The large town of Offa appears at least three times in these memoirs. It is the first large town as one enters the Northern Provinces and was for some time the end of the railway line being built from Lagos to Kano. As further construction on the line took place, Offa was the supply base from its large engineering and supplies work. This meant it became the residence of a large staff of well qualified Africans and Europeans. Most of the Africans came from the south and we had a small church served by a catechist to look after the Methodist community. I decided to raise the standard of the staff, and was able to replace the catechist with a fully trained Sub-Pastor from our Wesley College. He was to undertake outreach work. I have already recorded the tragic event which left him a widower in his early years.
Our first school at Offa was opened in the small church built by the railway workers. The building itself had the usual mud walls, not very straight nor smooth. These had been improved with a splash of whitewash. The mud floor had to be washed each Saturday with a solution of cattle dung, to keep insect life to a minimum. The lower creation seem to dislike the smell, we humans got used to it quickly, but the khaki colour was not inspiring. The choice of site had been unfortunate and it was difficult to attract pupils to the school. Native residents were dependent on their farms and not on market stalls for their food supplies. They went to farm every day. They suffered much loss through monkeys. These animals were not satisfied with uprooting one growing yam, the staple diet of the people, and after one or two bits, the monkey would toss off the remainder and unearth a fresh yam. The farmers could not be persuaded to send children to school, they were sent to the farm to watch and drive off the monkeys when they got up to their monkey tricks. The children took it in turns to sit in a tree until the enemy arrived and gave the signal to their companions who sent showers of stones in the required direction. The railway workers were not farmers and their children were able to attend.
I discussed the problem with the Oloffa (Chief of Offa) and suggested we would like to move to a big and prominent site. He promised to have the necessary discussions and would let me know. The result was favourable and we were given the chosen site. This would allow for a church and four classrooms with space for enlargement to cover the eight standards in a Primary School. There was also adequate space for a teacher’s house, a playground and other activities. We later built a Bookshop with an annex where the bookseller lived. The money for this latter construction came from my ‘Harmonium Fund’.
This active interest in education was later to lead to important developments. The Offa Descendants Union (ODU) was a progressive body with a large membership. Most of the local storekeepers and educated persons in the town belonged, but the greatest financial backing came from Offa descendants abroad, living mainly in Lagos. They were very generous and did much good for their home town.
One greatly desired objective was to start a Grammar School so that children, having gained success in their Primary schooling, need not leave the town but enter a secondary school at home. In Northern Nigeria, the only Secondary Schools were Government-built, controlled and financed. There was little hope that Offa would be favoured by Government as a project, so the ODU aimed at an independent Grammar School. I had taken a general interest in the town and was on very friendly terms with the Emir of Ilorin, the Resident Magistrate and the Education Officer, so the ODU approached me.
In our developing Primary school on the new site mentioned above, we were making very good progress and already had several fully trained normal teachers on the staff. I could not commit our Mission to supply trained teachers ad lib, to staff a secondary school, but I promised to look into the possibility of making a start. Naturally I kept the Chairman of our District Synod informed, we also had several meetings with the local committee of the ODU to clarify the position. I was also very grateful for the support and advice of Bandele Oyediran, Principal of our Methodist Boys High School in Lagos, who was not only a very active Methodist but also an Offa descendant. There is much more to write of him later.
I agreed to become Manager of the Offa Grammar School and to make a start possible by lending one of our trained teachers from our primary school. We would start Form 1 in the African Church and planned to step up with an extra class each year. We would embark on a building scheme for the new school, including the provision for Science Labs in keeping with Government requirements. Fortunately the ODU for years had been contributing generously for this project so there was no problem.
So, at the beginning of the school year we started with forty boys in Form 1 and with our Solomon Ajayi as the teacher. The Oloffa and his chiefs were all there for the opening and although they were all Moslems, they asked me to open with prayer. It was interesting how they always referred to Solomon as the first principal of the school. No matter how large a primary school may be, it is always under the care of a headmaster, but the Offa Grammar School, like all other grammar schools must be controlled by a Principal.
We drew up plans for the building and were helped with the advice of the Public Works Department of Government. A date was agreed for the pegging out of the foundations which would be undertaken by a Government official. Early that morning I had an urgent message from the Public Works Department. The man responsible for the pegging out and measurements was ill. They asked me to carry through the programme. I had done a lot of this sort of thing for our mission buildings and actually owned a theodolite, but was surprised at the request. However, I agreed to go ahead.
Now, no one had told me that there had been a long standing dispute between the chiefs and the owner of land adjoining to the site we had been given. He had refused to allow the Grammar School buildings to encroach on his territory. I got on with the pegging and in so doing pinched quite a large corner of this owner’s land. The Oloffa was present but neither he nor anyone else said a word about the palaver. The Chiefs gave their blessing on the scheme and, fair to the previous owner of the corner of which I had deprived him, he made no further protest and the matter was closed. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, and sometimes get away with it.
