Some of you will recognize it as the récit d’enfance of Gagara Yasin, at the time a 29-year-old newly-minted colonial officer, the “lowest form of animal life” in the British administration of Sokoto Province in Northern Nigeria. He’d arrived in country the previous Spring, and had spent several months learning the ropes while his resolve, and his ability to think on his feet, were tested on a few small assignments (collecting the cattle tax from the nomadic Fulani farmers, investigating a case of witchcraft in Giro, delivering a baby in Bakin Turu). Finally, he was set (somewhat) free on his own, as a “Touring Officer,” a sort of roving junior Justice of the Peace, in and around Yelwa.
It’s May 1948. Imagine that you and your horse are in the African bush. There is no GPS. There are no cell phones. There is no Internet. No looking stuff up on Google to see what to do next. Nothing except a few rather unreliable paper maps (which may, or may not, accurately represent the geography through which you’re riding), one or two rather primitive roads, a couple of other horses, and a few native bearers and scouts. Add to that language barriers, the uncertainty of whether the next person or persons you see (or don’t see) will be friend or foe (you’ve already had a poisoned arrow lobbed at you, which fortunately stuck itself in the pommel of your saddle rather than in your chest or thigh), and an array of poisonous and deadly mammals, reptiles, and insects hungering to inject you with a venomous substance, or to chew off a limb and carry it home to mom and the cubs for lunch.
And all you’ve got going for you are your goodwill, your wits, your survival instinct, and the weight of the British Empire at your back. Oh, and a rifle. Don’t forget the rifle. What?? You’re telling me you didn’t bring the rifle??!! Glory Be.
This is largely the world in which I spent the first ten years of my life. I grew up among men who did things like this every day, the men of the British Colonial Service in West Africa. I loved them. It’s fashionable, now, to denigrate and revile them, as new generations look at themselves in the mirror, pronounce themselves perfected and omniscient, and pat themselves on the back for having invented intelligence, wisdom, generosity, empathy, inclusion, diversity, and wokeness. And, as, after having validated their perception of themselves, they set out to destroy the reputations of the good men who came before, those they deem unworthy and undeserving of being part of the history of, or even mentioned in, their inclusive, diverse, generous, smart, wise, woke, and Brave New World.
I’m going to let Dad speak for all those men whose stories have been, effectively, silenced. There is no better spokesman. Because there was no better man. I mourn his loss, and that of all those like him, who gave the best years of their lives in service to their country and their fellow men. Fellow men like Abdullahi, Sarkin Yauri, and Yahaya, Emir of Gwandu. Fellow men like Ango, Ahmadu, and Garba. I grew up among them, and among their wives and their families and children, and I loved them, too. And although I never met Mrs. Brubacher, I knew of her, and of the tremendous respect and affection Dad felt for her, through his tales of her humanity, her dedication to her faith, her indomitable will, and her unconquerable soul.
I’m proud to have had such a man for a father. (And, Good Lord, when I read his prose, do I see where my talent for digression springs from, or what?) I love to tell his story. Thank you encouraging me to do so. Off we go (remember, suddenly it’s May 1948 in sub-Saharan Africa):
“But there I was, a Cadet Administrative Officer, with barely a year in the country, living in Birnin Kebbi, and designated as Touring Officer, Yelwa. I was the lowest form of animal life in the Sokoto Provincial Administration, but I was now enjoying every minute of it! It was nearly June, the millet and the guinea corn was coming along nicely, new grass abounded, milk, eggs, and vegetables were plentiful, fat wild guinea fowl could be shot within a couple of hundred yards of anywhere you chose to get off your horse and walk into the bush and the farming year was moving steadily to its most luxuriant zenith in about October.
