Catholic Churches and Priests In Nigeria and other West African Countries and especially Fr. Liam O’Conner

My introduction to Catholic priests and churches in Nigeria and Africa began with meeting Donna in Ottawa during the CUSO orientation that we had before flying to Nigeria. Donna had just completed her two year CUSO journey in Keffi and was in Ottawa for a few days when we newbies were “in training”. I was being posted close to Keffi and Donna wrote several letters for me to take to some people that she had known in Keffi partly as an introduction for me. One letter was to Fr. Michael McPartland who was at a small village just north of Keffi called Gitata.

When I arrived in Keffi , searching for a place to stay as my school was not ready to receive me at that point, I scouted out the local Catholic Church and rectory. As it turned out, Fr. Michael happened to be visiting just at the time I dropped by. I gave him the letter from Donna and Fr. Sandy of Keffi went out to find someone with whom I could stay for a few days while my school accommodation was sorted out. I didn’t spend much time with Fr. Michael but enough that we had some good conversation together. I got to know Fr. Sandy and Fr. Gregory better in later visits.

I got a letter from my mother about six or seven months after I had arrived in Nigeria telling me that a visiting priest had come to their parish and it was announced that this priest was currently stationed in Nigeria. Mom went up to him after mass and told him that I was also in Nigeria. It turned out that it was the very same Fr. Michael McPartland that I had met only once and he told my mother that yes, he knew who I was. Mom was thrilled with the connection.

When I met Stella in Ottawa and we become friends there, I was embarking on a friendship that had a shared religious heritage. I had had no friends prior to this point in my life with which I had that similarity and could use it as a bond in a friendship. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that we found a bond with each other. Though we never discussed it at length, we had an implicit understanding of our mutual heritage. In the two major trips that we took together there was an unspoken familiarity between us that stemmed from this heritage.

When I finally arrived in Nasarawa, I was introduced to Fr. Liam O’Conner by Dave and Bonnie Thompson who were from Edmonton Alberta.

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Fr. Liam with Noreen and a friend

They were in their second year at the Gov’t Teacher’s College in Nasarawa, north from me on the other side of town. Dave, Bonnie and their two young daughters Kara and Sonya became good friends of mine during my first year. Fr. Liam was often at their place and was a favourite visitor of the two girls. Though the Thompsons didn’t attend the Catholic Church, there was a good friendship between the priest and this family.

Liam was a diocesan priest and had asked his bishop if he could spend some time at a mission in the developing world. This was how he wound up in Nasarawa for almost four years. He had some months somewhere else in Northern Nigeria (I don’t remember where) learning Hausa and how to cope with the life and the congregation he would be leading.

Liam was a short and very wiry fellow. He kept his hair trimmed close to the back and sides of his head with a bit of a tuft on the top. He had thick bushy eyebrows and an unruly beard. I arrived at the Thompson’s one day to see Sonya, the younger girl, sitting on Liam’s lap and putting a thin braid into the font of his beard. She seemed to be having fun and Liam seemed to be enjoying the touch of a warm human hand, and especially a child’s, of which he probably didn’t get much. He wore a t-shirt and shorts and sandals as his normal non-priestly garb but he had a crucifix on a cord around his neck much of the time. His eyes were bright and intelligent and he had a sum total of six teeth still mounted in his jaws which was a testament to the proverbial poor British dental care.

I was introduced to “Granny’s Chop House” in Nasarawa town by the Thompsons. Fr. Liam came with us upon occasion and it was at one of these times that Sonya made the remark about Liam’s lack of teeth. “Chop” was pounded yam with either egusi  (melon seed) soup or okra soup. Usually a small bit of beef or two was included with the soup. Liam had difficulty chewing the tough beef and declined it or gave his piece to one of the kids. Both Sonya and her older sister Kara seemed to delight in bugging Liam about his molar deficiency.

I determined from Liam where his church and rectory were located in Nasarawa and began attending Sunday Mass there within the first few weeks of my residency in Nasarawa. The church was up through the town and located at the southeastern edge of it. I had to walk from my school, through the town and over to the church a distance of perhaps 2 kms. When I got my motorbike it was an easy jaunt on a Sunday morning.

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Catholic Church in Nasarawa pre 1983

The church was a circular structure that had a roughly poured concrete floor that was perhaps 15 meters in diameter. There was a low concrete wall around the perimeter with a couple of breaks in it that served as access to the interior. Several large wooden poles were placed around the circumference that held a roof pole structure up that was then thatched with grass. During the rainy season this was fairly waterproof but not entirely. During the dry and hot season the roof provided much appreciated shade. The walls were open above the low concrete edge wall and the roof so any breeze blowing by would keep the congregation relatively cool.

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Catholic Church being used for a meeting

Mass was conducted in Hausa and English. Fr. Liam could speak some Hausa but was not very confident in his ability. He understood Hausa much better. He read parts of the mass in Hausa and other parts in English. His homilies were delivered in English with his Catechist translating into Hausa one or two sentences or ideas at a time. Fr. Liam had a habit of listening to the translation and then nodding when the Catechist was finished as if to tell us, “Yes, that is what I said in English.” I asked him specifically about the translating and he told me that his Catechist did a good job of translating so I can only assume that Fr. Liam’s understanding of spoken Hausa was good.

Liam was pleased that I came to mass as he told me the congregation liked it when a Baturi (foreigner or white person) came. It gave them confidence that they were not just a small Catholic congregation in a predominantly Muslim area.

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Fr. Liam conducting a Men’s Meeting – with refreshments!

There were other Christian churches in the area but the Catholic congregation was definitely the largest. The secretary of my school, John, was also Catholic and came to church regularly. He also attended daily mass as often as he could. I was at weekday mass a few times during my years in Nasarawa and John was there as well. John was a tall and very handsome young man. He always had a wonderful smile on his face. We never were more than fellow staff members as I had little to do with school administration but we appreciated each other’s presence.

Fr. Liam’s rectory was a small house close to the church. Though electric power existed in the town and at the two schools, NEPA had not made it out to the corner of town at which the church was located. Liam made do with kerosene for cooking and light for the first two years that he was there.

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The back of Fr. Liam’s rectory with his Peugeot pickup truck

I visited him at his house a few times; the first couple of occasions were in the later afternoon when I was finished classes. He seemed invariably to be taking a good siesta when I arrived so I had to time my subsequent visits at other hours of the day.

 

Fr. Liam had a problem with snakes in his house. I don’t know what it was about where he lived but on many occasions a large cobra would enter his house and he would have a walking stick handy to smash it on the head. I don’t know how many he killed but he was quite used to it and I heard about “another cobra” quite regularly.

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The front of Fr. Liam’s rectory

I can only surmise that since one of the two rivers flowing through Nasarawa was close to his rectory that was why there were so many snakes. They would be looking for prey that was going to and coming from the river.

The close friendship that the Thompsons had with Fr. Liam was extended to the other Canadian family at the Teacher’s college. Dale and Dominique Hardy and their two small boys, David and Justin, were also part of celebrations that included Liam, and when I arrived in Nasarawa, myself as well. Dave had a small multi-passenger van that he used for errands around the town and some holiday excursions with his family. He and Dale used it to drive to Jos to deal with Ministry of Education bureaucratic nonsense as well. One Saturday afternoon ten of us piled into Dave’s van and drove a distance away from Nasarawa to the foot of two small hills east of the town. The Thompsons called them “The Bra Hills” as they sort of resembled a brassiere lying cups up. We went for a hike to the top of one of these hills just as anyone in Canada might do for a family outing. I was still new in the country and was VERY wary of the presence of poisonous snakes. The rest of the crew were already old timers as they had already survived a year of Nigeria. Liam and Dave and Dale had long and stout walking and snake sticks in their hands but seemed confident that they would be able to deal with any potential serpents. I was used to hiking in rattlesnake country in the Southern Okanagan Valley in BC but at least the species that I was used to would generally give out a warning rattle as you approached then. The cobras and mambas and vipers that were indigenous to this area gave you no such warning. The hike was a pleasant and uneventful walk to the top of the hill. A jumble of large rocks with cavities beneath them at the top again gave me pause to be wary of potential snakes but we saw none.

Both the Thompsons and the Hardys left Nasarawa in May 1982 before the end of the school year. They wanted to get back to Canada in time to apply for teaching positions for September of that year. Liam invited the whole crew to his house for a bonfire celebration as a send-off for the two families.

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Sitting outside Fr. Liam’s house enjoying cold refreshments

We enjoyed beer and groundnuts (peanuts) and song. The children had “minerals” (soft drinks) which was Coca Cola, Sprite or Fanta as formulated and bottled in Nigeria. As the evening progressed and it was about time to conclude our final time as a small Baturi community, Liam suggested that we link arms around the fire and dance while singing Auld Lang Syne. It was a rather moving experience.

During Fr. Liam’s third year in Nasarawa he finally got electric power. Besides having electric light in his house, the first thing that he did was purchase a refrigerator. Liam didn’t eat much. He mostly survived on beer and cigarettes and there was not much food in his new fridge. However, the upper half was a freezer and Liam loaded it with a couple dozen bottles of beer. He kept the temperature at just the right point so that the alcohol in the beer would prevent it from freezing. Visiting Liam and receiving a beer from him was actually a treat in Physics. He would hand you a bottle of beer, a glass, and a bottle opener, and you would proceed to open and pour your own beer. As you opened the beer and reduced the internal pressure of the liquid, ice crystals would begin to form in it. As you attempted to pour out the beer, further crystals would form at the neck and mouth of the bottle as any flaw in the glass would be a nucleation point. Generally the bottle neck would clog with newly formed ice crystals and you would need to wait a bit for them to melt in the ambient heat of the surrounding air before you could actually get any beer in your glass. This made for a very cold and refreshing drink of beer. Liam was ecstatic at finally having electric power and especially a fridge for his beer.

Liam was not alone in his life style of beer and cigarettes. Most the Catholic priests that I had occasion to share conversation and fellowship with were of the same cloth. All of the ones that I knew were also from the United Kingdom. Two of the ones that I knew in Keffi smoked and drank beer as Liam did. One didn’t smoke but did drink beer with the same gusto. Stella also had a Fr. Sandy close to her post that she became friends with. I met this Fr. Sandy one evening myself and a bottle of beer and a cloud of cigarette smoke were his companions as well.  I had a pleasant gab with this Fr. Sandy while sitting outside a bush bar near Stella’s home. I don’t remember much of our conversation but he did give me an anecdote. He had met a young lady from Canada a year or so prior to our gab. She had been introduced to him and was very friendly, holding out her hand for a handshake with an introduction of, “Hi, I’m Randy!” Fr. Sandy was taken aback as in the UK ‘randy’ meant the same as horny in Canada. I knew that but I let him complete his anecdote and have his chuckle.

