Saturday, February 1, 2020
This is the time of the year when the nights are longer than the days. So that, by the time we finish morning prayers, it is usually some minutes past six. There is little time to get home, call Uber and get to the train station early enough to catch the seven o’clock train.
I get to the ticket counter a couple of minutes before departure and obtain the last first-class ticket. Why can’t they have a proper ticketing counter like this at the Rigasa Station? I rush with my luggage and laptop bag to the security screening at the entrance. The electronic scanners are not working. The security workers are using handheld scanners that are bleeping every now and then without them requesting to physically check the contents of our bags and boxes. What if we are carrying light arms or other weapons?
A porter offers to carry my things. I refuse. I avoid the lift. I race up the granite stairs, walked to the other side and down the stairs again. Doctors say that we should be exercising often to be fit and healthy.
I get to my allocated seat – it is a window seat. An old Hausaman with an almost pure white beard and wearing sunshades is sitting on the aisle seat. The seat is adjusted to a reclining position and the man’s gaze is on the ceiling. Another pair of glasses hangs from a lanyard on his neck. He is wearing an expensive-looking grey brocade, a complete suit of babbar riga. A black Tonak fez hat perches on his head. Why do old folks not pay attention to the shape and position of their hats or caps? They have passed the age of caring, it seems. This life sef. I remember one venerable Academic Secretary we had in ABU in those days and the wonderful shape of his caps. The way this elderly man spreads himself out, it is going to be difficult for me to be leaving my seat now and then. I like to walk around, stretch my legs as we say.
The train starts moving. A man comes to the old man by my side, lifts his sunshades, and drops some ophthalmic medicine into the man’s eyes and goes back to his seat. There are other eye drops on the tray in front of him. The newspaper vendor comes by and the old man buys Daily Trust on Saturday. As if he would be able to read in his ophthalmic condition. I’ve stopped buying Daily Trust for some time now. But my wife keeps up the tradition that I established several years ago – she must buy the Daily Trust on Saturday. I suspect that the sundry other uses of old newspaper cannot be discounted in this situation.
Across the aisle by a window seat, a bespectacled Fulani woman is talking on the phone speaking unadulterated Fulfulde, which I think is a rare thing. Unadulterated, because I can’t hear a single Hausa word. Hausa is the commonest source of impurity in Fulfulde. I am not hearing things like ‘wala damuwa’, instead of ‘wala kodume’, as I used to hear when I lived in Jalingo. Apart from Hausa, are other languages – e.g. Bachama, Mambilla, Longuda, Mumuye and Kilba – encroaching on Fulfulde linguistic territory?
As soon as I settle into my seat the old man – it’s obvious that he has had some kind of eye surgery – asks me to help him apply a drop of one of the ophthalmic medicines to his eye. I squint to read what is written on the container – Bromfenac. Sounds like a combination of Ibuprofen and diclofenac. I didn’t know such topical painkillers existed. I have become olodo. He cheerfully cautions me to be careful not to allow the dropper touch his eye. I smile.
I stand up to get something to read from my laptop bag that I had put on the overhead rack. Some printouts on the novel coronavirus are vying for my attention. Which kin. One cannot be reading hard stuff all the same. I pick the slim volume of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. It is GD Pickett’s English rendering of DT Niane’s French translation of an epic poem originally recited by the griot Mamoudou Kouyate. Being a prose version of a twice translated poem, I wonder how much, and what, was lost in translation.
After about two pages things start to blur into illegibility. Ah, that kind of sleepiness that creeps up on you especially when you have had to wake up early to shower, pray and leave home to set off early on a journey. I nod off. But not for long.
I need a cup of coffee. Availability of coffee is one of the great redeeming features of this train. I nudge the old man on the aisle seat to make way. He smiles, stands up, turns around, recognizes the couple sitting right behind us and almost shouts, “so you are the ones sitting behind me!”
- The woman: Oh, you are the one! I have been wondering who is the old man with a white beard. You know your friend has refused to grow a beard. His boys spot long beards.
- The man: Don’t mind them, to them it is just fashion, it is not sunnah. Nasa na gayu ne.
