The kindness of strangers …

A matter of days after we arrived in Nigeria (see “How to make an ecologist #11”) a battered old Peugeot 504 station wagon pulled up alongside us as we walked from our hotel to get a bush taxi across Jos to the university campus. A North American voice called through the open window (we were later to discover that it never closed properly) and asked if we wanted a lift. We clambered in gratefully, the vehicle crunched into gear and pulled out into the traffic again. As the car lurched forward a whisky bottle rolled across the foot well and the driver, a lean man in his fifties, introduced himself as Alvin, a worker with CUSO, the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps or VSO. The whisky bottle, he explained, contained local honey (invariably sold with honeycomb and a few dead bees included). By the time we had made the mile or so journey to the centre of town where our routes diverged, he had invited us back to his house for dinner the following evening.

A week at the Plateau Hotel had been enough to exhaust our enthusiasm for their rather limited menu so we accepted with alacrity and, the following evening, his Peugeot grumbled up the driveway to the Plateau Hotel to collect us for the short drive to his house on the edge of the town where we met his wife Sylvia and ate her home-cooked food. They had had a furniture business in Kenora, Western Ontario, we learned, but had sold up to take a career break teaching in a technical college. Officially, Alvin taught woodwork (which he wryly summarised as showing students how to make long pieces of wood shorter) but he had an unofficial sideline in demonstrating how random acts of kindness made the world a better place. They and we bonded despite the age difference and, at weekends, we joined them in their elderly Peugeot to explore the region.

Fishermen on the River Benue, early 1990.   The photograph at the top of the post shows rock formations near Riyom, south of Jos (but taken some months later, during the wet season).

A few days ago  we heard news that Alvin had died after a long battle with cancer. Once our initial sadness had passed, we found ourselves smiling again as memories that had faded with time reasserted themselves. One trip, in particular, summed-up Alvin’s indomitable attitude, taking us south off the Jos Plateau into the heat of the northern Nigerian plain. I can’t remember the motivation for this trip, only that we spent the night in a guest house belonging to a mission, but only after a hair-raising crossing of the Benue River. Our first approach to the river was presaged by a sudden improvement in the road surface as we drove up an incline towards a very modern-looking bridge before Alvin stood on the brakes to bring us to a halt just before the road ended abruptly with just a few traffic cones between us and a vertical drop.

From this narrow escape we made our way on smaller roads to the ferry, where a narrow barge barely wider than the car itself was tied up with some planks bridging the gap to the steeply-sloping riverbank. At this point, the rest of us climbed out declaring our intention of recording the occasion on film, leaving Alvin to line-up the car at the top of the slope and then to slither down, across the rickety planks and onto the barge.  We followed him onto the barge and were shown into the open boat lashed to the side, from which the ferryman started up the outboard motor and pointed the ferry towards the line of trees that marked the opposite shore.

Boarding the ferry across River Benue, Nigeria, 1990.

We shared the broad river channel with a few small boats carrying foot passengers and a skiff from which a local fisherman and his son were casting seine nets.  There are reports of manatee and hippopotami from the river, though we did not see any, and there are almost certainly crocodiles too, though they kept out of sight.  Our ferry moved slowly diagonally upstream across the broad river channel towards the southern shore where the exercise was repeated (the river bank on this side was far less intimidating) and we were in Benue State.  This was the heartland of the Tiv ethnic group whose distinctive round huts were the subject of one of my very first watercolours.   The Tiv are the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, a farming people, proud of their yams.  Inside the round huts it is easy to imagine the scenes related by the anthropologist Laura Bohannan in her fascinating article Shakespeare in the Bush.

Having got to Tiv country on the Saturday evening we had to turn our eyes back towards Jos if we were to be back in time for work on Monday.   We took a more circuitous, albeit faster, route this time, crossing the river by the modern bridge and heading back along roads lined with mahogany plantations.   We stopped at a roadside stall beside one of these and haggled for a small pestle and mortar, which our Nigerian friends dismissed as hilariously inadequate and which imparted a tinge of brown boot polish to our first few batches of pounded yam.   And then Alvin was changing down the gears so that the Peugeot could haul itself back up to the milder climate of the Jos Plateau and we were passing familiar landmarks again.

A reconstruction of the Tiv village at the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture in Jos, circa 1990. 

Recalling Alvin and Sylvia at this time of year is apt, as hospitality to strangers is an integral part of the Christmas story.  They helped us find our feet and we, in due course (I hope) followed their example with other new arrivals.   After leaving Nigeria they moved to Minnesota, to be close to their children, where we visited them in November 2012 (I watched Bill Clinton’s first election victory from their front room).  Distances were too great to see them regularly but we kept in touch by letter and email.   Though I had not seen him for over twenty years, I felt the bonds we forged in Nigeria were strong and knowing that he is no longer here to share his dry humour and practicality is enough to give me pause for thought.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

How to make an ecologist #11

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The last time I had time to reflect on my professional life, I wrote about my time as a postdoctoral researcher studying the history of Mediterranean landscapes (see “How to make an ecologist #10”).  That was just an 18 month contract and as the months ticked down towards the conclusion, I had to think about what I wanted to do next.  Heather and I shared a desire to see more of the world but, rather than just follow the standard backpacker’s routes around the more exotic parts of the world, we wanted to settle somewhere (preferably warm) and live and work for a couple of years. But where, and what would we do?

