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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.

What or Who Was I in My Past Lives?

I was reading a book this weekend just gone and the main character had hypnosis to remember her childhood. This reminded me of the popular BBC day time show which put celebrities through ‘regression’ and re-enacted their past memories to try and establish who these celebrities were in their past lives. Before I write down my thoughts, I have a disclaimer. I do not belief in reincarnation and living multiple lives. Sometimes I think it would be rather nice to have another chance to do it all over again but then again, if you come back into a worse situation what is the point? One life is long enough for me, thank you very much.

I figure the biggest clues to what or who I might have been comes from the things I love instinctively. So first of all, I love physical contact. As a child, I would literally drape myself all over my mama whenever she was seating down. I also loved to climb and sit in tree tops. I was light on my feet and despite many falls, never broke a bone. I have always loved hugs and being stroked particularly on my back. Remind you of anything? That’s right: a cat. I remember loving the Jungle Boy, the film adaptation of Disney’s Jungle Book and my favourite thing was when Mowgli came face to face with ‘Shere Khan’ the fierce tiger and stared him down. Since then, I have loved big cats as well as the domestic ones we kept and tried unsuccessfully to keep safe from our dogs. I loved seeing the white lions and tigers at The Safari Park and I know that if I could choose to return as an animal, my 2nd choice would be as a lioness.

My 1st choice animal would be a horse. My granddad has a farm and when my mama moved back to Yola, I was less than a year old. She was the farm manager in those days so being a baby, I naturally spent a lot of time on the farm with her. The stables were full to bursting with mostly polo horses in those days and my mum likes to recount that I learnt to ride before I could walk. What she means is that I loved the horses and whenever there was a stable hand with any spare time, I would be popped onto the back of a gentle mare and walked around. I never had proper lessons but I watched my uncles play polo and I always knew I wanted to ride horses. When I was old enough, it came as naturally as breathing for me to be on the back of a horse. Of course in those days, I couldn’t handle the frisky younger polo horses but there was 1 in particular called Sofia that I favoured and every chance I got, I rode her.

So why do I love horses so much? I think they are absolutely gorgeous creatures. I love their soft velvety noses especially when they brush it across your palm as they take sugar cubes from your hand. I love their large teeth and long lean faces. I love their beautiful manes especially when they are shaved and plaited before polo matches. I love the deep brown of their eyes and their ridiculously long eyelashes. When they look at me, I feel like they can see into my soul and read my thoughts. They whiney at exactly the right moments in a tale. I love their foals with their ungainly long legs and how they skip around and play as their mums graze. I love watching them breastfeed then lean contentedly into their mums’ flanks. I love watching the adults gallop and seeing their muscles ripple under their glossy warm coat. I love to brush them down after a ride and watch the shine on their coat. I love their smell which lingers on my jeans for days after I have had a ride. As I have got older then moved away to England, I don’t get as much opportunities but I still go back to the farm and ride when I visit.

Fulanis are cow people and nomadic in origin. Beef is in general loved universally by the Fulanis and the more, the merrier. There is nothing my granddad loves more than firing up the clay barbeque pit and roasting beef straight from the abattoir. My sister is also a big meat eater and could eat meat all day every day. I on the other hand, like my mama, prefer seafood. I would eat seafood all day every day. I love it all except slimy oysters and odd mussels. The other love that goes hand in hand with seafood is being by the sea. I cannot recall ever being stressed at the seaside. Not even when I thought I was going to drown once. Not even in a little speedboat in the middle of a turbulent ocean when I can barely float in the shallow end of a swimming pool. I honestly feel the happiest when I am by the sea, hearing the waves crash onto shore, having brine sprayed onto my face and burrowing my bare feet into fine sand. Maybe in another life, I was an islander.

There are some smells I love with an intensity I cannot explain. I love the smell of coffee and did so from a very early age despite hating the taste (my granddad was addicted to it so I naturally I stole a taste). I used to add a pinch to my black tea so that I could smell coffee without its taste. Every time I walk past a coffee shop, I want to go in and sit just so every breath I inhale, I am immersed in the smell of coffee. Yet I can go months without drinking a cup of coffee. I also love the smell of freshly baked bread, particularly baguette and tiger bread. In comparison to coffee, with bread, I cannot wait to tear into the loaf and devour the piece. I do not even need butter or jam. Just fresh bread is enough for me. This makes me think of Belle in the little market town street in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. That fact in addition to the relative ease with which I navigate French makes me think that perhaps in a former life, I might have been a French girl.

Lastly, I wonder about my love for certain tastes. Sweet and sour fruits are a particular love for me. I especially love tamarind which I started eating when I was about 4 years and over the years, that love has never waned. And since then, I have found many other fruits with the same sweet and sour nature. Sour sop (or guanabana), mangoes, chappulle and mboye (found in north-eastern Nigeria), agbalumo (found in Central to South-western Nigeria) and tsamiyan biri all over the north. When I couldn’t find something to satiate the hunger for sweet and sour, I would cut one lime into 2 halves and dip the top of each half into a plate of sugar, allowing it to soak up the sweetness then suck on it. I can feel my taste buds tingle now as I remember the sweetness giving way to sharp tanginess that made me tingle all over and screw up my face even as I revelled in the taste sensation. The other taste I love is chilli pepper. There is rarely a time when I feel that no chilli is a good idea. Sometimes I crave the heat of scotch bonnet peppers so badly that I get up and cook up a scotch bonnet chutney. This chutney is so fierce that just opening the jar I store it in makes my eyes water and draws an unexpected sneeze from me. I must have 5 or 6 different chilli containers in my spice shelf yet every time I see a different form of chilli, I am tempted to buy it. This all despite the fact that my gut has decided that it is rather sensitive to chilli and the older I get, the less tolerant it gets. However, I am so passionate about chilli that I could not live without them. That combination of loves to me brings in mind Thai food…which means I could have been Thai in another life.

Of course I have many other likes that make perfect sense. Like peppermint. My mama’s main craving whilst pregnant with me was Trebor peppermint so I think her blood had high levels which became the norm to me. As far back as I can remember I have always loved Trebor peppermints and buttermints which are still ever present in my home to this day. I love all small animals and people and for me, the smaller the better. But who can resist a small helpless creature with massive Irises and total innocence? I also love vanilla ice-cream but only in an ice-cream cone. Without a cone, the experience just isn’t the same. I think it is the contrast in texture between crunchy and soft creamy ice-cream and the contrast of room temp cone with freezing cold ice cream. I love pancakes, thick and fluffy as the Americans make them. I love pies with mash, mushy peas and gravy. I love the colour red. I love elephants and camels and riding them. What I am trying to say is, even with a long list of likes and dislikes, there are some irrational ones that make me think for a second: what if I like them now because I loved them in another life and it is the leftover memories making me feeling the love? I wonder…