Chapter 11
The Road To The North

11.1 The earliest Methodists in Nigeria

The enthusiasm of the earliest of our Methodist missionaries in West Africa is an inspiration. In 1842 they were the first Protestant workers in what was later to become Nigeria. Their dream was to evangelise the whole country.

Despite heavy losses through malaria, black water and yellow fevers their slogan was “ON TO CHAD”. Now Lake Chad was 800 miles from the Coast. In persuit of their quest, they met with appalling health problems and extraordinary fluctuations in supplies of men and money from England. Progress was very slow in the push to the north. Indeed, from the arrival of Thomas Birch Freeman in Badagry, the Mission was still bogged down in consolidating work amongst the Egbas in Abeokuta (60 miles) almost fifty years later.

Townsend, Workman and Eayrs in their ‘New history of Methodism’ say: “it appears to have been the turn of the century before great centres in Yorubaland like Oyo and Ibadan have been occupied”. They suggest that perhaps it was “the great secession in the home Church which, for a while crippled our forces”. In any case, the dream in the slogan “On to Chad” disappeared and the only other reference by these three historians is “Lack of means made abortive an attempt to open new work up the Niger.”

I feel, from my own experience from a quarter of a century in up-country pioneer work in Nigeria, that other factors may have played an important part in retarding growth.

West Africa is the home of many hundreds of tribes, each with its own language. It’s peoples are tribe-conscious and proud. Inter-tribal warfare has been a brake on progress and has taken its toll in death and destruction. Painful and disfiguring facial cuttings and marks have branded for all time the bearers with proof of their tribal identity and added to the tribe’s parochialism.

Even the keenest missionary workers can become so obsessed with the importance of what they are doing on their own patch that they can become less attracted by, and even opposed to the wide distribution of meagre ‘block grants’ to the whole District. They collar as much as they can for their beloved undertakings and forget the distant unevangelised tribes.

So, not only was the tribal barrier and the impossibility of working amongst two enemy tribes at the same time a cause of delay, the Ijebus, the Ijeshas or the Egbas demanded the undivided attention of their own missionary. Sadly, records show the success of this universalism in retarding extension and missing the wonderful opportunity that lay before the early missionary pioneers of the “On to Chad” movement.

In their “Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society” (Findlay and Holdsworth Vol. 4) we are given much more detail of the fluctuating concern to reach Chad. At the end of the 1870s the Chairman of the District wrote “We have no intention of allowing our energies to be cramped and the aggressive spirit of the Church to be confined. It is our desire to press forwards the countries of Central Africa. We are preparing for great undertakings”.

The Rev John Milum, who had been appointed to the Gold Coast in 1871, soon joined the staff of the Lagos District. He is described as a man of well furnished mind and thorough culture, characterised by true manliness added to a spirit of friendly consideration, but, beyond all these great gifts he had the supreme endowment of vision. He saw the vast tracts of Southern Nigeria brought into the Kingdom of Christ and he too had dreams of starting a Central Africa Mission.

Milum set out for the north under a very heavy blow. His wife had joined him but she became ill and deteriorated so rapidly that she had to sail back again from the West Coast. She never returned. She died on the homeward voyage and was buried at sea. Her stay in Africa had lasted just five weeks.

Because of the heavy fighting in intertribal wars, Milum could not walk through to the north. Instead, he had to travel by canoe up the Niger. He opened a mission station at Shonga. The Rev M J Elliott joined him there in 1879. This must have been a great encouragement, for Elliott too was a man of vision. Indeed, in addition to hopes for a Central African Mission, they now spoke of getting through to Ethiopia.

The Missionary Society in London was fully aware of these aspirations. In a letter written to the Field Secretary for Africa, Elliott reminded him of his own parting words when Elliott sailed for Africa: “Remember Lake Chad”.

It must have been a thrill to get as far as the lower borders of the Sudan in this Nupe country. Milum and he begged the Home Church for at least four missionaries for this northern thrust. The appeal was not successful. Soon afterwards, Elliott was invalided home, just escaping with his own life.

