Reverend A.W. Banfield the White Nupeman - by Ndagi Abdullahi - Loadedgists
Fri. Aug 7th, 2020

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Reverend A.W. Banfield the White Nupeman – by Ndagi Abdullahi

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It may be safe to say that Reverend A.W. Banfield is the greatest of all the pioneering Christian missionaries who had the greatest influence on the establishment and subsequent spread of Christianity in KinNupe. Only Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s efforts are in fact comparable to the incredible contributions of Reverend Banfield to field of pioneering Christianity in KinNupe.

Reverend Banfield’s phenomenal success and feat in the establishment and spread of Christianity in KinNupe is due mainly to his incredible determination and unimaginable patience. He was indeed a personification of hard work and dedication.

Very few missionaries were able to subject themselves to the untold hardship and perseverance that Reverend Banfield subjected himself to in the course of spreading Christianity in KinNupe.

Life In Canada
Alexander Woods Banfield was born in Quebec, Canada, on the 3rd of August, 1878.He was the third of six children. His parents were British settlers from England. The family later on moved to Toronto and it was there that A.W. Banfield grew up.His father was into engineering and that was how the young Banfield became proficient with mechanical things which was to become of great advantage to him later on in life when he came to live here in KinNupe.

The young Banfield also joined the army at the age of seventeen as a trumpeter. Being a trumpeter made him master the skill of gathering people and pulling crowds. This, of course, was to also proved of being an advantage to him later on as a missionary here in Nigeria.

At the siècle de fin of the 19th century there was a great wind of Christian revivalism in the general Ontario area of Canada. At that particular time also the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement had also new emerged as a influential movement in Toronto the capital city of Ontario. The Mennonites in Canada were initially a small group mainly concentrated in the small town of Berlin (now Kitchener) before they moved to Toronto in 1897.

The Mennonite movement immediately experienced rapid expansion the moment the MBC shifted its base to Toronto. This rapid expansion was also aided by the fact that the Mennonites adopted a lot of the campaign and proselytization methods and strategies of the Evangelicals.

This general Christian revivalism and Mennonite urban congregations deeply influenced the young Banfield and he consequently converted from being a Methodist to being a Mennonite at the end of the year 1900 at the age of 22.His conversion took place at the MBC church on Parliament Street, Toronto.

After his conversion the young Banfield started attending evening classes organized by the Toronto Bible Training Institute. It was at those TBTI evening classes that the young Banfield became introduced to the world of missionary activities in Africa and the rest of the world. It was also at those TBTI evening classes that Banfield first met the lady called Althea Amanda Priest who was to become his wife later in life.

Together with Althea Amanda, fondly known as Ella, the young Banfield attended a lot of missionary sessions in those days. That was how both of them came to know so much about missionary activities. Banfield in particular became interested in serving as a missionary in the Central Sudan, the place known today as Nigeria and its neighbouring countries. Some said Banfield became interested in serving as a missionary in the Central Sudan after reading the Dr. Rowland Bingham’s book titled ‘The Birden of the Sudan’. Dr. Bingham was a regular visitor at the TBTI and that was how his book must have attracted the attention of the young Banfield who was a student at the TBTI in those days.

Dr. Rowland Bingham was in those days the head of the Africa Industrial Mission (later to be known as the Sudan Interior Mission) which he had newly founded just a few years back. The goal of the AIM was to bring Christianity to the Muslims of Central Nigeria and Dr. Rowland had earlier led two successive missions to Nigeria but both ended up as failures. In fact Dr. Rowland lost two of his missionaries in the previous missions to Nigeria – the two died due to the tropical diseases of Nigeria in those days. But Dr. Rowland was not deterred and he kept on working on leading more Christian missionaries to the Muslims of Central Nigeria.

After the conversion the young Banfield became busy attending various missionary prayer sessions and from these missionary meetings he developed this deep and sincere desire to become a missionary. He related that he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and that he “felt challenged to give my life to God and to go to Africa as a missionary.”

