This morning I woke up tired. I had gone to sleep with a lot on my mind and I must have been thinking very hard in my sleep. Many pending tasks in my head. A to-do list which I needed to write down and tick off this morning. But as happens very often, serious-looking potentially busy mornings like this often end up being spent doing nothing, wasted. Not even reading a novel or listening to Mahmood Khalil Husary’s unique and emotive tarteel (his rendition of ar-Rahman is unbelievable, heavenly). Just doing nothing. Plain nothing. Or spent listening to BBC Hausa service. Today, my mind just simply wandered as I lay on my bed. Seemingly without direction, aimlessly. It visited many places and times. Doors and stairways from one room led to another. Like a house with many rooms on many floors. Memories connected, entwined, entangled. The memories kept going back in time and finally ending in the present. Ancient memories mixed with recent. It started with news of Mugabe’s death. I had been listening to BBC Hausa and Mugabe had been on the news before I slept off despite my best efforts. Mugabe, Harare, Salisbury, Rhodesia, old books, Pacesetter series, Ilorin. And tuwo ati gbegiri.
Many years ago, when I was in junior secondary school, I used to go and spend my mid-term break and other holidays at my maternal grandfather’s house in the heart of Ilorin, not so far from the Emir’s palace. The three-storey edifice at Isale Ajanaku towered above the surrounding houses. It had a deck on the roof of the third floor where one could see for miles rusty roofs like what one would see from the top the hills of Ibadan. It was a solid modern building. It must have cost the grand old man a fortune. I remember the house with fondness. With memories of love and kindness. The woman of the house was my mum’s step-mother but there was no difference. She would say, in her sing-song Ilorin accent: oma p’emi ni gogo iya’re ni? (don’t you know that I am your mother’s mother?). On Saturday mornings, she would order for tuwo with gbegiri for all of us on the third floor of the house. That tuwo and gbegiri ehn: it was nothing like any I had ever tasted before my arrival in Ilorin. The tuwo was not heavy. It was very fine and smooth, devoid of the slightest hint of roughness. Even the yellow gbegiri was silken, laced with a judicious amount of orange-red stew. The mere sight and aroma. Even as my mind recalls as I write, my taste buds and olfactory cells also remember. Me, I used to eat it with a spoon. On other days, I would stay at home all day reading and she would send my lunch from her shop in front of the Oniyangi House on Emir’s Road. Alhaja, may God preserve you in good health and reward you with Jannah. On the second floor lived my uncle, whose wife – another Ilorin woman – was so kind and solicitous. She would look for every opportunity to make me eat her delicious food. And she would pack my bag with provisions when my break was over and I was going back to school. Iya Lekan, may you live long in prosperity and good health.
In that house, I stumbled across a treasure trove. You guessed right. Books kept in cardboard boxes, I mean cartons. These Americans words supplanting our own Nigerian words. Many of the books were of the Pacesetters series. They included titles like The Black Temple, For Mbatha and Rebecca, Evbu My Love, Bloodbath at Lobster’s Close, The Instrument. I devoured them at the rate of three per day. I would stay in my room reading and reading. Only to go to the nearby mosque to pray. There was a nearby mosque everywhere in Ilorin. Whenever my grandfather came to town from his country home in Oro, we would go to the mosque together. Sometimes, after having stayed indoors all day, I would venture out and explore the area – Emir’s Road, Old Yidi Road, Edun Street, the crooked alleyways and backstreets that wouldn’t allow a car to pass. But the Pacesetter books were not the most memorable items in the boxes. I found two hardcover geography textbooks. The kind of cloth binding common with library books those days. They were in excellent condition. One was orange, the other was blue. One was focused on the New World: the two Americas and Australia; the other was on the Old World: Africa and Asia. The volume on Europe was missing. On the blank pages before the title page was written my mother’s maiden name and the name of her school: St. Louis Secondary School, Bompai, Kano. Nineteen sixty-something. My mother’s books. I took them with me and they never found their way back to that house. They were extremely readable. They contained the sweeter part of geography which I later learnt to refer to as regional geography; not the dry physical geography stuff of lateral and medial moraines, glaciers, zeugens, yardangs, barchans, rock pedestals, ox-bow lakes, precipitation, igneous rock, metamorphic rock, sedimentary rock, relief rains, Koppen classification of weather and climate (the kind of stuff found in Certificate Physical and Human Geography by Goh Cheng Leong). They deepened my fascination with geography. They were only preceded in this by the several volumes of dark-green leather-bound Universal Encyclopedia in our house in Kano. These two geography books that read like story books described the cultures of different foreign countries (Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, China, India, Japan), their peculiar animals (llamas, alpacas, kiwis, kangaroos), their