Marriages and children were to be preserved

Adapted from a piece written for Trevor Clark to include in his anthology ‘Was it only yesterday: the last generation of Nigeria’s Turawa’. Trevor asked me to summarise in 50 words what it meant to be a child in the colonial days, an impossible challenge.


Marriages and children were to be preserved, marriages from lengthy separations, children from the white kids’ grave.

Offspring, once bred, could be parked care of great-aunt, or home for colonial orphans.

Then there was change, heat dust and dysentery were the welcome price for family reunion, until…until it was time for a seven-year-old to grow up.

At home, pink gins were served among wicker chairs and evening chatter. But boarding school meant frozen milk, icy dorms, chilblains and the cut of the cane. Weekly letters sustained the sentence.

At last…time-out. There was elation at the airport, ‘Passengers for Tripoli, Kano, Lagos and Accra – follow the blue lights.’

In the bush on tour, beneath the Milky Way, I was only a raffia fence from the roar of a lion. One day, at Government House, father became ‘His Excellency’, and mother was a glimpse of long white gloves and the swish of satin as she rushed to meet guests.

My friends were the servants, Ali and Alkali: they told me magical stories, taught me pidgin and Hausa. Now all is distant memories, books, pictures, photos, dusty files and letters from illustrious visitors.

2 thoughts on “Marriages and children were to be preserved

  1. I think you have captured the experience of being a ‘colonial orphan’ very well. Kipling’s own short story, ‘Punch and Judy’ shows the dark side of the boarding houses available for these ‘orphans’.

  2. ronaldmackay

    The title is as intriguing as it is concise and immediately explains the frequent and long separations of children from parents as part of the sacrifice made by those who served their adult lives overseas in the Colonial Service. It also explains the forced ‘growing up’ of colonial children shunted between relatives’ homes and schools from their earliest years. Then a glimpse of life as it was in the colony: on a bush tour, at ‘home’ where parents were permanently ‘on duty’ and the servants more available. This is the briefest of views that holds out a warm promise of much to come.

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