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My father was a remarkable man. Over the course of his long life, he met very few men whose will was stronger than his own. Here’s the story of one of them:
Shortly after World War II, Dad was ordered to the ancient Northern Nigerian city of Sokoto to serve as the Assistant District Officer (that is, as everyone else’s general dogsbody) in the British Colonial Service. It was his first posting, and the culmination of a childhood dream that had as its origin the adventure books of Edgar Wallace and the stories of his hero, Sanders of the River.
When I was entering my teens, nineteen out of any twenty English boys you picked would have known of Wallace, and most of them would have known who Sanders was as well. Those who did not, had simply not yet got around to reading the eleven books that Wallace produced, between 1911 and 1928, featuring his hero, the legendary District Commissioner Sanders, together with Captain Hamilton and Lieutenant Bones, the soldiers commanding his detachment of Hausa Police, and Bosambo, the wily Monrovian who Sanders plucked from the jungle to be his right-hand, man, who then became Chief of the Akasava, a tribe until then rent by internecine feuding. As I found out later in life, kasava (manioc) is the staple food around Forcados, where Wallace was stationed for part of his term in West Africa. The simple addition of an “A” to this common Nigerian word makes it a thoroughly acceptable and relevant tribal name. But I digress. [Note well: The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree in this regard.]
In 1935, Paul Robeson starred as Bosambo in Zoltan Korda’s film version of the first of the books, with Leslie Banks as Sanders. Robeson is later said to have regretted playing the part, which by then he thought had demeaned him; though in the eyes of many a British filmgoer of the day (especially young boys–myself included) it had made him a superstar. Years before that, however, on the strength of the books alone, I had already decided that if at all possible I was going to become (as Robeson sang, over the film’s opening credits):
“Sandi the strong! Sandi the wise!
Righter of wrong! Hater of lies!
Laughed as he fought! Worked as he played
As he has taught, let it be made!”
As with most things in Dad’s life, the wish was father to the thought, and so he did.
Not long after his arrival, Dad was sent East from Sokoto into the bush and instructed to bring back a prisoner from somewhere around Gusau so that the man could stand trial for what we’d call premeditated murder. So, one fine day, Dad and his cavalcade of African “tour guides” and native bearers (Dad–in his late twenties at this time–was the only non-African in the group) set off on their trek across the sub-Saharan savanna. Shortly after “lift-off,” and as per the usual custom, the fellows carrying all the gear stopped in their tracks, put it down, and waited as their women appeared out of nowhere, picked it all up, put it on their heads with a very bad grace, and thus burdened proceeded down the trail followed by their now happy and chattering menfolk. Go figure.
Four or five days later, the little troupe arrived at its destination, retrieved the prisoner from the village authorities, did some provisioning for the return journey, and prepared to set off back to Sokoto with the criminal in tow.
Dad found the murderer, who had confessed to the crime, to be a youngish and articulate man who spoke Hausa (at which Dad was becoming increasingly fluent), and who was full of stories of local lore and customs. Dad, being Dad, soaked them all up avidly, along with the only danger signal and concerning thing that he could spot in the developing situation, which was the prisoner’s repeated declaration that he would never stand trial because he would be dead before the group got back to Sokoto. Dad, a rational man and a realist to the core, wasn’t having any of that, and kept a close eye on the convict, insuring that he ate a reasonable amount of food and drank plenty of water, and that he had no access to any means to cause himself harm.
And yet, the prisoner, who remained affable and chatty, and who was experiencing no outward signs of physical deterioration, continued to insist that he was dying and that he would never stand trial for the murder he’d committed (after which he’d surely be hanged), because he would be dead before the group got back to Sokoto.
Eventually, even someone as generally immune to suggestion as my father became a bit worried by the prisoner’s air of determination and certainty, and on the night before the group was to reach Sokoto, he chained the prisoner (who was already handcuffed and shackled) to his left arm, sat them both down propped up against a tree, and fell into a night of uneasy and fitful dozing.
The following morning, he found himself handcuffed to a dead man.