The British Empire Library

Old Bill in the Bush: A Cameroon Trilogy

by John M. Gill

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R.J. Elkerton (Nigeria 1947-1963)
"Old Bill in the Bush" is an account of the experiences of a Public Works Department Engineer posted during the rainy season of 1956 to Bamenda for a tour of duty in what was at that time the Southern Cameroons.

Although then administered as an integral part of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, with which it shared a common boundary and to which it was linked by a single laterite road, the Southern Cameroons not only had a special political status as part of the Cameroons under United Kingdom Trusteeship, but also very different physical, climatic, ethnic, social and linguistic characteristics from those of its Western neighbour. Its coastal area is dominated by Mount Cameroon, a 13,350 ft high volcano, the climatic effect of which is to make the West coast one of the wettest places in the world, with virtually all the rain falling in the six months from June to November. The heavy rains, combined with overloaded lorries, caused severe damage to laterite roads, which were frequently only passable to four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearances. Stranded vehicles compounded the traffic chaos on roads which, like that to and from Bamenda, were subject to a one-way system which operated in different directions on successive days. North and East of Mount Cameroon large areas are still under high forest, but the ground level gradually rises to a steep escarpment. Here, about 5,000 feet above sea level, the forest gives way to the grassfield plateau of Bamenda, which covers an area of over 6,000 square miles. On this plateau, the climate is temperate, mosquito nets are rarely used and fires are often needed at night. Mountains, some exceeding 7,000 feet, enclose fertile plains which provide pasture for herds of cattle tended by nomadic Fulani, as well as ample farmland for the settled areas. The Bamenda plateau was circled by a laterite road, which linked the old Divisional Headquarters of Wum and Nkambe with each other and with Bamenda.

Just like his Ian Marsden, the author was responsible for the repair and maintenance of all the principal roads, for the planning, construction, maintenance and repair of all public buildings and quarters, and for all schemes of comprehensive public works such as water supplies or new trunk roads. It was no sinecure. The extent of the consequential obligations was not at first realised, but soon became apparent as the family settled into the social life of Bamenda station. War-time bomb disposal expertise proved useful for the disposal of sensitive explosive, which was usefully detonated for the construction of a tennis court, and the Mechanical Workshop acquired a reputation for the design and construction of sump shields for motor cars. In a station where work and social activities were so closely integrated, Marsden soon found himself called upon to advise on community development projects being undertaken by Native Authorities or by the Missions, and involved with a variety of social activities - the Bamenda Show, the Bamenda Races, the Bamenda Meat Club, and even spillikins. Those who were there at the same time will find that their names are transparently disguised.

This book, the first of a The Cameroon Trilogy, is a nostalgic reminder of a colonial past.

British Empire Book
John M. Gill
The Pentland Press


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