Tuesday, 13 January 2009


This Sunday last year, I and the rest of the congregation of St Magnus the Martyr was processing across London Bridge on a blustery winter’s day with full altar party to meet the congregation of Southwark Cathedral arriving from the south side, for the annual blessing of the Thames.

This year, whilst record congregations gathered on London Bridge to also celebrate the 800th birthday of London Bridge, I also celebrated the Baptism of our Lord at church and on the water but in slightly different circumstances.

For those who read the Kagoro Day entry, you will have met Vera, one of our lovely neighbours in Kagoro and friend of Marcus and Sabine’s, who happily welcomed and generously entertained six unexpected batauri at her home on New Year’s Day.

Vera is a professor at the College of Education in Gidan Waya. Much of her success has come thanks to Father John Haverty in Kachia who saw her potential when he unexpectedly caught her reading alone by lantern-light in the quiet of the church when she was a young girl, and supported her education when her mother, the family’s principal breadwinner, fell ill. Through Vera we were all invited to attend mass at St John’s Catholic Church in Kachia followed by lunch at the Reverend Father's.

Unfortunately Dori was still feeling the after affects of a bad bout of gastro-something or the other, so it was only I that accompanied Marcus and Sabine on the 70km drive up to Kachia. We arrived in good time for the 09:30 mass and snapped the church and a contingent of the choir before entering the Church, which quickly filled to the gunwhales amoungst a colourful mass of wrappers and headdresses.

Father Haverty quickly greeted us in our pew before rushing off to officiate the service. He has been in this part of Nigeria for 42 years and speaks Hausa fluently, such that the service was delivered bi-lingually. Like in London, the theme was baptism and specifically the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.

Like at our previous experience in Christ the King in Kagoro the service was lively and musical. Although there were only two ‘thanksgivings’, most of the 900-strong congregation took communion, however the service seemed over in a flash by exactly 11:30.

Thanks to Sabine for the photos

Accompanied by Vera, we took the short walk to the [priest’s house] just behind the Church where we met our second hostess, heavily pregnant Gloria who was also the principal of the primary section of St John’s School, a very successful local school started by Father Haverty. As we had a cup of tea, visitors came and went until finally Father Haverty had completed his Sunday duties and suggested that it would be a good day to take a short trip to the river. Having got the impression that this was a quick 20 minute stroll we were slightly surprised to be getting back into the cars. I travelled with Father Haverty and Vera whilst Marcus, Sabine and Gloria followed.

Father Haverty explained that we were going to visit a dam which had been constructed two years earlier to water the rapidly expanding (and parched) population of Abuja. Whilst bringing badly needed water supplies to Nigeria’s young capital city, the effect on the local population had been far less positive. Whilst the populations of the eight or so villages that had been submerged by the growing lake had been compensated for their land, they had received only money, not advice. Many had not been aware of how the lake would actually consume their livelihoods and had found other uses for the cash before they realised that their homes and farmlands would be swallowed. When the days came to evacuate many found themselves without homes, land or money. Hopefully things will be handled differently next time.

We followed a new tarred road for about 20 km before it reverted to a sand track which ended abruptly in a very beautiful and somewhat unexpected lake where a couple of small, but surprisingly sea-worthy looking craft waited to take travellers to the other side, where the road continued to further villages.

Father Haverty negotiated fares with the owner of a smart looking fibre-glass boat, fully equipped with life jackets and we boarded. Vera is not confident on water as she can’t swim and quickly grabbed hold of a jacket, whilst the rest of us tried to persuade her that our combined aquatic skills would get her out of any trouble, whilst we ourselves were not keen to go for a dip in the water that was likely to be infested with bilharzia and other interesting tropical diseases. However at least we knew that our immediate lives would not be in danger...

As we sped across the glassy water we passed palm trees disappearing beneath the waterline, flying fish (well –I saw one) and huge rock inselbergs, characteristic of the area, emerging straight from the water.

After an uneventful 20 minute trip we arrived at the other side where a large crowd was waiting, made up of passengers waiting to return, fishermen and their families and competing ferrymen. We took on three new passengers, including a young women and her small boy, Destiny.

We appeared to manoeuvre gingerly back from the beach through the recently submerged trees and shrubs but clearly not carefully enough as the outboard made a grumpy sound and the propellor was lifted carefully out of the water as the pilot used a small oar to pass between the small saplings that were still dotted about in the shallows. A request was hollered to the waiting craft at the jetty, one of which started a short journey out, however it soon transpired that they were not so much interested in lending us a screw-driver as nicking the passengers and their return fare money. This was not our captain’s plan which soon became obvious to the approaching boat which then about-turned and headed back to shore.