Meanwhile, progress in the south had not reached more than 200 miles, and the resources were used. Satisfaction seems to have been found in concentration and consolidation. Looking back now, one sees that we had become firmly stuck. We pumped in money and manpower and controlled too rigidly a limited field, instead of encouraging Africans to be less dependent, in order to get the message over in a bigger field.

The Church Missionary Society who arrived a few years after us, adopted the wider horizons policy with amazing success. They now cover a much larger area than ours and have a tremendous African staff.

So, to return to John Milum he was astonished and disgusted to be recalled to the south. The northern enterprise was abandoned. The vision and call “On to Chad” appears now in Synod records only. The Methodist Church will never get to Chad. The north has been invaded from the north by the carriers of the words of the Koran. A sad but true observation was made in the report of another part of West Africa “Every Mohammedan trader is a missionary of his religion, and the paganism of the African yields at once to the presentation and practice of the Moslems”. But our Church in the south appears to have known nothing of these things.

In 1929 that “On to Chad” spirit found a new supporter. I had my work in the south, but eagerly listened to any news I could get of, or from the north. Happily the girl I hoped to marry shared my outlook, and in 1933, when we married, we became ‘Partners in Pioneering’. We became known by that title and were introduced as such to hundreds of audiences and congregations throughout the United Kingdom to Eire.

“It’s been proved in other countries that of all forms of service that have been effective among Mohammedans, that of the medical missionary stands first.”

11.2 Starting work in the north

I have already written of Joyce’s concern to get out from the Ilesha Hospital and into the villages. Such were the appalling conditions of many patients carried to the hospital as a last resort, after the witch doctor done his best, or his worst, that something had to be done to stem the flow of moribund sufferers from the villages from which they came.

Joyce’s contract with the hospital was now completed and she was free to use her skills and energies in meeting this long felt need, a freedom which was soon to be exercised in Northern Nigeria. We had no need to resurrect the buried slogan “On to Chad” as has been stated, consistent lack of concern in the Southern Church and the inability of the Home Church to supply the necessary staff and funds had stopped Methodism from filling the Sudan, then unimpeded and with no danger of encroaching on the work of other missions. Thankfully, this vacuum in Northern Nigeria was filled by the Sudan Interior and the Sudan United Missions. Their work, however, did not cross the Niger southwards. What about the large area of land still in the north but on our side of the river?

In the Ilesha circuit to which I had been appointed as Superintendent in 1931, we had one small church over the border with the north, in the town of Offa. This was made up entirely by African Christians who had gone there with the gradual extension of the railway being constructed from the Coast to Kano. Offa became an important terminus for some time, pending the next extension through Ilorin, on to the Niger and the erection of the long bridge across that river. This task was serviced from Offa with its large railway engineering works.

We had a catechist in charge of the small Christian Church and school in Offa. But the catechist was a southerner and employed by our southern circuit in Ilesha. I visited the little church and school as regularly as my other churches and schools in the south. The enthusiasm of the railway workers was encouraging but disappointing. They had no concern about outreach, but wanted all they could get in service and money for their little church and their children at school. During my first stay in Offa they arranged that I have the use of a waiting room on the platform. Shunting proceedings seemed to reach their peak from 10.00 to 6.00 a.m. and a favourite spot for a driver to stop for a chat was right outside my waiting room. Steam gushed out and it appeared to be a rule that standing engines must signal their intention to move with several loud blasts on the whistle. Fortunately, on following visits, a senior worker was able to get the use of a two storey slated house. These supplied accommodation for European engine drivers. There were usually some unoccupied. It was a luxury to have even a minimum of furniture, also running water and a large bath in which to enjoy it.

After our marriage, our visits were more frequent also longer, in order to provide medical services. We gave much thought and prayers for the future work. We would replace the catechist with a trained Sub-Pastor from our Wesley College. The members slowly accepted that whilst he would raise the status of their church, his appointment would be as a pioneer. He would visit towns and villages north of Offa. We would give him a young assistant Pupil Teacher to carry on the school.

In 1936, Synod agreed to the appointment of the man of my choice and Emanuel Fowode came to Offa. He was a very happy, attractive type of Christian, fond of lyric singing accompanied by clapping to keep the beat, but more important, he was keen on outreach and was prepared to undertake as much trekking as required.

