This post is a chapter from a joint memoir that is being written by Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen about their period in Nigeria, September 1967–September 1969, which was framed by the Nigerian Civil War. The extract tells a personal story and also provides some more general insight into those tumultuous years. Here they describe how they met, married and travelled to Nigeria on one of the last mailboats from Liverpool. The hazardous journey to their new life in Ibadan is vividly conveyed.
By Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen
We met on Christmas Day, 1965. At that time, Selina was living with her friend Anne Darnborough (now Anne Page) at 116 Crawford Street, off Baker Street, in West London. Anne, whom she had known since she first came to London in 1959, was working for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Charlotte Street at the time and it was she who secured Selina a job there as the membership secretary. Selina and Anne were young, idealistic and outraged about the iniquities of apartheid. They had inherited the accommodation from the South African writer Lewis Nkosi, who was by then married with twin daughters and in need of more space. The accommodation consisted of two rooms on the second floor of a house above a shoemaker’s shop. There was a gas cooker on a small landing at the top of the stairs leading to their bedrooms. They shared a bathroom with the occupants of the two rooms on the floor below. Anne’s parents were visiting at the time the tenancy started. Her mother wept at the sight of the naked light bulbs and at what she regarded as the sordid accommodation. Selina and Anne thought it was perfect. They decorated it with a lick of white paint in no time, bought some cheap Chinese paper lanterns to cover the naked light bulbs and Selina made some orange hessian curtains for the windows. The effect was very à la mode as, of course, were the flatmates.
Selina and Anne had, through a mutual friend, already met Robin’s brother Stan and his wife Ruth, so it went without saying that Robin, Stan’s younger brother who had recently arrived in London after having graduated from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, would also come to their Christmas party. Selina still recollects the front-door bell ringing and going down two floors to answer it. There stood Stan, Ruth and Robin and her first thought was, ‘I really like his [Robin’s] corduroy trousers!’ It is difficult to believe it, but those were the days when corduroy was fashionable. Maybe it was not love at first sight, but it was certainly instant mutual attraction. As the party got going everyone became tipsy and danced with unrestrained fervour to the many replays of E. C. Arinze’s highlife song celebrating Nigeria’s independence, Freedom Highlife. The lyrics were hardly subtle, but they resonated with the company: ‘Freedom for you/Freedom for everyone/Freedom for me/Freedom for mummy/Freedom for daddy/Freedom for the poor/Freedom for the rich/Hip-hip hurrah’. We so wanted that for South Africa. With our already strong and now musically enhanced belief in freedom, our friendship blossomed. On 16 June 1967, we tied the knot.
For more than a century the Elder Dempster Line, which was based in Liverpool, had been carrying shipments of goods, travellers and the Royal Mail by sea to and from West Africa. Given that we were planning to go for two years and would therefore be taking a fair amount of luggage, including a rather dilapidated Ford Anglia motorcar, the sea voyage was both a sensible choice and one that befitted our new status as ‘British expatriates’. This somewhat uncomfortable label was hung around our necks even though we had never heard the word ‘expatriate’ before and hated the implied colonial association. To be clear, we were definitely not a buttoned-up couple of old farts equipped with khaki shorts, puttees and pith helmets (just in case you were wondering). We were not the only ones from the Centre of West African Studies at Birmingham to be heading for West Africa. Our friends Paul and Sue Kennedy, along with their new-born daughter Anna, and Patricia Leyland, with her two-year-old daughter Helen in tow, would be going with us as far as Accra, where they would be pursuing their own further studies at the University of Ghana at Legon.
We sailed on one of the two remaining Elder Dempster ships plying the route, the Apapa. As John Martin, the Catering Officer on board, explains in his memoir:
Until the latter part of 1967 a mailboat would sail from Liverpool to Lagos every other Friday. Each ship would undertake a complete round voyage in six weeks. 13 days to Lagos via Las Palmas, Bathurst, Freetown, Monrovia and Tema. A 5-day turn-round at Apapa wharves [Lagos] and 13 days back, calling at Takoradi instead of Tema. Back in Liverpool there was a ten-day turn-round – before the next trip. Because of their regular schedules the company was contracted to carry Royal and Colonial Mail to West Africa.
Apart from our car, we also had a packing case to go into the hold, so we had to get to Liverpool before the actual sailing date. This meant spending the night before our journey at a bed and breakfast, run by a world-weary Irish landlady. The bed took up so much of the room there was no space for our suitcases. Somehow breakfast never arrived. We swore never to darken the doors of that establishment again, a vow we have found remarkably easy to keep. The ship floating there in the dock looking very stately and, as if in a rebuke to our Liverpool landlady, the breakfasts were capacious and delicious. Selina also remembers being presented every morning with a crossword puzzle to solve, focusing her mind on something other than the fact that Nigeria was fast escalating into a civil war. In fact, the civil war (also known as the Biafran War) was becoming a looming reality as we approached West Africa. Routine trips by sea were not to last for much longer. From then on, aeroplanes became the optimal means of conveyance, unless of course one is thinking of ‘cruises’, which is something quite different.