Although I am familiar with the skills of Nigerian mechanics on dry land, this was my first encounter with such a situation on water. However after much discussion (and nervousness from Vera who, as you will remember, was not confident on water in the first place) we managed to get going. Apparently the problem was with the wiring of the throttle from the pilot’s control deck to the outboard engine. This was resolved by the captain steering and the first mate hold down the throttle on the outboard manually, with a nice big smile on his face.

Before long, and to Vera’s great relief, we reached the opposite shore and quickly returned to the cars, with a few extra passengers including Destiny and his mother, as we were by now all getting rather peckish. On the return journey we stopped a couple of times to ensure the Marcus was keeping up in his less Nigerian-road-worthy Golf, where any local people would come up to the car and warmly greet the priest who had been active in that or neighbouring parishes for over 40 years. For once the VSOs were not the main attraction in the vehicle (until I pulled my camera out!).

We arrived back at the rectory where a wonderful feast, prepared by Vera and Gloria and Father Haverty’s steward, awaited us along with ice cold drinks. Not only had NEPA been kind, but St John’s rectory is blessed with a solar-powered fridge. Following a starter of an unexpectedly delicious stew of unidentified pieces of animal intestines, we were treated to jollof rice, wonderful tomato sauce, fried chicken and delight of delights – Irish potato cakes made from... well Irish potatoes (how what we would call normal potatoes are distinguished from sweet potatoes – known colloquially merely as ‘irish’).

Delight because we have not been able to find ‘irish’ in Kagoro or Kafanchan markets recently with the harvest now being more or less confined to the plateau and Jos.

The six of us sat in Father Haverty’s sitting room, surrounded by Christmas decorations, cards, numerous awards and signs of gratitude from the local community, newspapers from Galway and the Catholic Church in Ireland and a young and playful kitten that had been employed for rat catching. It is difficult to really explain the enjoyment of the setting as we chatted about many things including the Father’s tireless work with education in the community, the weather in Connemara, our Kagoro neighbour Justice Aka’ahs who had been the Father’s pupil in Kaduna in 1968, the desperate shortage of science teachers in St John’s secondary school (any aspiring science teachers out there with wanderlust?) and how to spot which of the infinite number of candidates to give direct support to in the State’s poverty-stricken communities.

Thanks again to Sabine for the pictures at Father Haverty's

By the time the fruit salad and sangria had arrived, and Vera had finally persuaded Father Haverty that Johnny Cash’s particular strain of country music was more suitable for a funeral that a Sunday lunch, it was time for us visitors to take our leave in order to ensure we avoided a repeat of Nigerian Night Drive. We were genuinely all extremely sorry to leave, however not even the unbeatable mix of Nigerian and Irish hospitality could allay our fears of the combination of darkness and Nigerian driving.

With only a short and uneventful stop at a military roadblock just outside Samaru to delay our journey, we returned back whilst there was still light – both in the sky, and more surprisingly in the electricity wires.

Despite being 1,000s of miles away in Africa, our celebrations of church, water, lunch and good company was very similar to those being had by friends and colleagues at St Magnus' in the City of London at the same time.


Alison said...

You've definitely taken to the headscarves, haven't you? You're definitely the one who wears them most (apart from the Nigerians, I mean).

Anonymous said...

Hi Cecil,
Jared here - well I have to say I never expected to see a dam in the middle of Nigeria that was worthy of being called a lake...it looked huge...you should have taken your togues. And I was amazed to see a palm tree growing in the middle of it....or is that a carry over effect of your larium....I can't be sure!! Hahaha!!
Your lunch looked scrumptious (esp the Irish spuds)!!
The service on Sunday was very well attended - 200 plus people and lets just say that they rasied the bar in terms of the lunch but Franks at St Magnus is still on the top shelf! Great photos and great food care of my mum's name sake. Take care.
Love Jared xx

Olusegun Osewa said...

I searched for Father Haverty and came across this beautiful story. Made me feel so nostalgic.

Father Haverty administered the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Communion and Confirmation on me some 30 odd years ago at the NASA Catholic Church, close to Kachia. I remember him everyday. It was so refreshing seeing a picture of him again.

God bless this wonderful steward!

Cicely Brown said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment Olusegun.. It seems a long time ago now but I love re-reading the blog and all the great experiences and it's wonderful to know that someone, even if just one person, out there might be appreciating it too!