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Nigerian Field Society

The Nigerian Field 65:3-11 (2000)
David T. Okpako
Vice-President & Chairman of Council, 1992-1994
President & Chairman of Council, 1994-2000

How it began

At the ripe age of three score and ten years, the Nigerian Field Society (NFS) is entitled to reflect on its life. From the minutes and other documents of the Society one gets some impression of the great events that shaped it from the beginning. As Chairman of Council, I have had the privilege to see the Society at work at close range for the past eight years. I consider it a great honour to be able,in that capacity, to write this tribute, which consists mostly of snippets from the records seen in the light of present day.

Founded in 1930, only 16 years after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates and 32years after Flora Lugard (née Shaw) first gave the name Nigeria to the several British protectorates on the Niger, but 30 years before Nigeria became independent, the NFS' struggles for survival have paralleled those of the nation whose name it bears. The NFS founder himself, Mr. A.F.B. Bridges, B.E.M. (1895-1994) was born in another colonial territory, India, just before the Berlin Treaty of 1898 where European colonial powers carved up Africa and assigned the territory now known as Nigeria to Queen Victoria's Britain.

Frank grew up at a time when the British colonial administration was consolidating its hold on its African territories. He arrived in Nigeria in 1921, aged 25, to take up the post of Assistant District Officer (ADO) at Onitsha. To get there from Port Harcourt where his boat landed, he had to trek for 14 days through the bush. Frank has described his experience of this journey (the company of trekkers included 3 Europeans and 116 local carriers) in his autobiography titled, How we used to do. In it are some memorable descriptions of spectacular scenery of the tropical rain forest as it was then. Here is an example from page 3:

The footpath pushed its way rudely between groups of immense trees standing together as if in conversation, their 80-foot trunks free of all branches below the level of the canopy,the silence only broken by the laughing cackles of hornbills and the swish of their wings as they flew about, high up above the branches.

There are hardly any high forest trees "standing together in conversation" any more anywhere in Nigeria. Almost certainly, it was his experience of treks in the tropical bush that stimulated Frank Bridges into thinking of founding a journal similar to The Field (then published in London), in which observations of an outdoor life in Nigeria would be recorded. According to his own notes (see Minute Book, vol. 1, p. 1), the thought of a Nigerian Field Society and a journal had occurred to him very soon after arriving in Nigeria. But it was some time before the first meeting of the Society was held in Enugu, on 3 October 1930. The Nigerian Field was started the following year, the first issue appearing in 1931, 10 years after Frank Bridges' arrival in Nigeria.

How NFS used to do

Some reflection on the Society's 70-year experience is important in order to appreciate properly the present and anticipate the future. The Society has been more or less faithful to the founders' aims which appear in different wordings in our documents. The substance of the aims remains as it was first stated on 18 March 1931 (Minute Book, Vol. 1, p. 16):

A Society has been formed... with the object of encouraging interest in Nigeria, its fauna and flora, its history, legends and customs, its native arts and crafts, and science, sport and hobbies. It is a non-political, non-sectarian Society, and open to all Nigerians, past and present, European and African. (my italics)

The phrase "all Nigerians past and present" may seem obscure but it was most probably a reference to the tendency of the colonial servants and other Brits then to see themselves as "Nigerians", and even "Southern" or "Northern Nigerians" depending on where they served. This attitude underlines the great enthusiasm that one finds today among former Nigerian colonial civil servants, former academics, school teachers, missionaries and others who now constitute the backbone of the Nigerian Field Society in the UK. The direct mention of "African" as a category was to emphasise, I suspect, that in this Society, unlike many European Clubs then, no racial bar would operate. However, the issue of the classes of membership and their privileges repeatedly cropped up at early meetings of the Society. For example, a meeting of Ibadan members of the Society held on 22 May 1936, presided over by a Major L.R.C. Sumner, unanimously accepted the Honorary Secretary's proposal for three classes of membership, namely Fellows (paying £1 per annum subscription), members (10 shillings) and junior members (Africans only, 5 shillings). Junior members were not to have a vote; it is doubtful if there was any significant number of African members of any class in the Society for many years. This would not be surprising; the curiosity that drove Europeans to take a keen interest in the Nigerian environment was probably matched on the part of Nigerians by equal wonder that "these funny Europeans" could show so much interest in ordinary butterflies, poisonous snakes, simple flowers etc. Nigerians then, not unlike people elsewhere, took their environment for granted. It is interesting to note that many senior Nigerian members of the Society today are in the same age grade as the Society and have lived through the same changes in environment and fortune.