Such was his zeal for propagating Christianity that he immediately applied to become a missionary. His offer was accepted by the AIM and he became a missionary in 1901 at the age of 23 just a year after his conversion. Banfield then offered to join mission to Africa which was known in those days as the ‘Whiteman’s Graveyard’ because few Whitemen ever make it out of Africa a life in those days.But the young Banfield was not daunted by the scary stories of Africa being the Whiteman’s graveyard.

He was recruited by the Sudan Interior Mission, SIM, then known as the Africa Industrial Mission or AIM, for a missionary incursion into Central Nigeria the heart of Black Negro Africa. In those days the SIM was personally headed by Dr. Rowland Bingham who was the founder of the SIM. As a matter of fact Dr. Bingham had earlier led two missionary expeditions to Lagos and Port Harcour in 1893 and 1896 respectively before but both ended up as failures due to the hostile disease environment of Africa to the White men in those days.

In those days Africa was seen as the White man’s grave and most people from Europe and North America were scared of making the deadly journey into the interior of Africa. But the young Banfield was not daunted by this.

Banfield was one of four missionaries who offered to follow Dr. Bingham to Nigeria that year 1901. The other three missionaries were A.F.Taylor who was also from Toronto just like Banfield. Then there was also E. Anthony from Brown City, Michigan who was in fact the District Superintendent of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ of Michigan District but he left this position and decided that he must do more for the Lord by personally eparticiapting in a hardous missionary expedition to the interior of Africa. The fourth person in the group was C.H. Robinson who was from Newburg,New York.

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Each of the four volunteer missionaries and Dr. Bingham himself were resolutely determined to embark on this missionary expedition to the interior of Africa despite the difficulties and odds associated with such journeys in those days. The young Banfield offered to be the builder and mechanic among this team of the missionaries headed for the interior of Black Negro Africa.

They embarked on the journey on the 17th of September, 1901 from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Actually it was only Banfield and Ebenezer Anthony together with Dr. Bingham as their head, who left Toronto that September.From Canada they set sail to for the UK where they arrived at Liverpool. It was at Liverpool that they were joined by Charles Robinson and A.F. Taylor.

At Liverpool they stayed very briefly as they interacted with and were further coached and trained with regard to missionary activities and living in West Africa. They also received financial and otherwise assistances at Liverpool. Afterwards they left Liverpool, on the 30th of October 1901, for West Africa, they were headed for Lagos.

On board the ship to Africa one of the shipmen told Banfield that the young skinny Banfield will not survive in malaria-ridden Nigeria for more than six months. That still didn’t scare the young Banfield who was so full of the zeal to come to preach the Gospel in Nigeria.

Nigeria
At last they arrived Lagos in November 1901. Of the five of them only Dr. Bingham and A.F. Taylor had been to Lagos before. A.F. Taylor had earlier on joined Dr. Bingham’s abortive mission to Nigeria in January 1900.

From Lagos they went on to Port Harcourt and it was from Port Harcourt that they then moved up northwards to Lokoja which is located right here in KinNupe. They arrive Lokoja on the 29th of November, that is, they arrived KinNupe some two and half months after leaving Toronto, Canada, on the 17th of September, 1901.

At Lokoja they were welcomed and accommodated by the British Trading Company headquartered at Lokoja. In those days Lokoja was the capital city of the newly established Colonial Government of the Northern Protectorate. They were also equipped by the Trading Company for their journey further into the heart of KinNupe.

From Lokoja the four missionaries, without Dr. Bingham, went further into KinNupe where they settled at Patigi. Patigi was a major Nupe town with a population that was entirely Muslim in those days. So, the missionaries started their proselytising activities among the Nupe Muslims at Patigi.

But it was not easy preaching Islam in Patigi town that was completely a Muslim town. This, however, did not deter the missionaries who simply re-strategized and even proceeded further into the heart of KinNupe until they got to Bida, the capital of Nupe, itself.

Bida
Of course the opposition to Christianity in Bida was worse than the missionaries had even imagined. But this shouldn’t be surprising considering the fact that Bida was the seat of the almighty Bida Emirate with the Dendo dynasts claiming to be the sultans or emirs of the whole of KinNupe.