There were many brands of cigarettes available in Nigeria. Marlboro plus Benson and Hedges and also Craven A are three that I remember. There were also specifically Nigerian brands. The one that I specifically remember is Mars.

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Fr. Liam and friends. His ever present Mars cigarettes on the table in front of him

Liam smoked these. They were HORRIBLE and STANK. But they were CHEAP. I think that is why he smoked that particular brand.

Liam told me many stories of his various experiences in Nigeria. Soon after he arrived he applied for a Driver’s licence. I went through the same process so I know what he experienced. During the “test” you were asked to identify many road signs that were roughly painted on a large board. Most Nigerian drivers of any stripe simply ignored the signs when they were driving but this was part of the process. Liam told him that he identified everything and answered all the oral questions and when that was finished the examiner drew a large black circle through the entire page on which he had been making note. “What the hell?” thought Liam, “What does he need now?” The examiner began writing up a driver’s licence and said to Liam, “You can drive anything you want to Father!”

Being from the UK, Liam was also used to driving on the left. He told me that switching to a left-hand drive vehicle and then driving on the right was not difficult for him. However, he was once in a bank for a lengthy time and probably came out a bit confused. He went to the right side of his pickup truck and got it and looked at the dash board. “Someone’s nicked me steering wheel!” he exclaimed to himself and then realized his error. He was chuckling about this mightily when he told me.

When I was told that Noreen McCaffrey was going to be posted at the Teacher’s College up the road from me I was also asked if I could write her a letter to welcome and introduce her to the town. I had had some personal introduction from Donna in Ottawa when she gave me letters to take to Keffi so I felt some obligation to provide the same to Noreen the NEW newbie. With the Irish surname of McCaffrey, she likely was Catholic and I assumed that to be the case. In writing to her I explained the presence of several non-Nigerians in the area including Fr. Liam.

I was part of the orientation crew when Noreen’s cohort arrived in Kano in August 1982 and we were introduced to each other. We had a few beer and conversations together. We agreed to attend mass together on the Sunday of this orientation week in Kano but neither of us got up in time that morning. Our first mass together, however, was in Keffi. Fr. Liam was away for some time when Noreen first arrived in Nasarawa. I don’t remember exactly where he was but he may have been home visiting family in England. He had already been in Nigeria for two years at this point so I am pretty sure that is where he was at this time. I introduced Noreen to the Keffi priests and we went to mass there a few times in late August, early September. The first time we went, she had not yet purchased her motorcycle and we rode double on my machine up the 40 kms to Keffi. The church and congregation in Keffi were both much larger than in Nasarawa so our attendance was not as novel as other Baturi had occasionally been parishioners there.

One of Liam’s brothers was also a Catholic priest back in England. When their mother died his father entered the seminary and also became a priest. When the three of them met together they would greet each other with: “Hello father, father. Hello to you father and father….” a humorous start to a small family gathering.

When Liam arrived back in Nasarawa I introduced Noreen to him. He explained that he was English, sixth generation as a matter of fact, named: Liam O’Conner.

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At  Noreen’s place with Fr. Liam, myself and others

Noreen laughed heartily at this and said, “Liam! You’re as Irish as the day is long!” using a very Irish phrase. I learned other Irish idioms from her, that being one of the first. Liam did not dispute this fact very much as he could not escape his name. He most decidedly DID NOT have an Irish accent, however.

Liam became a bit of a fixture at Noreen’s place. Since they both smoked, they often sat in her living room area and shared a time of cigarettes. I endured it but wasn’t crazy about sitting there with them. A couple of beer would make it tolerable.

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At  Noreen’s place with Fr. Liam, myself and others

I collected cashew seeds in their husks from the trees around my house and a few handfuls of these wound up at Noreen’s place. Liam would take a cigarette lighter and burn off the husk of a cashew seed removing the caustic urushiol oil and making the inner nut edible in the process. On more than one occasion while he and Noreen sat in conversation wreathed in cigarette smoke, I repaired to her kitchen and dining room and mixed up a batch of donuts to be subsequently deep fried and then drenched in sugar. It got me out of the smoke for a bit and also allowed the two of them to have a conversation without me in it. The donuts were appreciated.

Noreen and I attended mass in the tumble down thatched roofed church a couple of times but the fury of the storms of the current rainy season meant that the building needed re-thatching and Liam was not going to spend money on that.

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The old church with “The Bra” hills in background

He had inherited the foundation of a new and much larger church right next to the old structure and had been busy building it in the prior year. It was not quite useable at this point but he did get it roofed within a couple of months of the end of 1982. I don’t remember when we first had mass there but it may have been sometime in October. Thereafter mass was in the new structure. It was constructed from concrete cinder blocks and had only a couple of windows. The front wall and the wall behind the altar were where the wall blocks had been turned on their sides so that their hollow centers provided some light and air flow from the outside to the inside of the church. The inside of these blocks were eventually painted various primary colours so that light shining through them gave an almost stained glass feel to the ambiance. Very much a Poor Man’s version of stained glass but it sufficed.

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The back of the new church with Nandean (Ruth) one of Noreen’s students

Fr. Liam also gave an early morning mass at the Gov’t Teacher’s College where Noreen was posted. I didn’t know this during my first year. A classroom was used and a dozen or so students would attend mass at 7 AM. I remember going there once and Noreen went on several occasions as we didn’t always attend mass together.

When Stella and I met up for our second motorcycle sojourn we stayed in Vande Ikya in Benue state for a couple of nights (see my account of this journey). We were there on Easter Sunday and Elva, whom we were visiting, arranged a multi-passenger van for all who would like to attend Easter mass that day. About 8 of us did. Elva knew the parish priest of the church we went to though she was not Catholic herself. In fact, just Stella and I and one other lady were Catholic of the crew we were with. This mass was given in the Tiv language. Though I didn’t meet this priest, he was also from the UK and had been at this church for a few years already.

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Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Douala, Cameroon

A week later, Stella and I were in Douala in Cameroon and attended mass in a large church, Saint’s Peter and Paul, in that city. This time the mass was conducted in French and a large portly Gallic priest presided.

Noreen and I did a major motorcycle trip together through Nigeria up to Niger down through Benin over to Togo and then back to Nigeria (see my account of this journey). While in Cotonou in Benin for a couple of days we entered a very large and airy church. I was getting used to Noreen’s habit of crossing herself as we passed a church, this seemed to be an Irish thing to me as I was not aware of this custom before, but this time she wanted to actually enter. It was a hot and humid day like many days on the coast of West Africa. Within the church, however, there was relative coolness.

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Notre Dame Cathedral in Cotonou, Benin

We seated ourselves in the main nave. There were few other people in the church at the time. To the left of the altar in a side section of pews were a few Béninoise ladies who were engaged in praying the rosary.

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Church in Aneho, Togo

I don’t remember if they were reciting in French but this was most likely as we were in French West Africa.

A few days later we were in Togo and it was Christmas Day. We attended Christmas mass in Aného and were greeting by shyly smiling kids whom we had met the prior day at the beach, another funny anecdote in my travelogue. This mass was given in Ewe. Having attended mass in Nigeria in Hausa and Tiv, and during the prior August while in Kenya, in Swahili, this was mass for me in a fourth African language. I count these four languages as part of over a dozen different languages in which I have attended Catholic mass.

When the new church in Nasarawa became useable the number of congregants increased substantially. There were always dozens of young children and both secondary schools were boarding schools so students of Catholic faith from other communities helped to swell the ranks. There were some large celebrations in the new church. One particular young fellow took upon himself the role of child minder.

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New Church with the “Child Minder”

He wielded a thin wooden rod that he used to tap and admonish youngsters if he thought that they were not engaging closely enough with the mass. No one but the young kids seemed to be upset with his self-appointed role. I suppose someone had to do it but mostly the children were very well behaved. Perhaps he just needed to have a role in the celebration and saw this one as unfilled and, in his mind, necessary.

Easter 1983. We had got Noreen a plane ticket home to attend the sudden wedding of her younger sister. I had seen her off at the Kano airport and had got back to Nasarawa to attend Easter service before I headed out on a solo motorcycle journey. Fr. Liam had decided on an Easter Vigil mass that included a large bonfire outside the church from which he would light his Pascal candle. The congregants, including myself and John, the school secretary, stood around the blazing bonfire while Liam said several Catholic incantations.

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Harvest Celebration

A wind was picking up and flames and sparks were jumping up from the fire. It was a much larger fire than we really needed and it was being whipped into a frenzied furnace by the incipient wind. As Liam completed the introductory prayers to the Easter Vigil mass, the wind really got up its strength. Liam attempted to light his large Pascal candle from the fire but by this time it had become too hot to be very close to it. The end of his candle melted away in the heat without igniting the wick. He tried several times before a flame finally remained dancing on his candle. Thin tapers had been handed around to the waiting congregants and one was ignited from Liam’s candle.

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Harvest Celebration after Mass

This flame was then swiftly passed to other tapers as we all tried to light our own in the blustery evening. No sooner was a taper lit then it was blown out by the wind. Low chuckles were flowing through the attendants. As Liam led the procession into the church we stopped often to get our personal tapers relit from someone beside us. I walked beside John and we both shared a single flame for much of the way as we kept getting one blown out.

Finally getting into the church and its calm air, we dispersed ourselves within it and a soft glow lit up our faces. Though Liam had electric power in his rectory, the church itself had not yet been wired for light. A dark and blustery night outside the building was given a decidedly welcoming glow by the myriad tapers that were now shedding light upon us.

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Front of the new church, old church in background

Liam’s reflecting white face was easily seen as I am very sure was mine. However, the dark faces of the African congregants were giving faint sheens that did not do much to define their features. Mostly I saw variously outlined head silhouettes and had to guess to whom they might belong. The lovely harmonies of voices that produced the Pascal hymns were a magnificent adjunct to the soft candlelight that filled the church. Mass this evening was a very glorious affair.

Noreen and I were in Lafia, a town to the east of Nasarawa, one weekend. The road back home was about a 3 to 3.5 hour ride which included a horrendous 65 kms on the Keffi-Akwanga road. This was a bit of hell that we just endured when we needed to travel and it was the only route going in the direction we needed to go. On this occasion we were steered to a more direct route that would take us home in a shorter distance and hopefully in less time. Bad advice and a bad decision but after 5 hours of motorbike dirt riding we arrived at the south edge of Nasarawa and Fr. Liam’s house and decided to stop and say hello. Liam was hosting an ecumenical meeting with the other Christian pastors of Nasarawa and environs when we arrived so we only said hello and then goodbye and promised to get together in a few days. Liam often had such meetings in various places in the town and in other, larger centers as well. Since the area we lived in was populated at least 60% by people of Islamic faith, the Christian ministers had to negotiate with the Imams of the area as well. I am sure that they saw the Christians as encroaching on and pilfering the local population so there was some friction between Muslim and Christian clerics.