The sad truth is that, having spent several years learning more and more about less and less, I had relatively few transferable skills that would make me employable outside my narrow specialism of freshwater ecology and, outside of the developed world, this pretty much limited me to work in universities or research institutes.   Ten years earlier, there were ample opportunities for British academics to work in Commonwealth universities, but there were few opportunities by the late 1980s.  I scanned the job vacancies in New Scientist and the Times Higher Education Supplement, but there were few that were worth pursuing.   As the time to the end of my contract started to be counted in weeks rather than months, I heard from someone that Nigeria was still recruiting lecturers.  I wrote a letter more in hope than serious anticipation and, to my surprise, both Heather and I were invited to interviews at the Nigerian education attaché’s office amidst the computer, hi-fi and photography shops on Tottenham Court Road in central London.   A letter arrived a couple of weeks later offering us both jobs at the University of Jos in Plateau State, central Nigeria.  I was to be a “Senior Lecturer” and Heather was “Lecturer #2”.   The prospect of two jobs made this doubly attractive even if the salaries on offer were miniscule.   Friends who had worked in Nigeria in the early 1970s had earned good salaries by UK standards, with plenty of benefits.  The Nigerian economy had, however, crashed in the early 1980s and local salaries were about a tenth of their UK equivalents.  However, we were young and idealistic, and living on local salaries would be no great hardship for a couple of years.  The point of our endeavours was to immerse ourselves into the local culture rather than just observe from the outside.  Living on the same – or similar – terms to those around us was a part of the deal.

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The dusty backstreets of Kano, in northern Nigeria, photographed in 1990.  The top photograph shows calabashes on display in Kurmi market.

And so we landed at Kano airport in northern Nigeria in late November 1989, just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.   The university had given us an extra baggage allowance so we travelled with two trunks and a couple of suitcases each, along with an uneasy sense of problems ahead as we got this all through customs.   Serendipitously, we had met, via a friend, a Nigerian Anglican minister called Henry who was doing an MA in Theology in Durham just as we were preparing to leave.   He had told us that he had a sister who was a customs officer at Kano Airport and took our names and flight details.  We thought nothing more of this at the time but, as we were queuing at passport control, a Nigerian official pulled us from the line and we were introduced to Henry’s sister and then fast-tracked through immigration.   It was our first experience of the myriad byzantine pathways by which one navigated Nigerian bureaucracies.  In two years we never had first-hand experience of the corruption that is rife in Nigeria’s public sector but this was the first of many instances where being a friend of a friend eased our way through the complexities of Nigerian official life.

And so we emerged into the noise and heat of the arrivals hall, wrestling to keep control of our baggage trollies from the many taxi drivers and touts, and looking for representatives of the University of Jos who we assumed would be waiting for us.   There was nothing.  Crowds milled around us, offers of taxis and hotels were shouted at us, but no-one came for us.  The mass of people slowly thinned out as our fellow passengers were met or found themselves taxis, but still we waited in the arrivals hall with all our luggage.  Eventually, after consultation with an airport official, all our luggage was piled into two taxis and we were ferried to the Central Hotel, the biggest and (at the time) most superficially luxurious of Kano’s hotels (the assumption being, I presume, that we were rich bature [white people] who would settle for nothing less).  We unloaded our luggage, paid the taxi driver in dollars, not having any local currency at this stage, and checked into the hotel.

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Indigo dye-pits in Kano, northern Nigeria, 1990.

Kano is an ancient, dusty city, sitting at the south end of the trans-Saharan trade routes.   It is a fascinating place, with an old town still dominated by buildings in the traditional Hausa style, with traders lining narrow lanes selling a huge range of traditional and modern goods.   We would have our chances to explore  Kano on later visits but this first visit saw us confined to Central Hotel, trying to contact the University of Jos by telephone and, then, waiting for their driver to cover the 300 kilometres between the two cities to collect us.   It was mid-afternoon before he arrived and stared askance at the heap of luggage that he had to cram into his Peugot 504 estate along with us.   We were, however, about to get our first lesson in the ability of Nigerian drivers to wedge enormous amounts into what appears, at first glance, to be an impossibly small space.   Finally, we squeezed ourselves into the small spaces that remained once our luggage had been installed and the car pulled out of the Central Hotel’s car park and we headed into the northern Nigerian savannah for the last stage of our journey.

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A reconstruction of Zaria mosque, built in the traditional Hausa style, at Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA), Jos, photographed in 1990.