In 1959, Peter Haring Judd became a history teacher in a secondary school in Maidaguri, the capital of Bornu province in northern Nigeria. He had completed his US military service and was looking for something to do with his life that the Peace Corps, to be founded two years later, would offer younger generations of Americans who wanted to see the world and do something purposeful. He applied for a teaching post with the African-American Institute, and was sent to Bornu. Soon after arrival he was drafted to serve as an elections officer for local plebiscite elections leading up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960. His diaries are the basis for this memoir of the last remnants of British colonial rule in the area that would be ravaged by the Boko Haram in the early 21st century.
Figures in a Spare Landscape is unexpectedly absorbing, even if you don’t know much about Nigeria or its history. The narrative can be read at the level of simply following Judd’s life as an election officer, trying to teach the complex processes to his colleagues, and observing what he observes, experiencing the impressions of relentless dry heat and the terrible roads, and the chaos of elections and canvassing. We can read this as a post-colonial memoir, since Judd is scrupulously fair in describing the failures of the British system, and the rare, unexpected moments when the British staff and their wives (no British women were employed directly by the colonial service in these parts) seemed happy in their village outposts. We can try to read this as a teaching memoir, though the actual teaching that Judd did seems to have been largely pointless, since the pupils would rarely respond to anything but rote learning, or a wildly successful history field trip to a ruined city near the border with Niger. It’s also a successful work about responses to landscape and temperature, and learning to adapt to heat and dust with cheerfulness.
For me the most absorbing aspects were reading between the lines, wondering how much of these nine months had been forgotten or unobserved, or left out, for whatever reason. Judd writes about his servants Sarke, Mohammedu and Bukar Gwoza with affection and respect. He describes the nomads and the settled villagers, the agricultural work and the life of the villages, the different routes to authority taken by the villages’ different lawans, and the dance and music offered for his entertainment. He’s limited by his lack of the local languages, though his French is useful when he’s talking to people straying over the border from nearby Cameroon. So he asks and he asks, and his servants tell him what he wants to know, but how many nuances were lost?
Probably lots, but Judd seems to have been a scrupulous and honest recorder, using his journals as a existential disquisition on what he was doing there, was any of his work worth anything to the local people. He’s happiest spending time in short bursts with Nigerians, or with fellow Europeans, but is not tempted to live wholly in a village (even if this were possible), and certainly not all the time in the white enclaves. His fellow teachers cause him more anger than any other group, and he rages at the inadequacy of the inherited, irrelevant colonial curriculum, and the wasted teaching opportunities, of not being able to do real good to the boys in his charge. He’d rather eat his lunch on a hillside watching a market, than in a stuffy white-occupied dining room, and he’s embarrassed, again and again, by thoughtless British apartheid, not offering a drink to a black boy, not asking a black man into the house.
This is a resource for west African historians, for Nigerian political historians, and for readers who want to see back in time to the days of Empire. Buy it here from the publishers, Spuyten Duivel.
(Full disclosure: I’ve already published a book of Peter’s.)