The hardy team of A.W. Banfield’s missionaries gradually adapted to the religiously harsh environments of Bida and did all they could in establishing and spreading Christianity in KinNupe. They were not discouraged or cowed by the religious opposition they met at Bida and, with time, they began to make some little progress in the neighbouring villages populated by the semi-Islamised pagans around Bida.

But trouble struck from an angle un-reckoned by the missionaries. Tropical diseases and harsh climate suddenly began to take their toll on the missionaries. One of them, A.F. Taylor, died of some disease in Bida and had to be buried here in Bida. Incidentally Taylor was also from Toronto, the city in which Banfield grew up and had spent most of his life back in Canada.

The two other missionaries apart from Banfield, that is C.H. Robinson and E. Anthony both became so ill that the entire team had to immediately leave Bida. They were rushed back to Patigi. From Patigi both Robinson and Anthony were taken back to Canada due to their unrelenting illnesses.

Patigi
But A.W. Banfield remained behind in Patigi and by March 1902 had established a successful, but small, missionary base at Patigi. As a matter of fact Banfield remained in Patigi for three solid years. He became indigenised as a citizen of Patigi and became very proficient in speaking the Nupe language. It was actually there in Patigi that Banfield discovered, to his own amazement, that he had a natural talent for learning African languages.

For those two to three years the young Banfield was practically a Nupe man as he spoke only the Nupe language. The only time he ever use the English language throughout those three or so years is whenever he read the Bible. Otherwise he spoke and even thought only in Nupe.

Everybody, including Banfield himself, was surprised at the fluency with which Banfield was able to master the Nupe language that is so difficult to learn even by native Africans. The complex tonal system of the Nupe language had made it impossible for almost all foreigners to master the language until Banfield came and proficiently mastered the Nupe language. Of course there was no doubt that Banfield was the first White man to proficiently master the Nupe language.

In those years also Banfield succeeded in translating quite a number of verses and passages from the Gospels into Nupe. This, of c

After three years at Patigi, A.W. Banfield went back home to Toronto in Canada in 1905. He was weak and frail due to the ravages of malaria fever which he had endured for three solid years.

He got married, on the 1st of March 1905,to Althea Amanda Priest who was his companion at the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, MBC,evening classes back in those days before he left for Nigeria. She was also from Ontario.

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In those days Banfield became very famous among Christian missionary and African expeditionary societies in Canada and the USA due to his fame as a young missionary who had spent three good years in the heart of Africa.He also achieved great fame and unprecedented popularity as a missionary when, with the help of a Mennonite editor Henry Hallman, he was able to print five thousand copies of his journal book titled ‘Life Among the Nupes of West Africa’. Five thousand copies was a large number to print in those days and people were keenly interested in knowing the life of the natives of West Africa in those days.

Banfield became an international speaker as he spoke and delivered lectures in various Mennonite Brethren in Christ, MBC, conferences in Canada and the USA. He was later ordained formally in Stouffville, Ontario in Canada in 1905.

Such was A.W. Banfield’s fame that he was appointed by the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, MBC, as the first Superintendent of their mission society that they newly established that very year 1905 in Nigeria.

Tsonga
On the 27th of August, 1905, Banfield set sailed with his wife, Althea, from Canada back to Nigeria.This time around Banfield decided not to stay in Patigi or Bida again. Instead he chose to stay at Tsonga, another Nupe emirate not far away from Lafiagi. Banfield’s choice of Tsonga as a new base for his MBC missionary outlet may not be unconnected with the fact that Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who had earlier visited Tsonga some twenty-nine years earlier in 1876, had recommended Tsonga as a possible good missionary outfit in KinNupe.

He arrived Tsonga together with his wife in October 1905.Back in Nigeria A.W. Banfield immediately plunged himself into extensive and comprehensive missionary work in his characteristic determined and persevering manner.

Banfield used his mechanical and building expertise to build a house for himself at Tsonga. He also constructed a church but apart from his wife as a fellow missionary he had no Christian congregation to attend the church.

