18th December, 2013
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
I read it thrice. If it were to be an original and if it should come under the hammer, it would no doubt go for thousands of pounds. Flora Shaw’s letter written to her lover, Sir Frederick Lugard, over 100 years ago, was recently published by Premium Times and culled by UAC Link, a publication of the United Africa Company.
It is just natural to be full of bile and vitriol when the name “Shaw” is mentioned. This is understandable. Was she not the “mistress” of the oppressor of our ancestors? That is, Lugard, His Britannic Majesty’s Governor-General of Nigeria who, in a moment of tweaking of his handle-bar moustache, joined, with the stroke of his quilt pen, the Northern and Southern protectorates without considering our cultural compatibility. Shaw, a British journalist, was The Times of London’s correspondent this side of the Atlantic. She was more than just a journalist. Between 1907 and 1912, she helped her man, Lugard, to establish the University of Hong Kong where he was governor.
I took pleasure in absorbing the artistry of Shaw’s epistle, its message and how she, at a moment of solitude, grabbed that whiff of inspiration that scientists, writers, singers and others call serendipity, to arrive at a great idea.
She starts off to show her great power of observation as she describes the flora and fauna around her colonial cottage. You could feel like the secondary school days when a boy would pick his “golden pen” to write to a girl, promising to sit on top of a hot electricity transformer to demonstrate his love!
Shaw writes about Bundu, her houseboy, an Osu whom she rescued from the chief of a community she calls Ama Enedibo Cha, East of the Niger, where the caste system, like in India, held sway. “… If you see a snake and an Osu in the bush, kill the Osu before you kill the snake,” the chief who wanted to execute the boy, told Shaw.
She took Bundu, whom one of her guests described as a “clean imperial product”, out for a walk. When the duo returned, she found it difficult to sleep and was suffering from writer’s cramp. Like creative writers and scientists suffering from draught of inspiration, she found solace in the tranquility of solitude.
She walked out at night, when, as she writes, “the flowers waltzed with the gently whirling winds”. She continues: “The air was blue, easy to soak in, cooling to my nerves. Then there came first – as faint distant drone – drumbeats from another village. Feelings of nostalgia instantly sipped through me.” Reason: she had heard those same drums in many places she had visited.
It was at that instant of tranquility that a great idea hit her about our land. Her writer’s block disappeared and she began to write her article for The Times.
After bringing to the surface the beauty of our land, which, as she puts it, is “packaged in poetry and history and magic”, she argues that the name “Royal Niger Company Territories” was too long and that the name, ‘Central Sudan”, used by merchants and diplomats, is highly unrepresentative of people of these parts. The River Niger, according to her, causes countless fantasies, from not just romantics but people all around the world. She thus, sincerely believes “the Niger area, which should be spelt as Nigeria is as convenient as it is romantic”. That was how the name, Nigeria, was born.
Writers, scientists, musicians, artists and others, do crazy things to get hooked to muse or inspiration. Archimedes of Syracuse had no time to bathe until he found solution to his king’s problem. Chukwuemeka Ike, author of Toads for Supper and now a traditional ruler, went about with a piece of paper and pen. Even if an idea struck him while driving, he would park and write. His wife, he once revealed in an interview, warned him to be careful. Ideas can strike creative people, pastors, motivational speakers and stand-up comedians in the toilet, in a fast train or when the rain is pounding hard on the roof.
So political leaders should, by all means possible, deny self to work hard at the nation’s problems. As Obafemi Awolowo said, “Only the deep can call to the deep.”
The most important thing that struck me in Shaw’s letter is her hope for Nigeria. She puts it this way: “For a people so strong, so diverse, so nourished by culture and nature, I think together they will make a formidable brand.” If I want to play the role of a language deconstructionist here, I will work with certain key words: Strength, diversity, natural endowments and cultural richness. And if these are properly coordinated, Nigeria can be great. This, to me, is the meat of Flora Shaw’s letter to Lugard.
Here lies the crux of the matter. On 1 January 2014, Nigeria will mark 100 years of its amalgamation. While it is true that Shaw, in her Times article, highlights the gains of that political exercise for the “tribes and the crown”, it weighed more in favour of the latter for over 46 years. With the help of scoundrels like Sir George Taubman Goldie, Nigerian middlemen were elbowed aside in the palm oil trade. From the North to the South, rail lines were built by Britain to evacuate groundnuts to the coasts for onward shipping to Liverpool. And after Shell discovered oil in Oloibiri in 1958, to borrow the words of Mofio Akobo, “everything became a shell”. Go to the Niger Delta and see the environmental degradation.
However, slightly educated people who were descendants of freed slaves and others who worked in the Railways, Postal Service, Police, Army, Prisons, the Ports and other organs which were established by the colonial lords became the progenitors of the first set of Nigerian intelligentsia. It was in the hands of these people and others who raised themselves up by their bootstraps that the colonial lords left the affairs of Nigeria. And how have they and those who took over from them fared? Badly.
Now that we are celebrating our centenary, Nigerian leaders at all levels must borrow a leaf from Flora Shaw. Since great problems are solved by that spark of creativity, received at moments of self denial and tranquility, let our leaders do away with hedonism, ponder and work hard on our woes and find creative ways of getting out of them.
There should be unity in diversity. Our people should not suffer in the midst of plenty. Nigerian leaders must find permanent solutions to the most basic needs of our people: light, good health, employment, food, others. A flawless process of voting leaders who can perform and dropping those who mess up must be institutionalised. And we should, by all means, discuss the conditions of our togetherness, remain a powerful country, so that we will no longer suffer humiliation in the comity of nations.
Without these, our clinking of wine glasses from January to mark our centenary will be in vain.