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.

The book began: ‘It was called in the 18th century Nigritia, or more simply Negroland; for one giddy moment at the turn of the present century it was nearly called Goldesia (after Sir G. Taubman-Goldie). Nigeria is a much better name.’ This passage almost explains why Sir Rex has suppressed his first name, Cecil. There was indeed a ‘giddy moment’ when Cecil Rhodes’s name was given to another African territory, and Rhodesia became a white settlers’ country – almost Smithia. Such aggrandisement was deplored by men like Rex Niven in the Colonial Service of West Africa: their purpose was to help create an independent African nation out of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria – and it took them only 47 years. They were in a hurry. They made sure there were no white settlers to take the Africans’ land; there were no British ‘other ranks’ to lower the tone and very few British women to get in their way. By 1960 they could celebrate the independence of the Federation of Nigeria. The Sardauna was premier of the (much too large) Hausa-speaking Northern region. His party formed a coalition with the Igbo party of the East; and the Yoruba party of the West provided the loyal opposition. Over all presided the federal premier, Sir Abubakar Balewa. ‘His beautiful English diction earned him the name of the Silver Voice of the North,’ proclaimed Sir Rex. He looked upon his work and it was good – while it lasted. I guessed that this arrangement was doomed when the North and the East collaborated to humiliate the West (where I was living) in 1962: soon they would turn on one another – and so it proved.

Now in his 85th year Sir Rex has published, in Nigerian Kaleidoscope, a skilful arrangement of footnotes to his earlier work. There is political history of a more anecdotal sort; dutiful tributes to old colleagues, African and British; tall but convincing tales of magic and murder, and elephants’ dance-halls; an epitaph for the Chief Justice, who committed suicide upon Independence, and a lament for the Sardauna and his senior wife. Still affectionate and optimistic, Sir Rex describes the British tussles with that conservative and unco-operative prince, the Attah of Igbirra, adding that he fathered a distinguished family: ‘The greatest (a Balliol man) was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Finance and took the country safe and sound through the civil war in 1967-70.’

Gorer was lucky to get into British territory after his travels through the French sector. ‘The Gold Coast does not want Europeans, whether English or foreign, and everything is done to discourage their entry.’ Fortunately he met a British colonial servant, with a broken-down motorbike, near the Gold Coast border, and Gorer gave him a lift. This man let Gorer in and ‘quieted the excessive zeal of his negro subordinates’. Now, at last, Gorer began to see Africans as fully human. ‘The fact that one can judge Gold Coast negroes on the whole by European standards is a sufficient tribute to their extraordinary progress.’ He began to praise the British: ‘In the development of the Gold Coast we have for a long time been more or less consistently moral.’ They might seem funny, conservative snobs and keep-fit fanatics, but they were better than the French: ‘There is a great deal to be said against a ruling caste founded on money and birth, such as we possess; but it has many advantages over the French system founded on examinations and influence.’ (Meritocracy?)

Then he tells how he read in a Gold Coast newspaper about a horrible event in another British territory. A British settler in Kenya had flogged an African to death – and she had suffered only a 12-month prison sentence. Gorer suggested that the French colonies were the negro’s purgatory, the Gold Coast the negro’s paradise, while ‘all that I have heard of our East African colonies indicates that they are the negro’s hell.’ The reason for the importance of keeping white settlers out of West Africa began to sink in: in East Africa the settlers ‘could live and multiply; therefore the weaker go to the wall with a good hearty push.’ The pleasure we can take in Africa Dances, apart from its poetic brilliance and dash, includes the satisfaction of seeing a cocksure and modish young man developing and learning. As a trustworthy informant about West Africa, of course, he cannot be compared with Rex Niven, who writes almost as one of the family.

So did the late Sylvia Leith-Ross. Her posthumous memoir, Stepping-Stones, takes its title from her famous book, African Women, which she was asked to write by the puzzled men of Nigeria, to explain the Women’s War of 1929 among the Igbo people of the Eastern region. She had first gone to Nigeria in 1907, the young bride of a British colonial servant, who soon died. She believed that her African friends saw the British as ‘stepping-stones which they could consciously use on their path to freedom’.

Though keen on Nigerian independence, she was not in so much of a hurry as Sir Rex. Towards the end of her career, we find her grumbling with congenial conservative Africans (the sort whom Sir Rex was trying to gee up) about the imminent prospect of Independence – too soon for some. She was as observant as ever, with a novelist’s eye for social detail and changes of tone as the power changed hands.

