Searching for references to the arts in colonial memoires: Noel Rowling (1982) Nigerian Memories.

The memoires of colonial officers in Nigeria and their wives are weird reads. How to best describe why? Well, I guess this sentence almost at the very end of Noel Rowling’s (1982: 77) Nigerian memories summarises it:

‘People to whom colonialism is a dirty word never seem to understand that it was only because we believed in what we were doing that we were able to cope with miseries like that.’

It is hard to accept that they thought they did what was right – but then, I am German and thinking of the generation of my grandparents, the atrocities committed by Germans in WW2, who am I to judge? It is hard to read past the colloquial racism and the prejudices. Sometimes it is so bad it gets almost satirical. I don’t mean to pick on Mrs. Rowling in particular but she has a gift for expressing her sense of the superiority of English civilisation and, sometimes, self-importance in phrases that make me simultaneously squeal and laugh out loud. This is one of my favourites (p. 28-29):

I found the Bible a book I could translate into Hausa, as life in Africa 1935 was very similar to life in Palestine when Jesus was alive.

Surely, this comparison would have British colonial officers and their wives as members of the Roman occupying forces, no? But, you probably cannot expect anybody in the eve of their life to completely pick it apart and question the very foundations upon which it was built. Or can you? It nevertheless makes those memoires rather uncomfortable reads. But those memoires nevertheless, provide one or the other gem that goes via my research. An expression of admiration for the architecture of Kano here, a casual remark about Nigerian reckless drivers and their reliance on appeals to divine protection written across the backside of their lorries there. So, let me share some of them:

Architecture and wall decoration in Kano:

p.11

Kano City was a very old city, surrounded by a mud wall with carved entrance gates at the four points of the compass. Nearly all houses were built with sun-baked mud bricks and often colour washed. Those belonging to rich merchants and members of the royal house were usually big square buildings with ornamented walls and doors, and with flat roofs where the ladies of the harem would take the air in the evening.

p. 48

A new mosque was built while we were there, in the traditional style, and was beautifully ornamented. The colours, of all shades of brown and gold were very restful and the palm trees, mango trees, and citrus, grown haphazardly everywhere, gave plenty of shade.

[Does anybody know which mosque she maybe referring to? Is it the central mosque which was eventually replaced by the current building in the 1950s?]

Lorry Decoration

p. 44

... and so unsafe vehicles and dangerous cars were left speeding on the roads, a menace to passengers, other cars and pedestrians, with only a notice in large letters attached to the back of the vehicle saying ‘God help us’ to ensure, as they thought, that they would avoid disaster.

p. 54

African drivers are an amazing brotherhood. They nearly all drive too fast and never worry about the state of the roads. It is a common sight in the south to see a mammy wagon with the sign ‘God Help Us’ or,’ May the Lord keep us safe’ printed on the back of a lorry containing passengers.

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