Although I joined others in condemning her pictures - what about the fancy hotels, boutiques and plush cars she experienced? Why only show the (overused, clichéd) poverty of Africa? - I now understand her. Coming from her world, the naked poverty in Nigeria grabbed her attention and touched her more than the wealth in the country. She's familiar with luxury hotels and tarred roads, so the unfamiliar is what stood out for her.
So in these stories, which all occurred last year, I describe my encounters with people I'm not used to, often watch from afar and who I'm not able to know very well due to our different stations in life.
The Little Fulani CowgirlYou could just make out the top of her shaggy head amidst the wide, white flanks of the cows gathered around her. Then she comes into view: a little Fulani girl barely seven years old, with dirt-brown curly hair plaited haphazardly, and the tiny stray strands that escaped forming a fuzzy halo around her little head.
Wearing a blue, oversized T-shirt that reached down past her knees, her thin legs ended in a pair of adult slippers encasing tiny feet caked in the brown dust of the earth that she had no doubt been traversing for hours already that afternoon.She grasped in her little hand a thin but sturdy stick that was twice her height, which she used as an aid to edge her way past the slow-footed cows and around the side of the road. Now and then she also used the stick to whack a fidgety cow to stop it from heading towards the cars that were waiting for the herd to cross, a scene which occurs periodically on this residential road.
Unafraid, accomplished and proud, the little cowgirl wore a look of experienced calm and maintained an assurance that refused to be intimidated by the animals that were bigger than her or the motorists growing impatient around her.She wasn’t perturbed by the heat of the sun, the dusty road or the long hilly hike ahead of her, and as I looked she shouted out to the herd with a shrill, tiny voice, and the animals immediately heeded their little mistress and trooped faster past the waiting cars.
She manoeuvred the animals with grace under fire; they trusted her and she understood them. And as she walked behind the last cow crossing, our eyes met and she looked at me for a fraction of a second with cool, haughty eyes betraying little of the innocence no doubt still within.Here was a little girl in charge of her family’s wealth and pride, single-handedly dealing with the hostilities of the city and the terrain, armed with only a stick and her fierce resolve. She knows the roads, the routes, the hills and the valleys, she probably also knew each cow by name.
Soon she will give up herding and settle into the sedentary life of a wife and mother, but for now it was just her and her herd against the world, roaming wild and free and fearless.As the proud little cowgirl walked off into the distance with her troop of 15 or so cows trudging obediently behind her, I marvelled at her control and confidence.
She was born to do this.
The Barefooted PrisonerA barefooted, small-boned man with scraggly hair, a T-shirt full of holes and a hound-dog expression walked up to us one warm weekday evening as we stood in front of a Tapas Bar near the Gudu bypass.
He came to us hesitantly, as if he was a pigeon and we were holding out bread in our palms. We tried to ignore him at first, but the weight of sorrow in his eyes and his obvious vulnerability made us forego our concern that he was a scam-artist begging for money. Like the well-dressed, middle-aged man who alighted from a Jeep and asked us for N10, 000 to pay for his daughter’s medical bills. It was only after we gave him what we could and he drove off that it dawned on us that we’d been swindled.
But this small man was different. He kept scratching himself slowly all over as he told us, in a barely-audible voice, his story. Big tears dropped from his eyes, which he wiped with his shoulder in a move that was so pitiful it was innocent.Back in Taraba State, he said, he and a group of friends were walking through a market when there was a commotion: someone had been stabbed in a fight. He helped eight others to carry the victim to the hospital, and whilst there the victim died and despite their protests, the police arrested them for murder. They were thrown into jail and later ferried to Kuje Prison in Abuja to complete their sentence. That was nine years ago. He was just released today and wanted to return to his wife and children in Taraba but didn’t know where to go or where to start.
We stared at him in silence. Was this for real? Was this poor man’s life just taken away from him for an instinctual act of kindness?He stared at the floor whilst we consulted amongst ourselves, now and then shooting more questions at him to ascertain the veracity of his tale. He didn’t even ask for money, he just told his story and kept quiet, waiting for us to pronounce our judgment on him from on high, just like the judge and the police declared their life-changing judgement on him all those years ago.
He mentioned that one of the friends had died in prison; they were regularly beaten up and hardly given any food. If ever there was an example of someone whose spirit had been broken, it was him.We pitied him and gave him some of what we had, and pointed to the direction of cars going towards the park where he can get transportation to Taraba. He took the money with both hands, offered a lengthy thanks with more tears, and walked away slowly; a dejected, confused victim of poverty.
If the rage from the injustice he’s suffered caused him to kill tomorrow, I wouldn’t blame him. The depraved amongst us are made so by others, which is why we are told not to judge, for only God knows the full story. It is a wonder more men don’t turn to violence, when such violence is visited upon them daily.
How Much is an Egg Roll?There’s an instant pleasure one derives from biting into a warm egg roll, especially when the dark brown pastry surrounding it is both savoury and sweet and crumbles in the mouth. With this yearning in mind, I walked out of the office at lunchtime in search of the eggroll sellers, who carry their cheap but sumptuous wares on their heads to many a labourers’ delight.