One evening Liam came to my house and just opened the door and walked in. I don’t think that he knocked first and I sure didn’t open the door myself. Liam greeted me with “Hey, Rick, ya fucken’ Canadian! Bring me a beer!” Ok. Not exactly his usual greeting so I knew that something unusual was happening. Liam was also not a regular visitor at my house. I was at his place more than he was at mine. I got him a cold beer.

Uncapping the beer he took a long swig and then blurted out, “Those Muslims! They are EVIL people, they’re EVIL!” Ok, Liam, calm down. I don’t remember the conversation specifics other than the local Imam and perhaps even the Emir had flatly denied the Christian ministers some request. I am sure that they all thought that it was a perfectly reasonable request but the Islamic authority of the town didn’t. After a couple of beer and some venting conversation Liam’s blood pressure retreated to a more normal level and he left for home. I never heard any more about what had so upset him.

Noreen and I went with Liam to one of his outlying missions one Sunday.

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Ara Village near Nasarawa. One of Fr. Liam’s outlying missions was located here.

He and his Catechist rode in the cab of his Peugeot pickup and Noreen and I rode in the box. This was very Nigerian but also very rural Canadian so this was not my first experience in riding bareback pickup. The small village of Ara was to the west of Nasarawa. Down the paved highway a few kilometers and then off on a very rutted and bumpy bush dirt road. Ara was a small village with a straight and wide main street that was lined with shops and houses. It was also a very rutted street. The overwhelming feature of the town, however, was a large inselberg that towered over the southwest edge of the town. Ara Rock it was called. A large sugarloaf shaped monolith of basalt, I think.

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Ara “Kalik Chuch” with Ara rock in background

The church was a small building abutting the edge of an agricultural field. It was concrete floored and walled and corrugated zinc roofed. It proclaimed itself with a name scratched into the blue paint over the door: “Kalik Chuch”! The interior held a small altar and the pews were of an unusual construction. They were arranged in a bit of an arc along the length of the interior with the altar near one of the longer sides of the rectangular room. The pews were concrete and plaster risers that came out of the undulating concrete floor.

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Fr. Liam with parishioner children

They rose about 40 cms above the floor and were about 10 cms wide and rounded over on top. Not exactly comfortable to sit on and being cemented to the floor were not moveable. Mass was a sparsely attended affair but it was mass anyway. After mass we took a few photographs of the church and the environs and then drove back to Nasarawa.

 

Noreen went with Liam to at least one other mission parish after I left for Canada.

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Fr. Liam, Noreen and Catechist

One time it was south of Nasarawa all the way to Loko at the Benue river. I have a few photos of her journey with Liam to this town. I never was there myself. One story about going to Loko that Liam told me was when he and his Catechist were driving to Loko early one morning. I had made a couple of motorbike trips partway down this road so I knew what the initial landscape was like. Liam said that as he drove up and over a low rise in the road there to one side stood a wonderful antelope in full side view. He stopped and took in the wildlife spectacle. Much of the wild game that used to exist in Nigeria has since disappeared so this was not a regular occurrence. Liam remarked out loud that he didn’t have his camera and this was a disappointment. His Catechist replied back, “And I don’t have my fucking gun!”

Liam recounted to me a story about baptizing a local village chief’s son. This was at another mission that he had established. After the baptism ceremony he was sitting with the chief and a few other people enjoying a beer. The chief whistled for a dog to come to him which it dutifully did. Taking a sharp knife the chief slit the poor animal’s throat and bled it in front of Liam. When it was dead he handed it to one of his older sons saying, “Here. Cook this for the Father.” Liam was aghast when he told me this. “So, what did you do?” I asked him. “I HAD to eat some of it!” he declared. The things that a priest has to do to maintain good relationships!

Fr. Liam had to rely on his congregation and their mass offering for much of the financial needs of the church.

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Fr. Liam conducting baptisms

He had a Peugeot pickup for his personal transport. I don’t know how he acquired that. Noreen and I were at his rectory one day picking up some mail that he had managed to receive in Keffi. A letter addressed to Noreen from her mother was given to him and he was passing it on to her. I opened it. Out fell a Canadian $100 note. Prime Minister Borden stared out at us in Africa. “Yauwa!” I exclaimed. The included letter from her mother, May, said that this was to be given to Liam for church purposes. The end of the school year was in sight and Noreen and I were planning another out-of-country trip. We were in dire need of finances other than Nigerian Naira (₦). I offered to exchange the $100 for ₦100 and Liam accepted on the spot. The Canadian cash wasn’t much good to him as he would have to either cash it in a bank with subsequent explaining as to where he got it from or attempt to exchange it on the money black market somewhere. He didn’t want to do either of those things. Though he might have received more than ₦100 on the black market he was satisfied with what I gave him.

When I left Nigeria I had not yet received my last month’s salary. I wrote a check to Noreen so that she could withdraw the ₦300 when she got back to Nasarawa after our trip and I had gone back to Canada. I told her to keep half and give the rest to Liam. Most of my Sunday offerings were 1 or 2 Naira and occasionally ₦5 so giving this bit of extra cash to him was a bit of reparation for me for not giving more during my time in Nasarawa. Most of the weekly cash that he received was in the form of 5 or 10 kobo coins though there were a few richer congregants and Liam told me he could count on a couple of ₦10 notes and maybe a ₦20 note each Sunday. When I got home and told a few stories about my time in Nigeria my mother decided that she wanted to send Liam some money. I think mom mailed Liam a $100 note.

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Me leaving Nasarawa celebration in a local bar. Fr. Liam was in attendance.

When I was leaving Nasarawa I asked Liam to pick me up and take me to Noreen’s place the day before I left. My motorcycle was already at Noreen’s and there was some household materiel that I wanted to pass on to her as well so his pickup truck was nice to have for this purpose. Noreen and I had become close over the prior year and we were planning on another holiday together before I continued on home to Canada so we were consolidating our plans. We didn’t survive a subsequent reunion in Canada. Liam stayed for supper this evening. The evening was winding down but before Liam got up to leave I told him bluntly that Noreen and I had grown in our love for one another and though I was going home to Canada and she was staying in Nigeria, I asked him to bless our love for each other. I saw Noreen’s eyes filling with tears. He stared at me and then said. “I’m a fool! I’m such a fool!” Apparently he hadn’t picked up on what our relationship had progressed to though several other people (women) who didn’t live in Nasarawa had. I guess it was a male thing. Anyway he declared that Yes! Yes he would bless our relationship and gave an impromptu prayer and blessing to us before he headed out the door. That was the last time I saw Liam.

I lost touch with Fr. Liam O’Conner. I do know that he returned to England and his family after spending four years in Nigeria, most of it in Nasarawa. With the advent of the commercial internet I tried searching for him several times. His name never came up in my searches. No cyber presence for Fr. Liam. I emailed a few dioceses in England asking if someone could do some searching for me but I received no answer to any of my enquiries. In August 2014 I again GOOGLE’d his name and this time I found him. I found his obituary. Liam had died after a short illness a week or so before my latest search for him. This was the only reference I found until I actually had a parish to look for. Within the context of his parish I found his name a few times but nothing more.

Fr. Liam was in his early to mid-seventies when he died. He was a non-descript forty something when I knew him. I wrote his parish and they gave me the email address of one of his brothers. I sent his brother a bit of my remembrances of Liam and a few digital pics of him and our time together in Nasarawa. I emailed Noreen (I had reconnected with her about 5 years prior to this) and told her about Liam. She thanked me for the information and told me she had often wondered about Liam over the years but also had lost touch with him. Separately we honoured his memory.

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Fr. Liam O’Conner with various friends celebrating Christmas 1983
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Motorcycle Trip – Christmas break 1981

A Motorcycle Trip Through Nigeria, December 1981 – January 1982

Christmas break of the first year in Nigeria I travelled with my friend Stella-Marie S. through the central part of Nigeria. I was on the road for 22 days and covered approximately 5000 kilometres. We CUSO types tended to travel when we could and many of us made good use of the time exploring Nigeria and its neighbouring countries.

Rick in front of his house on his motorbike
Rick in front of his house on his motorbike

Preparing for the trip

I had a route in mind for this trip with Stella which included Bauchi State Yankari Game Reserve, visiting with CUSOs in Benue State, my place in Plateau State, Niger State Gurara Falls and then to  Kano State and the CUSO Christmas conference at Lake Bagauda. After that I thought Stella and I could find our separate ways back to our postings.

In addition to camping at Yankari Game Reserve, I planned on camping beside the road for some of the trip. Besides my tent, I would need to bring some cooking facilities. We would sleep on the ground without padding and would need only a sheet for cover as the temperature would continue to be very warm. I was not too sure about the availability of fuel in all areas of Nigeria so the main thing was to bring extra cans of petrol. I had two empty one gallon (US) tins that would be used as extra fuel cans. To carry them I built two plywood panniers that would hold one of these tins on its side in a bottom pocket. The panniers were designed as a simple plywood backing of which the top would be just above the rear seat height and would end just above the muffler. At the bottom was the pocket into which a fuel tin would lie on its narrow side with the cap on the top end oriented to be at the top side of the tin. Above each tin was a bag that would hold camping gear. I had a khaki canvas kit bag (military surplus left in my house) that closed with two straps and I mounted this on one of the panniers. I designed another bag out of upholstery fabric for the other pannier. This bag closed with a drawstring. I drilled two holes at the top ends of the panniers to receive the ends of two iron bars that I placed under the front and back edges of the rear seat. The panniers hung down from these bars and just cleared the mufflers of the motorbike on both sides. Using two bungee cords, I secured panniers to each other around the rear mud guard of the bike.

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GSS Nasarawa classroom blocks

The panniers just hung from the iron rods and with a good bump could flip upwards. I was hoping the bungee cords would hold them from bumping up too far and coming off the rods as there was just a slight upward hook at the ends of the rods that held the pannier in place. I also felt that the weight of fuel in the tins would help to keep the panniers in place. Strapped to the rear seat were the tent and a small backpack that held some clothes and other essentials. The backpack on the rear seat would provide me with a nice back rest. Not too much food could be incorporated into the pack but I thought that would not be of much trouble as we could stop and buy food as needed each day or just stop at a chop house for a meal.