Mother of NGOs

It must be stated that the NFS's position as the "mother" of non-governmental organisations in Nigeria is unquestionable. Although the Society was founded simply "with the object of encouraging interest in Nigeria... etc.", the Society nevertheless played the part of a pressure group for action on the environmentand conservation right from the beginning. (1) At a meeting of NFS held in Enugu on 11 August 1937, members agreed to write letters to Government urging steps to preserve wild life and develop game and forest reserves in various parts of Southern Nigeria—Anambra Reserve in Onitsha Province, Gilli-gilli Reserve in Benin Province, Olokemeji Forest Reserve in Abeokuta Province etc. These ideas were latertaken up at meetings of members in Calabar, Enugu and Ibadan; at one point it was suggested that the Carnegie corporation be approached for a grant to build a museum! At the same meeting in Enugu in 1937,the idea of a permanent headquarters building for the NFS was mooted, but nothing came of it and the proposal was later dropped (on this more later). It is humbling to know that there is little that we have included in the agenda of Annual Business Meetings or Council in recent years that the NFS has not already considered in its 70 years of life; in its old baggage are many "unfulfilled" ideas which the Society has taken in its stride. Quite often what hindered the actualisation of some NFS ideas was what might seem to be the Society's own anmbivalent attitude to "progress". In 1971, Frank Bridges, writing a proposal for a permanent headquarters building for NFS, in his introduction to the special 40th anniversary issue of The Nigerian Field, said:

We have depended entirely on the subscription of members, the constancy of their support and the fact that no payment of any kind has ever been made to officers or contributors. Outgoings in the form of rent and paid staff have been eliminated by the fact that the only headquarters the Society has had have been the homes of its officers. The affair has been throughout a labour of love.

So, while the idea of a permanent headquarters repeatedly came up in the agenda of NFS meetings, its implementation was never pursued with vigour, probably because the leaders appreciated the value of the Society having its headquarters "in the homes of its members". During the last eight years since I have been privileged to be Chairman of Council of the NFS, two matters have been on the agenda: befitting central accommodation, and the registration of the Society as a charity. Although the present Council has tried to move both issues as far forward as possible, we can claim spectacular achievements on neither front. The one-room accommodation made available to us free of charge by Mr. A.P.Leventis at the A.G. Leventis Compound in Moniya and which now houses back issues of The Nigerian Field and other important NFS papers, can indeed be described as a "Member's Home", for Chief Leventis is a long standing member of the Society. I may say here that as we continue to accumulate Society material, the Moniya facility willsoon become inadequate as well as being inaccessible to members and other users of our stock for research purposes, so we need a bigger and more central facility, which we have not yet been able to secure.

Slow progress on both these fronts (accommodation and registration) may be said to be due to this particular Council's inertia, but equally likely is the collective conservatism in the body of the membership. What will registration of the Society really mean? Why do we need do we need to register the Society, when we have done well without doing so up till now? And, will registration and high profile accommodation not expose us to interference from Government and politics and rob us of traditional independence? Despite assurances from lawyers to the contrary, these concerns persist in the minds of some of our committed members. My own gut feeling is that members are justified in harbouring these reservations; the turn-over rate of high profile institutions in Nigeria is notoriously high. Big budgets are a source of great temptation and societies and journals launched with great fanfare often do not last for more than a few years. Therefore the NFS's concern that we should only undertake improvements which we can manage successfully is understandable and largely justified. New generations of younger managers of our affairs ought to bear this in mind as the Society settles into grand old age.

Transition Our family historian, my wife, has informed me that we became members of the Nigerian Field Society in 1973. Kath has always liked the idea of a society in which each member is committed to doing something (even at some cost to him/herself) for the common good — a true Lloyd George Welsh trait! She has served the Society in various capacities with enthusiasm and her support for the Society and me remains undiminished. Most of my participation from that date consisted in accompanying her to meetings and events. I enjoyed these outings. It was later, on one such outing, that I first met Chief A.M. Oseni, OFR, FAS, of blessed memory, of whom I had already heard a great deal. Tony, as his friends called him, was a man of great charisma and charm. His reputation as the "first Nigerian this and first Nigerian that" (including being the first Nigerian Chairman of Council of the NFS), and as a major force behind the push for the Society's management to be located in Nigeria, was already well established. He led easily;everything was done with humour.