I asked him to go off in a different direction each week, to make a map of the countryside denoting the location of towns and villages, the length of time it took to walk to each and the approximate population. He would report on the reception he got and whether there had been any former Christian workers visiting them. There was no trace whatsoever of any former Christian visitor and, as he covered an ever wider area, it became clear that his was the first and only Christian visit.

On Saturdays Eman was free. On Sundays he conducted worship in Offa, Monday and Tuesday he stayed in Offa, giving supervision to the young teacher and visiting his members, and then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, he did his weekly village work. His four years training covered the three year normal training course for teachers. The fourth year was spent entirely on evangelism, theology and church policy and doctrine. Sub-Pastors sacrificed the opportunity of earning a salary for this year. This helped the College to produce a fine, dedicated type of man for church work.

Our visits to Offa now allowed time to accompany Eman to all the places he had visited. Our friend and co-worker Stephen, assisted the doctor everywhere and patiently dressed nasty sores and horrible eye conditions and the follow-up after he opened an abscess or performed other minor operations. We always got a hearty welcome and were asked to come again as soon as possible.

On leaving college, Eman married. During the happy early months his young wife went with him on his weekly treks and gave her support to his work. Women in the villages were amazed that any young woman would dare to stand up and speak with her husband in the open air. They themselves would talk a lot, argue and even fight within their own family or dwelling, but this was an unheard of liberty.

In due course she became pregnant and, as the months passed, had to cut down her treks. There were no roads, so journeys were all on foot. She would wave Eman off and look forward to having his favourite meal ready for his return. This was usually on Friday afternoon. One such Friday afternoon, as he was returning to Offa, Eman was surprised to see one of his church members waiting for him along the bush path. The messenger was the bearer of the sad news that the previous afternoon, Eman’s young wife had died. Premature twins had been born but did not survive. So, the members carried through the very solemn triple burial. Internment normally takes place on the day of death. Eman did not go straight to his house, but to the place where she had been laid and those two little ones who had had no chance of survival.

As soon as we heard this tragic news, we set out on the journey to Offa. I thought that the best source of comfort could come from his own family, and advised Eman to go home for a few weeks and, when he felt ready, to come back to Ilesha and we could talk about future plans. He went home. Ten days later there was a knock on my office door and in walked Eman. I welcomed him and said I was surprised to see him so soon. Then I asked him what he wanted to do. At once he replied “I will go back to the north.” What, I replied, you want to go back where it all happened? Yes. I will go back. Why? After a short delay he said: “I have been telling those people that death is not the end in our Christian faith, it is the beginning of new and everlasting life with god. Now, if because of what has happened, I do not go back those people will not understand. No, they will not understand.”

He went back. He passed on his message of life and hope, now confirmed through his own personal experience.

I am sure that much of those wonderful things which later developed in this pioneer adventure, might never have happened if Eman had asked for a transfer and had not gone back to the north.

11.3 North to Kaiama

We became so impressed with the opportunity and the fact that so far, there was no evidence of any previous work done by any Christian church, that we put in a report and a request to our Annual District Synod.

This told of our findings during detailed trekking and of population estimates. True there were distances between the villages which in the absence of roads had to be covered on foot, but the welcome and the response made up for the extra walking. The request was for permission to spend up to three months searching that area north of Yoruba land right up to the River Niger and out to the border between Nigeria and French Dahomy. Synod readily agreed and called for a full report at its next meeting.

When the dry season came round, we put into operation our much discussed plan. We would go as far as we could in our Kit Car. Eman would be with us and our own cook and Stephen, the ever helpful companion, medical dresser, interpreter and general friend maker. We would aim at visiting two Emirs, Kaiama and Bussa, the former just over 100 miles whilst Bussa was just under 100 miles further north and situated right on the Niger. There was a very rough dirt road as far as Kaiama, if we went far enough to the west of Kishi. The Church Missionary Society had work in Kishi, the last outpost of their Yoruba speaking area. This route would also take us through Igbetti where there was an isolated station of the Canadian United Missionary Society. We visited these folk who assured us there was no Christian work being done between them and the Niger. They had no plans for extension out of their own language speaking area. They wished us well in any plans we might make.

