Passage to Africa

D.A.N. Jones

  • Africa Dances by Geoffrey Gorer
    Penguin, 218 pp, £2.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 14 009502 0
  • Nigerian Kaleidoscope by Rex Niven
    Hurst/Archon, 278 pp, £13.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 905838 59 9
  • Stepping-Stones by Sylvia Leith-Ross, edited by Michael Crowder
    Peter Owen, 191 pp, £10.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7206 0600 4
  • Female and Male in West Africa edited by Christine Oppong
    Allen and Unwin, 402 pp, £18.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 04 301158 6
  • Memories of Our Recent Boom by Kole Omotoso
    Longman, 232 pp, £1.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 582 78572 3

When I took up work in Nigeria, the day after their Independence ceremony of 1960, I had with me two old British books to introduce me to the country – or, at least, to my seniors’ appreciation of it. They were as different, almost, as Cocteau and Baden-Powell. One was picturesque and picaresque, Africa Dances: A Book about West African Negroes, published by Geoffrey Gorer in 1935 when he was 30, after a rather Waugh-like tour of French and British territories: he had been guided by Féral Benga, a ballet dancer from Senegal whom he had met in Paris. The striking pictures included a smoky painting of handsome Benga by his friend, Pavel Tchelitchew, who had introduced him to Gorer. Before his passage to Africa, young Gorer had already published The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade and his mood was still dandy-left, rive-gauche, smoothly dissident and shocking. Africa Dances is now reissued as a paperback, in regrettably abbreviated form, with no pictures. We may trace in it the shifts and jumps of Gorer’s developing political consciousness, dancing uneasily between the back and the front half of the New Statesman. He was inclined to see (and love) his ‘negroes’ as sculptures, objets d’art, patterns of dance, to be described to British readers in an amoral aesthetic way: but there were spasms of humane indignation at the French mode of government and, as a concomitant, a growing respect for the British system, despite its comically stodgy ‘This England’ aspects.

My other book, Nigeria: Portrait of a Colony by one C.R. Niven, was more straightforward and single-minded. The author published it in 1945 when he was 47, after 20 years’ service all over the huge unco-ordinated colony. The most striking photograph was his own study of two hefty Nigerians carrying his 1920 BSA over very rough country. The caption was: ‘Early days in Nigeria – motor cycle carried over bush paths from one completed road section to another’. The tone may sound paternalistic – but that is not quite the right word. Buzzing around on his little bike in an epic world of emirs, magicians and caparisoned knights, Niven was more like a futuristic son-in-law from a big city, trying to pep up an old-established family firm with his modern know-how: he was almost a British version of the Yankee at King Arthur’s court.

Cecil Rex Niven went to Balliol during and after the First World War, a contemporary of Harold Macmillan and Beverley Nichols. By Independence Day 1960 he had become Sir Rex Niven and had recently resigned his post as Speaker of the Northern Region’s parliament, to pass it on to an African. His patron was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, perhaps the most powerful prince in the country and the most formidable of the four Nigerian premiers in the year of Independence: the Sardauna retained Niven’s services, appointing him his Commissioner for Special Duties. It was after the assassination of this patron in 1966 (along with two other of the premiers) that Sir Rex wrote his valuable history, Nigeria.

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