all races. The second may be the tacit reminder that, except to the purblind, maps are works of art - beautiful, and those reprinted here rub it home to most of us pensioners that the surveyors and their teams, pursuing a never popular career, of whose movements and measurements we saw so little, had trodden places higher and lower, and more remote, than we or our Nigerian fellows would ever venture upon: least of all our educated "mallams", expecting to inherit our cosy office jobs, safe cordoned off from "the bush".

The book begins by introducing the land and people, with a shrewd pen picture of an African chainman, one of the profession's FBI, then swiftly explaining the esprit de corps of its officer cadre, now recognising in its annual reunions, like so many OSPA readers, what a rare privilege it has turned out to be to have served and learnt from remote cultures. Part of the nostalgia lies in realisation that, just as invisible electrons have replaced so many gears and levers in daily technology, and saved us the need to understand or use maths, so the laborious physical techniques of Malcolm Anderson's Survey (reconnaissance, beaconing, observation, triangulation, traversing, precise levelling, topographic mapping, even aerial photography, planimetric mapping, contoured topographic mapping, cadastral surveying, all interpreted here for the uninitiated, and graphically illustrated from practical experiences) have to varying degrees been superseded by new states of new art. Other professionals, medical, natural resources, technical (but not, one might pray, educational), know that their ways would not be used to-day - except of course when the official has nothing but his own inbuilt resources to fall back upon and failing aid agencies to blame.

Anderson is much more than an editor: for all the gobbets inserted from his colleagues (and he is refreshingly frank when characterizing some), and even setting aside the anecdotes introduced by "The writer recalls: ... ", the bulk of the text is his own. He clearly justifies the gain from the Northern Survey gaining its freedom on regionalisation of Nigeria in the 1950s, but as convincingly deplores the progressive break-up during the unending proliferation of new States in the succession of changes, largely military, between the 60s and to-day. There is obviously a balance to be struck between the needs of local town planning and the recording of global geophysics, but there is also a bitterness to be expressed at the lack of Authority's interest in keeping even 1:125,000 maps updated during the recent 20 years of neglect described in his Last Observation. If Nigeria is a unity, some focus should ensure that its earthly totality is fully comprehensible.

But before that sad conclusion comes the part that all overseas pensioners will empathize with, and which general readers (who are encouraged by broadsheet, literary and weekly comment reviews to browse on such subjects as lesser country houses, punctuation, big bangs and celebrities' lifestyles) would enjoy if editors dared to lift the curtain on what run-of-the-mill imperialist officials were truly like. There is a good picture of why and how, when it was possible, someone might choose to become a colonial servant, and what welcome and shock arrival would bring to him and, later, his wife. There follow straight, unsophisticated rapportages of encounters with local "exotic" people who in fact shared our basic qualities: we read them all with shared memory, even if strangers might occasionally skip. No compilation has given a better picture of the contrasting relationships between black and white, north and south, male and female, wildlife and weather, in Nigeria. The different travelling patterns, rail, river and corrugated road, horse, kit-car and cycle, are vivid, as the realities of prolonged life in bush, whatever the incidental duties.

For this reviewer some of the little gems are to find that a "steel band" is not a West Indian music group; that the Gbagyi people (to most of us the "Gwari") say the Kadudna river means "crossing river of snails", exploding the general belief that "Kaduna" means in Hausa "crocodiles"; that a spider might become trapped in the cross-webs of a theodolite lens; and to see the text of the British High Commissioner's letter of reassurance to expatriates after the 1966 mutiny. A perhaps deliberate mistake was to call the House of Assembly the House of Commons: the Sardauna of Sokoto as Premier would have erupted to be classed as a commoner.

If for nothing else, ex-Northerners will cherish this book for its hundreds of photographs, mostly coloured, bringing back so many familiar scenes and features. It has given great joy, for all the regrets.

British Empire Book
Malcolm Anderson
M F Anderson
1 871315 84 0
The author has kindly allowed this book to be made available as a download:
The Geographic Labourers Of Arewa: Remembering the Northern Nigerian Survey PDF.


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