We travelled on the last outbound voyage of the Apapa.
It soon became apparent that the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham was not the only establishment from which the University of Ibadan recruited its British staff members. There were a few others we met in the lounge who were also going to Ibadan to take up posts there. One couple, to whom we were instantly attracted and whom we still love all these years later, were Linda and Martin Corner. Martin, who was an authority on D. H. Lawrence, was to join the English Department. He and Linda were also newlyweds, so we had a lot in common with them. Another was Chris Beer, a politics student, and I remember that he and Robin developed a good intellectual rapport while we were still on-board. Then, there was Arif Hussain, an historian, always resplendent in an impeccably laundered pink shirt, a garment of which he seemed to have lots of replicas. When gently teased about his shirt, he claimed that as he was from Pakistan, he knew how to handle hot weather. He was travelling on his own, for his wife Ena and their two children would be following by air. He and Ena subsequently became close friends of ours, though Arif and Ena later experienced some marital discord and divorced.
Selina catching some rays on board.
As we sailed south the weather grew steamier and warmer, but we loved the sense of adventure as we spotted land, quaffed free cocktails, looked out at the dolphins and indulged in long chats with our old and newfound friends. Travelling by air, especially after the security measures following 9/11, is truly a second-rate experience compared with an Elder Dempster voyage. The ship made its usual stop at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and we were intrigued and delighted with the trail of beautifully-turned out Creole families and couples who pranced up the gang plank to have tea on board while the ship was in port. They were genteel with perfectly-calibrated English manners. As we left Freetown, another surprise awaited us. In recognition that this was the last voyage of the Apapa, the dockworkers staged a mock colonial tableau, parading up and down with umbrellas, wooden rifles and pith helmets, marching, saluting each other and generally arsing about. It was hilarious.
Deck mates: Selina, Paul and Sue Kennedy.
When we left Tema, the site of the new docks built by Ghana’s first fully-trained architect, the mood was very different. A chillingly large number of people left the ship, including our friends from Birmingham, Paul and Sue Kennedy and Pat Leyland. We truly were a diminishing band, and our apprehension was amplified when we heard on the tannoy the completely fallacious report on the BBC that Ibadan (our destination!) had fallen to advancing Biafran troops. The reporter was Frederick Forsyth, who was then working for the BBC but who subsequently found fame and fortune as a novelist. Enough said. We also were confronted one day in the lounge by a very woebegone waiter who served the tea and cakes without his usual good humour. When asked what the problem was, he explained that his friend, an Igbo, had tried to get off the ship at Ghana, without luck. Many of the Igbos on board were frightened by the thought of what awaited them in Lagos.
While everyone clucked sympathetically, Selina jumped into action and, dragging Robin along for additional support, demanded to see Captain Hutchinson. ‘What are you doing about it?’ ‘This is a British ship.’ ‘You have to protect your crew!’ The fierceness of her demands and questions at first threw the captain, but he then explained that the Elder Dempster line had long-standing financial interests in Nigeria, that he had been in the war (‘the war’ always means the Second World War to someone of that age) and getting shot was not too bad. ‘I notice you didn’t get shot,’ Selina retorted on our way out. As we walked off the gang plank at Lagos, the captain drew Selina aside. ‘He’s in the bowels of the engine room. They’ll never find him.’ We left the Apapa in reasonably cheerful form, thinking Selina had done a good turn. As we were preparing this book, we found out for the first time that things had not turned out well. Perhaps we had saved one life, but in his memoir posted on the web, John Martin recounts the following dreadful outcome:
The army came on board and started to segregate them [the crew] with an officer identifying nationality and Nigerian tribal affiliations – even by cheek scarring. … Despite the efforts of Captain Hutchinson insisting the crew were under his protection, claiming the authority of the British Flag, those identified as Igbos, the last being the Master-at-Arms himself, were taken off the ship under armed escort. The last we saw of them was being taken round to the back of the sheds. Gunfire was heard. Bodies were seen floating in the lagoon on an outgoing tide.