It was my lucky day: A teenage girl was passing by with a lidded, translucent plastic bucket on her head. I could just about make out the eggrolls inside. As she walked on, skilfully balancing her load on a head, she didn’t even need to use a hand to hold the bucket in place, such was her hawking experience.
One arm hung playfully by her side as the other held a small plastic carrier bag hooked to her wrist, no doubt containing her takings for the day’s sales so far. She walked with an air of confident abandon: “I don’t need to go to school,” she seemed to be saying. “The sun and the breeze and the open road are my education. I know these streets like the back of my hand.”
I made short hissing sounds to get her attention, and when she heard, she turned around and walked towards me. As she reached me, she brought down her bucket and opened it. “Good afternoon madam” she said in a sing-song voice. I greeted her and looked inside her pail. There were eggrolls alright, bigger than average and the rough unevenness of the dark-brown dough glistening with grease testified to the fact that the dough will be sufficiently crunchy. But apart from the rounded eggrolls, there were elongated dough of the same colour, moulded into fat, short tubes.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing at one.
“Fish roll” she replied, her inanimate eyes wondering away and resting on the woman walking by.
They look interesting, I thought. “Give me one eggroll and one fish roll” I said, looking forward to biting into one of the moist flour-casing and tasting bits of fish instead of a hard-boiled egg.
The girl took out one small black carrier bag from the bag hooked unto her wrist, spread it out on her cupped hand and used it to scoop up the delicacies, wrapping the bag up around them.
“How much?” I asked.
I looked back at the snacks in the bag. “Remove the fish one” I said. Knowing that the price of eggrolls ranged from N50 to N80 depending on where you bought them, N200 for two – one of which was a flavour unknown to me – was too much. Plus I couldn’t guarantee that these eggrolls will taste good. Looks can be deceiving. And the freshness of the products, now that it was already 2:30pm and there were only a few left in the bucket was uncertain. Wouldn’t all the oil seep down to the last remaining rolls, making them soggy from the extra grease and the accumulated heat-turned-sweat from the sun?
The doubts raised by the extra N120 was immense. Did my clothes or the fatness of my purse fool this girl into thinking it was full or money? Or did the wholesale price of flour and eggs suddenly increase in Abuja so that it translated into an extra N20 charge for an eggroll?
But I didn’t say anything. I paid with N500, and saw that I collected all her change: eight N50 notes. I wondered where the rest of her money was. But the abundance of N50s proved to me that indeed the rolls did retail at half the price. The young swindler was smart. “Thank you ma” she said, as she heaved the bucket back unto her head.
Those three words turned my displeasure into a shrug. Back at the office, I bit into the roll. It was still fresh and uncluttered by too much grease. My N100 was well spent.
My Maiguard is Getting MarriedOur maiguard has one of those faces that is neither old nor young; he could be 18, he could be 38. Small in stature and speaking a dialect of Hausa that baffled us, Aminu is a good, if absent-minded guard.
I remember when he first arrived from Zaria straight to our house; he was hunched and hesitant, with overgrown hair and a furtive, haunted look in his eyes. He used to grunt to alert you to his presence, and he had a permanent scowl on his face. But after a few months with us, he became more self-assured, got regular hair-cuts, wore the clothes we gave him with pride and stood taller. He even replaced his grunts with words; it was like seeing the blossoming of a flower. Soon he started cooking for himself and made friends with the other guards in the estate, and he smiled and laughed more. Even his brand of Hausa became more familiar to us.Yet he remained our lowly, trust-worthy Maiguard, until he told us his intentions to return to his native Zaria to get married. I was surprised. So Aminu, this young (or old, we still couldn’t ascertain his actual age-range) man who opens and closes our gate, weeds the yard, washes the cars and does other necessary work around the house for which we paid him an agreeable amount, wanted to get married?
He said that the girl had already been chosen for him by his family; she was the sister of a girl he had been dating previously, but that girl had been given out in marriage to another man when Aminu came to Abuja, so his family had accepted her sister for him.I remember entering his messy Maiguard house to drop something for him, and on the floor was a picture of a light-skinned young woman wrapped in a red veil from head to toe. She was lying down on her side and stared blankly at the camera. So when Aminu said he’d never met his bride-to-be but had been sent her picture, my mind recalled the girl in red.
She was rather pretty, I thought. Will she be pleased with Aminu, a diminutive man/boy with a semi-permanent scowl? He told us her bride-price was N70, 000 and he’d been saving up for months for her. I wondered if N70, 000 was considered the price for a top-drawer maiden in rural Zaria.Last week, Aminu left to get married, I could sense his excitement as he said farewell to us. But he’ll come back soon, as his family have advised him to return to Abuja after marriage because there are no jobs in their community. But he won’t be bringing his wife with him. So after a few days in Zaria, during which time he would not only meet his bride for the first time, but would have married her, he would bid farewell to his life-partner for a few months until he returned to Zaria again. Aminu will then return to us a married man.
I wondered if, nine months later, Mrs Aminu would have a baby. Would Aminu still stay on in Abuja? Will he take on more wives? Can he look after a family on his modest Maiguard wages?All these questions cast my Maiguard in a whole new light.