I took few extra clothes thinking that I could wash them out as needed. I packed a few extra pairs of socks and underwear, a few extra t-shirts, swim trunks and a small towel. I packed one button up shirt but didn’t think I would have much use for it. I wore my corduroy jacket, jeans and hiking boots. I had a pair of flip-flops as well. I packed some first aid gear in a couple of empty lozenge tins. Lomotil was indispensable as a bowel-blocker. Some chlorine tablets to disinfect water and my anti-malarial tablets. A few bandage strips, some anti-bacterial ointment and aspirin. Basically, don’t get hurt or sick. I made sure that I had matches for campfires. Nigerian matches were not the best and often did not burn the shaft after the sulphur head burned through. I also brought my meager supply of tools so that I could adjust things on the motorbike as needed. A multi-head screwdriver, a small crescent wrench and pliers were the main items.
The bike came with a sparkplug wrench and a multi-head wrench and a small flathead screwdriver so these rounded out my tool set. I wanted two other items; a small hatchet to chop firewood and a stout chain to lock the bike to a stationary item if I had to leave it for any length of time. I had a combination padlock for this purpose. I purchased two spare spark plugs and I also carried tube patches but no air pump so in the event of a flat I would not be able to fully repair a tire.

I felt that I was ready for the trip. I knew that I could get almost 300 kms from my 10 litre fuel tank. With the extra 7.5 litres of fuel I could carry in the extra tins I would have a total range of about 500 kms. I was sure that fuel would be available within that range.

Monday, December 14th – Nasarawa to Jos – 288 kms

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Mada River in Nasarawa

School had been out since the prior Friday and I had completed my pannier and saddlebag creations for mounting on the rear of by bike. I was going up to Bauchi State to visit my friend Stella and then for us to go travelling together for a few days and see the country. We had written letters to each other a couple of times in the prior months and she knew that I would be coming up soon. I packed up the saddlebags and backpack and I left my school. Crossing the Mada River I rode up the highway to the Total petrol station. I filled the bike’s fuel tank and the two extra fuel tins in the bottom of the panniers. At this time fuel at petrol stations was 15 kobo per litre so this entire fill cost me about 2.5 Naira. Pretty cheap fuel costs. Since my salary gave me a per diem of 10 Naira, which was more than adequate for me, I needed to work my daily travel budget around that figure.

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The highway between Nasarawa and Keffi

As I rode out to start the trek to Jos I thought about the upcoming hell of the Keffi-Akwanga road that was before me. I made Keffi in the usual 40 minutes or so. It was a nice paved road with not much traffic. Turning east at Keffi, I dreaded the jouncing jostling hell that I was starting. Not much to say about it but, “DAMN! WHAT A BLOODY PIECE OF CRAP THIS ROAD IS!” I rode that thing many times over my two years in Nigeria and it never got any better. Somewhere between the potholes, ruts and rocks was a roadway but it could be difficult to find at times. It was just something to be endured.

Ninety minutes later I was in Akwanga and through the 70 kms of hell. The paved relief in front of me was a breeze to ride on. The highway wound its way north through lovely scenery and began the climb up onto the Jos plateau. The escarpment looks a bit foreboding from a distance but the road was a leisurely climb with just a few places of tight corners. Once on the plateau the road was flat and pretty straight as it approached Jos from the south. Jos came up within 3 hours and I booked into a Guest House for the night. I visited with Molly M. that evening and spent a relaxing time while psyching myself up for the ride to Futuk, Stella’s posting, the next day. This was a brand new stretch of highway for me as I had not yet travelled this route.

Tuesday, December 15th, Jos to Futuk – 361 kms

I left Jos in the mid-morning. After purchasing a few fresh vegetables at a road side stand, leaving Jos was uneventful. In fact, the entire ride to Futuk was pretty much uneventful. I travelled north and then east of Jos. I had been on this initial section back in August after our week of orientation in Kano. I was now on unexplored highway that was wide and new and the land was a gently rolling plain with few hills and mostly grass for vegetation. My normal speed of 105 kmh kept me cruising comfortably and taxis and other vehicles passed me doing pedal-to-the-metal. Distance stones every two kilometres kept me informed of my progress as I approached the next sizable town. The only major town, Bauchi City, was negotiated in a few minutes and then I was off on the highway again. After Bauchi City, I noted the turn-off to the Yankari Game Reserve and then marked the distance to Gombe City. This would help later on when Stella and I came back this way. I planned this part of our holiday together as I was told Yankari was a nice place to visit. Yankari was one of two game reserves in Nigeria at that time. Very little area had been set aside for preservation of the natural world in this country. What was there was poorly maintained and was deteriorating quickly.

Turning south just before Gombe City I found the road to Pindiga and further on, Futuk. This small town was only about 10 km from the eastern border of the Yankari Game Reserve which we arrived at several days later.

Stella on Road to Futuk
Stella on Maraba Futuk

The dirt trail led off to the west. It was fairly smooth and easy to ride but long. Compared to the K-A, however, it was a breeze. A laterite dirt road that undulated slowly over the dry land had few rough spots and a decently smooth surface. Sure, you kicked up a bit of dust but that blew behind you. If a rain came by the surface would turn to slick mud but in December there was not much chance of that happening. It was no highway but it was definitely way better than the Keffi-Akwanga road.
It was about mid-afternoon and about 65 kms later I arrived at Stella and Marlene C.’s place in Futuk. A big hug from Stella told me our friendship was intact. I was ushered into their home and into the living room.

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Marlene at house at GSS Futuk

Marlene, her posting mate, sat there smoking as was her habit. I didn’t know her very well but we politely greeted one another. Stella was quite particular about her name and a few times Marlene called her “Stel” and Stella countered with “la” (please don’t foreshorten my name was the unsaid admonition).

 

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Marlene and Stella in their house

Conversation went to many things. School and classes and our students, what food was available, what the water situation was. The commonest topic of discussion between CUSO’s was the current state of your bowels. Even after two years some bowel upset would strike and you would be felled for a day or more until it cleared up.

 

The water situation in their posting was sparse. They had a 500 gallon tank in the garage that was topped up every so often by water tanker. They then filled buckets from the tank and brought them to their kitchen or bathroom as needed. No running water, only walking.

Stella and Marlene were cooking on two small kerosene cookers. These had a series of wicks arranged in a circle that dropped into a fuel reservoir and then drew up the kerosene into a cylindrical central burner. As the kerosene heated up on the burning wicks, kerosene vapour would begin to burn in the numerous holes in the side of the cylinder. The cookers got quite hot but the heat could not be controlled too easily. Besides, the odour of the burning kerosene was not pleasant. They also had a propane range and oven and even a 100 pound tank of propane but when they had tried to connect the two there was an immediate gas leak. I took a look at the situation. What was missing was a rubber gasket between the tank hose and the connector on the range. There happened to be a bit of old inner tube lying in their garage. A bit of deft cutting and I had a gasket and a tight seal between the fittings and VOILA! They now had a working propane stove. They were eternally grateful to me, for a day or so.

Stella had noticeably gained weight over the prior three months. Having only meager cooking facilities and very little food diversity in their local market, she had eaten a lot of groundnuts (peanuts) and it was telling in some regards. I knew that they were way out in the bush and had purchased the fresh vegetables in Jos as a bit of a Christmas gift guessing that they had little access to such. Stella and I now went on a hunt for a bit of meat. Neither of them had had the gumption to purchase any fresh meat to this point. The market was winding down for the day but we found a bit of meat. Cow? Sheep? Goat? Bush meat? I have no idea but probably beef. They lived in a very Muslim area and I am quite certain that it had been butchered in accordance to Koranic halal laws.

Getting back to the house I proceeded to prepare a stir fry meal of sliced veggies and sliced meat while Stella got a pot of rice boiling on their newly working propane stove. There were few ingredients for spicing it up but it all tasted very good anyway. The first such meal they had had in these first few months of life at Futuk. After an evening of conversation we hit the hay to rest before the ride into town the next day.

We were first going to Kaduna to get a cholera shot booster. This was to be done every 4 months. Plus we were going to get a multiple re-entry visas so that we could travel outside of Nigeria any number of times within the next year. We were making plans to spend our holiday times together and travel to various countries as we could. Stella had also not attempted to get a motorcycle at this time and so had to get the loan approval from the CUSO field office in Kaduna in conjunction with a specified bank. CUSO Nigeria had arranged to co-sign 1000 Naira loans for anyone that wanted to purchase a vehicle. Most people who took the loan bought motorcycles but some people, especially couples, would buy a used car.

Wednesday, December 16th – Futuk to Kaduna – 624 kms

I rode my Honda 195 back along maraba Futuk (Futuk dirt road) doubling Stella. We went up to Jill and Ibrahim’s house. These were friends of Stella and Marlene’s. Jill was British and Ibrahim was her Nigerian husband. Jill was a former VSO teacher who had decided to marry and stay in Nigeria. We spent a bit of time with Jill and asked if I could leave my motorbike at their place while we went out to Kaduna and back. We left it there and took minimal clothing for our trip. In the tropics you can get away with travelling very light.

Stella and I went to the main lorry park and secured seats in a Peugeot 504 wagon and waited for the car to fill. Public transport ran on no set schedule. When a vehicle was full, it left, and not before. The 504 wagon would seat two passengers beside the driver in the front seat, three passengers in the middle seat and two more in the rear folding seat. We took the two seats in the back wagon area. Stella needed to find a “relief station” and so left for a few minutes. A lorry park worker poked his head in the window and asked me, “Wheah is yoh waff?” I replied, “She is coming, now.” The Nigerian English equivalent of “She will be back soon.” Whenever a fellow and a lady travelled together in Nigeria it was best to assume husband and wife status, especially in very Muslim Northern Nigeria. It gave you legitimacy in their eyes plus reduced the number of “hits” that the woman might otherwise receive from Nigerian men, who seemed to be always on the lookout for single white ladies.

The car eventually filled up and off we went leaving Gombe City to get to Bauchi City and then eventually Jos. Finding another taxi ride in Jos we went on to Kaduna and to the CUSO hostel. This was a long day. We were probably on the road for 8 or 9 hours and were tired and hungry by the time we got to Kaduna.

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Kaduna Hostel with Fulani bed

The hostel was crowded with people by the late evening. Stella and I took a “Fulani bed” which was about a twin bed width, a frame made out of thick poles of bamboo and with a mattress much like a futon only lumpier. The cot sized bunks that were also available were a very tight squeeze for two people so we had a bit of extra room on this bed. Steve and Maureen G. (Rijau, Niger State) were there that evening. Steve asked me if I wouldn’t mind used a cot instead as he thought that I was on the Fulani bed alone. When I explained that Stella and I would be sharing it he resigned himself to a cot with Maureen. They were both very slight people so, though crowded, they were less so than larger people like myself would have been. Also in the hostel were Clarence (Clare) K. and Al S., two second year CUSOs plus other people to fill up all the bunks. Clarence had a Honda 195 and had purchased a Nigerian made recycled metal suitcase that fit the back of the bike. The rear seat of these bikes just unclipped and Clarence had his inside the suitcase with the rest of his gear. The suitcase was bungee corded to the bike frame. “It holds everything I need,” declared Clarence. I filed this information for future reference.

