I was in a railway carriage. On the seat opposite a lady was talking to me, ‘I’m your Mummy’. I had no idea who she was. What was a Mummy? I was two years old.

Exactly when did my remembering begin? Did it emerge gradually, perhaps over days or weeks, in the soft warmth of the womb, with the reassuring rhythm of mother’s beating heart? Or was it during the miracle of birth,   an unceremonious and rather shocking dump into the cold outside, along with a gush of water, blood and afterbirth.

Nothing is up for discussion without conscious awareness, and this had to wait.  I could have been a much more capable infant  at birth had it been delayed by, say, three months, ignoring for a moment, the other problems of a long gestation.  But we are bipedal creatures, we walk upright, and the mechanics of walking limit the mother’s pelvis in such a way that a baby’s head can only be so big at birth.  So, like any human newborn I could only function at the most basic level:  suckle, digest, excrete, sleep and grow.  I must have had no sense of  independent existence for months, and certainly no resonance in memory of the dramatic events of birth.

Other creatures need to get their wits about them much more quickly because danger lurks, even for the newborn. It’s all about fight or flight, mostly flight, and the parent can only protect their young for so long.  Also, those on all fours are never going to have a big head, so birth comes more easily. Memory has a different purpose for most non-human animals too.  Take our own pets, for example the wolf descendants. My sister’s closest and most constant companion is her short haired Lurcher. These are the canine world’s most predatory athletes. ‘I’ll call her Folly,’ my sister had announced five years ago, when she chose her puppy. My sister is not well but she can still have a laugh and she knew what people would say about her keeping a dog and she gave Folly her name accordingly.
One day I phoned to say that I would be visiting soon. ‘How’s Folly by the way?’
‘She spotted a rabbit in the woods this morning, went off like a rocket’.

I hadn’t been down for nearly six months but Folly knows me as soon as I open the door; it must be the way I look or my loopy walk. She has a sniff at knee level, but it’s only to see if there is anything new or different, for example do I have any other pets.  No one told her about me while I was away, or reminded her about my footsteps, or my face, or that I enjoy the company of dogs. She just remembers me the way I am and knows that we’re friends. It’s been like that since she was a puppy. Likewise she’ll remember where the rabbit came from that morning, and to avoid the Beech tree where she met a Rottweiler last week.

In my sister’s room the rattle of a trolley and knock on the door brings a smiling face swiftly followed by two cups of tea. ‘I asked her where she is from,’ says sister, referring to the bringer of tea. ‘I wondered if she was Fulani – but no, she’s from Somalia,’ Sister had hoped that she was Nigerian so that she could reminisce about her childhood and happier times.

‘What are your earliest memories then?’ I enquire. I like to check up on sister’s memory. It tells me how she is.
‘I wish I had been older when we left Nigeria,’ she says.
But I have heard this before.
‘I was only seven…if I had been older I would have remembered more.’

Sister is right in a way. At an even younger age,  two or three years old, memories are dream-like images that haven’t been coded into words, and are often soon forgotten.   To be retained, memories must be charged in some way, perhaps by excitement, a day out by the seaside or fear, danger, abandonment…something like that.

Do we keep the innocent qualities of our early memories? That’s the challenging question. Reminiscing is important, alone or maybe with another. Memories must be reinforced, but there’s also then a risk of Chinese whispers, the stories may grow and change with the retelling. I might even adopt my brother’s memory as my own, perhaps due to envy.  At best though, it seems that our memories reflect and resonate the stories of our lives.  How much emotional baggage do I have, how much blame, how much anger? It can go in the other direction too. Memories give pleasure. They recall good times gone by…and acts of kindness.

We had extraordinary childhoods, my brother sister and I, no better or worse than anyone else’s, but for the most part very different. We are lucky, we have letters, our parents wrote books and articles, left photographs and drawings. We can talk about our memories, compare notes. There are many witnesses too. In court it would be corroboration…there is plenty of corroboration for our memories.

Castel Benito

I was only four years old but the excitement of my first flight is still a vivid memory. We had been delayed by the ‘smog’, a debilitating form of winter air pollution that regularly brought post-war London to a standstill. It was still grey and drizzly when we eventually boarded our a BOAC York aircraft, a converted Lancaster bomber, for the fourteen hour flight. There would be two refuelling stops. The second, at Castel Benito near Tripoli, was to prepare for the long desert crossing to Kano.

By the time I was eight, and already a seasoned air passenger, I took a closer interest in the story of RAF Castel Benito. Just the Italian name was utterly captivating but it was the old wartime hangar and terminal building that most caught my attention. The jagged shell holes in the rusting corrugated doors were testament to the furious aerial bombardment that had taken place when the airfield had been captured in 1943, during the North African Desert campaign.

