SUCH, from cradle to grave, is the life story of an Ibibio woman, so far as those of her people were willing to confide it to one of an alien race. It is naturally a matter of regret that, owing to the fear of being blamed by their kin for having imparted so much information to a stranger, hardly one of my informants would allow her name to be given as authority for any statement here set down. When, however, men and women can be brought to grasp the fact, to which some natives with more than a veneer of education are gradually awakening, that Africans have a great deal more to win than lose by placing on record old customs and beliefs before these are overwhelmed by the oncoming waves of alien religion and culture, the greatest stumbling-block will have been removed from the path of inquirers. It is true that there is much of barbarity and hideous cruelty in these ancient ceremonies, which the civilised negro would fain hide from the knowledge of white races, but it is doubtful whether there is anything more terrible to be disclosed concerning the fetish rites of West Africa than those known to have been practised in the early stages of all the great religions of the world, as witness Egyptian
and Babylonian bas-reliefs. Yet, side by side with much that will be found revolting to twentieth century ideas, there yet remain traces of traditions and beliefs of a depth and value to which northern races are only just awakening.
Again, at the present day, whether we sympathise with or decry the feminist movement, the fact remains that, for good or ill, a spirit of restlessness has swept over the women of the world. A stirring and quickening has come to them, rousing a consciousness of power long latent which, rightly directed, may suffice to destroy pitfalls and sweep clean those foul places which now surround the path of the poor and weak, but which, wrongly guided, might lead along unlovely roads to sex antagonism and barren hate. The condition of many an African tribe of to-day is in all essentials the same as that through which we ourselves once passed in long-forgotten ages. Surely then, on whichever side we stand in the vexed question of the hour, 1 it is well for us to look back now and again and watch how primitive woman held her own, or learn what yet remains to be gleaned of the stages by which she rose to dominion over, or sank to serfdom beneath, the men of her day.
While re-reading these pages before sending them to press, news came that two women, splendidly trained and equipped, have set out to do, in another quarter of the globe, what is so inadequately attempted here. Perhaps, later on, others as well fitted as they
may be induced to turn their attention to the women of Africa.
To my critics I would say that the first steps along a road, which to a certain extent at least has hitherto remained untrodden, are necessarily difficult and uncertain, and that only the intense interest which such a study has for us and the more than kindness of those whose opinion we so greatly value has emboldened me, in default of one more fitted, to attempt even so inadequate an account of these primitive women.
Perhaps a few words on another subject may be permitted here. A recent visitor to the coast wrote on her return reproaching her countrymen because so few English officials take their wives to West Africa, while many French and Germans do so. In discussing the matter with a German acquaintance on one of the boats, she quotes him as saying, apropos of the presence of white women, "It is only the English who fear the rains"--and herself adds in comment, "I deplored, though I could not resent, the slight touch of contempt in his tone."
Had this gifted authoress been aware of the true state of the case, and known how many men fruitlessly apply year after year for permission to bring their wives, she could have removed a misapprehension from the mind of her fellow-traveller, and would herself have had nothing to deplore on this score with regard to her countrymen save their misfortune in being deprived of those whose companionship they eagerly desire. Of one other point she, in common with the general public, also seemed unaware. The German
and French Governments, recognising the fact that the presence of white women in their colonies does more than anything else to destroy abuses, raise the standard of morals, and make men contented with their lot, defray the cost of the voyage for the wife of every official, while the whole expense, averaging some seventy pounds per tour, must be borne by the Englishman, who, when all things are taken into account, is no more highly paid than his brother officials across the border.
It is, of course, true that many women are unsuited for the hardships of life out here. Some, too, might possibly hinder work, either by seeking to interfere in so-called "government palavers" which by no means concern them, or by holding back their husbands from that constant travelling which alone makes possible efficient supervision in countries such as these. For an official the interests of Government should naturally come before all others, but it would be easy enough for the authorities to judge, from travelling returns and district reports, whether, in any case, the presence of a wife had resulted in a falling off in efficiency, and those women deemed undesirable could be forbidden to return.
On behalf of my sister and myself I would venture to express thanks to Government for having allowed us, during nearly six years, to accompany my husband on all his journeyings. The conditions under which administration is carried on in countries such as this can hardly be grasped at home. In the chief towns it is true that, save for the unhealthiness of the climate, the state of affairs would not seem so much harder
than in England; but in disturbed districts and at bush stations, where adequate supervision often entails ten to twelve hours work a day for long stretches, with the thermometer at a temperature of 80° to 90°, interspersed with marches varying from twelve to twenty miles per them in a downpour almost constant for nearly half the year, things wear a very different aspect. Under these conditions it is impossible for the overworked officials to give time to seemingly insignificant matters which are, however, so important in a climate such as this, i.e. variety of diet, food values, airing of garments, and, above all, the filtering of water. Were the restrictions now placed on the coming of wives removed, I venture to think it would do more than anything else to decrease the death toll and improve the standard of health in the tropics.
It was lately remarked to me by a woman of high rank in the colony, "Out here one hardly ever hears a man complain as to the worries and hardships of his lot." Difficulties are made light of and anxieties borne in silence, while on every hand one sees examples of devotion to duty not the less heroic because unrecorded, and a gay-hearted courage which is beyond all praise. Few even among the great Elizabethans took more terrible risks than are borne every day by one or other of these quiet men whose names are seldom or never heard in England. Yet, when in carrying out orders they meet a cruel death, as only too often happens, or still more frequently are invalided home, ruined in health by the hardship of life out here, scarcely a word of praise or thanks is accorded them.
At the present time, Nigeria is fortunate in the
presence of a woman whose goodness, charm and broad sympathies are gratefully acknowledged by all who have the privilege of meeting her. Could but a few more such be attracted to the colony conditions would indeed soon show a vast improvement.
In conclusion, I would venture to add that, to the great anthropologists at home and to those highly placed officials who have given encouragement so unstinted, as also to the one whose selflessness made possible the writing of this little record, I have no words in which to express my grateful thanks. Had the idea been earlier suggested, or had it been possible before beginning to gather information concerning the women dealt with in these pages, to have had the advice of those scientists who on our return so generously devoted time and trouble to pointing out the best lines on which to carry out such a study, this little account would naturally have been of far greater value. We can only hope that--better equipped as we now are for further investigations, through the teaching and advice so more than kindly expended upon us--we may have the opportunity of undertaking fresh inquiries as to the women of other Nigerian tribes.
239:1 A matter of much interest at the time of writing, but now relegated to the half-forgotten things of yesterday by the cataclysm which burst upon the world in August, 1914.