Road building often depended on the unpaid labor of Africans who were marshaled into service by their respective town and village chiefs. By relying on these chiefs to implement development projects, based on a political system dubbed "indirect rule" by one of its principal proponents, Sir Frederick Lugard (elsewhere referred to as "the policy of 'governing on the cheap'"[1], British colonial rulers were able to build roads with little expense. Colonial officials cited road clearing as a part of precolonial civic duty in many towns and villages in southwestern Nigeria in order to legitimate their support of chiefs' authority to demand participation without remuneration.

    Colonial officials' interest in road building was mainly administrative and commercial. In the Ekiti Yoruba area of southwestern Nigeria, for example, until the building of roads in the 1920s and the introduction of motor vehicles, colonial officials and chiefs moved about the district in mobile hammocks, carried by local men. The British also hoped to encourage cocoa- and cotton-growing as cash crops for export which improved roads would facilitate. Ekiti women and men had their own interests in road building, the principal one being improved ease of movement, both for access to their farms and for trade. Local roads and paths were regularly cleared of bushy overgrowth, mainly by work groups of men, whose participation was enforced by older quarter heads and town chiefs.

    Despite the importance of road building for British colonial rule in Nigeria, little has been written about this topic from the point of view of those who actually worked on these roads. In the course of conducting research in preparation for a book on population and development from the perspective of residents of the small Ekiti Yoruba town of Itapa-Ekiti, I spoke with Mr. Francis Adeyanju, an 85 year-old resident. Baba Francis, as he is locally known, has worked as a farmer, as a traditional healer and for a time, as a driver. He is an extremely articulate man and since our first meeting in 1991 when I first began conducting research in this town, he has explained a range of local practices - from the treatment of twins to virginity - with clarity and verve. So when he mentioned that he had worked on this road, it seemed to be a good opportunity to ask him more about this work.

    Baba Francis's discussion of building the section of road from the small town of Itapa-Ekiti to the larger one of Ikole-Ekiti, about 17 kilometers to the east, touches upon several topics. These include the experience of forced, unpaid labor - how it was enforced and evaded, how the road was actually built, how people traveled prior to motorable roads, townspeople's reaction to the first motor vehicle that plied the new road and the benefits and disadvantages of the road. There were many dangers associated with the road itself and with road travel due to motor accidents[2]. Yet, the advantages of the road - particularly, the availability of motor transport and access to major market towns in the south - overshadowed both its dangerous disadvantages and the difficulties of its construction.

    The following excerpts come from two interviews with Francis Adeyanju on 10 and 11 July 1998, conducted by Kayode Owoeye and me, in Mr. Adeyanju's home in Itapa-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria. The interviews were conducted in Yoruba.

    When the road was built

    I was about 15 years old at the time of the first construction of the road through Itapa to Ikole. In this first phase around 1923, the road was not tarred, we only cleared the bush and leveled it up. The last construction came when I was about 70 years old. What we did then was to remove soil from the hillsides to level up the potholes. Before this express road, the road was slightly tarred but it was not as good as the one we are using now.

    The Owatapa (king) who was on the throne then was Oba Ademiloye (1921-1929); he was the one reigning when the first construction was made. During the second construction that was somewhat paved, Oba Atobatele (1929-1942) was on the throne. The present road, the one that we call "express" was constructed during the reign of Oba Ojo (1943-1978), around 1976. No one could say precisely the dates as there was no education then so we could only recall them by what was happenings during that time, such as the outbreak of a sickness called Baba Orisa [smallpox].…..It used to affect the skin and it killed so many people who were affected by this sickness. Sometimes those who were affected were taken into the bush, far away on the farm where they would be attended to by traditional medicine men. It was at that time that the first construction of the road was made. It was also at that same time that the first Methodist church building was made with a thatched roof [in 1922] - Pa Ojobaru was the person who brought the church to Itapa.

    Participants in the building of the road

    It was compulsory for individuals to participate (in building the road), everybody was forced to do it, nobody could dodge it. People were sometimes involuntarily involved, such as passers-by who were forced to work. During the construction, Oba Adeleye I, the Elekole of Ikole (the King of Ikole) spent about one and a half weeks in Itapa overseeing the work, particularly when the construction got to Agarigi Hill. The construction and leveling was very difficult around that spot. The Elekole was angry about that hill, saying that the hill might prevent the road construction from reaching his town of Ikole. So he started to supervise the work, with all the other chiefs. During that period people were forcibly taken away from their farms to work on the road construction. Those who secretly went to their farms were caught and punished. The akoda messengers were the ones who caught them. They used to dress like policemen; they were from the Elekole because the Owatapa had no messengers at that time.

    There were two types of baskets that we used to carry sand then. The baskets that were used by the alaseju (offenders) were bigger in size. Those who were filling these baskets would fill them above the level of the basket and then ask those being punished to carry each of the baskets. No one would help them to lift the baskets on their heads, they would just have to lift it themselves so that some people in the process of lifting the baskets would defecate.

