Tag: sketchbook


We are heading from Birnin Kebbi north-east to Argungu. It’s about 53 km. One perfect painterly composition after another whizzes past the car window. Rice and vegetables tended by people of all ages, groups of men sitting in the shade of trees, footpaths winding tantalisingly out of site into the green, the painterly rustic decay and distant rocky outcrops. The sun is already low and some heavy clouds are forming in the distance. Although it is getting towards the end of the day, there is still much activity on the streets, and trading goes on well after dark. Along the straight road, we pass some very fine looking horses tethered and being groomed and fed in the shade under the Neem trees.

We are intending to visit the Emir of Argungu in his palace, who will see us even at such short notice such are our connections. Set back off the road the walled compound has the look of a parade ground with buildings around the perimeter, some bedecked with flowering climbing plants. We come to a stop in the middle of the square. Groups of men sit around in the shade of the battered collonades and others stand in the open discussing the business of the day. Most are dressed Hausa style, one or two wear military combats and berets, and carry Kalashnikovs slung casually over their shoulders.argungu-boys

As we alight to stretch our legs, standing in the blinding sunshine bouncing straight upwards from the concrete, some staff approach our Hausa guide. He has a dark complexion and a weathered and lined face, highlighted by his elegant white kaftan and traditional hat. A brief discussion reveals the Emir unfortunately was summoned to Abuja and left yesterday, such is the nature of Nigerian politics.

Plan B comes into play as we now head back into town and make for the Argungu fishing village. The village is an extensive stretch of breeze block and grass roofed huts by the side of the Sokoto River, laid out like holiday camp chalets amongst generous, roomy avenues. One or two are occupied, but most are empty, and serve as home to many hundreds of hopefuls for the duration of the annual international fishing and sports festival, an important cultural event that has sadly been in decline in recent times. The apparent lack of maintenance of the village reflects this perfectly.

Sanusi drives as far as the terrain allows, almost to the river bank, where our guide encourages me to walk with him to the water’s edge. A boy is watering his donkey, and some other lads are washing fishing equipment in bright red plastic buckets. Some sand from the river is piled up lengthways along the shoreline, and knowing questions and answers in words are probably beyond us, I quietly assume the sand will be used for building the new fisherman’s huts set out nearby. I nod in approval albeit rather self consciously, which is taken as a signal to walk a little further on.

The scene is set for a hippo to surface with the pale mauve flowers of water hyacinth clinging to its ears – we’ve all seen the wildlife documentaries – but that isn’t going to happen. I am told there are crocodiles here, and in all the rivers we have seen so far, which fits nicely with my idea of the wild, dark continent. Standing here I have a rather different impression though, one I’ve not yet understood.

The water is a mix of sandy silt and a pale lavender grey reflection of the now cloudy sky. It starts to rain, but is refreshing and cooling. I spot the ferry boat coming across to our bank in the middle distance, and my guide recognises my interest and leads on along the rice paddies to meet it. We make it to the landing point before the boat arrives, the rain now more persistent. Two boys bathe in the water as the boat lands. The teenagers in the boat have finished working for the day, and throw their tools and slippers onto the sandy shore before disembarking, some carry sacks above their heads. The first few boys smile for the camera, and it completely slips my mind to wipe the raindrops off the lens, but no matter. By now rain soaked, I try and absorb the enormity of the landscape, the hard living. The moment is heavy and laden with paradox.

boys out the river
The walk back to the pick up is quite a long one, and I feel confident enough in my
paddy walking skills to take a slightly different route than my guide as the terrain is drier.
I’m not sure why this feels strangely risqué and later put it down to the adventure.
Once we are underway the rain quickly stops and the drive back to Birnin Kebbi sees the sun give the trees and grasses and crops a backlit golden glow before setting behind more birds on wires. Later I make two postcards of the scene along the river, one of my guide leading me across the rice paddies to meet the ferryboat, and of the boys watching the
boat come in.


Into the Sahel part one

Birnin Kebbi stands on the southern edge of the semi-arid Sahel, close to the border
with Niger. Today Sanusi is driving us North to visit a working gold mine, and then
on to another, much less well developed operation in which Jumoke has an interest.