The ODU got its Grammar School, the first Independent Grammar School in Northern Nigeria. It went from strength to strength. In 1978, on one of our return visits to Nigeria, it was a great thrill to be the guests at a reunion. We inspected the completed premises of a now very large co-educational Grammar School offering full secondary schooling. The assembly was held in the large Ludlow Hall with the Oloffa, chiefs and people rejoicing over the act of faith taken by the ODU and me thirty years earlier.
Several years after the opening of the Offa Grammar School, I received a telegram from the Provincial Education Officer inviting me to breakfast with the Resident Magistrate. After breakfast the talking began. Government had a secondary school at Omuaran. It included a boarding department and its own farm. The authorities wanted me to become manager of the school. They would hand over the whole unit to the Methodist Church and would guarantee a substantial annual grant.
Quite apart from the school and its opportunities, this would give us entrance to a new area for general missionary work. I informed the Mission Chairman. He called an ad hoc committee in Lagos. Unfortunately, as the extension area possible came geographically nearer to my next circuit neighbour, although he had no plans to occupy same, he felt that I would encroach on what one day might be worked by him. He therefore strongly opposed the acceptance of the offer. Added to this a second senior missionary, who had led in opposing our accepting the invitation of the Ilesha people to start their now huge, Ilesha Grammar School, put up the same argument that we would be straining the output of our Training College and endanger the progress of our existing work in the south. I lost the vote and very sadly had to contact Ilorin and reject the offer. (See ‘Omuo’ by J D Clark. Longmans.) It is tragic that, added to inter-tribal warfare, lack of financial support and the promotion of ‘what we have we hold’, jealousy has to be added, to hinder our advance into the North. John Milum and the days of ‘On to Chad’ seem all the more remote.
About the same time, I was asked if our Mission would take over the Government Leper work in Ilorin. I fully understand our Ilesha doctors reluctance to accept this in view of their limited medical staff but it did seem such a pity to reject yet another good will offer while we struggled to gain a strong foothold in Ilorin. We appreciated the high regard the authorities had for our work but these rejections would definitely impede the goodwill and co-operation of those authorities.
I have briefly referred to one of Offa’s outstanding sons, Bandele Oyediran. Born into a Moslem family in 1908, he was given the opportunity to go to a Christian school and during those years he became a Christian. We first met him as a graduate teacher on the staff of Igbobi College, Lagos. This was a joint Church Missionary and Methodist promotion. He was an active worker in our church and a member of the Methodist Synod. He was one of the Lagos members of the Offa Descendants Union and a keen supporter and adviser in the Offa Grammar School scheme. He was promoted from Igbobi to become the first African Principal of the Methodist Boys High School in Lagos.
The flow of young Africans to British Universities was great and, as could be expected or feared, there were some who could not stand up to the strain of a new life in a new country for them. This became such a problem that the Government in Nigeria decided they must appoint a liaison officer, residing in England, and working between Nigerian undergraduates and the universities. Government approached the Methodist Mission and asked that Bandele Oyediran be seconded to this important post.
At that time, we had retired from our service in Nigeria and were then stationed in Margate, Kent. Bandele had come over and had been very successful in his new work. His Christian character as well as his long experience as a teacher enabled him to give much needed help and advice to his Nigerian compatriots. After one of his leaves, he decided to bring back his wife and two youngest children to London. Yinka, the older of the two boys started in primary school. Unfortunately, his mother found it hard to adjust to life in the West End and, as a result did not enjoy the best of health. It was decided that she should have a holiday back in Nigeria. She was due to return but, a few days before her flight, suddenly she died.
Bandele was thus left in a London flat with two little boys. It was near Christmas, so we invited all three of them to spend the holiday with us. Meanwhile, however Bandele had found a very good foster home for Femi, the younger aged about three and the foster parents were very sad that they would not have the little lad for Christmas so Bandele and Yinka, now about eight years, both came. We thought a lot over the possibility of offering Yinka a home instead of living in a London flat with the problem that his father’s duties required frequent and often urgent departures from London. On introducing the matter to Bandele he admitted that he had been praying for an opportunity when he could ask us if we could help. So, for three years Yinka became a member of our family. He went to school with our daughter of the same age. At the end of the period came the eleven plus examination. His father thought of admission to our Kingswood School, Bath. We advised against this. He would be in danger of losing contact with his own native land and people, so he returned for his secondary schooling in Lagos.