The ‘Sagamu sisters’ and other tales of ‘The Road’
Unaware of the grisly fate of the Igbo crew, we set off in the bus sent by the University of Ibadan to collect us shipmates. We were a dishevelled group, with the exception of Arif in his pink shirt. It was hotter and more humid than anywhere we had previously encountered. There was no air conditioning in the bus and if we opened the windows the dust from the busy, unmade streets of Lagos enveloped us. As we reached the more open road, verdant bushes and trees, some in a Disney-like green, greeted us and we were able to ventilate the bus with fresher air.
The pit stop was at a roadside ‘rest house’ (the colonial description of an overnight stay and bar/café) in Sagamu. Nowadays Sagamu is peppered with decent hotels and motels and is the main interchange on the ten-lane 127km Lagos–Ibadan expressway. In 1967, the road was one lane in each direction, and we were ushered into a sleepy café serving Fanta with extra dollops of orange food dye, very sugary lemonade and bottles of Guinness. Guinness had opened a massive brewery in Lagos and the labels read ‘Lagos and Dublin’. The beer was blatantly advertised as an aid to virility. Beaming strong guys with flowing agbadas and naughty looks were on many billboards proclaiming, ‘Guinness is Good for You, It Gives You Strength.’ At that time, the Sagamu rest house toilets were foul, so many used the bush, rather than face the malodorous ordeal. This included most Nigerian women and one or two of the more experienced expatriates, who would unwrap their marvellously colourful long skirts (called iros or lappas) and, like the men, pee standing up.
In the bus again, and the penny suddenly dropped. This was not simply the road from Lagos to Ibadan, this was The Road, the title of a 1965 play written by Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s eminent writer, who was subsequently to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Robin had seen the play at the Theatre Royal, Stratford (London) and had reviewed it for Anti-Apartheid News. The play suddenly made more sense. The twists in the road, the velocity of the cars, the wrecks and the apparent nonchalance of the drivers were all there in front of us. Soyinka subsequently confirmed that the idea for the play came to him after a road trip to Lagos, when a white cockerel smashed into his windscreen and a mile later, he encountered a corpse lying in the road after a fatal car accident. A central character in the play is ‘the Professor’ who collects parts from smashed cars to sell on. The Professor is in a Faustian pact with Ogun, the Yoruba god of the road (the deity is a busy one, being the god of thunder, lightning and lots of other things too). Ogun is notoriously predatory and always on the lookout for fresh meat – The Road feeds his insatiable appetite while supplying the Professor with his stock in trade.
We learned to fear that road and hated going to Lagos. The taxi drivers in their Peugeot 404s had to make at least two trips to make their journeys pay and put their feet on their accelerators. We also witnessed a truck driver belting along with both feet out of the window, cooling off. We supposed he had placed a brick on the accelerator. As the war progressed, roadblocks were set up for security reasons and though they were a nuisance, we could do nothing but tolerate them. However, one always had to look out for fake roadblocks set up by deserting soldiers who carried weapons and were dressed in uniform but were there trying to scalp innocent travellers. Sadly, we also lost a young Nigerian colleague at Ibadan in a road accident not far from Sagamu.
Ibadan and the University
We were not quite sure what to expect but were somewhat bemused as we entered the city. If you can imagine the work of Georges-Eugene Haussmann in methodically laying out the avenues and boulevards of Paris, then turning that around 180 degrees, you would have some idea of Ibadan in the 1960s – the higgledy-piggledy houses, sagging tin roofs, hills and dips, markets, shops, stalls, paths, roads and streets had blatantly defied the clean lines of the town planners, architects and modernizers. Here and there – in Mapo Hall, Cocoa House and the Premier Inn (an Israeli-built hotel) – modernity had been at work but turn only a few metres away and the unruly ways of the old city reasserted themselves. The key to understanding this strange urban landscape is that Ibadan was a pre-colonial city, with farmers historically commuting outside the city’s defence perimeter to toil in their fields. Its odd appearance was somewhat charming.
We looped around an apology for a ring road, entered an impressive gateway, and finally got a glimpse of our new place of work. The University of Ibadan had been built (along with Legon in Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, the University of Dar es Saleem and others) as a result of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1945/6) which authorized spending to prepare the colonies for independence. It is definitely not part of our brief to defend British colonialism in general, but it is fair to record that some important investments were made in education, agricultural development and welfare in the colonies, influenced by the incoming Labour government. In this spirit, two very prominent architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, were hired to build the University of Ibadan. The architects had also worked on the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall and there are echoes of this in some of the university’s buildings.