On the road out of town, the Neem trees lining the route have large puddles sitting in
their shade from last night’s rain. Business is conducted under them. It’s also common
to see boys taking time out, lying lengthways across their motorcycles, or machines.
A two hour drive on long straight roads, the flat landscape of leafy bushes, sand and
rock is broken by patches of corn, rice and watermelons. Larger trees and palms
have been left standing here and there and provide shelter from the sun and rain.


The blue horizon of higher ground is covered in rocky woodland and bushy scrub. The occasional worker in the fields, termite mounds and strange trees attract my attention as I take all this in. Some trees have the look of a baobab, cartoon-like with bunches of leaves on the end of fat branches and even fatter trunks. There are cattle egrets, rollers and kestrels, swallows and swifts, and I imagine the leopard, caracal or jackal that may be lurking in the distant rocky outcrops, staying out of site until the end of the day.

Roadside compounds are enclosed with neat mud brick walls and rustic wooden hurdles. There are lean to shelters and canopies with benches underneath for socialising, mostly in the early evening. Looking past the pile of discarded tyres and plastic litter I see that inside the walls there are round, thatched mud brick huts of varying sizes raised off the ground. I allow myself to imagine that this stockaded community style is necessary to protect livestock from wild animals. May even be true.


We slow down to make way for cattle and goats being herded down the highway by Fulani men and boys. Traditionally dressed with long cotton gowns and pointed straw hats, their long walking sticks are used to encourage their red Sanga cattle to keep moving. The goats follow the cattle, and some kids that are too small to keep up are carried. Two men lead camels which are fully loaded with all the equipment the group need, for these are truly nomadic tribesmen. Some Fulani, or Fula people have settled, and as an ethnic group they are spread across many African countries. There are about 7 million in Nigeria.

Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track for a hundred yards to a corral of wooden hurdles where some men are waiting in the shade of a small tree. After a brief discussion, and a much needed leg stretch for me, a tall, thin middle aged man with prominent cheek bones and a pencil moustache leads us on his machine to the
first mine.



On to Kebbi

A short flight with local airline Air Peace and we touch down (as the only arrival today)
at Sir Ahmadu Bello International Airport, Kebbi in the north-west corner of Nigeria.
Stepping out of the plane, a wall of heat hits me as I notice how smart the new glass and steel terminal building looks, set in a flat landscape of short green bushes and butterscotch and peach coloured sand. Our driver Sanusi is waiting for us with a dark blue pick up truck he is somehow dwarfed by. I realise this is similar to some government vehicles and so draws attention from pedestrians.

We are guests of Jumoke, Toyin’s sister. She is an imposing, handsome woman with
the kind of physical presence which leaves you in no doubt who the boss is. Fluent in all three major Nigerian languages and with fingers in many business pies, she is addressed as ‘Momi’  by all who work for her. It is convention here to use terms such as Auntie or Uncle, Sistah or Brudda etc, depending on the persons’ age in relation to yours, or if you come from the same village. It is unnerving however, to be called Daddy by someone you’ve only just met.

kebbi-yardAfter freshening up, chicken rice and spinach is served, followed by water melon
and pineapple. Later in the evening, a visitor arrives and there is a discussion about
leases, land and mining. Mining is one of many business pursuits for Jumoke, and the main reason she upped sticks and moved here from Abuja. The man brings out an uncut ruby which we place on a smartphone lamp to see the bright magenta colour shining through. It looks curiously like a fruit gum, or a chunk of turkish delight, but is indeed
the real thing. The sapphire he had looked more like a grey pebble you could pick up on
a beach, and a little imagination was needed to picture these stones in a cut and polished state. Most impressive though, was a polished gold nugget, the size of a Brasil nut,
and I’m certain it weighed the same as the coffee table.

auntie-princessThe same wall of heat hits me after dark as I step outside to make my way to our apartment. By lamplight, I see one or two moths, but dozens of large cockroaches
spread around on the concrete yard, on the walls and on tree trunks. I step back
indoors very carefully to avoid an unfortunate crunch.