I had fetched up at Libata (on the Niger, in the N’gaski District of Yauri Emirate, about as far as you could get in Sokoto Province without falling off the edge), by way of a leisurely progress through the mainly clapped-out gold workings along the Malendo River in Bin Yauri District—now all abandoned, except for the claim of one miner named Robinson, but during the War a much favored and even subsidized activity of some importance by virtue of its product. There was still a little “private enterprise” on the part of a few unlicensed diggers, but this was clearly of small or no account—indeed, one of the reasons I was there at all was to confirm this fact. As for the rest, I was thereafter gently to move at ten to fifteen miles a day for about three more weeks from hamlet to village and village to hamlet until I got to “the bottom” (which was Libata) showing the Flag, representing the King’s Peace, hearing complaints and encouraging simple “development” projects like straining any water intended for drinking through a square of cheap grey cotton baft—which would stop the spread of guinea worm, and could be put into effect entirely by local initiative—but taking with me also (as always) an Emir’s Representative, for the Doctrine of Indirect Rule was paramount and scrupulously observed. In Yauri, my Emir’s Rep had for a long time been a Shamaki (Master of the Horse). He accompanied me now, representing the Emir and Council as the “Native Authority” and we got on well together.
I was looking forward to spending maybe a week in the area, with a bit of shooting (cob, waterbuck and gazelle to be stalked on the flood plain and perhaps a crocodile, too, on the riverbank) and then a gentle meander back to Yelwa by the beginning of July to meet up with one of the Albion flatbeds—apart from the District Officer’s own Austin pick-up and the new Doctor’s car, they were the only other motor vehicles in the whole of the Division—and then up the 150 miles or so of earth road to Headquarters, to submit reports, socialize and recoup, ready for another three months back in Yauri, doing whatever my boss, Sam White, told me to do.
Then it happened
It was the day after I got to Libata (which was during the last week of May 1948) that I woke up at daylight with a strong desire to “spend a penny.” I got up, recognizing that I felt a bit feverish and went to the bayan gida (‘behind the house’—latrine) which had been built especially for me when the villagers had erected my rumfa (grass shelter), which was the standard accommodation for bush touring, wherever there were no adobe and thatch rest houses.
The bayan gida consisted of a four foot circle of zana matting with a tail like a comma, and a 12” diameter hole dug perhaps two feet deep in the centre where the dot would be, across which (and supported on two forked, wrist-thick, branches maybe 18” high) was a third smooth(ish) branch on which one squatted. The rest followed nature and the excavated soil (assisted by a bit of broken calabash) provided the infilling to keep the flies off. All in all, every bit as practical and efficient as anything ever provided in the Army’s Field Service Pocket Book (author Sir Garnet Wolseley, Gilbert’s “Modern Major General” in The Pirates of Penzance), which was still issued, even though he had died in 1910, to every officer when I was commissioned in 1938.
The only trouble was that this morning, instead of the usual pale straw color, all I saw was deep dark red—in fact, all but black—and copious.
I had been in the country just over a year. I was clued up on malaria from my Army days, but anything more was hearsay and unthinkable. Yet here I was, over eighty miles from Yelwa by land though perhaps somewhat less than that by river and showing, as I thought, all the signs and symptoms of blackwater fever.
Uninformed, indeed ignorant as I was, “blackwater” was the natural and inevitable immediate diagnosis. It had been the scourge of “the white man’s grave” in the past and the symptoms were so obvious. This was the pestilence that, as the headstones bore witness, filled four out of five of all the graves in the old cemeteries dotted throughout West Africa.
And blackwater fever meant that in three days, maybe four at the outside, I’d be dead, for reports of recoveries were apocryphal, being always hearsay and never fully authenticated! So then what?
I had three choices before me, so it seemed.
1: I could do nothing and die alone in Libata.
2: I could commandeer a canoe—if there was one—with enough paddlers and/or polers (if they could be found) to get upstream to Yelwa. That would mean five, maybe six, days poling upstream against the flow and with the river rising almost daily; for last year’s late rains, a thousand miles away to the north west, had already come in and were now beginning to be augmented by our own not inconsiderable new flush. But if I did that, would they actually deliver a corpse when the end came or should I not (more likely) end up, having ‘fallen overboard,’ feeding the Niger crocodiles?