Meanwhile, Nigeria had become independent. Unlike many other parts of the British Empire which had been granted independence, Nigeria was in a strong position. She had some 40-50,000 young men and women who had completed their full secondary schooling and, educationally were available for the Africanisation which rightly followed independence. European personnel would be reduced to a minimum as more and more jobs became available for Nigerians. Also with the opening up of universities within Nigeria, a lesser number of young people rushed for places in British universities.
Bandele was posted to Sierra Leone as Nigerian High Commissioner. His next Government appointment was to high office in the Diplomatic Service in Washington. Unhappily, what we believe was the onset of Parkinson’s disease befell him. He had to retire home to Lagos where he died in 1966 at the early age of 58. He was a true servant of his Lord and of his country.
To return to Nigeria. One day, news reached us which meant changing our whole plan of development in the Niger region. James Bakare received a message from home calling him to return south because his father, chief of his town, had died and James was next in line to take up his work. He felt that he must undertake this new duty, but it required him to lay down his work in Bussa. We sympathised with him in his bereavement, sincerely thanked him and his wife for the work they had done and sorrowfully accepted his resignation.
Another two of the five-year guarantee to cover expenditure on salaries had passed. James and his wife had made a good start in making friends, their daily life and habits had been watched and doubtless some of the conversations would be remembered. James had faithfully filled up book after book of scores of words and their meaning. Now he was going and would carry his knowledge of spoken Bussanchi with him to his town where, it would not be understood and would eventually be forgotten. Meanwhile, where were we to find another volunteer for the north? Some months went by before an offer came, from a most unlikely person.
Philip Jaiyesimi was one of our older catechists in the south, probably about 45 years of age, married with four children. He offered to go to Bussa with his wife and the youngest children, the older two were in late teenage. Ebun was in United Missionary Training College and would soon qualify as a teacher, her grandma would be responsible for her during holidays and would also look after her younger brother. We were very happy that the work in Bussa could be tackled once more.
As soon as arrangements could be made we took Philip, his wife and children to Bussa and stayed with them for about a week whilst they began to realise that what we had told them was true. No one understood nor spoke Yoruba; they must learn a new language, as well as grow accustomed to changes in diet. Philip was convinced that he was doing what God wanted him to do and he bravely faced the future. He was very sincerely welcomed by the Emir and the folk who had become friendly with the Bakares. When we had completed introductions and explanations, we returned again to Afon to prepare for our first Secretarial Visitor in the north.
For two reasons we looked forward to the arrival of Fred Dodds. He was promoted to his responsible position as secretary for Africa from his long service in Eastern Nigeria where, for years he had tramped the bush paths as we were now doing. He therefore understood our pioneer work better than some of the very excellent men who had more limited knowledge and experience through having a background in educational work. We could not shock nor even surprise him by the more primitive nature of our field. But we knew as he returned to London, that he had real knowledge of our problems and, perhaps greater sympathy than others. A story of his must be told.
Mrs Dodds was not a good cyclist but loyally accompanied Fred on his treks, following him along miles of bush paths on their cycles. On one occasion, as he free-wheeled rapidly down a hill, he was horrified to see that a single tree trunk served as a bridge across a small river. He got over safely and immediately dismounted in great fear that his wife, too near to stop in time, would not make it. By an extraordinary visitation of guidance she shot straight over the tree trunk and landed in a heap as she fell off her bike. Her fury arose before she did. In a loud voice she shouted: ‘I might have been killed, what would you have done then?’ Fred, as coolly as possible replied “I would have cabled the Mission House in London: ‘Wife dead, send relief’.”
The second reason for the name of Fred Dodds being important to us follows:- several times I have written of our clamour for help in obtaining transport which would really meet our needs in medical, as well as the more general equipment we must carry over long periods as well as distances. We had graduated from the days of the Baby Austin on which the ostrich sat, the trailer which we towed until it decided to go its own way and was not there when we reached our destination. The Chevrolet Kit-car in its day had been the result of much planning and the generous support of many relatives and friends who backed their prayers with their gifts, but a dry road skid when we rolled sideways and somersaulted down a high bank, hastened the end of its usefulness. What were we to do now?
In desperation we wrote to our Secretary for Africa, Fred Dodds. We prayed that this time, the Mission Headquarters in London would respond favourably. In due course a reply came with a remarkable story. The very same post which had delivered our appeal also included another letter with a cheque for 1,000 pounds enclosed, from a gentleman who had had a good year in business and would like to make possible some needed work in Africa. He did not want his name to be made public.
Fred Dodds wrote of how the two letters had clicked so firmly that he had recommended and had great pleasure in putting this gift to meet our needs. He added that as we were soon to take our leave in England, we might decide to make the purchase then. He was right, it would have been well nigh impossible to get what we wanted abroad, so we decided that we might try to purchase a chassis at home and have a body built to our specification. 1,000 pounds went a very long way in 1948.