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A trip down memory lane - the EFA tour of Nigeria in 1965

As legacies of empire go, some of the odder examples are the handful of Eton Fives courts scattered around the world in places like Geelong, Darjeeling and Malaysia. The one place outside of the UK where the game has really spread successfully beyond one or two isolated locations is in Northern Nigeria, where the game was introduced by Old Cholmeleian J.S.Hogben in the late 1920s. In 1965, Old Citizen Gordon Stringer was part of an official Eton Fives Association tour to Northern Nigeria, and Gordon has kindly passed on some photographs of that historic tour as well as the tour report - written by then EFA Secretary David Guilford - which was published in the 1966 EFA Annual Review.

From the EFA Annual Review 1966:


Fives Abroad


The team which represented the Association in Nigeria in January 1965 was:






A.T.Baden Fuller


One of the more curious legacies of empire is the game of Eton Fives in Northern Nigeria.

It was introduced by Mr J.S. Hogben when teaching at the Provincial Secondary School in Katsina, where the present Premier, the Sardauna of Sokoto, and a number of his Ministers were educated. Although the original fives courts here and at Birnin Kebbi are in a state of decay, new ones have sprung up in many of the towns of the region.

In January, the Eton Fives Association was invited by the Northern Nigerian Sports Commission to send a team to tour the Northern Region, and so it was that two school masters, a director of one well-known business and an employee of another, a chartered accountant, a salesman, and a young man who had just left Eton, found themselves transported by VC10 from the worst of the English winter to a temperature that ranged around 90 and 100 degrees and into a major political crisis that threatened to tear apart the carefully woven fabric of the Nigerian Federation. Kaduna, the capital of the Northern Region, was the first port of call, and here the first two matches were played in front of a large crowd, which included the Premier, whose arrival with his entourage was proclaimed by the sirens of his escort. He is himself an exponent of the game, and if not playing likes to watch it each evening as the sun goes down. Although he was a leading actor in the political drama, he honoured the visiting team by his refusal to depart from this practice despite the crisis, a gesture one feels that Mr.Macmillan would have appreciated as an example of imperturbability. One was reminded of an occasion when a former British Foreign Secretary during the Berlin crisis was to be seen watching his son playing fives at Eton some years ago.

Whereas in England the game is played with a small hard ball and with gloves, in Nigeria it is played with a tennis ball and with bare hands, and sometimes bare feet. One of the objectives of the EFA side was to introduce both gloves and the hard ball to the Nigerians, it not as part of the export drive, at least in an effort to achieve uniformity. But even the best reforms can founder when contemplated from a distance and without local knowledge. At a formal audience at his palace with the Premier and his Ministers, one of the touring team mentioned cricket. The Sardauna was quick to point out that this required expenditure on equipment, and that once the court was erected fives had the advantage of cheapness for his subjects, an advantage that would be lost in part once gloves and the hard ball were introduced.

The interest in the game is such that the players appeared twice on television in the Nigerian version of “Sportsview”. The first occasion, live and unrehearsed, showed three of the touring team and one of their opponents being questioned by the very able sports commentator, whose training had been supplemented by a spell with the BBC. Even so, the viewers may well have been confused by the speakers, who allowed the comparison of the hard with the tennis ball to degenerate into a discussion of the rival merits of Eton and Harrow! But the Northern Nigerians are a gay people who take the rough with the smooth, and those with television sets no doubt enjoyed it.

A small bus put at the disposal of the touring team took them to Zaria, Sokoto, Birnin Kebbi, Gusau, Kano and Katsina for the other matches of the tour. At each place the fives players were received at the palace with feudal splendour by the Emir and his Council in their robes of many colours; costumes and backcloths might well have been by courtesy of Kismet or the Arabian Nights. Even if the Emir could speak English, as most of them could, Hausa was spoken through an interpreter, and once accustomed to this novel style of communication the conversation flowed easily.

Two incidents stand out. At Sokoto, the native Provincial Commissioner invited the two teams to dinner and had no difficulty in making the visitors feel at home, even though aided by a power cut during the meal. Afterwards, he took his guests to a specially arranged and unforgettable evening of African dancing, snake-charming and hyena-baiting: it is disappointing to discover that even here, not many miles south of the desert, ancient customs are giving way to new, and the Commissioner complained that it was difficult to persuade the women to dance in the traditional style, as more modern dances, African variations of the twist, no doubt, were taking over. The fives match earlier in the day had provided a pageant of colour; it was played in the presence of some 300 Nigerians and to the accompaniment of the police band, which opened the proceedings with the Nigerian National Anthem and “God Save the Queen”. The local population takes its fives seriously, and the announcement that the Sokoto side were ahead led to excited chattering, any reverse being greeted by a stony silence broken only by yelled instructions to the players to do better.

If the EFA players found the heat oppressive, the courts and buttress somewhat different and the tennis ball a challenge, their opponents were handicapped by the feast of Ramadan, which meant that their last meal had been eaten before sunrise some twelve hours previously. For the tourists returning from a one day match Ramadan would mean a halt in the warm evening air for the driver to place his prayer mat on the side of the road before eating, the fives players in white shorts and sweaters using the stop to wander off ghostlike into the nearby native quarters an stand incongruously watching the villagers dance and sup by candlelight.

Old customs prevail in this predominantly Moslem country, but the new and the modern are being grafted onto them. The touring team were put up in Kaduna in a newly built air conditioned hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool. Also in Kaduna is the new sport stadium now nearing completion, and in the environments factories manned mainly by Africans are springing up. Dams are being planned, roads improved, the University at Zaria expanded, and the Institute of Administration nearby will shortly have its first business school in operation with a syllabus to include the computer and other aids to management. The Orthopaedic Hospital in Kano is finely equipped and doing magnificent work. Nearby, in disorderly contrast, the crowded market afforded a glimpse of a man wrestling with a bull, as on some ancient Greek frieze. If Nigeria is given political stability, the prospects of development look good; but the election campaign showed only too clearly the divisions between the North and the South and the compromise that settled the crisis is an uneasy one.

For the statistical record, the EFA team travelled some 1,200 miles by road, played nine matches, was received by one Premier, one Sultan and six Emirs, amassed some eighty presents, and was escorted into Birnin Kebbi in a motorcade of ten vehicles. The members between them achieved three minor bouts of dysentery, one sprained ankle, one mild attack of gout and innumerable mosquito bites. To have been ill in Sokoto, where the large native population is tended by one Pakistani and one woman doctor, might well have caused a delay, but all went well and no member of the fives team will ever forget a fortnight of colour and variety made possible by the hospitality of the Northern Nigerian Sports Commission and admirably organised by the Nigerians themselves, who could not do enough for their British visitors.

The Nigerian Fives Association has accepted an invitation to tour England for a fortnight in October 1966. The party will consist of a manager and five players. The Committee would welcome any suggestions about hospitality: correspondence should be addressed to M.J.Shortland-Jones, Eton College, Windsor.

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