by Ian McCall


No one could live and move around in the south of Nigeria in the 1950s without coming in contact with men and women who had consecrated themselves to what they saw as the betterment of their fellow beings whether as bearers of the word of God, teachers of the young or carers for the sick. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Nigeria leper settlement at Itu in the Calabar province, originally a constituent part of the Church of Scotland overseas missions. It was here that a Dr MacDonald first set up a hospice to care for lepers on an island in the middle of the Cross River. After a number of years an area on shore was acquired and the settlement was relocated there. That was where I visited it. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Dr MacDonald but I did meet his cousin the Rev. Bob MacDonald who assumed responsibility for the running of the settlement after his cousin had given up the reins.

As the doctors there came to diagnose the disease at an earlier stage, so the number of cures effected mounted. Pregnant mothers carrying the disease were cared for and the child looked after until such time as the mother was cured. Leprosy is not hereditary and the child could enjoy a normal life even if the mother was at an advanced stage of the disease. Patients were given work producing palm oil and other crops and were paid from the proceeds. The Palm Products Marketing Board was aware of this practice and encouraged it after taking pathological advice. The colony had 100,000 palm trees grown from seedlings obtained from the Agricultural Department.and a second-hand mill which was replaced later by a pioneer oil mill. Not for the patients there the indignity of dependence. A stock farm was developed with cows, goats, sheep and pigs; a lumber industry was started. It was the first place in Nigeria to grow rice. The patients had allotments where they grew yams, corn, plantains and other vegetables for their own use, and sold any surplus in the market place. There were four ‘towns’ with houses in straight streets, one town being for women and another for particularly bad cases of the disease. The whole regime was aimed at countering the psychological effects of being shunned with horror by their own people and the low state of their bodily and spiritual wellbeing.

The development of the aesthetic side of the inmates’ personalities was encouraged - one of the lepers had made a statue of Edward VIII, the only one ever erected to him, the uncrowned British king who abdicated his throne before his ritual coronation. They had their own social life. A court was built and presided over by a chief and two sub-chiefs to sort out differences. When members of the colony had the requisite number of clear tests they were declared officially free from the disease. They took hard to leaving the settlement where they were bound together by the bonds induced by their affliction and the close friendships they had formed with others as a result of the mutual support they had provided. I felt that I was only now beginning to realise the purpose that lay behind the retiring collections for the overseas missions at the church of my youth.

In January 1951 a record number of 883 patients were discharged cured, a tribute to the staff involved and the new drug ‘Dapsone’. The most moving aspect for me was the church service which was taken in three languages - Efik, English and Ibo. When you have heard the voices of over 1,000 lepers singing ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ with a conviction that would choke the most hardened observer, as happened to me and my assistant produce officer A U Antia on a visit to Itu, it is not something you forget easily. The singing was accompanied by a band whose instruments had been obtained by the church. One story told me by Bob MacDonald was that his cousin had authorised the bandmaster to choose the music at all church activities. One day when officiating at a funeral Dr Macdonald was taken aback momentarily to hear the band strike up ‘Will ye no` come back again?’.

When touring up-country it was not an unusual to pass Methodist schools. It was part of the ethos of the religious denominations to develop education as and when they could. This was probably because the government, certainly during the earlier part of its colonial rule, did little to promote it, almost certainly seeing it as likely to undermine good order as students started to read about political affairs for themselves. The Methodists were part of this tradition of providing education. Their schools were distinguished not so much by any notice board as by the distinctive blue uniforms of the pupils. On public holidays they would come round the houses collecting for a cause and give a song in return. I recall that it was children from a Methodist school who sang a song known and enjoyed all over the south of the country - ‘Everybody Loves Saturday Night’. They sang it first in sol-fa and then with the words to an accompaniment played on bones like others in at least one temperate country would play the spoons. It seemed on my travels that the Methodist Church, more than any other denomination, delegated the work to Nigerian nationals and they gave the impression of being very committed. Certainly, they seemed to provide most of the primary schools in these areas in south-east Nigeria which I travelled in my earlier days there, apart from the Cross River area where the Presbyterians and Roman Catholics predominated. Although the colonial government was initially a poor provider of educational facilities, latterly it did set up a number of secondary schools and the first university at Ibadan. For many years, the only secondary education available had been at the Hope Waddell Institution in Calabar which produced many of the people who were to become leaders of thought in the emerging new Nigeria. They were also to become the people who would be the founders, perhaps retrievers is a better word, of a cultural nationalism and who became leaders in government and business. It was said that Lord Lugard, when Governor of a united Nigeria, discouraged teaching about the Stuarts as it was likely to encourage contempt for authority but that the principal of the institution at the time disregarded that injunction.

