Tag Archives: neighbours

Mind the Gap

I watched a BBC documentary on The Taj Mahal Palace, one of the best hotels in the world located in Mumbai according to the documentary. It certainly looked the part. The opulence and the service was certainly worth the thousands a stay would set you back by. This struck me but what struck me more was the homeless families who made their home outside the walls of the hotel. The poor women who sold recycled flowers to make enough to feed their children. Where were the men who fathered those children I wondered? If the Taj was so successful, couldn’t it be charitable enough to feed its resident poor? How could the guests stand to walk (or more likely drive) in past those poor wretches into such luxury?

This sort of wealth inequity is replicated all over the world of course. The less industrialised the nation, the more likely you are to see scenes like these replicated. In Yola where I come from, this is very much in evidence. It is not unusual to see a huge mansion complete with high surrounding walls, an impressive iron gate manned by gatemen and perfectly manicured hedges sitting next to a hut, little more than a lean-to with dry barren land surrounding it and the inhabitant(s) unable to afford 3 square meals and clean drinking water.

When I was little, we would have bouts of feeling charitable and go visit one of those poor homes. Most of them are inhabited by single old women. Some were called witches because of their social isolation or maybe because of their disdain for some of our archaic cultural norms. Many are just poor and alone, without a benefactor to lift them out of abject poverty. A good proportion were quite old and really did need a hand. My friend and I would go in and give their hut a spring clean, refill their water pots (their lounde) and clear out accumulated rubbish. We would leave with their prayers for us and our mothers ringing in our ears. These women managed because they had neighbours like us who would go in periodically and help out.

That is one thing I love about Yola. By Yola I mean Yola town. Not the metropolis that is Jimeta which has lost most of its old school community (or maybe being ‘new’ never got a chance to form the same bonds). No one can deny that poverty is pervasive in the society there but actually, so is charity. It is imbedded in our culture to look after our neighbours. No one in Yola that I know of has ever died of starvation (malnourishment is a different kettle of fish). If your neighbour struggles to find a meal, they could simply turn up at meal times and they would get fed.

I remember one of our dear matriarchs who had little herself always fed more than just herself and her dependents. We always had food to eat at hers even though she was poor herself. When we went to see her before we went off to boarding school, she would ask for forgiveness (in case she died before we came back) and forgive us any infractions then she would rummage under her mat and give us some of her precious savings so we could buy something. We would demure unfailingly but we also knew we had to take it. Because not to take it would be seen as disrespectful and a sign we did not value her loving gesture.

This was 2 decades ago. Things are changing but charity is still very much alive. I am not sure whether the local children are still doing what we did back then but I sincerely hope so. Especially because as religion and politics become more and more of an issue and many of those in our communities claim to be religious. Well then. If that is true, true poverty should never be an issue. Islamically, Zakat is part of our core duties, one of the 5 pillars of Islam.

“Be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah”                                        Qur’an Chapter 2 Verse 110

For any Muslim who can afford to support their living themselves and have something left over, they should donate 2.5% of their wealth to those who are in need. This is Zakat. Imagine if in a society like Nigeria where an estimated 50% of the population (87 million) are Muslims. Now imagine that about half of them can afford to pay Zakat. If even half of those (20 million) contributed 2.5% of their wealth to a community fund that was well-managed, things would be so different. So I challenge the practising Muslims who preach all things good to sit up and remember this core duty of ours. More than a billion Muslims across the globe, a good proportion with enough wealth to alleviate poverty all around them. Let’s do it people!

Straight Up Nigerian

Nigeria is a humongous country so I will not even attempt to write about it all in one little blog. It would take a whole book to make a dint in the story that is Nigeria. This blog will focus on my memories of growing up in Yola.

Yola City. 2 words. Enough said but just in case you have not sampled the delights of my hometown, I shall expand on the 2 words. Why do I love Yola so? Biggest reason is because my mother is the happiest there and whatever makes my mama happy, I love. Yola like me is full of contradictions. It is still small enough in Yola town (different from Jimeta a.k.a Yola North) that most residents either know me or my mama and will definitely know who my granddad is. So I cannot go round being naughty willy-nilly because they will come round to my house and make me feel like I am 3 years old again.

Knowing so many people is a great advantage. When I visit Yola, I get lots of food brought round and somehow these people know all my favourite foods, all the food I spend many hours daydreaming about back in Birmingham. Every morning is like a lottery and throughout the day, I intermittently check on the little dining table by the fridge to see if there have been any food deliveries. This time, I got at different times: Dan-wake, waina, masa, sinasir, dakuwa, kosai, gari basise, okro soup, this tapioca-type grain which I had with yoghurt, zogale (a.k.a moringa) seeds which were awful, a traditional kanuri drink made up of milk with bits of chewy yumminess in it, dambun nama, zobo and more. I was in food heaven. I ate small portions often in an attempt to get through a bit of everything. I didn’t remember half of those who sent the goodies to thank them but you know what? They probably got report that I stuffed my face with all of it and are satisfied they have done their bit to feed me.