Thursday, December 17th – Kaduna

We found the immigration office in the morning and left our passports to get the multiple re-entry visas. This would allow us to travel outside of Nigeria multiple times during the coming year. It was just as easy to get this as a single re-entry visa so we applied for it. We were asked why we needed one and explained that with our positions as teachers we would be getting several long school breaks and would like to take the opportunity to visit other countries around Nigeria. The official we spoke with seemed satisfied with this. Stella then went to the designated bank to obtain a loan document so that she could purchase a motorbike. Such was not to be had for several days. I believe that the excuse was that the person responsible for such things was, “Not on seat.” In other words, he was out for some unknown reason and would be back at some unspecified time.

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Kaduna Central Market

We spent Friday, December 18th in Kaduna as well, going shopping to the main market and other places. At a hardware store I purchased the hatchet and the length of chain that I wanted. We shopped in Chelerams a “supermarket” and I bought some tinned salami sausage and other things for our trip. A supermarket in Nigeria was usually a small grocery store with 2 or 3 checkout tills. Since most markets had a series of stalls of which each stall would be selling only one sort of good, a supermarket – having a large variety of goods – was, well, SUPER!

Something that I never got over were the checkout girls in these supermarkets. They always had an annoyed look on their faces as if to say, “Why are you bothering me with your purchases? Can’t you see that I really don’t care?” Never a smile, never a friendly word. They often gave a dismissive “tsk” when you came up to them with your items. They always seemed to be extremely bored with what they were doing and just couldn’t wait to get out of there.

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Rick and others visiting Gerry

We visiting with Gerry O., my Field Staff Officer (FSO), and with other CUSOs as were in town for various business items and for a holiday break.

Supper that night was at Nanette’s. This was a basement establishment, which made it cooler without air conditioning, that was liberally lit with black lights and which served “hamburgers”. At least, that is what they were called. The tough beef was ground and formed into patties but after cooking them the meat was still tough. However, a BLT with yam fries was an almost nostalgic fast food meal. The cost was perhaps 5 Naira. Not exactly the cheapest meal we could get but hey, we were on a holiday. Steve, Maureen, Stella and I had taken a city taxi to the restaurant. The cost was 30 – 30 kobo (30 kobo each) to ride downtown to the restaurant. Al and Clarence had ridden down on Clarence’s motorbike. In the first several months in Nigeria I took it to heart about not travelling in the dark and not riding motorbikes in the dark either. Clarence rode Al back to the hostel and Al clowned around by getting on the bike sitting backward. That evening while lying in bed attempting to sleep Al wanted to play a word game that some people know as “ghost”. One person starts with a letter that begins a word that they are thinking of. The next person in line must add a letter such that the word fragment keeps growing but no one knows what word the other players are thinking of. We got down to A, P, E, T, I, T and Al was stuck as to what word Clarence was thinking of at that point. Clarence came up with “ape-tits” which elicited groans from most of us and derisive laughter from Al. We fell asleep with Al saying, “Clarence! Ape-tits! That’s funny!”

Saturday, December 19th – Kaduna to Gombe City – 552 kms

Picking up our passports at the immigration office the immigration officer was annoyed with Stella’s photo as she had a nice smile. “Why do you laugh?” he asked. She attempted to explain that passport photos permitted people to smile but he was insistent that she should not be “laughing” in such a photo. Mine was a very serious “Great White Hunter” visage and so elicited no comment. The officer was also curious about Stella’s last name, Sirois. Which, when pronounced in French is something like “sirwa” but he insisted it was “serious” even though Stella gave the appropriate French a couple of times. Better just let things lie, I thought, let’s not stir up any hard feelings with this guy.

We got into a clinic on this morning to get our cholera shots. Our medical kits had provided syringes for such purposes as you could not be sure that you would not be getting a used needle when you got your necessary shots. We had each brought a couple of needles but they proved to be unnecessary as the clinic had a large supply on hand that were individually sealed. In fact, the practitioner giving us the shots seemed a bit annoyed that we had brought our own needles. It was as if she thought that WE thought Nigeria was a very backward and poor country. I wonder how we would have come to that conclusion?

Off to the lorry park to obtain transport back east to Gombe City. First we had to get to Jos. No Peugeot 504’s were available in this park. Perhaps there was another lorry park but this was the one that I knew. We were ushered into a Mitsubishi van that would take at least 12 passengers. It was mostly full and we were placed on two of the jump seats that folded down from the ends of the main bench seats. I was at the rearmost one and Stella just in front of me. Off we went with about 3 hours travel time to Jos.

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Typical mud brick huts with thatched roofs beside highway

Neither of our seats had a back on them having broken off at some point. These seats were bad enough to sit on when they were fully functional. They were made for short trips only but in Nigeria on these public transports, they served their purpose for the full trip no matter what the distance or the time. Since I was right at the back I could lean against the rear post and tailgate. After an hour Stella was beginning to feel the strain of having to sit upright with no back rest. Her back muscles were starting to cramp up. There was no way that we could switch off so I tried to hold her up as best as I could but this meant that I leaned forward and now had no back support myself. She bent forward and put her elbows on her knees and held herself up for a bit and then back against my arms for a bit but the whole trip was becoming extremely painful for us. About two-thirds the way to Jos we stopped in a small town to drop off a couple of people and pick up some more. As everyone else got out, the driver came back to us and moved us up to the middle row bench seat. I sat against the window and Stella leaned onto me. When the other passengers came back, the woman who had been sitting where we were now sitting complained to the driver. All this was taking place in Hausa and we just followed the driver’s gestures. He told the woman basically to take her turn on the jump seat as we had done our turn already. We were very grateful to the fellow for noticing our discomfort and helping us.

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Beside the highway north of Jos

Jos arrived and we searched in the lorry park for transport further east. It was about mid-afternoon already and I was somewhat concerned that we would not find transport this late in the day. At least, not quickly enough to get us to Gombe before dark. We had been warned several times to not travel at night. However, this time we managed a Peugeot 504 wagon that filled up quickly. Again the driver spoke no English but ushered us into the back two seats. We were grateful for this as these were probably the most comfortable ones. The cholera shot from the morning was now affecting Stella and she needed to sleep. As we pulled out of Jos and sped down the highway she fell asleep against me and we rode comfortably flying Peugeot 504 airways. These cars were also nicknamed “flying coffins” as most drivers drove flat out and traffic accidents were very common. This driver was not as fast as most other ones. He was somewhat older and less inclined to push pedal-to-the-medal. Somewhere before Bauchi City one of the women passengers needed to relieve herself and implored the driver to stop. There was nothing here. This stretch of highway went through mostly flat featureless grassland with few trees or bushes growing. There was one bush. Most of the leaves were gone off from it. The woman went behind this lonely bush and though it really didn’t shield her at all, proceeded to hoist her skirt and squat there. That done, we went on our way.

We finally arrived in Gombe City as darkness was falling. Stella had recovered somewhat from the effect of the cholera shot. We walked to Jill and Ibrahim’s and were greeted and shown into the house. Rob R. (Mitchika, Gongola State) and Martha T. (Uba, Gongola State) were already there. These two lived in towns further east and had come to Gombe for the weekend. Supper and beer were served and we had great conversation. Rob was a rather outspoken fellow from Toronto. A literature/journalism type. But not adventurous enough to purchase a motorbike and he said so. The evening wore on and I was getting fairly inebriated from the pints of beer. Rob and Martha had the main guest bedroom and Stella and I were given the alternate one. This one had frosted glass windows down the corridor wall and two twin beds. We had spent a couple of nights together by now and we decided to curl up together in one bed.

Sunday, December 20th – Gombe City

The next day Jill went with Stella to get her some money with which to purchase a bike. With what Stella had and what Jill lent her, she had enough to buy a Honda 125. This was a one cylinder 4-stroke that was christened the “Concord” by Nigerians. It sufficed as transport and Stella also got a Nigerian driver’s license on the strength of her international license obtained in Canada.

After a longish day we all went out to the local “club” for supper and more beer. We sat outside and garishly coloured bare incandescent bulbs hanging from a few wires lit up the area and provided a bit of “atmosphere”. There were several expats at the club that evening and I met Fr. Sandy here. Stella introduced me to him, another Irish priest. This one smoked and drank as much as my own Fr. Liam did. Maybe Sandy was English. I don’t recall off-hand. He told me a story about meeting a young Canadian girl a few years prior who introduced herself to him by saying, “Hi, I’m Randy!” by which he was taken aback a bit because being “randy” in English is the same as being “horny” in Canada. I knew that but let him tell his tale.

In many Nigerian bars and especially those that had female servers bringing bottles of beer to you, the server would come to your table with the unopened bottle and place it before you. Then they would ask, “Shall I open it?” I always wanted to answer, “No thanks. I’ll suck it through the cap!” Of course, open it for me! Again, the female servers rarely, if ever, had a smile on their faces. It seemed to me that they were just bored stiff with their jobs. A glass for the beer and a coaster were often given. The coaster was NOT to protect the table from water stains but to put over the glass to keep out the flies. Asking if you wanted the beer opened always puzzled me but I spoke to a Nigerian fellow I once shared a few beers with about it and his answer was, “They are being polite and showing you that the beer has not been tampered with before you get it.” Aha! Well that makes sense then.

Our conversation at the club ran to talking about Christmas celebrations and what we did “back home”. English people would most often have roast goose while we North Americans would usually have turkey. Ibrahim recounted a story of an American couple who wanted a turkey for Christmas one year. They explained what they wanted and what the bird looked like to a Nigerian fellow. Dutifully he found and brought to them a plucked and cleaned fowl the size of a turkey. When they stuffed and then cooked it, it was a genuinely foul fowl. It seemed that turkeys were not too plentiful in Nigeria nor perhaps even known as edible fowl and a substitute was made. Ibrahim was laughing as he said, “They had cooked up a vulcha! (vulture)” and of course, this was hilarious.

We eventually wound down the evening and made it back to Jill and Ibrahim’s. Rob and Martha had left that day so Stella and I were given the main guest bedroom with the double bed. Our sleep that night was more comfortable than the previous few nights had been, curled on single beds or smaller.