3: I could try to make my own way on horseback—a long, long way at that—in as near a straight line as I could find a path to follow to Yelwa, or to the motor road from Yelwa to Kontagora, aiming to hit it about half way between the two and then stop a transport on its way to Yelwa market—if there was one.
To die, totally alone, far away from one’s own kind is a daunting prospect and whichever choice I made, that might well be the likely outcome. Death I had seen before, many times, but never in solitude, and nothing in the Army had prepared me for this.
The last of these three choices, however, depended on myself and not on anybody else. And that, therefore, was the choice I made. I, and I alone, would be the “master of my fate!”
Accordingly, I ordered Argosy, the first horse I had ever owned and the bigger and the stronger of my two, to be saddled up. Meanwhile, I told my servants Tom Munshi and Ahmadu Jika to wait until I had started and then pack everything up and follow on foot with Shamaki and the carriers, always seeking news of me and making their way to the Mission at Yelwa, where Edma Brubacher, who ran it, was a good nurse and very justifiably proud of her little dispensary and attached three-bed cottage hospital.
Argosy was a very big horse by Nigerian standards. He had been with me just a year, bought from the Doctor at Sokoto within weeks of my arriving. The brand numbers on his hooves were then only just growing out and I suspect that he was a Spahi cavalry charger, ‘lifted’ from around Zinder or Maradi in French Territory and quickly sold over the Border—which could be why he only cost me £15, the same as Dr. Budden had paid for him. The vet said he was rising five years old.
I left Libata just after half-past nine that morning. I had three bottles of water wrapped in a wet towel at the back of my saddle and three packs of cigarettes in the pockets of my bush shirt. As I set off I was heavy at heart and low in spirit, for I was convinced I would never see any of the familiar faces again.
Horses in West Africa walk at maybe marching pace, say three miles per hour. By preference, however, they do not naturally either walk or trot. Instead, they ‘tripple’—a pace of their own devising which takes some getting used to but which is very efficient, for it eats up the ground at a good four miles an hour and they can keep it up for hours on end. But, fit though I usually was, I still weighed over sixteen stone and Argosy had got his work cut out for him!
I remember very little indeed about that first day’s ride, and not much about the other two either. After all, I was certain I was as good as dead and was almost past caring. I was afraid of going to sleep and falling off—though if I did, it wouldn’t really matter much. Time meant nothing and it was four o’clock (say 25 miles) before the path led to a little tunga where there was a well. I stopped and unsaddled Argosy and saw to it that he was watered and fed some corn, while I ate a papaya and lay down under a tree. I was shocked to see that it was past six when I woke up. Argosy, however, was in good form, the cool of the evening was setting in, and I decided to push on.
It took me over two hours to realize what a fool I had been! Where would I spend the night? I had never given this a thought, and now I had to. If I pushed on through the dark, I could easily stray from the path and get totally lost. If I slept under a tree, with Argosy tethered alongside, we would both of us be easy prey to hyenas—or even a lion or leopard. I should have brought a gun—but I hadn’t.
By ten, it was dark, with a full moon. It was then that I realized exactly what Noyes had meant by the moon being “a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” and the road (such as it was) really was “a ribbon of moonlight,” the damp bare earth eerily reflecting the moon’s beams back from amongst the bountiful greenery through which it wound, almost like a mirror.
Then I heard the soft lowing of cattle. I knew immediately what this meant—I had chanced upon a Fulani ruga—just like those which, only a few months earlier, I had spent all my waking hours ferreting out on jangali [collecting the cattle tax]. Finding them now was easy, for the last thing that they would expect was my appearance at eleven o’clock at night in mid-farming season!