Yola’s geography is awesome. We are in the North-east corner of Nigeria. In the old days, we were definitely in the savannah but now with all the aggressive deforestation by unethical businesses, we are part desert and part savannah. When you drive to Adamawa from Jos/Bauchi sides, you can see the more abundant greenery and exotic plants give way to Neem and baobab trees and green green grass in the rainy season dotted with low shrubs and anthills. I think Adamawa has cleaner crisper air and I can almost taste Yola when I drive into the Adamawa region. The river Benue goes through the state and is an amazing sight to behold in the rainy season. In the dry season, the water level is so low that the river Benue is reduced to a network of streams. In these months, you can see families fetching water, doing their laundry and bathing in those streams. I always want to stop the car and go down into the river bank, feel the sand underneath my bare toes like those families. In the rainy season, it is very different. The banks of the river are full to bursting. In fact more and more these days, we get floods as the effect of global warming is felt. Around Numan if you look carefully enough down at the river from the bridge, you’ll see how there is a clean side of the water and the dirtier muddier side of the water and curiously, the 2 seem separate as the river gushes past. I cannot remember the explanation my mama gave me when I asked decades ago but it doesn’t even matter to me. All I know is that the clean water somehow knows not to mix with the dirty water despite there being no physical barrier separating the 2. Incredible.

I love Yola market especially on ‘market’ day which has always been on a Friday. Back in the day, my mama banned us from going to the market unless in the company of adults. Most of the time, we obeyed that rule but not on Fridays. Every Friday, we would find a way to sneak out of the house with all the pocket money we had managed to save and head to the market. The biggest draw was the snake charmers who would display their trained cobras and even pick on members of the public in the audience to help them out with their tricks. My mama hates snakes so although I was less afraid of them, there was still a healthy dose of fear that I inherited from her. I used to have to look away from time to time during those displays as the excitement crossed the border into fear. However, I never turned down a chance to go there as long as my sister and I were in town on the Friday.

The other act we loved was the monkey owners. These people were less reliable and would turn up randomly. They even went house to house to perform and get given change. I loved the monkeys best and would pray for them to turn up every day during the school holidays. Sadly, my house was never visited. I am not sure whether it is because of our scary dogs or maybe my mum or stepdad were not receptive. Anyway, I was resourceful enough to catch them at the market or neighbours’ house. Another reason for my love of Yola market is the contraband fast food on sale. Contraband in my house meant any cooked food from a kitchen whose owner we didn’t know personally. Naturally I loved everything not cooked ‘at home’ so I was a regular customer and my favourite buys were Dan-wake and allele (bean cakes) cooked in tins with a drop of palm oil to make it glorious. Mmmm, these 2 foods are still my absolute favourite snacks from home.

Other delights I will never forget in Yola market include Amani who had a bad scarring infection on his face once upon a time and his vegetable stall. I loved the exotic fruit sellers sitting in the fruit section who came with their fruits picked fresh from the villages in our state. I loved the goruba sellers right at the back of the market especially because they had sacks of the thing and I always wondered if they ever sold it all and what sort of tree the gorubas came from. I loved the ‘odds’ lane where everything from nails to tree gum for charcoal ink and batteries were sold. I also loved the sweets man near the Fulani ladies with their fresh milk and yoghurt. I was a regular at his stall and especially loved it when he went to Cameroun and came back with the little pink mint balls with green stripes called bon-bon. On the rare occasion we needed to buy yoghurt, I would speak to the Fulani ladies and be amazed they spoke my language because these were the nomadic Fulanis (the bororos) and they were so pretty and different from us. I would watch in fascination as they tipped a ceramic dish of yoghurt into the one I bought without disturbing the smooth set of the yoghurt. I was so happy then. Le sigh.

I will finish on one final point about Yola. I loved the neighbourly spirit in the community when I was little. I rarely ate a proper meal at home in those days. I was always round one neighbour’s house or the other eating their meals because it was different from the meals at home. You know as a child, the grass is greener on every other side. There was always food in these homes and I was always welcome to it. I ate to my fill and said thank you then off I went. Mango and guava trees were abundant in those days (and I guess still are) and when those fruits were in season, I would forget about meals and just gorge myself on those fruits, sitting high up in the trees. So much so that I was constipated half the time because in my impatience, I would eat the fruits half raw particularly the guavas. I, of course, kept my medical problems to myself because I knew fully well it was self-induced and that actually my mama was clear on the rule that we should not be eating unripe fruit. One year, we discovered the delight of climbing up date trees and we were round Amadi’s home daily, eating so many dates that I still cannot handle more than 1 date at a time these days. I had a whale of a time growing up in Yola despite all the naughtiness. I have no regrets fortunately.