Following Chief Oseni's regretted death, I was invited to become Chairman of Council in 1992, and two years later following the death of the founder, Frank Bridges at the ripe old age of nearly 99, I was elected President in 1994 at the Ile-Ife ABM. I have been very worried ever since! One cannot ask for a greater honour than to have the confidence of an organisation of the complexity and history of the NFS. The NFS is a unique club; the most important decisions are reached by consultation and consensus. Presumably, with my wife by me, I was an ideal transition between the old and the new Nigerian Field Society. Be that as it may, I have enjoyed the excitement of managing the transition.

A word about our journal The Nigerian Field

Our journal, The Nigerian Field, has from the beginning been the main visible record of the Society's activities, and remains so till today. It is on the Journal that the external reputation of the Society rests, but its successful existence depends on the constant support of members of the Society and the selfless dedication of its successive editors (it is remarkable that there have only been five editors since its foundation in 1931). Frank Bridges and the founding members made publication of the Journal, the Society's priority, knowing that observation of the environment without field notes was of no value to posterity. Thus, through heroic efforts, the journal was printed more or less regularly throughout the Second World War and the Biafran/Nigerian Civil War. When the time came to transfer the management of the Society of Nigeria (of which Dr. Ronald Keay, CBE, and Chief Tony Oseni, OFR, were strong advocates) some members, Mr. E.F.G. Haig (editor for 42 years!) in particular, were reluctant to surrender the Journal's publication to the "Resident Committee" in Nigeria for fear that the customary high standard of production and regularity would be compromised. Mr. Haig actually wrote what was considered by many to be a controversial letter to the University of Ibadan, urging the latter to take over the Society and its Journal! The correspondence on this potentially explosive matter between the Secretary of the Resident Committee in Ibadan, Mrs. Jen Maddison, and the Branches makes very interesting reading in the Journal and in the minutes. Fortunately, the Society retained its independence in the end, and since 1975 the Journal has been produced successfully in Ibadan.

The Nigerian Field is arguably the most important single source of scientifically recorded field observations on West Africa since 1931. The range of coverage is extensive—from fauna and flora to culture and traditional medicine. Nigerians of various disciplines have become active in contributing to the Journal and articles in the areas of culture, history and art now constitute a significant proportion of Journal articles. The Journal represents a priceless collection and is one reason why the growth of the Society must be sustained, and every effort made to ensure the security of back numbers.

How we are doing now

The election of President and Chairman of Council of NFS in 1994, some might say, was an historic event, being the first such election. We can say that since then, we have been undergoing further transition. In this period, Council's guiding principle has been consolidation of the gains made in the past 70 years and conservation of the resources of the NFS. We have had our Council Minutes and other important papers restored and bound (Society is grateful to the LJK Branch for its cash donation for this work); we have revised The Rules, to bring them into line with present realities; we have had modest increases in membership; new branches have come into existence (although some old Branches have also become moribund); we have kept all Branches in touch with the Society, including the UK Branch, and we have had an Annual Business Meeting every year since 1992. In other words, we have tried to stabilise the operational basis of the Society. If there is modest success in that respect, it has been due largely to those who actually do the work of Council—the Honorary Secretary, Treasurer, Editor, the Vice-Presidents — and the Branches and their activities. I have been very fortunate to have worked with such a dedicated group of members in the last eight years.

The environment in which the NFS operates today in Nigeria is quite different from what it was in its early years. Since those in authority in Nigeria failed to heed the advice NFS offered repeatedly over the years, the Society now finds itself in the regrettable position of being able to say to Government, "I told you so"; the forests and wildlife are virtually all gone. Meanwhile, following world media apocalyptic predictions of the effects of global warming, the imminent extinction of our biodiversity and our planet, there is now a plethora of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Nigeria. This now places the burden on the mother of NGOs in Nigeria to redefine her relevance in the present circumstances. In spite of our members' collective tendency to resist change, changes in this direction will have to be made, however cautiously if only to make the wealth of 70 years accumulated wisdom and resources available to the community of NGOs in Nigeria. I can see the NFS outliving most of the new NGOs in the next 70 years. I can see the NFS becoming recognised as an independent authoritative source of information on culture and the environment in Nigeria. There is no reason why, by the end of the next 70 years, the Society should not boast of its own modest headquarters with a small number of paid staff, perhaps a secretary, a gateman, a librarian, and maybe a twenty-first century communication device, a computer, to streamline communication between Branches. I say in the next 70 years realistically, but perhaps the next Council of the NFS will surprise me by making this happen in my lifetime!

1. Editor's note: The Society was equally concerned about the preservation of artifacts through museums (Niger. Fd. 62:55).


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