    Even strangers on their journeys were forced to work, they were told to carry some baskets of sand to the bush before they were free to go. Participation involved both indigenes and strangers.

    Compensation for road work

    Even though people who did not work were punished, no money was paid to those worked. We heard that the colonial government had released funds for this construction but the chiefs in those days, they blindfolded us to this - they shared the money among themselves. During the road construction in our area here, no money was paid to us. So we were surprised to hear that when the construction got to Omuo, people were paid money. Those who worked there for six weeks were paid six shillings. This gave us the evidence that during the time we were working in the construction of our area, money should also have been paid to us but we were denied it. Payment, though, depended on the level of your work.

    The work just continued like that when we stopped our own part of the road toward the Omuo area. Omuo people took over the construction to the Kabba area, Kabba people also took up from there. We were denied any compensation. But later during the last construction in 1976, some big trees were felled and our government compensated us then. We collected money at Ifaki-Ekiti.

    Construction of the road

    Apart from carrying sand in baskets and leveling, we had to dig with shovels and hoes since there was no road construction equipment then. Everyone became involved. You either held a hoe or a cutlass or a basket to carry dirt - no idleness was allowed. Trees were felled by making use of shovels and hoes, some trees were as big as my living room. We had to dig around the tree and while some continued to dig, some others would be watching where it would fall. Some trees would fall after several days of work. The felled trees were later cut into logs so that it would be easy for us to remove them from the road. These logs were not just removed by our hands - we made use of wood poles (igbogba). We would put these poles under the logs and they would be pushing and pulling them out of the road.

    In order to strengthen ourselves, we would be shouting " Ace sobey," the response was " Eh, ace sobey, Eh!" While we would be saying this repeatedly, when we became strong. This would be followed by a loud shout, " Ace sobey, eh, eh!!" We got to know that song from our people who visited Lagos during the period in question and also from those who visited Ejinrin [Abeokuta]. [The actual meaning of the phrase "ace sobey" is " apes obey." It is variously attributed to colonial company officials and to earlier slave traders. Baba Francis did not know its English meaning but saw it simply as a work song. It is currently used in slang as a form of encouragement prior to attempting a difficult task.] The shout was always made anytime a group of people were made to do heavy work.

    A group of about 20 people could be working for two weeks before a tree could be brought down. The selection of the group to uproot a tree depended largely on the size of the tree. It ranged from 10-15 men to 20-25 men and sometimes it took them 15 to 20 days to get a tree down. Women with the strength of men also helped in the digging and clearing. This was how these big trees were removed.

    Condition of the road in the past

    Things were not easy at all, the paths we pass to the farm today are better than the [main] road was then. This was because anytime that rain fell, weeds beside the road, they would start to cover it - whereas today there is nothing like that, even in the many paths to the farm. Roads to the farm now are wider than the road from Egbe Quarter to Egena Quarter [was before]. It was not easy to move as sekogbona [a type of tall, prickly grass] - this is a plant, it looks like sugar cane but it's not as thick. It would cover the road to the extent that it would wet the clothes we were wearing.

    At that time the king of Ikole (then Elekole Oba Adeleye I) was carried with an amoku [literally, hammock] a kind of mobile hammock made with cloth tied to four poles and the king would travel in it with four men carrying him. Since there was no vehicle, anytime he was going to Ado for pelupelu meetings [ pelupelu (literally, "together with")], people had to carry him in the amoku to the place called Bareke [barracks] in Ado to meet with the white people ( oyinbo). People in Ikole would carry him to Usin, Usin people would relieve them by carrying the king to Asin, Asin people to Osin, Osin people to Itapa, Itapa people would stop at the Egbeoba boundary [the area under the jurisdiction of the king of Ikole-Ekiti)] whereby a selection from various towns around Oye would be made to get his Oba to Ado-Ekiti. All these towns participated in carrying this Oba from Ikole to Bareke in Ado. It was real suffering then.

    This road was the only major road then and we people traveled on it by trekking. In the process of the journey, we had to prepare food to take along with us, there was no place where anyone could get food to buy, everywhere was bush. People therefore prepared moinmoin (steamed bean cakes) or abari (a mixture of maize, plantain flour and beans) which was kept in an anda, a small bag made with a handkerchief that would be tied, then the food would be kept in it for the journey.

    After one had traveled for long and anytime people wanted to eat, they would usually stop beside a stream and take their meals and water there. Then the journey began again until the time when they felt they should have another meal. Food that could not easily spoil was usually prepared. People used to travel in groups but there was nothing to be afraid of and anytime they felt tired they would stay and sleep in the nearest hut or village. People easily accepted housing visitors then because no evil could be done. By 3 a.m., the journey would start[3]. There was no fear then except of animals. I can remember that I traveled from Itapa to Ibadan [about 175 km or a little over 100 miles] by trekking. The first time I knew Ibadan, I trekked there. I went there as a farm worker. We were paid 5 pence for 200 heaps [of yam planted] then; laborers today take 80 to 100 naira but we took joy in that small sum. The presence of a road means light to people. For example, I trekked to Ibadan because of five pence, I did labor on the farm for five pence.