In the morning, some distinctly unmusical parrot-like squawking in the Neem trees outside turns out to be a pair of Long-tailed Glossy Starlings. Back in the seventies,
starling-cardI was familiar with these birds from ‘The Handbook of Foreign Birds’, where they were described as not for the novice, and could be quite aggressive towards weaker inmates
in a mixed aviary, so best kept on their own or with other glossy starling species.
There is a certain air of confidence about them, something of the pirate, too.

More than forty years later, it really is satisfying to see these (and other) birds in the
wild, which were forgotten memories from the pages of a book. Happily these were to
be a common site on car journeys for the week, regularly seen flapping from bush to bush carrying their very long tails behind. I make a postcard of them, and of the cooking pots
in the yard.



North to Kaduna

Today we drive the 200 odd kilometers due north to Kaduna. We are accompanied by Lowo, a quiet and kindly artistic soul who dyes fabrics and makes handbags as well as experimenting with painting found objects. Our trusted driver Emanuel knows his way around for the right price, and doesn’t seem to need a map or sat nav. Lowo is keen to show us Zuma Rock, a pudding bowl dome of two-tone grey igneous rock rising almost vertically 725 meters up from the surrounding corn crops and green bush. Couldn’t miss it.

nigeria-travel-kadunaToyin grew up in Kaduna and worked in the family hairdressing business in the town.
She plans to have her hair done while we’re here and see if any old familiar faces are still around. The main reason to visit though, is that her cousin Samuel and his new wife Abigail live there. Sam comes to meet us and we drive in convoy to his house. He’s very excited to see us. Cold water bottles are brought out (the unspoken first hospitable gesture when guests arrive) and lunch is offered. He insists we stay the night, which we agreed to do, and in the afternoon, while the surprised and delighted hairdresser Simon is set to work, Sam takes me around to kill time while we wait. First stop is Gamji Park, an extensive green space on the banks of the river.

The formal gardens are laid out with low walls separating the paths from tree lined green spaces, with the occasional gazebo and shrub covered arbor here and there providing places to sit in the shade. The place has a slightly unloved and dishevelled look, but seems well used by the locals. In one corner there was an r&b artist with video crew miming to his track with air grabbing, finger wagging moves encouraged by his director behind the camera. There were also groups of girls dressed identically sitting around, presumably waiting for their turn to perform their dance moves. As we watched I couldn’t help thinking how tedious this process could be, saved by how snappy and cool the finished videos often are.

Elsewhere there is a merry-go-round and a lido (temporarily closed), and an enclosure that apparently once contained some ostriches. There is a magnificently odd looking giant terracotta coloured calabash fountain set in the centre of a shallow pool, with three or four local crocodiles lounging in the still water underneath in the shade. I’m reassured they actually do get fed regularly.

calabashnetmanBeing adventurous and naive in equal measure I opt for a short walk along the lush riverbank which entails climbing through the broken chain link fence, which I manage relatively gracefully, and largely because I hear some exotic bird calls and hope to catch a glimpse. Sadly their identity remains a mystery. We did come across a fisherman however, who seemed quite happy to show us his catch inside the hollow calabash he was carrying above his head, and to show how he uses it as a float while he paddles to check his nets. Any fish are placed inside the calabash while he paddles off to the next net. ‘Are there crocodiles in the river?’ I ask, mentally assessing the risk the fisherman is taking ‘Yes’ said Sam, adding after a short pause  ‘…though for a Nigerian, a crocodile is more an opportunity than a danger.’ I look down at my shoes, imagining what that might mean for Lowo’s handbag trade.

Further along, some stupendously large trees have been left to grow with their buttress roots now straddling the kerb stones in the car park. I’ve no idea what they were, but they seemed to rise up forever into the sky. Next stop was a quarry, where Sam buys hardcore for his building business. The young workers were I’m sure very curious about a guy being shown how they break up rocks into smaller rocks with heavy sledge hammers, but we all entered into the spirit of the thing which shows in the snaps.

At the end of the day, we stop off at one of the local markets to buy fruit. Stall after stall of fresh fruits and vegetables in sumptuous colours laid out neatly for inspection. It’s getting dark now, and the market continues trading by lamplight with the mauve sky above, peppered with fruit bats making their way to night-time feeding areas. For the wide-eyed visitor, upwards of a hundred thousand large flying mammals passing daily over your town sounds spectacular but on the other hand, oh so everyday if you live here.
They’re not on the menu apparently, not even as bushmeat.