My brother and I often travelled together on what came to be called ‘the milk runs’. These were aerial shuttles that moved school children, often via Castel Benito, to and from the furthest reaches of Empire. It was an Empire that, in the early 1950s, still seemed reassuringly and unimaginably large. Mr Selby, our geography teacher, did not hesitate to remind us of this, once he had finished chatting in Welsh with Mrs Selby as she hovered around at the open classroom door.
‘You see, boys, the sun never sets on the Empire’.
We all waved our hands hoping to be asked to explain, ‘Please Sir, is it because the Empire stretches all the way from West to East and the sun is always shining somewhere’.
Mr Selby performed his classroom tour as he printed a smudgy black outline of the continents in our exercise books. We knew what was required and dutifully coloured in the relevant parts with our red crayon.
But in reality, as we soon enough discovered, the end of Empire was getting close and the focus for my parents was on development time that had been lost during the war. Schools, universities, hospitals, farms, transport, but especially politics and politicians all vied for available funds. The colonial officers all worked around the clock as Nigeria hurried to independence.

When I made my first ‘milk run’ it followed eight long months of family separation. Mostly I was at a boarding school, Milner Court, although Easter had been spent at another institution in Dorset. This was another prep school that operated as a kind of short-term foster home for colonial orphans. When the time finally arrived to leave for Nigeria my brother was there too. We couldn’t wait to climb onto the airport bus at Victoria station and get away, completely unconcerned at the prospect of the long unaccompanied journey that clearly worried my grandmother, as we exchanged goodbyes through the glass windows.

School was a very distant memory when we touched down at RAF Castel Benito a few hours later. Stirred from our sleep by the cabin staff we descended the lighted metal stairway to find ourselves on a tarmac apron in the desert under a canopy of stars and planets. Looking back as we made our way to the terminal building the four engined C4 Argonaut airliner was an impressive sight as the Union Flag fluttered from a small mast at the open cockpit window. It was truly a ship of the skies. Lit up by yellow interior lights the cabin crew could be seen through rectangular windows as they hurried to clean up for the final leg to Kano. Service trucks and a tanker were already clustered around the undercarriage while an engineer on a metal ladder checked out one of the four piston engines that would soon power us across more than fifteen hundred miles of desert. By this time, we had already become the most expert of aeronautical spotters. The advantages of a pressurised cabin and the details of other aircraft powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines could readily be explained to a bemused adult…and at some length.

Inside the flood-lit hangar there was a makeshift civilian air terminal. Groups of cane chairs and tables were arranged on the terrace in front of a single storey inner building containing a bar and some offices. Large three bladed fans, suspended from the ceiling, swished lazily over a sweaty barman who served us bottles of iced cola in exchange for our BOAC transit cards.

Waiting for our aircraft to be refuelled we picked up some friends and wandered out to explore the limits of the passenger area. The Libyan policemen were the main quarry as they guarded the boundary. We gathered round them, fascinated by their snappy Italian serge uniforms, the high peaked caps and the shades tucked into top pockets – not to mention their long shiny boots and white gaiters. Most fascinating of all, and slightly sinister too, was the brown leather hand gun holster, the butt of the weapon just visible where a looped cord attached it to a leather belt Once it became clear that we were not showing sufficient respect we were angrily waved back to the terminal to await our call.

A few hours later, soon after dawn had broken over the oasis town of Tamanrasset and the more distant and craggy Ahaggar mountains, as they jutted through the morning haze, we began our descent for Kano airport.

The Resident in Kano, the senior colonial officer, was Tim Johnston. Mr Johnston had been a fighter pilot during the war when he was heavily involved in the heroic defence of Malta, an awesome story for an eight year old. He and his wife Berrice met us at the airport and took us the house that had been our home only a couple of years earlier, so it was strange to be back. On our parents’ instructions we were expected to sleep for the rest of the morning before transferring to a four seater Auster aircraft for the flight down to Kaduna. My parents had clearly forgotten that the sheer excitement of travelling meant that children of our ages would never simply fall asleep according to adult convenience and we chatted away for three hours until it was time to return to the airport for the one hour flight to our home at Kaduna.

In those days children would be passed around between relatives, friends and institutions rather like packages in a private mail service. We had no concept of what it meant to the lives of those kind friends and relatives that had to feed us, clean us and put us on trains, coaches and aircraft as we shuttled around Europe and Africa. It must have caused them some inconvenience but they hardly ever complained…so we generally remained blissfully unaware!

The featured image is of a BOAC Argonaut parked in front of the airport building at Kano in the 1950s

Post Script: The Johnstons’ story has been told by their daughter Carolyn in a remarkable collection of letters and diary entries. When we visited the Johnstons in Kano we were told all about their daughter Carolyn, but we never seemed to meet. When Carolyn was in Nigeria we were back in the UK, and vice versa. It was to be a very long time before we did meet. In fact it was in Edinburgh not very long after my own return to Northern Nigeria in 2010.
‘Harmattan, A Wind of Change’ by Carolyn Johnston. The Radcliffe Press 2010.
ISBN 978 1 84885 143 6

A WC for the Sokoto Residency

Geoffrey aged 4 on a hot afternoon at Sokoto Residency

I sat on the low wall of our shady verandah and watched curiously as an open pickup truck arrived. Once the clouds of sand and dust had settled I could see the new delivery more clearly. The bright, white porcelain W.C. faced imperiously out to the rear of the pickup, as if reluctant to take a look it its new home.  So I went out to inspect it more closely.

