Sunday, September 05, 2010

First Memories of Nigeria

I first went to Nigeria as a 23-year-old missionary in September 1970. My wife was expecting our first child, born at Vom Christian Hospital, our new home, two months later. Stepping off the Sabena plane at Kano, our first ever flight, we were hit by a heat we had only experienced before in the tropical house at Kew Gardens, near our first home in Ealing, West London. The next day Nigerian Airways flew us to Jos, our Sudan United Mission headquarters. From Jos we went to Vom on a road surfaced only as far as Bukuru.

Vom was a beautiful place to live. Dr Barnden had started the hospital, the first in the old Northern Nigeria, in 1922. In 1970 it was the largest mission hospital in the northern states. There were 300 beds. Expatriate staff, mainly British like us, numbered about 30. All Nigerian staff and students were Christians. The hospital trained nurses, midwives and laboratory assistants for national qualifications. New students, like the Tiv ones who did not speak Hausa had to agree to learn it; Hausa speakers had to agree to learn Berom, the local language. There was a good constant electricity supply from NESCO, the company that generated electricity for the nearby tin mines but no television. We relied on BBC World Service and snail mail for news from home. Our luggage, coming my sea, took four months to reach us.

My work was hospital pharmacist. One area where fee charging mission hospitals like Vom scored over supposedly free government hospitals like the one in Jos was that we had a trustworthy regular supply of medicines thanks to the Christian Central Pharmacy in Jos. CCP, established by my predecessor at Vom, supplied drugs to mission hospitals all over the north. The pharmacy had Nigerian staff. Malams Zwambun and Dabwang had been trained as nurses and missionaries too. Zwambun was Yergam from Langtang, as old as my father, and the most senior of all the hospital’s Nigerians. He was an elder in the hospital church. Dabwang, a local man, had trained in our mission’s Borno hospital at Gwoza. My third worker, Bashi, was from Vwang, the town by the hospital.

In September 1970, nine moths after the end of the Biafran war, the first Ibos were returning north. One of them, Mark, had just resumed work in the hospital office. The effects of the war were still felt in the scarcity of imported goods like food from Europe. We preferred local produce. I remember eggs were one kobo each. Milk was from local Fulani women who came to the house each day with creamy milk in the wet season when we arrived, soon to be watered down in the dry season. Katy had the help of Joseph, our cook. She did not find life in Nigeria easy at first. The strange noises at night bothered her. She is a music teacher but her first work at Vom was catering in the Private Ward. This was where expatriates and wealthy Nigerians were treated, the only ward with food provided by the hospital. Other inpatients brought a relative to cook for them. The very high fees paid by private ward patients, usually on company expenses, subsidised the ordinary wards where patients were charged according to their social standing. Poor people and local Beroms paid less than the standard charges. Fulani herders and salaried Nigerians paid more. The rich helped pay for the poor.

We were to be Turawa with no Hausa, staying at Vom for nine months until we were sent to Kano for five months full time Hausa study. That will be my next part of the story.

1 comment:

Sode said...

As a Nigerian, I would like to thank you for this nostalgic article.