Saturday, February 1, 2020
It was the time of the year when the nights were longer than the days. So that, by the time we finished morning prayers, it was usually some minutes past six. There was little time to get home, call Uber and get to the train station early enough to catch the seven o’clock train.
I got to the ticket counter a couple of minutes before departure and obtained the last first-class ticket. Why can’t they have a proper ticketing counter like this at the Rigasa Station? I rushed with my luggage and laptop bag to the security screening at the entrance. The electronic scanners were not working. The security workers were using handheld scanners that were 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 offered to carry my things. I refused. I avoided the lift. I raced 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 got to my allocated seat – it was a window seat. An old Hausa man with an almost pure white beard and wearing sunshades was sitting on the aisle seat. The seat was adjusted to a reclining position and the man’s gaze was on the ceiling. Another pair of glasses hung from a lanyard on his neck. He was wearing an expensive-looking grey brocade, a complete suit of babbar riga. A black Tonak fez hat perched 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 remembered one venerable Academic Secretary we had in ABU in those days and the wonderful shape of his caps. The way this particular elderly man spread himself out, it looked like it was 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 started moving. A man came to the old man by my side, lifted his sunshades, and dropped some ophthalmic medicine into the man’s eyes and went back to his seat. There were other eye drops on the tray in front of him. The newspaper vendor came by and the old man bought Daily Trust on Saturday. As if he would be able to read in his ophthalmic condition. I had stopped buying Daily Trust for some time now. But my wife kept up the tradition that I established several years ago – she must buy the Daily Trust on Saturday. My suspicion was that the sundry other uses of old newspaper could not be discounted in this situation. Women would understand this.
Across the aisle by a window seat, a bespectacled Fulani woman was talking on the phone speaking unadulterated Fulfulde, which I thought was a rare thing. Unadulterated, because I couldn’t hear a single Hausa word. Hausa is the commonest source of impurity in Fulfulde. I was 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 settled into my seat, the old man – it’s obvious that he had had some kind of eye surgery – asked me to help him apply a drop of one of the ophthalmic medicines to his eye. I squinted to read what was written on the container – Bromfenac. Sounded like a combination of Ibuprofen and diclofenac. I didn’t know such topical painkillers existed. I had become olodo. He cheerfully cautioned me to be careful not to allow the dropper touch his eye. I smiled.
I stood up to get something to read from my laptop bag that I had put on the overhead rack. Some printouts on the novel coronavirus were vying for my attention. Which kin. One cannot be reading hard stuff all the time. I picked the slim volume of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. It was 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 wondered how much, and what, was lost in translation.
After about two pages, things started 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 nodded off. But not for long.
I needed a cup of coffee. Availability of coffee was one of the great redeeming features of this train. I nudged the old man on the aisle seat to make way. He smiled, stood up, turned around, recognized the couple sitting right behind us and almost shouted, “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 was back at my seat with the hot coffee. The three elderly people were still chatting like old friends. They were catching up on things, updating each other on friends and events. They kept punctuating their sentences with prayers. Old people and prayers. She talked about her son in California. Allah raya mana su. The post-ophthalmic surgery man talked about his late wife. Allah jikanta da gafara. He talked about his aged ailing mother who was having bed sores. Allah sa a rabu lafiya. One of them mentioned another friend who had passed away. Allah sa ya huta. It emerged that they were 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 was 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 were speaking mostly in Hausa with the occasional crispy grammatically correct English popping up, especially from the woman. They carried on with so much mirth. She even mentioned her nickname in a language I didn’t know and said it means gimbiya, princess. They sounded like some educated people. Maybe some ancient civil servants. The woman, she could have been a school principal.
The bearded old man had been standing all along, leaning on his seat.
I was not eavesdropping o! I was not even listening. I was only hearing, as my ears were 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 continued their conversation which I noticed 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 sat again, reclining and extending his neck. He asked me to apply another drop to his left eye, saying, “Mallam, you have become my doctor today”. He laughed. I told 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’ rang 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 turned toward how Nigerian doctors should think about establishing similar facilities all over the country so as to stem the tide of medical tourism. He criticized our doctors who leave Nigeria to train without coming back to work in the country. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have the right to do that but that would be rude. And I wanted to hear his stories. Elderly people like to reminisce and tell stories. All you need to do is listen. However, I told him that many doctors actually pay back in many ways. I told him about the numerous medical outreaches organized.
He told me how he spent a lot to take care of his wife in an Indian hospital before she passed away and lamented why we could not 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 talked about how Nigeria used to be much better and how difficult things had become. He bemoaned how backward Arewa was, relative to the South. We were speaking entirely in Hausa.
He was 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 only one that I knew. He talked 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 talked with nostalgia about his university days when they used to receive generous scholarships from the government. He mentioned something called ‘Bulgaria money’ that used to be paid, out of which he bought gifts for his parents. He said that he saved money as a student to buy a car at graduation. He talked about how their clothes used to be laundered for them free.
His phone rang. He spoke mostly in Hausa but occasionally said some words in a language I didn’t recognize. Behind the Hausa-speaking veneer of northern Nigeria were hundreds of other languages – Fulfulde, Nupe, Kanuri, Marghi, Yoruba, Mumuye, Afizere, Agatu, Gbagyi, Labir, Tangale, Zarma, Bade, Ngamo etc
We were now at Rigasa.
The man stretched out his hand as he rose to leave his seat. As we shook hands, he told me his name. I told him my name. My surname must have surprised him a little even if his brows didn’t say so.
Our coach was far from the platform. The train was much longer than the platform. Inadequate design? We had to go through three coaches to where the platform started.
I stepped down from the coach onto the platform. It was windy and dusty, with the early morning chill still clinging to the air as the sun continued to climb up the sky.