Close Call with a Ram

It was late afternoon, probably a Thursday or Friday since we were not at Qur’anic school. It was one of those rare occasions where my sister and I were home with no friends over and we chose to play at home. Normally, we would be round to a neighbour’s house, climbing their guava trees or picking mangoes or just playing with other kids.

On this late afternoon, it was warm as Yola is generally and we were bored. I don’t know which of us had the bright idea but we both thought it was brilliant. We decided to climb onto the wall around the perimeter of our house and run around the whole house. I must have been around 5 or 6 years old and my sister was 8 or 9. My mother’s cousin (around 20 years of age) was in the house somewhere and hadn’t a clue what we were up to. We conferred for a moment as the wall was too high for either of us to climb onto unaided. ‘I know’ I said to my sister. ‘We could get up there by climbing onto the A/C steel cage by Mama’s room’. I was a right little monkey all through my childhood days so if there was anything solid I could climb, I was all over it. This was why I knew that the steel cage around the air-conditioning unit poking out the back of my mama’s room was perfectly positioned for us to get up on the roof and then onto the wall, our destination.

We both got onto the wall safely using the A/C cage and the roof. So far, so good. Then we ran around the house once and I remember enjoying that so much we started a 2nd circuit. As we got to the back right corner of the wall, I looked down and my eyes met with the next-door neighbour’s who I had never clapped eyes on. I was so startled; I jumped back and fell off the wall.

Why was I so startled? Well I’ll tell you. This neighbour was an old lady who never left her little hut which was surrounded by a crooked wall of rusted steel sheets. The children of the neighbourhood never saw her. She was never visited by any relatives. She never left to go to the market for food. She was strange because in old Yola town, no one lived alone. No one was completely visitor-less. Everyone went to the market or sent the younger person living with them to the market for food. So, being children we decided she must be a witch. You know like a witch in the fairy tales of old who were always old women, living alone, doing strange things behind closed doors. The kind of stereotype that is damaging and we all know now is so wrong. But the older kids (the adolescents) used this stereotype to scare us the little kids. We were threatened with being taken to ‘her’ whenever we were naughty and we were scared stiff so it worked a treat. This is why my first sight of her was so startling.

So I fell back into my house and I wasn’t hurt. I think I had a graze or 2 but basically, I was ok. So no harm done, right? Wrong. It was the month leading up to Eid-el-kabir, the big Eid and the Eid that was the Muslim equivalent to Christmas in terms of significance. It was the Eid you were encouraged to slaughter a ram as per Muslim tradition if you could afford it. The idea was to have a 2 day feast with some of the meat and to share the fresh meat and grain with family, friends and neighbours. I digress. What I was leading up to is that we had a ram sequestered in that left back corner of our house, delivered from our granddad’s farm, awaiting Eid day. He was a beautiful animal. Large and white with black spots and long fierce-looking curly horns with sharp tips. And he was bored, kept in captivity on his own.

When I fell into his enclosure, I didn’t notice where I was at first. My sister who had kept her head and feet firmly on the wall spotted him. Her shout alerted me to turn and I looked straight into his eyes. OMG! He pawed the ground (do rams do that?) and my sister and I knew he was about to charge. I had no cover and the wall was too high. My sister was dancing in place, clearly anxious. She reached down with one hand and I stretched up and grabbed her hand with both hands. She tried to pull me up but couldn’t. I looked into her eyes and she looked back at me and I know the panic I felt was what I saw reflected in her eyes. I remember my heart pounding so hard that I couldn’t hear my sister’s instructions. As the ram charged, we braced ourselves and just before his horns made contact with me, she pulled and I jumped. His horns rammed into the wall with a loud crash, narrowly missing my legs which I had curled up and tucked under my chin. As my sister’s grip started to slip, he wheeled around the opposite end of the enclosure and prepared to charge again. I was back on the ground, looking to my sister for guidance. We repeated the grip and hoist, again timed to perfection so he just missed me. My memory makes it seem like we must have done that action several times but thinking back, I think we gripped and hoisted twice and somehow, on the 3rd attempt, my sister heroically hoisted me back onto the wall.

My hero! We sat on the wall, looking at this ram that had nearly gored me and was now looking at us with intent. After we got back our breaths, we got shakily back to our feet, walked back to the roof and got off the wall. By tacit agreement, we didn’t tell anyone what had happened. However, we were so uncharacteristically quiet, I remember someone asking if we were both ok. We must have been convincing enough that we weren’t pressed. We never got back on the wall, bored or not.