    I worked there for 17 days to get 10 shillings. Trekking to Ibadan because of ten shillings would be madness today, I can't ask my child to go to Oye-Ekiti [a nearby town] because of 20 naira. But in those days, two pence could feed a whole family. The time that I traveled to Ibadan, I came back with seven shillings, six pence.

    Positive effects of the road

    Ah, we have to thank God for everything, the advantages of the road were many. In the first instance, there was a place called "Obinrinkowe" at Ilupeju [formerly Egosi] - there was a building there used mainly for storing bags of cement. So there was a vehicle then that would bring bags of cement to that building. We watched that vehicle in amazement. This was because it was our first sight of a truck so it was a thing of joy. It was because of the presence of the road that we were able to see a vehicle for the first time. We closely watched it as if it were a wonderful miracle. This vehicle was called "Reo" and it could only carry 12 bags of cement. We used to compare this vehicle with a coffin because it had a wooden frame. This was because coffins were built in a certain way in the past. They used to be big and wide and made of wood. Coffins were so big then but they were only for the rich. Only rich people were buried this way.

    The truck's headlights and the rainbow

    When the vehicle called Reo first came to our town, almost everybody, old and young stayed beside the road to watch what it was like. People from various quarters of the town would converge to closely watch the ways of this vehicle.

    Anytime this vehicle was in town we used to compare it with a coffin as I've said. And its headlights were called osumare - rainbow [referring to the rainbow-like penumbra of its headlights]. Then we would be saying that this rainbow should defecate so that we could get money. This is because we believed that the rainbow was the trail of a spirit going down to drink water and there it would also defecate. This feces could then be used to bring money to people. People in the past used to go about searching for the rainbow spirit's feces to the extent that many people got lost in the process. They would find the rainbow's feces but then they lost their way and never returned home again.

    As soon as people saw the headlights of this vehicle which looked like a rainbow to them, they started to watch this and were saying, "Oyinbo, meegbori! (White people are too wise!) Look at the light, it's so fine." It was at that time that some "419" fraudulent actions started. ["419" is the slang term for a spate of fraudulent schemes that emerged in the 1990s; 419 refers to the section in the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.] Some people would be using a bulb or maybe a torch light and would cover the bulb with a white cloth so it would also appear like osumare (rainbow). Then they would be saying that they have got a rainbow and its feces, so they would be inviting people to come with money to buy this feces. They would be deceiving people, for many would be saying surely it was rainbow's feces. And people would be running helter-skelter to get money so they could purchase rainbow feces. So "419" fraud started a long time ago, not just recently.

    Negative effects of building the road

    One bad effect of building the road was that some of our property - like cocoa, kola and coffee trees - were destroyed. This action was painful but there was nothing we could do. During the second phase of the construction in which the road was tarred a little, more damage was done to these crops and again there was nothing we could do. Anyone who was annoyed couldn't say this outright because we were afraid of government action then. Those who wanted and valued the importance of having a road were happy while those whose properties were destroyed were sad.

    Another effect was that a tree fell on one man who was dodging the road work and killed him where he was hiding. He died of imele (laziness). The dead body was buried in the bush just at the same spot where he died. There were also some people who also, as a result of laziness, hid themselves in the bush and some, in their homes. They could not come out to see the progress of the work, they gave themselves a term of self-imprisonment. At the end of the construction work, they came out and referred to the road as "ours" even though they did not participate in the work.

    You know, in Yoruba they say, "Bi igba ti ifa wa lehin Igbeti bere na ni iku wa nibe (If there was a blessing in Igbeti [an old name for Lagos], there also was a loss)." In everything that has gains there must be losses. So in the past, people did not die in groups like it happens these days. This was because there were no motor accidents then, there were no vehicles. People trekked. If death occurred at all, it might be just one person in the midst of the journey. But today, if a vehicle is carrying ten people, the ten could die sometime. We have been hearing of accidents killing ten or more people at a time. It was not like that in the past. Without a vehicle, ten people can't be going to Ilesha and then people say they all died on the way, it is quite impossible. This was the situation in the past but today it is not the case although accidents can occur in any form. A person can fall from a tree and die but we haven't heard of a tree that fell and killed eight people at a time. Some people could be swept away in a flood; these are accidents but they are different from road accidents. Still, the present condition is better than the past.

    Elisha Renne is an assistant professor in anthropology and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the U-M. She received her PhD from New York University in 1990 and her book, Cloth That Does Not Die: The Meaning of Cloth in Bunu Social Life (University of Washington Press, 1995) was based on dissertation research in southwestern Nigeria. She is presently working on a second book, Paradoxes of Progress: Population and Development in a Southwestern Nigerian Town

      1. T.O. Beidelman, The Kaguru ( New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971) 97. return to text

      2. Peter Chilson, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999). return to text

      3. Wole Soyinka, Ake: The Years of Childhood (Ibadan: Spectrum, 1988) 128. return to text