As always, however, hospitality was instantaneous and ungrudging. The best corn-stook wigwam was swept out, Argosy was rubbed down, fed and watered and given a bundle of hay to chew on overnight. I was invited to eat, but I asked only for milk, which was immediately drawn from a cow and brought to me in a calabash—at least half a gallon. I literally drank my fill. Then I slept—how I do not know except that I was still fully clothed and it was bright daylight when I awoke.
Again, I was offered food. Again I asked for milk and again I drank my fill. Then I questioned the Ardo (headman) to try to find out where I was.
I did exactly as I was told. Indeed, I now realized that I had very little discretion, for if I got to the motor road and stopped a passing lorry, I would have to abandon Argosy—which, after what we had been through together, I would never do.
An hour or so after noon, we reached the ford and it was on the way there that I began to notice two things. One was that I stank. I smelled to myself. The pungency of that stink was truly appalling! The second thing was that I felt rather stronger. I was still convinced I was dying—but (perhaps) not quite yet!
When we got to the ford, the opportunity was just too good to miss. I stripped and waded in and swam and wallowed and washed myself for close on half an hour, whilst Argosy did likewise in the shallows where I had led him, lightly tethered, a bit downstream from me.
Then I dressed and saddled up (though not without difficulty) and we started off again. I still stank, though perhaps less so!
Just as the Ardo had said, it was something around eight that night when we arrived at a hamlet, the head of which told me that I was now in what I recognized as one of Yelwa’s kassashen hurumi (home districts)—Bin Yauri—with, perhaps, not much more than 25 miles to get to Yelwa itself.
As before, Argosy was first attended to, I was given milk and I slept, but not before I had prayed that I might be able to complete my journey. It was just as I was going to sleep that I realized the day was a Saturday. Tomorrow would be Sunday, a bad day to arrive at a Mission Station—there might even not be anybody there, with all of them out in the bush seeing to some of the Mission’s far-flung adherents, and conducting Sunday Services.
Actually, to think of “all of them” is a bit misleading. The Yelwa Mission Station was well established. Edma Brubacher, a Canadian from Stratford, Ontario, and her husband had founded it together (on behalf of the United Missionary Church, whose Headquarters were at Jebba some hundred miles or so downriver) a few years previous; and when he died there, she had carried on alone. Sometimes, she had a helper from Mission Headquarters for a few weeks at a time, but most often she was by herself—and she preferred it that way.
Unlike many of her kind, Mrs. Brubacher had no chip on her shoulder, no anti-colonialist baggage to burden her, no disregard for Islam and no contempt for pagans. She and the Emir got on famously; indeed, she could twist him round her little finger! She spoke excellent Hausa and it was she, when we had met during the yellow fever scare, who had encouraged me to hone my own facility with the language by translating nursery rhymes and the Bible. My rendering of The King was in his Counting House she considered to be a classic! I was, at last, within reach of dying with a friend close by.
I suppose I had been getting progressively lighter in the head, but when I woke very early, about four, on that Sunday morning, I felt absolutely awful. I think I was delirious and had been all night. I certainly felt very, very ill. I had a three day’s growth of beard. I stank to high heaven. I had been incontinent. I could not think straight and I got into the saddle only by using an upturned mortar as a mounting block. Moreover, it was the third day—the one on which I was sure I was likely to die, and I did not care very much at this point.
The Hamlet head, very wisely covering himself, insisted on sending a yaro (young boy) to accompany me on foot until the mission station was in sight.
We left just as dawn was lightening the sky. Argosy, too, was by now feeling the strain, but I think he sensed that this was the last lap for he was still ready to canter and to toss his head defiantly. Try as I would, I could not toss mine and again I felt an enormous fear of falling off every time I moved.
Otherwise, I have virtually no remembrance of that journey, except for the constant nagging conviction that this was the end. I have no idea how long I had ridden. But I do remember that the last five or so miles were along the motor road itself, on to which our bush path had debouched. And then I remember seeing the Mission buildings ahead of me.