Monday, December 21nd – Gombe City to Yankari – 194 kms

Since Stella didn’t have much gear with her she drove her new bike to Futuk that morning and packed for our trip. She used one of her black Cooper hockey bags for her gear. These were the infamous bags which I had carried up the stairs in Ottawa several months earlier when the elevators were not working. When she got back in a few hours we left Gombe City and headed for Yankari which was not too far away. We rode out together at first at about 80 kmh and then 90 kmh as Stella became used to highway speeds. She rode close to the shoulder and I rode behind her and to the left in the middle of the lane as a block to taxis and other vehicles that may come up suddenly upon our rear. She eventually pushed herself to 100 kmh and we were making fine time along the highway as we proceeded to the Yankari Game Reserve.

After a couple hours of riding a car swung out around us and then slowed to a stop in front of us. Not knowing what was happening we both slowed and stopped as well as the car was still in the traffic lane and not pulled off onto the shoulder. A fellow in a green army uniform got out of the passenger side and approached us telling us “That is not the way to ride.” As I said, I was behind and to the left of Stella. Perhaps I was 10 to 15 metres behind her. The fellow was insistent that we ride single file and close to the shoulder. We apologized and he emphasized this fact again. Eventually he got back into the car and with his driver drove off. I was somewhat ticked as in Canada, when you ride in a group of motorbikes, you are instructed to ride in a staggered formation such that the formation occupies the width of the roadway. This fellow didn’t like this. So we followed his instructions and drove on, not wanting to be stopped and accosted again.

I don’t remember if we recognized this as the shortest day of the year. But it was definitely not cold as we rode with just t-shirts on our upper bodies. The sun was warm and pleasant on us though angled from the south and about 56o above the horizon. We were at about 10o N. latitude and the sun was now overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.26o S.

We made the turnoff to go south into Yankari Game Reserve in the mid-afternoon. This was near the small town of Dindima. There were a couple of kiosks at the road entrance and one was selling sugarcane sticks. I had eaten sugarcane back home getting it in season in China town in Victoria. The hard outer shell was either sliced or chewed off and the juicy sweet pulp was then bitten off and chewed up while you sucked out the juice. You spit out the remaining pulp and then took another chunk.

Here is where the clock stopped. Or should I say, camera. My camera had disappeared a couple of months previously. (See an earlier account.) Stella had a pocket-sized rangefinder 35mm Olympus. It had a manual focus lever and a sliding lens cover. She had given it to me to carry and use. I don’t know why. But I did manage to get quite a few good pictures from the side of the road. Somehow some sugarcane juice dripped onto the lens cover and underneath it. We later discovered this when sliding the cover back did not always activate the camera. A couple of slide attempts had to be done before it would work. This caused a bit of a glitch in our photo recording process.

The 70 km long road into Yankari was narrow, twisty and only a single lane wide but it was paved. Driving at a decent rate would rise and drop us over the hilly road rather like a small roller coaster. Short scrubby trees blanketed the undulating landscape. The dry season was in full force and most of the trees had dropped their leaves. Much of the ground vegetation was also dry and brown. I kept hoping (and not hoping) to see wildlife beside or on the road as we went deeper into the bush country. In my three trips into Yankari I once saw a couple of baboons on this road and that was all for roadside wildlife. About half way along the road we came to a toll booth and paid a small park entrance fee, maybe 5 Naira each. The poor fellow who sat in that booth all day seemed to speak little English and was probably illiterate as well. It looked like a very boring job for him. I saw no transport of any sort so I wondered if someone came to pick him up every day and then drop him off again in the morning. Did he walk? Did he live at the camp? Sixty-five or so kilometres later, while wending our way over the rolling landscape and scrub bush, we arrived at the Wikki Warm Springs Tourist Camp. In a local language “wikki” means “where are you?”

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Wikki Warm Springs

Wikki Warm Springs itself was a stream that flowed out from the bottom of a sandstone cliff. The pool that collected there was a perfect place for swimming with the water being a constant 31° C. Just at the right temperature. If you swam close to the cliff you could feel the current pushing you up and away from it. Seeing how this was clean fresh water flowing out of the ground it was eminently drinkable and I took great gulps of

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Wikki Warm Springs

the fresh water. No, it wasn’t cool water, but this was about the only water in Nigeria that I would trust to drink without first boiling it. It was very refreshing.

The campsite consisted of a main bar and outdoor restaurant, a small museum containing several animal artifacts, a larger restaurant building, several round Tourist Cabins and an open area underneath some tall trees that sufficed as a campsite. The cabins were relatively expensive and since I had a small pup-tent we were prepared to camp out. The cost was maybe 5 Naira per night, maybe less. The air-conditioned thatch roofed cabins I remember as 40 Naira or so and that was not in our budget.

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Kosai girls and our bikes

The bar and restaurant had a chalked menu on the wall. One of the items was “intestine pepper soup”. I remarked to the barman that you “had to be pretty gutsy to eat that!” He didn’t understand the pun or the sarcasm. We purchased some bread and some “kosai” from two young girls who were selling them from their head-pans. These were deep-fried chili-laced bean-paste timbit-sized morsels. Very good, but you didn’t eat too many because they were deep-fried. There were a couple of sticks of “suya” or meat-on-a-stick and goundnuts to be had. We made do with this menu.

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Two Yankari Baboons!

Sitting in the bar having a beer I placed a bag of peanuts on the railing beside me. A couple of minutes later with my head turned to talk to Stella, a female baboon came swooping up onto the rail, grabbed the peanut bag and made off with it. Well, now we need to be wary of the baboons. We had seen several as we walked about the camp but now we knew to keep things tied up tight and away from the baboons.

The warm water springs were wonderful! Swimming at night under the stars and the swaying trees around the pool was a tropical delight. NOT Club-Med by any means but there were few people around and this was darkest Africa. By day the sunlight filtering across the pool between the tall trees gave everything a gorgeous soft glow.

Tuesday, December 22nd – Yankari

Stella and I decided to go on an afternoon truck trek through the park. This was probably about 10 Naira each or maybe a bit more. I remember discussing the cost but how can you come to a game reserve and NOT go and see some wild animals?

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Elephant skull in museum, Wikki Camp

We met up with Clarence K. second year CUSO from Kano State whom we had seen earlier in Kaduna. The truck’s open deck at the back had two long benches running down its length in the middle. Steel bars surrounded the deck so you could stand up and handle the bumpy ride or sit and be slightly more comfortable although Stella seemed to be tossed about quite a bit while sitting on the bench. Clarence had an electronic wrist watch that were just starting to be available in Canada. Cheap knock-off copies were available in Nigeria. His beeped every 30 minutes on the hour and on the half-hour. Part of our entertainment was listening to the beeps and being updated on our time. The trek was supposed to take 3 hours. According to Clarence’s watch, that was just about correct.

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Cape buffalo
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waterbuck

We saw Cape buffalo, water buck, crocodile, duikers, wart hogs, elephants and a quick glimpse of a lion as we bumped along and stopped at several likely places. At one quick stop, one of the guides pointed out a python that was escaping into the bush but I didn’t see it. Abyssinian rollers, pied crows, hornbills and vultures were some of the birds.

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Young Yankari bull elephant

Altogether it was a satisfying ride though we did not get too close to any animal. Several pictures of what there was recorded our African “safari”. The stream that flowed out of Wikki Warm Springs met the Gaji River (which flows into the Benué River) coming down from the north and these two riparian strips in the dry bush gave the animals a refuge in the lengthening dry season. The last rain had probably fallen two months prior. The next rainy season was not due for three to four months.

A small natural history museum had several animal specimens and some brief write-ups of the local fauna and the history of Yankari. We spent a bit of time in here but there was not too much to be seen or learned from it. An expanded building, more and better specimens and better upkeep would have improved the experience greatly.

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Rick at campsite, tent with bikes

The baboons woke us each morning by dropping seeds and small twigs on our tent as they fed in the trees above us. At one point a very large male with long sharp canines ambled over toward us to investigate. He looked dangerous and I didn’t want him near us. We had a half loaf of bread stolen from the seat of my motorbike even though I thought that the female who stole it was giving us a miss. They are very fast when they want to be. This male was giving me the jitters. I didn’t like the size of him or his teeth. I picked up a softball sized rock and as he came within 4 metres of us I hurled the rock at him catching him squarely in the chest. He fell back and bared his teeth but looking directly at me, he saw that I wasn’t budging and he changed his direction to go away from us. He stayed away.

Wednesday, December 23rd – Yankari

We spent the day swimming and lounging around the pool. We walked down the trail beside the small stream that emptied the pool and came to another, smaller pool that was smothered in gravel on the bottom. The main stream flowed in a small channel beside us and the whole scene was a bit of tropical paradise.

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Lush Wikki River vegetation

We swam and splashed in this very idyllic setting. Here we were in the middle of Nigeria frolicking in a warm refreshing stream. How much better could it get? I collected some plant samples and placed them in a plant press to take back to my lab for demonstration purposes in my Biology classes.

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“Tarzan!”

I kept an eye out for dangerous fauna, crocodiles and snakes and such, but saw nothing. There were a few baboons in the trees above us but not even that many birds so that was a bit disappointing. I was hoping to see more birds. Altogether we had a very pleasant and relaxing day. It was just the thing to work out the stresses of Nigeria. Wikki Warm Springs was definitely a place to visit again.

Thursday, December 24th – Yankari to Panyam camp – 356 kms

We left Wikki camp in the morning. Stella was still getting used to her bike and the load that she had packed on the back. I watched her several times as it over balanced and fell over with her. It was actually quite comical to watch but then, I did it a few times myself.

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Leaving Yankari

Driving out to the main highway to the north, I felt a wonderful sense of freedom and open spaces. The winding road was easy to travel on even though we were not going much more than 70 kmh. Much of Nigeria is mostly heavily populated and this small area was free of oppressive settlements. There were poachers and there were Fulani herdsman driving their cattle through the area. What small resources the park rangers had could not prevent much encroachment from these groups. The Fulani were supposed to stay away but being nomadic tribesmen they had no notion of land ownership and boundaries. This proved fatal to much of the buffalo and wart hogs the next year as the cattle borne disease, rinderpest, decimated the populations of these two species.

Reaching the highway we turned left and west for Jos. A few hours later and we were making our way slowly through the city and out the southbound highway. Stella had done virtually no travelling since arriving in Futuk in early September apart from the trip to Kaduna with me. I had had a couple of motorbike trips to Jos and one to Kaduna by this time plus the trip out to see her. I also had earlier car trips I had taken with Ray C. and Gerry O. We went east of Jos toward Panyam as I wanted Stella to experience the road down off the plateau that I had come up with Ray and Gerry three months prior. Stopping at the junction to turn south and eventually to Lafia, we stopped to purchase some oranges and other food stuff for the next couple of meals. The oranges (greens) were the usual tough fibered Nigerian variety. Trying to chew the pulp part was almost impossible. They were tasty though… as long as you spit out the numerous seeds. Oranges were often sold by young girls with pans of them on their heads. They would take an orange and shave off the tough skin with a razor blade so that just some of the white inner skin was left. A quick slice off one end and the customer squeezed and sucked out the juice and then tossed the spent orange on the ground. An orange stop was often littered with discarded orange husks and insects of various sorts would be hovering over the composting heaps. At least the odour from these was not too foul.