At his new base at Tsonga, however, Banfield became very busy engaged in his missionary and Christian literary works. By 1908 Banfield had successfully translated the four Gospels into Nupe. Banfield personally built his own house at Tsonga as he was very good at building and with mechanical things. Remnants, actually the porch steps, of that house can still be seen at Tsonga.

It was his laudable efforts at Tsonga that eventually gave rise to the emergence of the glorious establishment of the United Missionary Society or the UMS. The UMS, of course, became a most effective tool for the spread of Christianity in the rest of Nigeria – all thanks to the hardwork and foresight of the indefatigable and visionary A.W. Banfield.

From his base in Tsonga Reverend A.W. Banfield organised and used the UMS to spread Christianity to all other parts of KinNupe and the rest of Northern Nigeria. He was able to train and send missionaries, both foreign and natives, to all the nooks and corners of KinNupe and the rest of Northern Nigeria. These new missionaries he trained particularly worked earnestly in the Niger, Kwara, and Kebbi areas thus laying the foundation for the reltively strong communities of Northern Nigerian Christians we see in these areas to this very day.

It was also Banfield who set up the first printing press in Nigeria at Tsonga. In 1909 he ordered for a printing machine all the way from Canada. When the machine arrived in a boat up the River Niger it took some twenty Africans a whole week to drag the heavy machine from the banks of the River Niger to Tsonga where Banfield was living. With this printing machine he was able to print so many Christian missionary books. This first printing press at Tsonga later on became known as the Niger Press.

We need to re-emphasize the fact here that this printing machine brought to Nigeria by Reverend Banfield in 1909 was one of the first printing machine in Nigeria.And in fact Reverend Banfield was to develop this into the first printing press in Nigeria in 1915. It was to become the famous Niger Press which was the first printing press in Nigeria and it was located at Tsonga the Nupe town. This is a great historical achievement for which KinNupe should be recognized for all the generations to come.

Banfield and the Nupe Language
Banfield spent quite an incredible amount of time and energy studying the Nupe language and successfully came up with a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the tonal system of the Nupe language. And with his manual printing machine he was able to print a large number of Christian materials translated into Nupe while there at Tsonga.

The work and task of using that manual printing machine to print innumerable books was a very daunting one. There was always a team of Nupe handworkers, almost all illiterate, continuously helping Banfield in arranging and setting the types from the typebar unto the printing machine. It was a hardously difficult work that only a very patient and extremely determined person like Reverend Banfeld could do in such a remote town far away into the backwoods of Western civilization in those days. But Banfield surmounted all those seemingly impossible difficulties and actually became a very prolific author with his Nupe works.

So prolific was Banfield and so many were the copies of his works that he was able to print in the Nupe language that the Nupe language and KinNupe became one of the first regions of Nigeria to be highly literate. His Nupe hymnbooks, for instance, were among the first native hymn books in the whole of West Africa and they were so popular that to this very day, over a hundred years later, they are still in use among the Nupe people. One of his books, titled ‘Old Testament Stories’, became the most popular Christian book of all times in KinNupe to date.

Reverend Banfield was the first to consummately work out the complexity and peculiarity of the Nupe language as a linguistic phenomenon. He noted that Nupe nouns and adjectives have no gender and that the Nupe language depends on a profusion of adverbs to make up for the fact that it had few numbers of adjectives. He also outlined the tonal complexity of the Nupe language and the fact that it has a form of emphatic vowels. Reverend Banfield also pointed out the euphonic change of the Nupe language.

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Reverend Banfield was also the first person to produce a Nupe dictionary. His two volume Nupe dictionary, which was so voluminous it had over 800 pages, was far more standard and organized than the pamphlet of Nupe word lists published by Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in the 1860s.The first Volume of Banfield’s Nupe Dictionary is from Nupe the English while the second volume is from English to Nupe. Reverend Banfield also published a number of books on Nupe proverbs and Nupe grammar.

And, with his extraordinary gift at mastering the Nupe language, Reverend Banfield was eventually able to translate the entire Bible into Nupe in 1927. This was first printed in England by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1947. This, of course, is one of his most enduring masterpieces. Accomplishing the almost impossible feat of translating the entire Bible into Nupe language is an accomplishment for which Reverend Banfield will be remembered for all times.