I found Nigerians in general liked to talk, and the quality of conversation was high with subjects being discussed like ‘Will Hausa become the lingua franca of Nigeria?’ I have no doubt that this stemmed from good teaching in institutions such as those provided by the religious orders. In a country of so many different tongues, pidgin is the established means of communication across the language barrier. As for the educated classes, English is the medium by which they interact.

The Roman Catholic Church was also strongly represented in the country. If we as latterday government officials served eighteen months to two years before going on leave, the priests and mothers, as the sisters were called in Nigeria, served five to seven years before seeing home again. It is not surprising that they immersed themselves in their work and their charges. The mothers taught in the convent schools and such was their dedication and reputation that expatriate parents, whether of the Roman Catholic persuasion or not, elected when they could, to have their children educated in them. It was salutary, I felt at the time, for these children to experience living and working with Nigerian children. Not that all expatriate parents believed that Nigeria was a place to bring up children, for the majority still had theirs at boarding school in the United Kingdom. It was perhaps significant that many of those parents whose own parents had been on overseas postings and who had themselves been at boarding schools in England, were the least likely to repeat the experience with their own offspring. Part of the colonial officer’s contract was that his children would receive passages twice a year and the parents looked forward with eager anticipation to the holidays as did the children.

The Church was represented widely in south-east Nigeria and the spartan life of the fathers was legendary. Not that they didn’t like the good things. It was common practice for a touring officer to bring with him a bottle of whisky in return for a good meal and better company. Sometimes the older priests got into a routine as a way of coping with the long tours of duty. I remember one of the younger ones laughing about his colleagues in Oron on the right bank of the Cross River where the ferry left for Calabar. He warned that they were so fixed in their routine that they did not like it to be broken. If you intended to visit then you had to let them know well in advance so that the routine could be expanded to accommodate you. ‘If you happen on them out of the blue’ he said, ‘they’ll just tell you to ‘f... off’.

Strangely, it was only on a small number of occasions I came in close contact with the Church Missionary Society which represented the Church of England in the land, perhaps because I spent, if we exclude my time in Lagos, a relatively short period in Yorubaland where it had early on established most of its missions. The church had appointed its first Nigerian bishop, Bishop Crowther, as early as the late 19th century, and he was active in the Niger delta. I was married in one of its churches in Ibadan, very kindly made available for the occasion. I did attend a couple of christenings in Lagos but otherwise only observed the activities of the Church through the CMS bookshop which filled a gap in the provision of the other denominations. It was said on the coast that the CMS had been responsible in the early days of the colonial period for the writing in pidgin English of the Book of Genesis and I have heard a number of versions of it. It was written at a time when it was more important, in the view of the authors, to express the concept of the Christian deity in the simplest and most uncompromising of forms to which the readers or hearers could relate than to provide a sophisticated translation suitable only for an educated audience or readership. The following is a short extract from it:-

For de first time no ting be. Only de Lawd he be.

An de Lawd he done go work for make dis ting dem callum Earth. For six days de
Lawd he work an he done make all ting. He go put for Earth plenty plantain, plenty
yam, plenty bush meat, plenty cassava, plenty guinea corn, plenty groundnut, plenty
everting. An for de water he put plenty fish and for de air he put plenty dinda bird.

After six days de Lawd he tire an he done go for sleep. An when he sleep plenty,
palaver start for dis place dem callum Heaven. Dis place Heaven be place where we
go when we done die, if we no been so-so bad for dis place Earth. De Angel, dem
live for Heaven an play de banjo an get plenty fine chop and plenty palm wine.

De Headman of de Angel dey call Gabriel. When dis palaver start for Heaven dere
be plenty humbug by bad Angel dem callum Lucifer. An Gabriel he done catch
Lucifer an go beat am. An palaver stop one time. An de Lawd he tell Gabriel he be
good man too much an he go dash Gabriel one trumpet. An Gabriel he get licence for
play trumpet an his drum for Heaven. An Lucifer, he go for Hellfire where he be
headman now.

After de Lawd done lookam dis ting dem callum Earth, he savvy no man be for seat.
So de Lawd he take small earth an he breathe, an man he dey. An de Lawd he call dis
man Adam. De Lawd he say ‘Adam!’ an Adam he say `Yessah!’ An de Lawd he
say `Adam, you de see dis garden? Dem call am Paradise. Everting for dis garden be
for you, but not de tree Európean call Appel for middle of garden, dat no be for you.
You no go chop am, or you get plenty pain for belly - you savvy?’ An Adam he say
`Yessah Lawd, I savvy’.

