A Bath on a West African Verandah

Article excerpt

OFTEN the young develop prejudices about various groups of people which may persist into middle age and beyond. These prejudices may be sometimes produced by the circumstances of one's upbringing or by youthful idealism. For example, I was for many years quite illogically prejudiced against priests, as well as against other people engaged full-time in religious activity. I was particularly prejudiced against missionaries and it was not until I went to Nigeria in 1949 as an education officer that my uninformed opinions were radically reversed. Although my own religious beliefs have largely come to rest in the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, during the twelve years that I spent in West and East Africa I developed considerable respect for both the Protestant and the Catholic missionaries. They usually stayed in Africa for many years before returning home and they often lived very simple and rather hard lives. Moreover in general they appeared to be a distinctly human and likeable breed. They also tended to be dedicated realists, without too many sentimental illusions about what they were achieving. And sometimes they made a very real contribution in improving the lives of the people among whom they laboured.

A particularly good example of this breed was a lady whom we will call Florence Harding. She was the principal of the Anglican College for Girls in the province to which I was posted for my first tour of duty in Nigeria. My wife and I met her soon after our arrival at a dinner party given by the Resident. She was in her late forties and pleasantly good-looking in a rather Nordic way. Besides being well read, she was able to speak the local language fairly fluently. She was also a bright, lively woman with an infectious sense of humour. We soon became good friends and although my wife and I had to move to Ibadan about three years later, she always stayed with us whenever she was passing through on her way to Lagos. On such occasions Florence was invariably pleasant company, but she was particularly so when feeling completely relaxed and enjoying a postprandial drink in the cool of the evening. Often as we lounged on the verandah, with the inevitable drums beating in the distance, she would cast a far from religious eye on recent happenings, providing hilarious insights into the places and people around us. She also had a remarkable gift for narrative and whenever we had a few friends to dinner she could usually be relied upon to enliven the proceedings with a vivid and humorous story.

One of these stories I can remember to this day. It was about a young Church of England missionary, who had been a colleague at the college where Florence had once taught English. It recalled a rather unexpected sequence of events that happened a few days after the young missionary had arrived fresh from England to take up her first teaching appointment. It involved a simple misunderstanding caused partly by the carelessness of a certain educational secretary and partly by the fact that in those days the telegraph system was not always reliable. However, this misunderstanding undoubtedly provided her with a somewhat alarming and a decidedly surprising introduction to life in West Africa.

The story began with a bright crisp dawn in the little Nigerian town of Ogunba. The sad face of George the Sixth still appeared on gawdy colonial stamps and a yam still cost only a penny. When Celia Bewlay, as we will call her, drove out of the compound of the Anglican Mission, with the sun coming up behind the thickly-wooded hills ahead of her, she felt that she had never before been so truly happy and contented. Reaching the road outside the main gate, she looked round and saw that the Reverend Michael Lipton, his wife Pamela, and their two children were still on the verandah, waving her good-bye. She waved back and sighed, knowing that this was a moment which would remain always in her memory.

Celia Bewlay was in her late twenties. …