A Nigerian Garden by Muriel Barnett

A Nigerian Garden by Muriel Barnett

Muriel Barnett (d. 2001) was the wife of DE Barnett (1917 – 1992), who worked as an auditor in Nigeria on behalf of the British Colonial Service. (He appears to have been in rotation between East Africa and Nigeria at around the same time, plus a stint in Palestine, but the year 1948 is recorded as the date of his last posting in Nigeria) Here is Mrs. Barnett’s account of her gardening experience during her time in the country.

When first I went to live in Southern Nigeria in 1937 my most outstanding impression of the landscape was the monotony of the dull green of the trees. Strange too was the lack of seasonal changes – except for the heavy rains in March. Heat night and day. Seeds sprouted whatever time of the year one entrusted them to the soil, provided one kept them well watered. The sight of the ubiquitous palm tree brought little joy. All year round its lower branches hung bedraggled while its topmost ones reared clownishly erect.

Providentially other trees were kinder to the European eye displaying vivid red-gold blossoms like the umbrella-shaped flamboyant tree.
Gardening in Nigeria is not so much the art of encouraging things to grow as of preventing the unwanted from taking over. Wooden fences, even telegraph poles, have been reported to take root on occasion. Making a hedge is a simple affair in Southern Nigeria. One just shoves short rough cuttings of African prickleless holly criss-cross into the ground. I used to feel sorry for the slender cassia trees which reproduced themselves so fast they were viciously hacked down to provide a daily supply of firewood for the kitchen stove.
Three colours of bougainvillaea cascaded over the balustrade of our verandah. The usual purple, the dramatic crimson and the rarer coral pink. At times before its pruning we seemed to be living in the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty.
Some Europeans had all ground-vegetation scraped off round the house to create a sandy weedless desert while others cultivated a carpet of runner-grass to protect their eyes from the harsh glare of red laterite.

Except in the forest where rotting leaves yield rich humus, continual cropping tends to exhaust the soil, so that while plants may grow fast they are far from Chelsea Flower Show standard. The same can be said of the local fruits. Cucumbers mature rapidly to produce comparatively tasteless fruit which during the night is often rendered useless by nocturnal insects munching over them haphazardly. Lettuces run to seed, never heart, their leaves drooping floppy as a Dali Watch. Tomatoes grow swiftly but have none of the tangy flavour of the Scottish variety. Grapefruit trees bear large green-skinned spheres which taste sweeter than any we could buy from the greengrocer at home. Mangoes are plentiful but have a turpentinish flavour and were not eaten by Europeans, but the avocados and the soursops – although they did not look like our peaches and strawberries – tasted not unlike them. Bananas and melon-shaped paw-paw grew in profusion, as well as coconuts, but not apples nor pears. And how one longed to sink one’s teeth into a crisp apple or a well-ripened plum.

Having to move house from Government Stations at short notice often prevented colonial gardeners from embarking on elaborate schemes. Besides, frequent house reallocation discouraged ownership of heavy tools such as lawn-mowers. Trimming the rough lawn was referred to by the garden-boy as “barbing de grass”, which entailed taking savage swipes at it with his machete. If one craved flower beds then trenches had to be dug two feet deep ready for an infill of fertile black earth fetched from the forest by one of the garden-boys using a head-pan for lack of a wheel-barrow. Every evening it was his task to water the flower-beds using water in buckets from the stand-pipe at the kitchen doorway which he scattered by means of a raggedly perforated cigarette tin. Such was the strength of his habit that even in the torrential rains of March he would keep up this routine in the late afternoon.

Plants and seeds brought hopefully from Britain seldom arrived in Nigeria in good condition, since once the ship reached the heat of the tropical latitudes they tended to deteriorate beyond redemption. One friend of ours created a garden with nothing but blue blooms. And a great success he made of it, although he was telling no secrets! Many people managed a creditable show of colour using plants such as scarlet zinnias and balsams as well as deep red canna lilies.

Our compound in Yaba, six miles north of Lagos, grew from its sandy desert six varieties of hibiscus shrubs of different colours. One of them put on a show which seemed pure magic. I would gather a bowlful of its white blossoms in the afternoon, keep it in the fridge and place it in the centre of the dining-table just before guests sat down to dinner. As we munched our way through the courses we would be granted a magic exhibition. Its colour change would range from white through pink to deep red by the time we were drinking coffee.
I have pleasurable memories of the cool-looking ice-plant and pink oleander as well as blue morning glory – no association with the drug scheme in those days – which climbed the wall on one side of the kitchen door. It jostled with another creeper with feathery leaves and bright scarlet flowers whose name I never managed to discover. At the lower end of the garden a massive magnolia covered itself with cream tinted flowers in the evening. The door at the front of the house was flanked on one side by dutchman’s pipe and on the other by my great joy the moon-flower. It has often been said that West African flowers lack scent, but the moon-flower puts paid to all that. Its delicate perfume is out of this world. At dusk, especially at the time of full moon, I would stand in front of it watching its buds slowly unfold like a rapid-camera film presentation. Once its white saucer-sized flowers opened to their fullest extent they exuded an exotic perfume, which pervaded the house for the rest of the night. In the morning its dead petals drooped fawnish yellow. Nonetheless the show was put on again the following evening. Many times I think how fortunate I am to have experienced the magic of the African moon-flower.

We were posted for a short time to Northern Nigeria in 1942 while my husband was seconded to the Royal West African Frontier Force. There our garden presented us with an enormous delight. It was alive, friendly and the most lovable of garden inhabitants, a reddish-coloured rhesus monkey. He slept at night in some secret place and played in our garden during the day. We christened him Archibald.
One of my self-imposed duties was to change the flowers and the water in the vases every day to prevent the spread of mosquitos. As soon as Archibald saw me approaching with the secateurs in my hand he would run to meet me and hold up his hand for me to take as I would a child’s. Then he would lead me down the path and point out to me what he considered the brightest blooms. And I would go along with his choice. Sometimes a particularly pleasing spray would be at the end of a tree-branch beyond my reach. So Archibald would let go of my hand, shin up the tree and gingerly ease his way along the slender branch so that his weight brought the prize within my reach. I would hold on to it and give him time to streak back to safety before I applied the secateurs. Then he would leap to the ground, take my hand and escort me back to the house. Archibald seldom entered our living quarters although I once caught him sitting at my writing-desk examining a lead pencil with wondering eyes and inquisitive fingers. He split it down the side seam, then threw it to the ground. Nothing magic about it, his expression said.
We had to leave the house hurriedly when our turn for a passage home by boat came our way. We couldn’t take Archibald with us, but that was no problem. Archibald watched us go sitting half-way up our acacia tree. He made it plain he was not leaving ‘his’ garden. We heard two or three years later that Archibald had been found one morning at the foot of the magnolia tree stretched out peaceably in his final sleep. So our Nigerian garden in the south of the country and in the north each had something special for us to remember them by. The magic of the chameleon hibiscus, and the moon-flower’s bewitching scent as well as Archibald’s heart-warming ways. How fortunate I have been with my memories of Nigerian gardens.

  • First published in OSPA Journal 85: April 2003. Reprinted in the book, I Remember It Well: Fifty Years of Colonial Service Personal Reminiscences (2010). edited by David Le Breton

I culled this except from the Facebook group The Nigeria Nostalgia 1960 – 1980 Project

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