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Driving on the Jos Plateau

We drove for about an hour until we approached the plateau escarpment. I had memorized a place on the highway that I thought might prove to be a good camp spot. We drove off the highway and through a very bumpy field of yams and other crops to the bank of a small creek. Leaving our bikes on the edge of the creek bank we carried the tent and other baggage down onto a sandbar. The small creek trickled by and just above us it cascaded down over a short height to create a much needed waterfall shower. We had been warned about bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and I was looking for evidence of snails in the water. Fresh water snails acted as a secondary host for these parasitic worms as part of their life cycle needed the body and environment of the snail.

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Christmas Eve campsite

Mostly the snails existed in slow slugging streams so I was not too concerned about finding them here.

Night was falling on this our first Christmas Eve in Nigeria. We made a small fire to boil water and had a meager meal and just enjoyed being in the wild, soon making for bed and a good sleep after a tiring ride. The trickling of the small waterfall close above us was a nice lullaby to sooth our bodies.

Friday, December 25th – Panyan camp to Ankpa camp – 304 kms

Christmas day dawned clear and cool. This was just a tease as we knew that the heat would be there by mid-morning.

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Dry hills leaving the Jos Plateau

Leaving the plateau we dropped down the escarpment and into the muggy Benué River plain. This was where I lived, only several dozens of kilometres to the west. As we wound down from the plateau we got out onto the flat plain and hurried along the sameness of the landscape.

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The Escarpment of the Jos Plateau

Stella had a problems with an itchy back. Riding and sweating in the hot sun gave us both damp bodies that evaporated the sweat quickly while leaving salt behind. Itchiness was the result. We turned right at the road junction and went on west towards Lafia stopping to buy food and motor oil there before going south across the Benué River and into Benué State. We needed to change the oil in our bikes and especially Stella’s because the engine was just being broken in. Though I hated to do it, we just let the used oil run on the ground.

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The flat landscape of the Benue plain

The Benué is the second largest river in Nigeria and the main tributary of the Niger, the largest river. After a few stops to scratch itchy backs, we finally crossed the Benué River and arrived in Makurdi. The bridge across the river was over a kilometer long and decently maintained. At least, it still had railings on both sides. We did not stay long in this city and went on southwest towards Ankpa where we turned right along a narrow, much chopped-up but paved road. We didn’t get too far until late afternoon forced us to find a camping spot. A small pool a little ways off the highway looked like a good spot.

What luck! A pool of water (although we would have to boil it) and a stand of large bamboo with a thick bed of fallen bamboo leaves underneath it; just the place to make camp with a natural mattress under the tent. We set up camp and I took the hatchet that I had bought in Kaduna and proceeded to try to get some firewood chopped up. After a few swings and chops on some dead wood the hatchet head flew off and landed in the pond. DAMN! I took off my boots and waded into the water feeling with my feet in the muddy bottom. No luck. The hatchet was now useless. The head had been epoxied to the handle but it looked like this had just cracked up and disintegrated. I broke some pieces of wood by stomping on them and got a fire going.

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Camping under bamboo, a nice soft bed!

As dusk was falling a troop of young kids with large pans came down to the water. When they spied us they turned in terror to run back to their homes. In a bit several adults came down to talk to us. A young fellow and an older one invited us to stay in their compound. I was a bit leery of doing this and besides, we were already set up and about to have supper. The old fellow, not speaking English, was concerned with our safety and jabbered excitedly as he picked at the skin of his bare chest in a motion that indicated insect stings. I laughed and showed him the mosquito netting of the tent and said that we would be fine. Seeing this he nodded in agreement and the young fellow translated our short conversation. The kids came back and dutifully filled their water pans from the community pool. Well! That was where we were camped. Nigeria was heavily populated and this was a pointed instance. A very drunk younger woman wandered down with the group and gave her two kobos worth of information and welcome. She was well dressed and must have just been into her cups because it was Christmas. I hope.

Saturday, December 26th – Ankpa camp to Gboloko – 192 kms

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Highway through northern Benue State

The next morning we were leaving early, probably about 6 a.m. The younger fellow from the previous evening came down to see us off. He gave us some oranges and bananas and we thanked him and said our goodbyes. We were headed to Gboloko where Faith H. lived. The road was narrow but mostly paved. At least, well enough for our bikes.

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Wood sellers at side of road

The day passed and we experienced our first Harmattan haze. This is a fine powdery dust that blows south from the Sahara in the dry season. The visibility is often reduced to only a few hundred metres and the sun comes through in a very filtered haze. This day was not too bad but we had had no experience with Harmattan to this point.

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The Long Lonesome Highway!

Eventually we reached Gboloko. Faith was gone somewhere and we eventually found Rick M.’s place. He was a 3rd year CUSO. Steve and Maureen G., whom we had met with in Kaduna, plus Al S., another 2nd year CUSO (whom we had also met in Kaduna), were also in Gboloko and were out with Faith. Eventually they came back and we had a bit of a Boxing Day supper and party.

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A Tor – balancing rock beside highway

Much joking and laughing were had as we shared a few beer together. Faith’s posting mate, Tessa, was gone somewhere. Tessa had not taken to living in the bush and teaching and had mostly secreted herself at an expatriate camp that had much of the amenities of home including a swimming pool. She was asked to leave after Christmas and went home. Some people either just had no idea what to expect in Nigeria or just didn’t give it a chance. Tessa was probably number 6 or 7 whom had gone home early.

Faith told us a different way to buy meat, the most expensive food item. She would ask the butcher to cut it up into 10-10 kobo pieces. That is, pieces that would be worth 10 kobo each. She said that she thought she got more for the money that way plus she didn’t have to cut up the meat. Since it was very tough it was mostly cooked slowly in a stew anyway to tenderize it. Faith was from a well-to-do family in Montreal. I think that this stint in Nigeria was her rebellious stage. Just wanting to get away from a stifling life at home after going from high school to university and not being out on her own. She was just 22 then and one of the youngest in our cohort. She was doing just fine in the small bush village in which she lived.

Stella and I were bunked out at Rick’s place which was several minutes away. We left Faith’s before the party ended and sat and talked with Rick for a bit before turning in. Rick had a kerosene lamp of a sort that I had never seen. Instead of a wick and a flame, it had a tubular mantle and a tall narrow chimney. An Aladdin lamp I believe was the make. The mantle drew up kerosene by capillary action and it burned with a very white light. A gentle lovely glow that was not at all like the smoky yellow flicker a “bush lantern” gave. Since it burned much hotter than a wick lamp it was much more fuel efficient too.

Rick was in his third year in Nigeria and had gone home for a sojourn the prior summer. He had taken one of his students back to Canada for a holiday with him to give him a taste of Canadian life and culture. I had heard some rumours about this and how some people told him it wasn’t a good idea. Rick ignored them and paid for the fellow’s trip.

Sunday, December 27th – Gboloko to Nasarawa – 213 kms

The next day we said goodbye to our two hosts and headed west to the Niger River crossing at Shintaku which was just south of the confluence of the Benué and Niger rivers.

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Niger River

Maureen and Steve and Al were all leaving too and they caught public transport which soon passed us as we rode our bikes along to the crossing. A large barge pushed along by a tugboat was the crossing’s mechanics.

We met up with the other three at the ramp and waited for the ferry to get to our side. Many people were there and were either walking or driving across. Most public transport dropped their passengers at the ferry dock and left with passengers off the arriving trip. You picked up new transport on the other side.  I don’t remember what we paid to cross, maybe a Naira or two.

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Ferry Crossing of Niger River at Shintaku

As we sat and waited for the ferry to dock and unload, a few walk-on passengers started the trek down to the dock. Stella and I took this as a signal that we could ease up to the ferry to begin loading. An officious gentleman took exception to this and yelled and gesticulated to us to get back up the slope.

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Chilling and waiting for the ferry

We dutifully rode back up and waited until he gave us a signal to load. We rode our bikes down onto the ferry for the one hour crossing. We would be going up river and west onto the Kwara State side and the town of Lokoja. The loading happened fairly quickly and we soon backed away from the dock and were on our way.

After the crowded and noisy crossing, we left our CUSO friends at the landing where they procured further transport. We drove north to Abaji City. This was a small town at the junction to the highway that headed to Nasarawa (my home) and then Keffi, where the pavement gave out and three dirt roads began.

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Rick’s living room

The most infamous of these being the Keffi-Akwanga road. Stella’s dirt road to Futuk, which she disliked, was a piece of cake compared to any one of these three roads.
I eventually rode on all of them with my bike. Stella did the Keffi-Akwanga road over and back twice, but that is another story.
The ride to my place from Abaji City was smooth and fast but my tent came loose from the back of the bike and scrabbled out beside the road. Retrieving it, we rode on and arrived at my place by early afternoon. Stella was much impressed with my house except for the ugly green walls. Her house was fine and bigger than mine but I think that mine was cozier and the kitchen was nicer. Besides, I had electricity and a refrigerator and she didn’t. We enjoyed some cold drinks together.

After we each had a sponge bath, we washed clothes in my bathtub (much needed by this time) and relaxed for the afternoon. No students were at the school as it was the Christmas break but Stella and I went up to the classrooms and I showed her my Biology lab and my microscopes. I think she was a little envious. The evening passed and we enjoyed a supper of fish from my refrigerator freezer with rice and then headed to bed for a good sleep. We were heading to Gurara Falls the next day up into Niger State.

Monday, December 28th – Nasarawa to Gurara Falls – 234 kms

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Stella, going west from Nasarawa

Back along the road to Abaji City and then north towards Kaduna was our route. As we approached Abuja the huge inselberg, Zuma Rock, came into view. It is very impressive as you come up from the south and we stopped to take a few photos. It is the fifth largest one in the world. Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia being the largest.

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Zuma Rock, Niger State

North of Zuma Rock we turned west and off the highway to follow a dirt road to Gurara falls crossing the Gurara River on our way.

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Rick resting just south of Zuma Rock

Stella took a dump off her bike on this road and though shaken up was not hurt except for a bruise or two. I had grown used to her overbalancing by this time and had watched her step over her bike and dump it over several times by now. This was different as she was moving at the time and she could have been badly hurt.