I fell off Argosy’s back a few feet from the front door of the house, to which I staggered and tugged at the bell. Mrs. Brubacher later told me it was just about eleven o’clock when I did so.
When it opened, I remember two things. First I said, “I’ve got blackwater and I think I’m going to die!” Then I remember her bursting out laughing and saying, “You haven’t got blackwater. You look like a Chinaman. You’ve got yellow jaundice. Sit down while I get a bath ready for you!”
In the hall was an old fashioned Victorian hall stand, heavily carved and with pegs for hats and overcoats and stands for umbrellas and walking sticks. It also had an enormous mirror in a carved frame. What I saw there was truly horrific!
The staring eyes, the unkempt hair, the unshaven, filthy, and banana yellow face. It was just too much. I sank onto the nearest chair and passed out.
It may have been for quite a time, for the next thing I remember was Edma waking me (assisted by a white-uniformed dispensary attendant) and leading me into the bathroom. There she left me to him, to be stripped and helped into a hot bath, the water for which had all had to be heated in old kerosene tins on the kitchen stove—which must have taken a considerable time—there to be soaked and scrubbed and washed all over and (mirabile dictu) soaped and shaved (I later learned that the razor, shaving soap and brush came from the maternity ward, though the blade was new!) while my clothes were whisked away and (so exceptional is the drying capacity of the African sun) all returned to me, shirt, trousers, socks, and underclothes, pressed and pristine with my boots polished so that I could almost see my face in them, before the bath was over and I was clean again and dry and scented with lemongrass, a handful of which I was given to rub all over my hands and face and body.
News travels fast in Yauri, for when I emerged I found Mrs. Brubacher and the Emir drinking tea together. As soon as word had reached him (and very little happened in Yauri without his knowing of it, though this time it was probably the hamlet Head’s yaro who carried word to him) he had ordered up his ‘Chiseller’ as he called his Chrysler saloon—of which he was inordinately proud—and sped to the Mission with a basketful of fruit and vegetables from his own garden, enough to feed a regiment.
No sooner had he arrived, than Argosy was unsaddled and led off by a yaro to the Emir’s own stables, where—I was assured—he would be well looked after until I needed him again.
From my very first meeting with him, Abdullahi, Sarkin Yauri (to give him his proper Hausa title) and I had got on well together, but that mere affinity very soon developed into a deep and abiding trust, friendship and affection, that later extended to my wife and was reciprocated by his son, Tukur (once on the staff of London University’s SOAS and later Northern Nigeria’s Commissioner to the U.K.) who succeeded him, and his wife and all of our respective children.
Etiquette forbade that the Emir should stay for long and when he had gone, I was given a meal of well-salted chicken cut up small and stewed with crushed sweet corn and then put to bed, in a hospital nightgown, to sleep—from which I did not wake until getting on to midday Monday.
Another meal of the same—for Edma insisted that anything like milk was the very worst thing that I could possibly have, though the Emir daily sent up calabashes full of it—and back to bed as night fell, to sleep again until the morning.
From then on things moved swiftly. First, Tom Munshi and Ahamadu Jika and the baggage train, together with my groom and my other horse, Falmango (the Fulani word for thunder), arrived at about two o’clock on Tuesday, June 1, having made good time in following me. Secondly, the Emir sent up to say that he had been summoned to a meeting of Chiefs with the Sultan, in Sokoto for the Friday next (11th) and would be leaving on Wednesday afternoon to visit his immediate suzerain, Yahaya, Emir of Gwandu in Birnin Kebbi in whose train he would then go on to meet the Sultan. He would take me with him in his Chrysler if I wished, with my staff and his own travelling on one of the Albions (which he had commandeered for the occasion) together with the baggage. The opportunity was too good to miss, so I readily accepted and matters were accordingly so arranged.