languages. In them I encountered Maoris, Zulus, Australian aborigines, American Indians. I wanted to travel and visit all those exotic places. But the possibility then felt remote. The volume on North America talks about places like Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Halifax in Canada. And French-flavoured Quebec too. And strange-sounding names like Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. It also features great cities like New York, the most populous city in the world then and its landmark Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. And Chicago, the giant of the Midwest. And Washington, the nation’s capital with its iconic Capitol buildings, the White House and Lincoln Memorial. And the Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyons. My first intimate encounter with the geography of the incredible United States of America was much earlier when mummy brought to me a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were the 50 states in the Union minus the non-contiguous Alaska. Many of the states had straight sides almost like rectangles. Like putting a ruler and pencil on paper and drawing lines. Artificial, arbitrary, unlike the states in Nigeria that have unique, jagged and improbable shapes. But the names were surprising, even shocking, in their un-Englishness – Nebraska, Colorado, Arkansas, Alabama, Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Mississippi. The New World volume also features the Inca ruins at Cuzco in Peru, the Aztec ruins in Mexico, the beautiful Argentine city of Buenos Aires. Machu Pichu. The Andes mountain range. The Amazon forests. The huge statue of Jesus at Rio de Janeiro.
The volume on Africa mentions Northern and Southern Rhodesia and the capital of Southern Rhodesia – Salisbury (which I used to pronounce in my mind without eliding the ‘i’ as it is supposed to). The Salisbury of the book was like the cities in Europe and America. It was a beautiful city of blooming jacarandas. There was no African ring to it. Until it became Harare. After taking an African name, it assumed an African character – decaying infrastructure, unkempt, hungry, diseased. Now, I can’t say whether all I remember about Salisbury are from those two books or from the encyclopedia or from somewhere else. When I used to read about Mugabe, ZANU, and ZAPU in Newswatch and the like, it didn’t strike me that people were referring to the same place.
After reading them several times over in the late eighties, I haven’t set my eyes on those two volumes – the orange and blue books – for a very long time. I don’t even know where they are right now.
Last year, I visited Harare. Nice airport that conformed to what I had thought about Zimbabwe. On our way to the town, we passed through places that could have been part of America’s suburbia. But it was during the dry season and the city must have been embarrassed to be seen – after all the years of long-distance romance – when she was bereft of her adornment, when the grasses and leaves were tawny, when the flowers were out of bloom. When I saw the famous avenue densely lined with jacaranda trees, they were devoid of their heavy festoon of bright purple. Like a woman without her makeup.
I stayed at a small hotel on the outskirts of the city called Crestal Lodge. Old, colonial, refurbished, well-appointed, okay breakfast and buffet dinner. At dinner one day, I had a chat with a white guy originally from Ireland who asked me were I was from. I told him Nigeria and he asked, “Where is that?”. Then he quickly remembered something – Nigeria was recently in the news as the largest consumer of Guinness in the world – and he commented dryly: it’s a shame Nigeria has bested us in the only gift we gave to the world.
My movement around the city painted a picture of a place that had known better days, more prosperous days. Like a beautiful damsel who had fallen on hard times. Like a child brought up by rich foster parents but now returned to its true but dirt-poor parents. The buildings, the streets, the pavements were in a state of disrepair. They even had frequent outbreaks of cholera – a hallmark of poverty and broken infrastructure. I passed through the very centre of the town where many shops were run by Igbo traders from Nigeria. A tinge of pride – our folks are everywhere. When we came to a street whose name I can no longer remember, the driver told me that it was the limit beyond which Africans could not cross in the days of white minority rule. I looked around but couldn’t see a single white man. Imagine. Nothing lasts forever. I saw the old government edifices built in typical colonial style. I went up to the monument on Harare Hill – Commemorative Garden and Toposcope – it was overgrown with weeds, the cobble stones falling out, the benches unusable. Granted, it was built in commemoration of the beginning of the robbing of Africans of their land, but it is now part of the history and must be appropriated appropriately. From atop the hill, one could see the beautiful skyline of a modern city.
I heard that this decay has also been creeping up on the beautiful cities of South Africa – Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria – after Africans took over. Why can we not maintain good things? Maybe we have other priorities? Not good to start a day with thoughts like these. I broke off the lazy reverie. I had wasted enough of the morning already. Time to get back to work.