After supper Sam gets out his Yamaha keyboard, on which he is pleasantly proficient, and we have an impromptu Yoruba sing-a-long. We each sing a line, and I can’t help thinking mine is the hardest to pronounce. I have a go at playing the talking drum and the following morning, an attempt at rythmically slapping congas in Sam’s church, which was thankfully empty apart from the caretaker, who seemed suitably amused.
nigeria-travel-snackstopSam and Abi are driving us back to Abuja this morning. We stop briefly for corn sticks roasted while you wait. Staying a few days with us until we leave for Birnin Kebbi turned out to be a happy decision, as we were able to spend a few more days in their good company while we figured out the best way of getting there, an internal flight or a nine hour drive.

We took the flight.

Wash that dust

It’s late July in Abuja. The tail end of the rainy season washes the red dust away from the balcony of N0.9d. The near rocky hills and new developments, almost all called something Plaza, are obscured by low cloud and heavy rain.

9d-balconyThe swallows and swifts are not deterred for long. When the sun comes out, it’s blinding and hot. The Variable Sunbirds flit quickly to and fro on the flowers in the garden, the fire finches find seeds on the ground in the yard. The African Thrush sings loudly very like the European song thrush, with simple but fluid repeated phrases.  I started the Moleskine sketchbook on the ‘plane, and already made some notes on the suburban birdlife for later.
The generator needs fuel. Again. Heading down the two flights of stone clad stairs after dark by phone torch, a gekko stays ahead of me the whole way and disappears under something somewhere on the ground floor.  “It’s cockroach season” someone says.
They’re probably the biggest insects I’ve ever seen. Maybe too big for a gekko to tackle.

Note-taking for later id….




View from the balcony, number 9d.

After the rain, a girl walks down the road selling plantain carried effortlessly atop her head. No takers yet. The security boys from neighbouring houses emerge onto the street.
There is laughter and chat, and as everywhere else, a lot of thumb action and staring at smartphone screens.

view-from-9d-balcony-rSo, here we are again. Another rip roaring, roller coaster high energy ride for a few weeks through this fantastic country…just hope I can keep up…

Two in the bush

Here are two common summer visitors to the UK. Common Whitethroats and Blackcaps are closely related, Blackcaps prefer woods and thicker cover, while Whitethroats prefer more open habitat such as hedgerows and scrub. There is a good deal of overlap, and I see both on my walks around and about here.

Both birds are not shy, Whitethroats seem to scold a passer by with their ‘char’ call, and often momentarily pop up from their cover to check you out. Blackcaps like to sing loud and proud from higher up in the trees, and again, will sometimes stop and give you the eye before continuing.

It was this inquisitive and no nonsense attitude I was aiming to capture. The simplicity of using torn and cut paper helps in illustrating their character and expressions, and as the view through binoculars is seldom perfect, with seemingly random free floating foliage covering most of the bird, (sometimes all of it!) I was keen to show that also.




Slow line, quick wash

Here are some line drawings from my sketchbook where I’m using a sepia coloured felt-tip pen to draw the scene. Quite a slow, deliberate process compared to my usual freer pencil drawings, and with a couple of these I found it useful to add some watercolour to ‘key in’
some of the spaces.

This first spread shows two drawings of a country road not far from home. I was interested in a graphic, linear shorthand to describe forms and textures. No need for a colour wash here.

Cat’s Hill Lane, Ludwell.
I spent the Easter break with family in Dorset. I’ve driven past this winding lane countless times over the years and only now decided to stop and draw it. The couple walking their dogs came from behind me and strolled down the lane. I waited until they reached the shed before sketching them in. I added some colour to the verges and meadows, including the far field where the cows are grazing.

This drawing is of a small stream winding its way through a copse in the spring sunshine. The bottom of the stream here is muddy but in other places it is stony and moderately fast flowing. In many places the water is only two inches deep, but there are some deeper pools where small fish find a decent living. I edited out quite a lot of ‘tree bits’ and settled for just enough to describe the overall look of the spot.