Come the Wednesday, the Albion with our staff and kit left about noon, so that they could be certain of having everything ready when we arrived. Ango Ba’aré, my groom (an Aréwa tribesman from the Zaberma Cercle of what was then the French Colonie du Niger), and Falmango and Argosy (who since their arrival had been lodged in the palace stables) begin a leisurely progress of perhaps ten days through the bush and then up the floodplain of the River Rima (also called the Sokoto River) to Birnin Kebbi, with the grass providing assuredly good grazing for the whole way and, since Ango was as light as a feather, as far as Argosy or Falmango was concerned it would be like being on holiday!
Then the Emir and his car arrived and after a heartfelt thank you to Edma Brubacher we left, expecting to arrive some time after dark, which we did, though we ran over a 14-foot python on the way, much to the Emir’s consternation and fear of damage to his precious Chisseler—which, fortunately, did not occur!
Yahaya, Emir of Gwandu, the second-ranking of all the Chiefs of Northern Nigeria (with the possible exception of the Shehu of Bornu) was already a friend of mine and, as time progressed, became an even greater one. He was, without doubt, one of the most honorable men I have ever met and his integrity was proverbial.
Tonight, though, the courtesies were brief and very soon I was delivered to my little mud and thatch house of two rooms and a verandah, set in the government reserved area of Birnin Kebbi. Tom and Ahmadu had the bed ready and Garba (my cook) whistled up an onion omelette in next to no time. First, however, I wrote a note to the new doctor, who had only been posted to the area during the last two months and whom I had never met before. He came over just as I was finishing my supper.
A close inquiry and a thorough examination as well as the collection of various swabs and specimens, confirmed Hepatitis A and jaundice, and an order was put in place for a week’s bed rest, light meals, plenty of water or fruit juice to drink and the promise at the end of it (if I was good) of a fortnight’s recuperative leave at the Hill Station in Jos.
The only slightly sour note was a stiff letter delivered by hand first thing the next morning from my boss, Sam White, demanding to know why I had returned to Station early and without permission.
I was not amused and scribbled “Ask the Doctor” on it and sent it back by the hand of the Police Orderly who had brought it.”
And it is as this point, the first time Dad ever told me this story, that I felt an immense sense of gratitude toward Mrs. Brubacher, who had not only pulled Dad through and made him well, but had pulled him through and made him better.
A note from the original post to my fellow members on Ricochet: This is my 300th post on Ricochet. It took me 6 1/2 years to get to 100 (about 15 or 16 posts per year). For the last two years, though, I’ve been over-functioning to the tune of about 100 per annum. The only way that’s possible is with your encouragement, otherwise I’d have thrown in the (my) towel years ago. Thank you, all those who’ve been so kind, all those who’ve criticized (constructively) and all those who’ve stuck with me. Your feedback has been invaluable. If there are any reading this encomium who feel overlooked, I apologize, and I wish you well too. Live long and prosper. Not messing.
Ricochet is an odd melding of social media acquaintanceship, online relationships, and IRL friendships. In the past six weeks, I’ve met two Ricochetti I’ve known online for quite some time but had never had the pleasure (and it was a real pleasure) of meeting before, and I spent the day with another member I’ve known IRL for several years. Those who think Ricochet is all about the politics are, IMHO, missing the boat. Those who think to use it to advantage themselves in power relationships, ditto. Those who would like to use it to win, or to change the world, have at it; who can know the good you’ll do? You may be tilting at windmills, but what are windmills for? (Hopefully, not just killing flocks of endangered birds on a regular basis.)
For me, Ricochet is about conversation and connection. And, above all else, about friendship. I can’t think of anything more important than that. I’m not sure there is anything more important than that. I’m so grateful for those of you who are, and who’ve stood, my friends. And, as always, I thank the founders for this marvelous experiment that has meant so much to me over the past nine years of my life. During those years, my family and I have been through some very tough times—times when some of you (still here or not, reading this or not, I have faith you’ll know who you are and that I’m saying this) have not only pulled me through and made me well, you’ve pulled me through and made me better.