How to make an ecologist #12

Jos, our home for the two years that we spent in Nigeria, was located on a plateau in central Nigeria, at an altitude of about 1200 metres, 700 metres above the surrounding countryside, which spared the city from the worst of the summer heat.  During colonial times, Jos’ mild climate had led to it being the hill station for expatriates although, unlike in India, the administration did not decamp here en masse. The agreeable climate also made this area an attractive base for Christian missionary organisations and there was also a school for expatriate missionary children.  There was, we discovered, a large community of expatriates – from the US, Canada and UK in particular – and infrastructure to support these.  Major First World dilemmas such as procuring a steady supply of Extra Virgin Olive Oil began to appear less daunting.

The university driver dropped us at the Plateau Hotel, which was to be our home for the first six weeks while the university sorted out a house for us.  It was early Friday evening when we arrived, and we had the weekend to orientate ourselves.   On Monday morning Sam Agina, one of our new colleagues, collected us in his car and drove us through the town to the campus, weaving his way through the noisy mêlée of taxis, motorcycles, brightly-decorated lorries and pedestrians that thronged the streets.  The University of Jos was part of the second wave of Nigerian universities, having been founded in 1975, originally as an outpost of the University of Ibadan (itself, an offshoot of the University of London, my own alma mater).   The Botany Department occupied a brand new building at one edge, well designed with wide corridors that were open on one side so that cool breezes could circulate.  The laboratories were as modern as those that we had left behind in the UK, at least until you opened the cupboards under the benches, which were largely empty.  The department was, actually, well equipped with teaching microscopes but had very little other equipment and reagents, too, were always in short supply.    Running practical classes was always a test of our ingenuity and research was almost out of the question.


The Botany and Zoology building at University of Jos’ Bauchi Road Campus, 1990.

Even if we had had better facilities, there was little time for research as we both had very heavy teaching loads.   All science students, along with medics and pharmacologists and some education students, did a common first year, which meant that classes were very large – up to 500 students crammed into a lecture hall (some outside, leaning in through the windows), trying to listen to a lecturer at one end talk without a microphone and draw onto a blackboard.  To add to the challenge, there was often another lecture scheduled at the other end of the long room, and no dividers between the two classes.  After this introductory year, classes became smaller as we just had the botanists, zoologists and education students to teach, and final year classes often only had 20 or 30 single honours students.  That teaching was much more rewarding and close, in intellectual level, to teaching in UK universities.  The biggest difference was that the curriculum was much more traditional and less informed by recent developments.  The course was heavy on taxonomy and systematics, but weak on biochemistry where the lack of opportunities to turn theory into practice was a real drawback.


With University of Jos botany undergraduates at Assop Falls, Plateau State, Nigeria during a field trip in December 1989,

The titles of the modules I taught show the nature of the course: Cryptogamic Botany I (2nd year), Cryptogamic Botany II, Phycology I and Statistics (3rd year) and Phycology II and Palaeobotany (4th year).   I found myself teaching all of the parts of a traditional botany degree that have been slowly excised in order to make “plant science” courses more appealing to British undergraduates.  Our students, in other words, had the firm foundations in classification and systematics that their British counterparts lack but, unfortunately, this was at the expense of those parts of a modern plant science degree that really might contribute to the development of a country such as Nigeria.   The allocation of the Palaeobotany was, I presume, because of my experience working on Holocene vegetation history (see “How to make an ecologist #10”).  This left approximately 99.9997% of the history of plants on earth for me to vamp my way through.  I think I managed to keep one step ahead of the students who were, in any case, far too polite to tell me if I was not.

One area where our new Department did have a genuine strength was microbiology and there was a strong slant towards this in the degree course.  There were a number of undergraduate and MSc projects that set this knowledge into a local context, exploring the interactions between microbes and the local community.  One, I recall, looked at how bacteria impregnated the calabashes (hollowed out gourds) that the Fulani women used to make a popular yoghurt-like drink so that they never needed a starter culture.  Others looked at the efficacy of indigenous medicines, with the students showing that several local herbal remedies had genuine anti-microbial activities.  This was all done without the containment facilities of a western research laboratory: I recall peering at a row of Petri dishes lined up on the bench at the back of a research laboratory and being told that they all contained cultures of Gonorrhoea. I promptly took a quick step backwards.


Our home in Nigeria: House 5 Road 5 on the University of Jos Senior Staff Quarters, 1990.

The local focus of the Department showed me, ultimately, where my own skills might be best spent.  Rather than struggle with research that would have been difficult to publish in an International journal, I set out to write a textbook with a colleague that could be published at a price students could afford.   I have no formal statistical training but I knew enough to write a basic textbook.  I hoped, too, that my own struggles with everything mathematical would mean that I could write with a measure of empathy for the student, and also that an affordable book would equip them to go out and design experiments themselves.   Science, I was beginning to understand, was less about what you knew, and more about knowing how to find out what you didn’t know.


The cover of the statistics textbook I co-wrote for local students in Nigeria.  It was published by ABIC books, Enugu (ISBN: 978-022-038-0)

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