Reverend A.W. Banfield spent twelve solid and ardours years working assiduously at Tsonga. He was the Superintedent of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, MBC, of Canada and also the Missionary Church of the USA. In the end these two were united into the United Misionary Church or UMS which Banfield continued to serve as the Superintendent at Tsonga. As the Superintendent he oversaw the training and work of many other missionaries to various tribes of Nigeria and the Nupe inclusive. Tsonga, of course, became the first headquarters of the UMS in Nigeria.

Through his laudable energy and focus Reverend Banfield was able to build the trio of the UMS, the Niger Press, and Tsonga into three formidable hallmarks in the history of missionary Christianity in Nigeria.

Actually, proselytising work at Tsonga, a Nupe Islamic emirate, was also not that easy and Reverend Banfield was actually able to convert only a few number of Nupe people at Tsonga to Christianity. But the influence of his remarkable printing and missionary works at Tsonga had far-reaching effects in all parts of Northern Nigeria.

The Muslim scholars and royalties at Patigi, in particular, were not ready to accommodate a Christian missionary in the likes of Reverend Banfield in KinNupe. The Muslim scholars at Patigi used every opportunity to frustrate the works of Reverend Banfield even though the ordinary people of Tsonga came to like Reverend Banfield so much. The locals at Tsonga fondly referred to Reverend Banfield as the Zabokun or the White Nupe man. But despite the fact that the people of Tsonga liked Reverend Banfield so much he was able to make very little number of converts only in the surrounding villages. In fact the UMS base at Tsonga was later on relocated to Jebba and then to Mokwa due in part to the stiff opposition of the Tsonga and Patigi people to the missionary activities of the UMS.

Secretary, BFBS
Reverend Banfield’s incredible achievements as a missionary made him so famous and popular among missionary circles that missionary societies like the British and Foreign Bible Society began to request the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, MBC, to release him to them. The BFBS in particular felt that they seriously needed Reverend Banfield’s extensive experience in Bible translation and indigenous scholarship. In the end, and after repeated requests, the MBC released both Banfield and his wife Althea while they were on a vacation in 1915. This was in order to allow them to accept the passionate request by the BFBS for the Banfields to come and work with them.

The BFBS immediately employed the Banfields as senior missionaries in that same year 1915. In 1917 Reverend A.W. Banfield was appointed the Secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, BFBS, and was subsequently transferred to Lagos to head the West African headquarters of the BFBS society there.

This time around, and as the Secretary of the BFBS, Reverend Banfield spent a great among of time travelling round the world but most especially among the British, Belgian and Portuguese colonies of West Africa including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Angola and others. He personally visited some 64 mission societies in this vast geographical area and interacted closely with some 2000 missionaries during this period.

He spent the next fifteen years there at Lagos as his headquarters working indefatigably as he oversaw the activities, especially the linguistic ones, of the BFBS society in all these countries across West Africa and even beyond. He retired from active service in 1930 at the age of 52.

After retirement in 1930 he went back home to Canada. Back in Canada he became a Minister at a Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada, UCC. He served as an agile and active preacher until he suffered a stroke in 1934. This stoke forced him to retire from active church activities.

Being restrained from the strenuous activities of a Church minister, Reverend Banfield retired into a quiet life of his lifelong interest in the translation of the Bible into Nupe. He had of course translated the entire Bible into Nupe long a ago but he now continued with a quiet life of doing some editing work on the translation of the Bible into Nupe there in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was also, at that time, busy working on a book titled ‘1001 African Proverbs’.

But in 1942 Reverend Banfield suffered a major stroke that left him paralysed and unable to do any great work until he eventually died seven years later on the 22nd of November, 1949.

Reverend Banfield, of blessed memory, is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries and a most productive one in Africa. He singlehandedly changed the story of missionary activity in Africa due to his incredible perseverance and extreme steadfastness to his work. He is also the man who has done the greatest work and research on the linguistic nature of the Nupe language. It should be noted that to this very day nobody has put in the amount of effort and energy that Reverend Banfield put into the critical analysis of the Nupe language.

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