So we left Yoruba land with its rectangular dwellings, most of which in the towns were covered with corrugated iron sheets, but outside the towns, with thatch or wide leaves. We travelled many miles before reaching the unknown Buggawa people. Their dwellings were clusters of round mud rooms with conical thatch roofs. We stopped at the first village. No one could understand what we said nor could any of the five of us understand a word they said. We decided to press on to Kaiama where we expected to find someone who could understand Yoruba.

Kaiama is at the end of the rough road, but had an English District Officer in residence. His large district covered the whole of the two Emirates. The official language was Hausa, the lingua franca of the north. Both Emirs spoke Hausa. We reported to the District Officer, got permission to use the Government Rest House and were invited to have dinner with him that evening.

The Rest House was in keeping with the Bussawa style of building, round mud walls with a thatch roof. It had neither door nor windows, just open spaces. It did have a cement floor but had no plaster on the walls, just rough dried mud. Furnished, that is with one table, two chairs, two wooden arm chairs without cushions and an old bed. We chose to use our own camp beds. It offered a wide view from within outwards but, of course excellent viewing from without inwards also.

We had carefully packed 13 food parcels and given cook strict instructions that they were for 13 weeks supplies. We foresaw the possibility that in an unexpected shortage of a tin or two he would “borrow” a tin from one of the other parcels. We knew that if this were allowed to happen, we would end up without any possibility of repaying what he had borrowed. This, if it were a tin of flour, would mean no bread for the last week. Our precautions were taken because of previous experience. At home it always was our custom to be wakened with a cup of tea. If there were a shortage, it was necessary to tell “Mrs” the night before, she would issue the needed tea. On one occasion, poor old Momo forgot to top up and next morning, punctually at 6.30 a.m. he walked into our room, tucked up the mosquito nets and handed out two steaming hot cups of cocoa. Now, cocoa in the south is the main source of income for our farmers, and I am a keen supporter of the use of local products, but a cup of steaming hot cocoa as a reviver at 6.30 a.m. is asking just too much.

On another occasion I had been on a long walking trek. Cook warned me on the day before the last homeward stretch that tea was running low. I agreed with him to see that one small teaspoon would be the allowance until we got home. After breakfast on the last day of the trek cook showed his wisdom in the calculations he had made. There was precisely one small teaspoon of tea left in the caddy. He packed up the kitchen loads, announced that he was ready and off we set. At midday, as it was becoming exceedingly hot, we stopped under a shady tree. Cook put on a very good midday meal. I joyfully poured out a cup of tea, made with that last teaspoonful. Instantly, I spat out the first sip. It was like diluted soap. In fact, it was diluted soap. On cross examination, cook admitted that as we set out that morning, he had seen his piece of soap left on a rock. He collected it and, for convenience, popped it in our kettle. He had forgotten this when we stopped for lunch. Tealess I set out on the last eight miles home.

While on the subject of forgets, I must include another incident, this time against myself. I had been on that long trek ending with a mouthful of soap, a very unusual way to end some sixty to seventy miles walk. On arrival home, Joyce, as usual gave me a warm welcome. However, instead of asking me how I had got on, she commented on my appearance and asked me where I had been to get a wash and brush up. I gave a hearty laugh, denied that I had been anywhere and then told her that unfortunately I had forgotten to take with me both my comb and mirror. She enquired as to how on earth I had managed. I assured her that I had overcome these mundane luxuries quite easily for (1) Cook had taken a spare fork. I tied a thread round it to avoid mixing and for nearly a week I had used it to comb my hair. (2) the absence of a mirror, I admitted, had been more difficult. Then I remembered that the top of our Thermos flask was marked E.P.N.S. I used this. Awkward, but to us seasoned travellers not disastrous. It did give my face greater length than width, so much so, that I had a tendency to shave my shoulder.

Experiences like these made us take great care in making up those 13 food parcels. Each contained tins or other containers of flour, sugar, butter, evaporated milk, powdered milk, margarine, tea, coffee, cooking supplies, fish and for our special Sunday treat, a tin of sausages. In most large village markets we could get yams or sweet potatoes, chickens and some sort of spinach or other green leaves. None of the above listed supplies could be bought for there were no shops. We had bought 72 x 1 lb tins of butter in Cork. In the tropics of course the contents became liquid. When washed in filter water, the butter became a creamy spread which we put in a screw cap jamjar. We managed for years without a fridge for the simple reason they were not available and, in any case, trekking as much as we did it would have been of no use. All our stores in tins stood up well to the heat of three or four degrees north of the Equator. Most cooks were expert in making bread in their open ended kerosene tin ovens, they used palm-wine in place of yeast.