Tim Livsey, an architectural historian, accurately describes the style of the university as ‘tropical modern’. Though he admires their designs, Livsey also denounces the university’s buildings as too expensive and too elitist, finding echoes of Oxbridge in the intimate quadrangles in the halls of residence and elsewhere. Having worked at Ibadan and Oxford (and six other universities) Robin finds this characterization a bit of a stretch. The architects worked intelligently with shaped concrete and ornate breeze blocks which, in fact, mimicked the emerging vernacular architecture in Nigeria. They also developed a simple and sensible form of air cooling. The gap between two breeze block walls was filled with palm fronds onto which dripped a steady trickle of water, lowering the temperature to tolerable levels. As the war progressed and the electricity supplies became erratic, the buildings that post-dated Fry and Drew’s, which relied on conventional air-conditioning, became sweat boxes and Robin manoeuvred as best he could to teach all his classes in the older lecture rooms.
One of the original Maxwell Fry/Jane Drew buildings, University of Ibadan
‘Oh no’, we have a steward
The bus from Lagos twisted quietly around the campus and came to a gentle halt at a little shop adjacent to the University of Ibadan Staff Club. Here a surprise awaited us. There was a line of male workers, known as stewards who, by some unknown process, had been assigned to each newcomer. They knew our names, but we did not know theirs. As new staff members stepped out of the bus, they were politely greeted by a steward who explained that he would be working for them. We held back a bit in the bus as we realized what was happening and noticed a certain amount of shuffling around in the queue of workers. Finally, it was our turn and it was quite clear that our hesitancy was more than matched by the steward who had been fingered to work for us. We were young, casually dressed, and definitely not employer material. Our designated steward’s disappointment was barely concealed. To be honest, we were uncomfortable and felt cornered. We had grown up in apartheid South Africa and our families had servants. We thought we had escaped all that by migrating to the UK and then independent Africa. When he introduced himself as Friday Etukudo, our embarrassment was complete. ‘His name is Friday,’ we muttered to each other, ‘and we are Mr and Mrs Robinson Crusoe!’
9 Gbenro Ogunbiyi Close, Ibadan, our home for two years. Note the pawpaw trees, planted by Selina (a useful source of food), and Friday Etukudo’s bicycle.
We say more about Friday Etukudo elsewhere in our memoir, but it is necessary to record now that we thank our lucky stars that we had been paired with him by some unknown benign force. Friday was an absolutely wonderful employee and companion. Without his knowledge, loyalty and support we would have been in serious trouble on more than one occasion. We were taken to our house, a simple concrete bungalow, off campus in a nearby suburb, Bodija, to which Friday cycled each weekday morning for his half-day with us. Our new life in Ibadan had begun.
Selina Molteno has been a professional ballet dancer and an anti-apartheid activist. She has travelled widely and lived in Nigeria (1967–9), Trinidad (1977–9) and returned to her native country, South Africa, after the end of apartheid (2001–4). She now lives in Oxford in the UK where she founded a publishing service. With over 35 years’ experience in publishing she has piloted many books and articles from manuscript to successful publication. Her letters home during her period as a dancer based in Paris were published as Letters from an intrepid ballet dancer (2015).
Robin Cohen is an established scholar in development studies and sociology, known best for his writings on migration, diasporas and globalization. He has taught at seven universities in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Oxford. His books include Labour and politics in Nigeria (1972), Global diasporas: An introduction (1997, rev. 2008), Global sociology (co-author, 2000, rev. 2007, 2013), Migration: Human movement from prehistory to the present (2019) and Refugia: Radical solutions to mass displacement (co-author, 2020).
Featured Photograph: The gatehouse, University of Ibadan.
. Pat Leyland (Kaufert) worked on migration, health and local development in the town of Tsito, Ghana, and later in life undertook research on the Inuit while at the University of Manitoba. She died in 2019. Paul Kennedy completed pioneering research on African entrepreneurs in Ghana and he and Robin later co-authored a popular textbook, Global Sociology (2013). Paul died in 2020. His obituary is here.
. John Martin ‘Homeward Bound: The Experiences of a Caterer with Elder Dempster Lines’, March 2017.
. Robin was much later in his academic career to spend four years researching Creoles and creolization, his interest in the process of sharing cultures having partly stemmed from this memory. See Robin Cohen and Olivia Sheringham, Encountering Difference: Diasporic Traces, Creolizing Places (2016). The best book on Sierra Leone’s Creoles is Arthur T. Porter’s Creoledom: A Study of Freetown Society (1963), a Creole himself and a former principal of Fourah Bay College.
. John Martin ‘Homeward Bound: The Experiences of a Caterer with Elder Dempster Lines, March 2017.
. See G. Vasistha Bhargavi, ‘Wole Soyinka’s The Road: The drama of existence in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones’, IUP Journal of English Studies, 11 (3) 2016.
. The reference, for younger readers, is to a popular 1719 novel titled Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, which foreshadows colonialism and racial divisions of labour. Of course, the connection was only in our minds. It is common in West Africa to name children after the day they were born.