Carolyn Johnston (2010): Harmattan, A Wind of Change: Life and Letters from Northern Nigeria at the End of Empire. London Radcliffe Press.

Finding it really hard to get back to work – I still yearn for holidays, proper holidays – I decided to flick through a few reports from and about (northern) Nigeria to see whether I stumble about a mention of religious posters, lorry arts and the likes. Harmattan, A Wind of Change is the latest of such publications in our library. Published, I assume, to benefit from the publicity that this year’s 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence – and so many other countries on the continent – would generate.

This is a weird kind of book. It contains (a selection, I assume) of letters and diary entries by Tim and Berrice Johnston written during their time in Nigeria where Tim Johnston worked in British colonial administration. Some entries are quite interesting from a historical point of view but the letters are not separately dated and it is sometimes hard to establish when they have been written (I have on occasion googled the described events in order to ascertain the year). There are plenty of entries for some periods of the Johnstons’ postings in Nigeria while other years including the 1950s in Sokoto and Kebbi are almost exclusively represented through a summery by their daughter, and the book’s editor, Carolyn Johnston. The fact that the letters are introduced and edited by their authors’ daughters at times leaves the impression that professional distance is lacking. But that might just reflect my very own bias in favour of more academic framings of such sources. At other times, the historical and cultural background she provides is at best questionable: no, a Middle Eastern origin of the Fulani and their subsequent migration to Senegambia is NOT the currently most widely accepted theory, at least not in the academic circles in which I move. Anyway, the letters and diary entries themselves may constitute a valuable source for historians – in the introduction, Carolyn Johnston indicates plans of offering them to the Colonial Records Archive at Rhodes House Library, Oxford. They certainly speak of a great love for Nigeria and in particular the country’s north:

‘We went for a drive down the Bauchi road the other evening; most attractive country and heavenly views of hills in the distance. You know I simply love Nigeria, seeing such a nice country made me realise how lucky I am to be out here. I should hate to have to stay in England.’ (Berrice Johnston in a letter to her husband, Jos, November 1946?, p. 103)

Here a few excerpts that might be interesting with regard to contemporary northern Nigerian culture(s).

‘We started out for Makurdi on Sunday but the lorry broke down at mile 3 so we returned home. On Monday we set off again at 3 p.m. in a lorry with ‘God Help Us’ painted on the cab, which was very appropriate as it turned out because we broke down every other mile! We arrived in Gudi at 7.30 p.m. just in time to catch the goods train to Makurdi … The lorry that took us back to Nassarawa was christened the ‘Red Headed Match.’ It averaged 40 mph, which was slightly nerve-racking on such bad roads with goats running about all over the place.’ (Berrice Johnston in a letter from Nassarawa to her mother in England, October 1945, 80)

So, clearly painted lorries were already around by the mid-1940s. Though, probably the decorations weren't as elaborate as the current practices I observed on northern Nigerian roads during fieldwork. If they had been, would Mrs. Johnston have mentioned them? Probably, I'd say, considering that she considered the lorries' names worth mentioning.

‘In the evening we watched some ‘Dodo’ dancing. Dodos are mythical spirits who represents the ghosts of the deceased. The men dress up in weird and wonderful costumes, many of which are made of straw so they look like scarecrows. Their faces are always masked so that the women and children can’t guess their identity. Their must important function is to dance at funerals. Their meetings are held in an area of dense scrub surrounding the ju-ju tree and young men who wish join the group are given a severe flogging to ensure they keep their promise never to reveal the identity of the Dodo. After the initiation ceremony they have a feast and late in the night the meeting breaks up with much yelling and shrieking which puts fear into the hearts of the villages who believe in the myth of the spirits.’ (Berrice Johnston in a letter from Nassarawa to her mother in England, January 1946, describing scene in Kanshi, Keffi?, 86)

‘The mobile cinema came to town the other day, which was quite a novelty. Most of the newsreels were incomprehensible to the local people but they enjoyed the films about the Royal West African Frontier Force, boxing, athletics and horse racing …’ (Berrice Johnston in a letter from Nassarawa to her mother in England, January or February 1946, 88)

‘… the whole party continued the tour of the palace [of the Emir of Kano]. The Emir had done it very well: all the rooms were covered in eastern rugs and carpets, some of them very good ones which he bought in Hejaz last year, and all the mica wall decorations had been newly furbished. At one point there was a series of black and white drawings which were supposed to represent the Queen and the Duke but in which the Queen was made to look like a luscious eastern beauty. The Duke stopped to ask who had done them and the Emir said (as if it was the most natural thing in the world) that the artist was one of the prisoners from the gaol. At the end of the tour of the Palace HM and HRH both signed the Emir’s visitors book and HM thanked him and presented him with a signed photograph …’ (diary entry? by Tim Johnston detailing the Queen’s visit to Kano in February 1956, February 1956, 163)

This is quite interesting against the background of established traditions that use portrait painting as a means to suggest social status – Just think of the portraits that could be seen in MCs house in the recent BBC documentary by Louis Theroux …


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