Stepping-Stones is a fascinating record by one of the few British women to be positively welcomed by the British squires’ sons and the African princes in that male-dominated period of Nigeria’s history. My own two years’ experience teaching in a girls’ school founded by organised Nigerian women helped to persuade me that the natural authority of women’s groups in that country far exceeds anything known in Europe. Britons trying to conserve and modernise African traditions failed at first to recognise the social and political power and militancy of organised women, the granddaughters, perhaps, of female soldiers. The men had to ask Sylvia Leith-Ross to study and explain the women’s wars and rebellions. She is quoted in a new, specialist work of anthropology, Female and Male in West Africa, in which Kamene Okonjo discusses the two political systems of the Igbo – the constitutional village monarchy type and the democratic village republic type (both, perhaps, messed up by the well meaning British effort to impose ‘warrant chiefs’). Okonjo asserts that in both systems each sex managed its own affairs and had its own ‘kinship institutions, age-grades, secret and title societies’. Sylvia Leith-Ross (says Okonjo) discovered in the Thirties that Igbo women were politically and economically the equal of Igbo men and that, ‘more than the men, the women seemed able to co-operate and to stand by each other in difficulties and to follow a common aim.’ No wonder they could wage a Women’s War. How much, we may ask, does this have to do with the institution of polygamy, where a man’s wives become a team? For anyone interested in relations between the sexes, seen as opposing teams, the 26 essays in Christine Oppong’s collection will prove most stimulating.

Those of us who feel almost complacent about the marriage of British and African cultures in Nigeria are inclined to exult in the contribution made by Nigerians to English literature, particularly in fiction and poetic drama: but their usual subject-matter, their grim laughter at the political development of their nation, makes us uneasy. How much of this mess (thinks the British reader) was our fault? Kole Omotoso’s new novel, Memories of Our Recent Boom, provokes exactly that blend of literary pleasure and political dismay. (The sarcastic title alludes perhaps to Desnoes’s satire on Castro’s Cuba, Memories of Underdevelopment.) Omotoso’s story is about a Yoruba man called Seven, who takes on the African name Meje after a corrupting and off-putting sojourn in England. The first section tells of Seven’s childhood in the magical, demon-haunted bush: the epigraph is a Jonsonian quatrain by Wole Soyinka about ‘the mind of hungered innocence’. The second tells of the boy’s English-style grammar-school education: the epigraph is a mournful verse by Ayi Kwei Armah about selective education, ‘a series of jumps through increasingly narrower gates’, concluding, with ‘university – single survivors in the last reaches of alienation’. The third finds Seven in his corrupt middle age, rich and nasty: the epigraph is from Lewis Mumford – about the vomitorium used by Roman gluttons, a room in which to be sick, during banquets, before stuffing themselves some more.

The boom that made Seven fat was purely monetary, involving no labour, no honest earning. He travelled from England to Nigeria with £10,000, changed it to Nigerian naira, hung around in Lagos, changed the money back to sterling and then shared a clear profit of 2,000 naira with his London partner. This is supposed to have happened in the early Seventies when the naira was artificially pegged to the pound. By such means he won honour from his simpler Nigerian neighbours who supposed that his wealth and education must have something to do with the nation’s progress. ‘He developed a paunch, the sagging symbol of success. He took to wearing voluminous agbadas which kept his paunch away from the criticisms of his eyes ... Every night there was a new girl in his bed. Every day his nose had to learn the sting of new perfume.’ The author has deliberately made this third section extremely bleak. Eagerly he kills Seven off in a plausible car-smash, after making surrealistic play with his failings and vices. We turn back regretfully to the charm and innocence of his rough country childhood, under the protection of his gallant mother and the curt, ugly but benevolent British doctor. There is a quaint use of English literature in a passage where innocent Seven is courting a girl against the wishes of her father, an illiterate who respects education. Seven brings him an educational book which he humbly requests the old man to pass on to his daughter. It is Lady Chatterley’s Lover: but Seven does not want his girl to read all that stuff. He has written in the margins loving messages taken from the works of Shakespeare. Kole Omotoso seems to express a mood of yearning for the old innocent days of the Colony and Protectorate, which will not come again, while the third section is packed with wrath against modern forms of greed and profiteering.