I am back at my seat with the hot coffee. They three elderly people are still chatting like old friends. They are catching up on things, updating each other on friends and events. They keep punctuating their sentences with prayers. Old people and prayers. She talks about her son in California. Allah raya mana su. The post-ophthalmic surgery man talks about his late wife. Allah jikanta da gafara. He talks about his aged ailing mother who is having bed sores. Allah sa a rabu lafiya. One of them mentions another friend who has passed away. Allah sa ya huta. It emerges that they are going to Kaduna to attend a wedding. Allah sanya albarka. When people reach a certain age, all they do is attend weddings and other ceremonies all over the place. Each supplicatory phrase or sentence is uttered in a wistful and plaintive tone. The tone of people starkly aware of their own mortality. That’s why old people are so prayerful. They are speaking mostly in Hausa with the occasional crispy grammatically correct English popping up, especially from the woman. They carry on with so much mirth. She even mentions her nickname in a language I don’t know and says it means gimbiya, princess. They sound like some educated people. Maybe some ancient civil servants. The woman, she could have been a school principal.
The bearded old man has been standing all along, leaning on his seat.
I am not eavesdropping o! I am not even listening. I am only hearing, as my ears are not plugged, and when people are gisting very close to you, will you not hear what they saying? Before somebody will now come and say that I’m doing amebo.
The couple continue their conversation which I notice for the first time is Nupe. Trust me, I know the sound of Nupe very well. Could she be a princess of Bida or Mokwa?
He sits again, reclining and extending his neck. He asks me to apply another drop to his left eye, saying, “Mallam, you have become my doctor today”. He laughs. I tell him that I’m actually a doctor.
- I see. I had a cataract surgery in Abuja.
- At which hospital?
- At the Tulsi Chanrai Foundation Eye Hospital in Abuja.
- It must be a new hospital.
- It is new and state-of-the art. It was as if I was not in Nigeria. Well-equipped and well-managed. The owners are Indians. They had to send their Nigerian staff to India for a whole year to be trained.
The name ‘Chanrai’ rings a bell. Years ago, we used to have a Chanrai Supermarket somewhere in Kano, owned by an Indian family. Is it the same Chanrai family? Does the supermarket still exist?
- Was the surgery expensive?
- Yes, I paid a good sum for it. The doctor told me that he does it free for most patients – 17 of the last 20 patients didn’t pay for the surgery. But people like me have to pay. Which is OK.
Our conversation turns toward how Nigerian doctors should think about establishing similar facilities all over the country so as to stem the tide of medical tourism. He criticizes our doctors who leave Nigeria to train without coming back to work in the country. I want to tell him that he doesn’t have the right to do that but that would be rude. And I want to hear his stories. Elderly people like to reminisce and tell stories. All you need to do is listen. However, I tell him that many doctors actually pay back in many ways. I tell him about the numerous medical outreaches organized.
He tells me how he spent a lot to take care of his wife in an Indian hospital before she passed away and lamented why we cannot have such good services in Nigeria. Allah jikanta. His son in Cairo and his daughters in other places had to be taking turns to stay with their mother.
Inevitably, we talk about how Nigeria used to be much better and how difficult things have become. He bemoans how backward Arewa is, relative to the South. We are speaking entirely in Hausa.
He is a 1975 graduate of ABU who worked in Lagos a long time ago at the Centre for Management Development (CMD) when they were still on Ikorodu Road in Maryland before they moved to the premises at Shangisha, off Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which is the one that I know. He talks about how, when he was working at CMD, he was sent to Columbia University on a federal-supported in-service scholarship scheme; how his Harvard-trained supervisor influenced him and his colleague to change to Harvard; how he ran short of funds and had to take a loan. Are such loans still available to foreign students in America?
He talks with nostalgia about his university days when they used to receive generous scholarships from the government. He mentions something called ‘Bulgaria money’ that used to be paid, out of which he bought gifts for his parents. He says that he saved money as a student to buy a car at graduation. He talks about how their clothes used to be laundered for them free.
His phone rings. He speaks mostly in Hausa but occasionally says some words in a language I don’t recognize. Behind the Hausa-speaking veneer of northern Nigeria are hundreds of other languages – Fulfulde, Nupe, Kanuri, Marghi, Yoruba, Mumuye, Afizere, Agatu, Gbagyi, Labir, Tangale, Zarma, Bade, Ngamo etc
We are now at Rigasa.
The man stretches out his hand as he rises to leave his seat. As we shake hands, he tells me his name. I tell him my name. My surname must have surprised him a little even if his brows don’t say so.
Our coach is far from the platform. The train is much longer than the platform. Inadequate design? We have to go through three coaches to where the platform starts.
I step down from the coach onto the platform. It is windy and dusty, with the early morning chill still clinging to the air as the sun continues to climb up the sky.