An de Lawd he done go back for Heaven for hear Gabriel play de trumpet, an Adam
he waka-waka for garden where everting be fine too much. Byamby, de Lawd
he come back for Earth an go look am Adam. An he say ‘Adam, everting be fine
fine, no palaver, you like am?’ An Adam he say ‘Yessah Lawd, everting be fine pass
most ting’. An de Lawd he say ‘Whassa matter, Adam, you get small trouble?’ An
Adam he say ‘No, I no get trouble Lawd sah, but I no get mammy’.

An de Lawd he say ‘Ah-ha!’ Den de Lawd he make Adam go sleep for one place, an
he take small piece from Adam side. He go breathe - an mammy she dey - an de
Lawd callum his mammy Evie. De Lawd wake Adam an he say ‘Adam, you de see
dis mammy?’ An Adam he say “Yessah Lawd, I see am - she be fine pass

It was said, and it is not surprising, indeed it is to the credit of the Church officials if such is the case, that for the last few decades they had been collecting all extant copies of the translation to limit the offence it must have caused to the increasing number of educated Nigerians who came across it. It was not the fact that it was written in pidgin that upset some. It was the images it tried to evoke through the analogies it used to create them. The idea of the Bible story might have been conveyed to an uneducated generation being swamped by a new culture through expressions like `Noah he be headman for Elder Dempster boat`, but events have overtaken this attempt to win simple minds over to Christianity. There were those who said that no offence was intended and should not be taken. My view from the vantage point of nearly 50 years on is that the perception is the reality for people and humankind should act accordingly if that perception cannot be changed.

The devotion of the missionaries to their flocks was widely acknowledged. They would have sat uncomfortably with some people of the lesser cults which found Nigeria a happy hunting ground for converts. There was a sect from one of the southern states of the USA which was extending its activities more widely. One of their pastors asked me if I knew a healthy place in the Eket Division where the word of God was required. Another of his kind, visiting from his homeland, claimed in the name of God to effect cures of those who were stricken of diseases and afflictions that medical science could not address. I can remember in Calabar hearing one from the comfort of my own verandah, his resounding voice rising to a crescendo, exhorting some poor unfortunate wretch to walk. I heard nothing of miracle cures.

Despite all the effort and love for the human race put into their work, and despite their belief in the high moral purpose and absolute righteousness of their cause, these different manifestations of Christianity could do little to stem the onward march of Islam despite its having as many divisions as the Christian faith. Islam appealed to the leaders in Nigerian society, with the exception of those in south-east Nigeria and to a degree in Western Nigeria where leadership was not invested in one person, in that it was more in accord with their economic needs and did not forbid the taking of more than one wife who would bear them more children who had also a value in terms of their work and their marriageability. The followers in that situation would take their lead from their chiefs. The Muslim brotherhoods which assisted greatly in this success also appeared to have much in common with people’s customary faith based on the their tolerance of regional tradition. For example, they practised fortune-telling and the interpretation of dreams. These facts in no way detract from what these torch-carriers of Christianity did, which was in the best tradition of caring for the physical as well as the spiritual and mental welfare of the people who were the subject of their ministrations.

Missionaries certainly did come in all sorts and sizes. If commitment is the most significant determinant of action, then the missionaries were certainly moved to do things, not only the ministers and priests but the many lay people who supported them in an equally dedicated way. Those to whom they ministered had little difficulty accepting the Christian God as Number One provided their own spirits were not proscribed. Many of these spirits were benign, and wise missionaries emphasised the Christian code without directly rubbishing the traditional gods or taking the joy out of their spirituality which many of the earlier ones had done by their narrow interpretation of Christianity. A knowledge of the history of their own religion would have shown these earlier bearers of the word of God that the early Christians in their own country modified pagan customs to provide a comfortable bridge from the old to the new as in the choice of one of the days after the winter solstice for the commemoration of Christ`s birth, a date unknown to researchers in religious matters. The association of mistletoe with Christmas derives from Celtic rites which centred on their sacred oak tree on which the plant is frequently found and is considered to be the symbol of life. The related sacrifice of bulls was one of the customs that fell into decay with their embracing of Christianity although there are records of such sacrifice continuing among the ordinary people of north-east Scotland into medieval times. The famous bull - the papal rather than the bovine kind - of Pope Gregory 1, which accepted certain Celtic ritualistic practices, facilitated the acceptance of Christian belief by the Celtic religious leaders, the Druid priests, without altogether destroying their spiritual values.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003