We toured the area around Kaiama and again found neither trace nor knowledge of Christianity. We made a very useful early discovery in finding that the Emir could understand and speak a little Yoruba. This enabled us to talk direct with him. Next, we turned to the north with Bussa on the Niger as our objective. A beginning had been made in clearing a track, wide enough for a vehicle, but no attempt had yet been made to cope with water, whether rivers or streams or even the amount that flows normally through a culvert under the road to enable passage of water from one side to the other. In the wet season it was impossible to use this track, but in the dry season even rivers dried up. Our journey was in the dry and, with great care to treat even hollows with respect, we were able to get through. We managed to inch our way through the tall elephant grass not yet burnt in bush fires, and to find the safest route to go down the bank of a dried up river, cross the bed and climb up the other side.

11.4 On to Bussa and the river Niger

Eventually we reached the town of Wawa. The people took fright and either fled to the darkness of their windowless dwellings, or ran out into the bush country surrounding the town. Slowly we found what looked like the residence of the Chief. He too had fled. We were impressed with the size of Wawa and looked forward to an opportunity to return there when the people would not be frightened.

We drove over a ridge of higher land and then stopped. A long way off, but quite clearly we could see the Niger, like a thick silver cord in the bright sunshine. The intervening miles seemed to be down hill all the way and we covered them quickly. Bussa is the place where, in the early 19th century, Mungo Park, the famous explorer, had been ambushed and killed.

News travels quickly in West Africa, either by tom tom drums or by runners. We knew that our arrival would already be known by the Emir and his staff, so we made our way to his ‘palace’ without delay and sought audience. We got a quick invitation to enter. Our normal procedure would require lining up a row of interpreters: English to Yoruba to Hausa to Bussanchi, and then back again giving the reply. This process slowed down any conversation. In fact, I used often to tell folk at home that by the time my ‘Good morning’ had reached the chief and the reply had come back, it was already afternoon.

The Emir of Bussa was a regal figure robed in white and wearing a tall turban head gear. He received us graciously and, because he was fluent in the Hausa language, he saved us one of our line of interpreters. He seemed pleased to see us, would do all he could to help us in our fact finding and invited us to come back anytime he could be of use. He and his chiefs were most impressive on horseback.

We were witnesses of a most extraordinary anniversary occasion. The Emir is a Moslem. When Mohammedanism was spreading over what is now Northern Nigeria, the Bussawa people worshipped their own pagan gods. Such was their fear of being overrun by Islam that their chiefs used to mount their horses and charge around the very large square in front of the head chief’s house. They slashed their swords and cried out words of defiance to the Prophet Mohammed. Today, the pagan ceremony is similar but, once a year the Emir himself leads the cavalry and the sword slashing and the cries of defiance ring out each time they pass the Mosque. The following Friday, the Emir is at the Mosque for prayers.

By the end of the twelfth week, we had covered an area the size of Wales and had not found a single trace of Christianity. We returned home to prepare the report we would submit at our Synod the following January. Our recommendations included:-

  1. We would ask permission to enter this large area and commence any initial development work as an extension of the Ilesha circuit.
  2. As soon as possible we would propose to make a new, separate circuit to which we would transfer when a relief could be appointed to Ilesha.
  3. We would build a small mission house at Afon, providing a centre for the Yoruba speaking area, and live there for six months each year, covering the wet season. Then to Bussa, 200 miles north where the dry season would make travel easier.

We were glad to find that our Ilesha people supported this plan and, in 1938, Synod too gave its hearty approval to undertaking a missionary work within the District. It agreed to the setting up of a new circuit to be called the Ilorin Circuit and Borgu Mission. This would come into effect in 1939 when, it was hoped a new missionary would be sent out. But, unhappily, this was not to be. Instead of responding to the call of Africa, the Home Church called out for Chaplains.