We arrived at the turnoff to the falls and followed a dirt track through the bush for a few kilometres until we got to the top of the falls. A few small concrete huts were at the top on the west side and several camp spots were close by in the trees. Some American expats and their visiting relatives were camped there in a couple of minivans.

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Gurara Falls campsite above river

The one lady, just visiting from the States, asked us in a very prominent southern accent, “Where yawl frum naow?” I explained that I was from Plateau State and Stella from Bauchi State but, “Naw! Where yawl frum when yor beck home?” Oh, well, that was different. Home was Halifax for Stella and Victoria for me, opposite sides of Canada. I don’t think that meant anything more to this lady as Canada was most likely just that large pink area on the map north of “the Staites”. She asked no more about our origins. We pitched tent. It was late and we had a bit of supper and then went down the trail to below the falls to wash up and have a swim. The water was cool. It was nothing like the temperature of Wikki Warm Springs in Yankari but very refreshing. We were tired and went to sleep early.

Tuesday, December 29th – Gurara Falls to Kaduna – 247 kms

The next day we (I) decided to cross along the top of the falls and explore the small islands and sandbars there. Since it was long past the rainy season the water level was fairly low and nowhere was any stream very deep. The river banks and the small islets were covered in a dense growth of what I believe was a species of Dracaena which here were growing as small trees. We wandered about at the top of the falls cliff and dipped in the refreshing pools. The falls were perhaps 15 or 16 metres in total height and that was in three jumps. The highest jump, the top one, maybe fell 10 metres and that itself was maybe at a 60° angle so not a straight down drop. As we traversed the lip of the falls I jumped over a small cataract to get to a small island and stand on the precipice. Stella attempted to follow me… and slipped.

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Gurara Falls in late December

Suddenly there she was, scrambling at the top in a rushing stream of water, struggling to pull herself back up. “Oh no! Stella!” I scrambled to reach her and slipped myself knocking into her and then dragged myself back up. I reached for her and tried to grab her arm, her hand, anything to pull her up but… she slipped over in front of me. Like an idiot I stood up and yelled, “Stella! STELLA!” Yeah, Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire. But I didn’t feel like any contender.

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Gurara Falls in late December

In another second I saw her grappled around the trunk of a tree that had gone over the falls during the rainy season torrent. I scrambled back the way that we had come and climbed and slid in short water slides (Huh! This was before their advent in Canada.) and got to her in a few minutes. It seemed an eternity to me but Stella said that she remembered nothing until I came up to her as she hung onto the tree trunk for dear life. She was OK as far as I could see except that there was some blood coming down the back of her head. I looked and saw a deep gash about 8 centimetres long on the top and back of her scalp. It was sliced down almost to the bone.

After calming my own panic, I led her out and we made our way down and back through the large pool at the base of the falls. We climbed back up the path to the camp and I went to find help. I explained what had happened to the camping Americans and they drove us out on the dirt track to a local “dispensary” at which a single attendant was lazily whiling away his day. Stella’s gash was not bleeding very much but throbbed mightily I am sure. The attendant splashed on some iodine while Stella sat and squeezed my hand. I winced in sympathetic pain with her. The fellow took a pair of dull scissors and cut away most of the hair beside the open wound. Then taking an even duller needle and some heavy black thread, proceeded to drive the needle into her scalp and make a series of sutures to bring the gaping sides together. Throughout this ordeal Stella panted in excruciating pain while clasping my hand in a vise grip. Finally it was over and more iodine was splashed on the wound and a bandage of sorts was pasted over top.

Stella was in no condition to ride her bike so this was a bit of a quandary until the Americans told us that they were on their way back to Kaduna that afternoon. What a break. They could fit her bike into their van and take Stella with them. I left her in their hands and rode off on my bike to try and reach the hostel in Kaduna before them. I did. When the Americans and Stella arrived she was feeling somewhat better though her head still throbbed.

Wednesday, December 30th – Kaduna

We spent two nights at the hostel while she rested up. Other CUSO types who were there were incredulous at the story of Stella’s slide over the falls. “She cut her head open? She went over the falls? On her bike? Why wasn’t she wearing her helmet?” Duh! Do you wear a helmet when YOU go swimming? It was amazing what some people think they hear and then the conclusions that they jump to. We explained patiently that, no, we weren’t attempting to emulate Evel Knievel and no, we were not riding our bikes at the top of the falls.

Thursday, December 31th – Kaduna to Bagauda Lake – 198 kms

Leaving Stella’s bike at the hostel and dumping the panniers off my bike, we doubled up and rode north to Lake Bagauda and the annual Christmas conference on this morning. Stella held on tightly and I was just glad that my friend was with me.

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New Year’s Eve Celebration!

We had missed the conference part, which took place the days of the 29th to the 31st. We arrived in the afternoon of the 31st. Since we had previously signed up to be at the conference, a room was still available for us, luckily.

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Rick and Ed poolside

We signed in but just went to sit by the pool and swim for a bit; just happy to be there. The story of Stella’s swim over the falls was retold several times. As the New Year’s party started that evening and sashayed forward, Stella was celebrating just being alive. After her close brush with death it was a day to celebrate.

Friday, January 1st – Bagauda Lake to Kaduna – 198 kms

Back to Kaduna and the hostel the next day, New Year’s Day, doubled on my bike. Stella needed more rest so this was as far as we would go for the day. We had left Stella’s bike and most of our gear here so I had to remount things on my bike.

Saturday, January 2st – Kaduna to Bauchi camp – 460 kms

Headed back to Stella’s place in Futuk, we started slowly from Kaduna as Stella was still hurting. I wonder what her head felt like inside her helmet? We made it part way back, somewhere after Bauchi City and then pulled off the road to camp for the night. No water hole this time. Not much shelter, just a cool evening and stars.

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A Northern Nigerian Campout

We set up a photo of ourselves sitting in the dead grass, two friends enjoying an adventure. As we lay in the tent trying to fall asleep I went over the prior days’ events in my mind. My relief with Stella’s close call was still coursing through me. Without much forethought,  the Eagles song “Peaceful Easy Feeling” came to mind and sang what I could remember. The lyric: “And I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a billion stars all around.” was especially poignant to me at that moment. However, with the Harmattan in force now, the night sky was subdued. Not a great time for stargazing.

Sunday, January 3rd – Bauchi camp to Futuk – 137 kms

The next day it was on to Gombe City and then to Futuk but we were stopped in some little drinkwater village by the local detachment of the Nigerian National Police. The one fellow wanted to see our “paticulas” (particulars – license, registration), of course, and was much concerned over my “lanas license” (learners license) and the fact that I didn’t have a red “Cafital L” on my bike. I had been riding this way for more than three months by now and no one had queried this before but this fellow was very adamant. He “arrested” me and we had a bit of a talk while he explained why I was arrested and then he pardoned me and told me to get the red “Cafital L” on my bike. I thanked him profusely and off we went. Jerk! Stella had a good chuckle about this. Arresting, judging and pardoning me all in one go. At least Nigerian justice was efficient, in this case.

On to Futuk. We made the highway junction just before Gombe and turned south and then west on the dirt road. We made Stella’s place by noon or so. I think that she was glad to be home. I was glad that we had made it back safely. Marlene greeted us warmly and we told her some highlights of our trip, Yankari, the falls, the swim, the New Year’s Eve party, the arrest.

I still had my ride home to accomplish. I stayed at their place for the night and took black electricians tape – painted red – to make my “Capital L” on the back fender of my bike. I was still steamed about this but these were the “rules”.

Monday, January 4th – Futuk to Nasarawa – 649 kms

The next day I left for home and was stopped by the same cop in that little village. He was quite satisfied by my compliance with his wishes. Now, I should have stripped off the tape after leaving him but I kept on toward Bauchi City and Jos and home. Going through Bauchi City I was stopped by a “yellow fever” traffic cop. These fellows wore fluorescent orange-yellow shirts and directed traffic in major cities. Their frantic arm and hand waving and general agitated gestures gave them the Nigerian nick-name “yellow feevas!” I was driving through and around a traffic circle when suddenly on the other side a Suzuki 100 with a driver and a traffic cop zoomed by me while the “yellow feeva” yelled out and gestured, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” I pulled over. I was near the edge of the city and in hindsight could have easily outrun him but that was not in my nature. He came up to me and grabbed out my keys from the ignition and yelled, “Is that how you go? Is that how you go?” I had no idea what he was talking about. He said that I did not go through the traffic circle properly – along with about 50 other Nigerians on bikes too I guess, as we all went through in a pack. Anyway, I was white AND now had that damning “Cafital L” on my bike so I was a good target for him and he “arrested” me. Great! I was never arrested before in my life and now here I was “arrested” twice in two days. I was getting quite the record in Nigeria. He wanted me to go with him to see the sergeant. I took out my heavy chain and locked my bike up and reluctantly left it. I was dreading that it would be stolen while I was gone. Anyone with a pair of bolt cutters could still easily take it.

We walked through squalid back alleys until arriving at a station house some 3 or 4 hundred metres away. The “good cop, bad cop” routine was played out. The sergeant finally said, “Settle with this man.” But I was adamant and told him in no uncertain terms that I would not. I could have easily got off with a small bribe but I wouldn’t give in. Finally the fellow led me back the way we came and back to my bike. Reluctantly he gave me my keys and my driver’s license. I thanked him with a straight and hard face, strapped on my helmet, started my bike, and drove off. A few kilometres west of Bauchi City I stopped and got off and stripped off the “Cafital L”. No more cop hassles after that, at least, not on this trip.

The Harmattan was blowing strongly this day and the air was thick with the fine dust. I was shivering as I rode into the wind. I had on a t-shirt and my light corduroy jacket. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I stopped. The filtered sun was warm as I took a break beside the highway. Warm enough to take off my jacket but once I started again the wind cooled me off very quickly. A few stops like this and I made it to Jos. Familiar territory now as I had been here a few times already. The dust coated me and the bike in a fine layer of off-white “chalk”, though it wasn’t chalk. I still had about 5 hours to go and the Keffi-Akwanga hell was part of that. I drove through Jos and out the south side and then down the escarpment of the plateau. The air got very warm and off came the jacket. Even in the height of the dry season the humidity and temperature difference in the Benué plain was noticeable from the upper plateau.

Nasarawa did not come soon enough for me. Wamba, Akwanga, Keffi; the road was long and uninviting. I was apprehensive because I was returning late. School was supposed to have begun on this day. I need not have worried. No classes had started yet. I had been gone for over three weeks not counting the one night stop in from the west side. It had been an adventurous trip with much bike riding and several interesting and adventurous stops in between; the first of several such rides. (5186 kms)

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Sunset over Wikki Warm Springs – Yankari Game Reserve