‘’Put on your hat if you’re going into the sun, remember last time.’’ The ‘hat’ was a pith helmet, adult sized. I could just about peer out from under the wide brim after the hat was padded up with an old shirt. The previous week I had been hatless under the sun for only twenty minutes and the hot blistering sunburn on my face and arms had kept me awake crying for two nights.

The people, the Nigerians,  love to nurture their children, white children too, just as they do their own. But the place, Sokoto with its sub Saharan climate, the dust and flies,  was a different proposition. It was pitiless. By my fifth birthday I was old enough to know the truth and why I should always take care. It wasn’t just the sunburn. ‘’The missionaries’ children both died of dysentery,’’ my mother told me in her own matter of fact way. “They were the first European children to come here.’’

Before the arrival of this new water closet, things toilet-wise had been pretty basic…a privy at the back of the house, a plank with a hole and, several feet below, resting on the ground, a metal bucket. Some sand and a shovel were provided to cover the contents after each use. But the flies always buzzed around it anyway. And the flies spread the dysentery. A truck called each morning for the metal bucket. Any of the precious water was set aside as a spray to control the clouds of dust raised by cars and lorries on the laterite roads. The rest was kept for nearby farms, to fertilise the corn and yams.

The new WC and its big pipes and drains could do all this too. But most importantly, once it was working, there were no more flies.

Nigeria is an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant country. There are around 500 ethnic groups and many of these differ from each other culturally and linguistically to a much greater extent than equivalent European groups such as, say, Germans and Russians. On the comment that Nigerians love their children…I think that most visitors to Nigeria have the same experience and Nigerians would welcome the sentiment…however much it is a generalisation.

Lagos touchdown, 3rd May 2010

Curiously, it was after a perfect touch-down by the British Airways 747 that the rush to the overhead lockers began. This was despite the cabin steward’s emphatic request to remain seated.  First one passenger had stood up and then others quickly followed as hand baggage and clothing were hurriedly pulled down and children were gathered. Down the aisle, between some curtains, I glimpsed families in the vibrant colours and patterns of traditional Nigerian dress as yet more passengers prepared to leave from the cabin ahead. Once the initial chaos had subsided, my neighbour folded away the laptop and papers that had occupied her for much the flight and leaned across, smiling broadly. ‘We Nigerians  must always be prepared’. She was amused by my bewilderment. ‘The first person to hurry may know something, so we must hurry too.’ As it turned out there was no emergency, unless it was the prospect of getting through the notorious customs and immigration at Murtala Muhammad International – and that was an obstacle course for which I was well prepared to wait.

Once the aircraft finally came to rest and the engines were shut down the few remaining passengers began to stir. It had been a long time since I had last stood on Nigerian soil. In fact the interval between this and my last visit would coincide almost exactly with Nigeria’s 50 years as an independent country. I had left as a young teenager, ready to move on to my own new world and to put those early years behind me.  Within a few years  I had married and begun a career in medicine before later travelling to many other parts of the world. Now, a few decades on,  there was a grown up family of our own, some of whom were living once again in Nigeria. They had offered me accommodation in Lagos and local knowledge and contacts in the North, often a dangerous place to visit. it made for a unique opportunity to discover something of contemporary Nigeria. But now I also wanted to try to understand the past, the story of my own early life and that of my parents.

As I slowly collected my belongings I reflected on the class system of modern air travel. Fifty years ago it had been a single tourist class for the ‘milk runs’, the special flights for children travelling out on holiday from UK boarding schools.  Our parents had been administrators, teachers, doctors, vets, forestry officers and engineers. They had all been dedicated to the cause of Nigerian independence in an empire very much at sunset. Now after half a century, the routine of multiple airline classes seemed to match the extravagance and waste of the modern world. In any case the London-Lagos route is said to be the world’s most expensive in terms of pounds sterling per mile travelled, so in that sense it’s really all luxury travel.

There were still signs of repose as we filed out of our cabin in ‘world traveller plus’. In the subdued lighting of ‘world club class’, rugs and pillows were scattered, blinds were still closed and seats were reclined to the horizontal. They had travelled in some comfort. Meanwhile, my friend with the laptop had already discovered why I was visiting Nigeria. ‘This is where the diplomats and business executives travel,’ she was eager to tell me. ‘Also there are people who have been in hospital in the UK – and last week we had loads of teenagers on Easter holiday from their boarding schools.’ Now that was an irony of the new age,  as several of these Nigerian kids would have been pupils at my old school.  ‘There are even more of them travelling in first class,’ she added. First class and  the upper deck, the ulitmate comfort zone, were discreetly and even more luxuriously out of sight.

The  man ahead of me  was a natty dresser – chinos, blue shirt, linen jacket, tablet computer in hand. He had been listening and joined the conversation.’ I’ve been away a long time too – I’m British-Nigerian,’ he explained. ‘I stupidly put ‘journalist’ on my visa application and its taken months to process – terrible.’ But then, as we approached the main exit of the aircraft, he abruptly  turned around to face all the remaining passengers. ‘Welcome to Nigeria,’ he announced with a broad smile. ‘The most difficult country in the world to enter.’