At the end of this small copse, the stream emerges and cuts across the green lane before
falling through the roots of a tree in a mini, noisy waterfall and creating a deepish pool, before continuing on through the hedgerow. I got the watercolours out for this one.

Into the Spring

Here are a few sketches from the countryside around me. With Winter now passed into Spring, the sun is higher in the sky, with brighter days lingering longer into early evening.
There is much activity, and so much energy around, with leaves about to burst open, birdsong and Hares having dust-ups in the middle of the green wheat fields.

This first sketch is of a sunny hedgerow leading up to a wood on the hilltop.
Although drawn back in February, the day was bright and the wind was kind.

winter-hedges-in-sunMarch 20th, late afternoon, a little weak sunshine and a cold wind. Still fully kitted out in hat, scarf and gloves (aiming to avoid any unnecessary discomfort) maybe I’m just getting old! This drawing is the same view from a little further to the right. I wanted to show the hedge curving uphill to the wood, from where a buzzard was mewing. Both of these were painted on the spot on 140lb paper.

up-to-the-woods-march-2015The two sketchbook drawings below started out as felt-tip pen sketches and colour was added back at home. I like this method as it forces me to simplify things and the marks become more gestural and stylised. Also, I can’t seem to be able to “paint” landscapes indoors, I have to be out there, in the moment.

I can’t resist the bend in a country lane. I think it’s because I’ll always wonder what lies beyond. With the field entrance drawing, using Naples yellow in the sky sells it as early evening, and the looming dusk atmosphere comes across pretty well.


evening-fields-march-2015-smThis picture was painted on another cold afternoon, but there was some sunshine. It’s a painting of not much at all, but the rows of young broad beans sweeping across the field lent themselves to the cause well enough. Apart from being a memory aid, I do see the
cold when I look at it, so it has a subtle something about it, so I’ve included it here.



A house in the country

After two days in Abuja, we drive Southwest to Osun State and the town of Oshogbo, where my hosts for the trip have their family home. It’s a ten hour drive, made worse by some bad potholes and some crazy drivers. Some driver’s decisions seem so wreckless they become comical, but the many overturned heavy lorries and abandoned vehicles serve as a sobering reminder that safety is held with scant regard here.

For almost the entire journey the highway is flanked on both sides by forest and bush, beyond the small scale agriculture and the odd village and settlement, and (frequent) petrol stations.

petrol-stationA pair of hornbills is often seen flying across to the high trees, and the occasional hawk or small eagle is seen wheeling in the middle distance. The raw sienna coloured soil fits perfectly with the lushness of the greens, and the moody grey skies hide the sun but not the humidity.

We arrive after dark, the streets in Oshogbo are still busy with trade, and even with their kerosene burning wicker lamps, I wonder how anyone can see quite what they are doing.

lines-at-dusk1The call to prayer from the nearby mosque wakes me at five, the cockerels are crowing at six, and the gospel singing is rousing at seven…but there is no intention to stay in bed, there are new things to be discovered out there.

Stepping outside, the first thing you notice are the agamas. They are literally everywhere, so much so that I don’t remember even taking a photo of one. I did do some sketches though, and I was intrigued by their slight air of superiority, always one eye on you, knowing as they do that they are always going to be one step ahead of any predatory move by a slowcoach human!




A house in the capital

Just arrived in Abuja, Nigeria. It’s evening, the air is heavy and warm. The clouds are rolling in steadily, shading the low sun. Opposite Jumoke’s house, Gospel singing is heard from a neighbour across the street. A dark sunbird perches briefly on the topmost twig of a vine on the wall before dashing off, and a group of Little Swifts wheel around the sky above the yard, their white rumps bright against the moody blue clouds.

For this rapid sketch I chose a side view of the porch, the architecture softened and complimented perfectly by the potted palms. Around the grounds, tidy clipped shrubs are set off nicely by the cobbles and weathered paving. A large clay pot sits in the gloom under the largest tree in the garden, waiting to be re-discoverd, its lovely hand crafted rings highlighted by the weathering algae.


The wet tropical climate weathers the concrete, plaster and paintwork. All in a day for those living here, but for me, having a thing for texture, colour and rustication as I do, I find myself pointing a camera at virtually everything…!weathering