By Jennifer Emelife
I grew up in Sokoto, a small city in Northern Nigeria with people so kind and honest, but sometimes, fierce.
In November 2002, my father was crossing the road when he got hit by a vehicle. The driver fled, leaving my father lying in the middle of the road, drenched in his own blood. My mother’s fair skin reddened in the noon sun as she wailed. She slapped her thighs as she ran, in increasingly small circles, seeking help. In a short time, kabu kabu operators abandoned their motorcycles, traders in nearby stores left goods unattended and gathered around my father. Soon enough, he was rushed to a hospital, where the doctors said his left leg, damaged from the accident, would be amputated. My father’s friends, mostly Hausa, didn’t buy the doctor’s story and their lack of faith in modern medicine led them to a herbal clinic. For a year, my father was tended to at home, by an Hausa herbalist, who nurtured his leg back to life.
The memory of kindness, of caring about neighbours and strangers doesn’t only flow from the aftermath of my father’s accident. It also comes from recalling the hawkers in Sokoto, who were generous with their goods: if you bought a cup of garri, you got an additional half; if you were so hungry and penniless, you sometimes earned pity from the food vendor who either gave you a plate for free or allowed you pay when you could.
My parents had shops in the Sokoto Central Market where they sold non-alcoholic wine and soft drinks. When he recovered from the accident, my father moved to the barracks, secured a place in mammy market – one of the few places in Sokoto where alcohol was allowed – and started selling alcoholic drinks.
In Sokoto Central Market, the Hausa traders called my mother ‘madam’. The more playful ones called her ‘mama Chinelo’, in a tone that mimicked an Igbo accent. The air in Sokoto Central Market is warm and free; not like the stale and suffocating air of Lagos markets. There are more men than women. The men mostly dress in shedda kaftans of varying colour. The shape of the depending on the size and shape of the wearer. I remember writing names like ‘Tall man in brown shedda’ and ‘Kasimu with blue kaftan’ in my mother’s ‘debtor book’. I thought it was easier to identify the men in their flamboyantly starched clothes. I didn’t realise how silly that was until mother asked one day: ‘Chinenye, will ‘tall man’ be wearing a brown shedda tomorrow when I go to collect my money while you’re in school?’
When my father visited my mother in the market, he wore such kaftans too, with a touch of the Igbo traditional red cap and beads. Supporting his weight on a walking stick, he limped to my mother’s shop, his face stern, as always. ‘Chiep Christoper’, his old friends hailed, throwing their arms open. My father embraced them, a deep smile stretching his face. He called them by their sobriquets and left them with some money. For the ‘bigger’ men, my father went into their shops for more intimate greetings, as befits their age and stature.
‘Christopher, long time!’ they will call out.
‘Kwana biyu, Alhaji,’ my father will reply, shaking their hands.
He would sit among them, demanding for the most comfortable seat. The Alhajis ordered drinks from my mother’s shop and my father bought suya from the mallam who hawked meat. Sitting under a shade, like community men rejoicing over a birth, they shared the drinks, suya, and laughter. They talked about sales and profit and discussed politics. My father’s lips pursed as he sieved through his thoughts, and searched for the right words; the way a fowl scratches the ground with its feet to separate food from dirt. Like the chick, my father picks his words carefully. When the men wore disapproving looks, my father knew he had eaten dirt and spewed the wrong words. So he smiled sheepishly and changed the topic. They never talked about religion. Even when the men hinted at it, by making mischievous comments about the crucifix hung on the wall inside my mother’s shop, my father – a knight in the church – who moved to Sokoto in the early 80s, smiled. He understood boundaries.
Living in Sokoto was like walking on broken electric wires; they may appear dead and harmless, but wait until they are charged with current.
I studied at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto – a federal school. As one in the Arts and Humanities, you would expect liberal conversations among students. But we were cautious. The Christians were always cautious. If you disagreed too much with an opinion of a northern course mate, it was because you were an unbeliever.
I remember one of our General Studies classes, it was a lecture on Western and Islamic Philosophy. Students who were often mum during other lectures became the loudest. Suddenly, we were in a religious gathering, with phrases like Allahu akbar! Mash’Allah! Alhamdulillah! punctuating the lecturer’s explanation. A friend raised his hand and asked a logical question, as though to remind us that we were only supposed to be – at that moment – students of philosophy. The lecturer, in an obvious struggle to be unbiased, jumbled his response, with the students’ stare prompting him to remain faithful. The lecture ended and the class erupted:
‘Allah is one! There is only one Allah!’
‘Only those who believe will make Jannah!’
Their eyes burnt with a furious passion, their agitated voices shook the hall and their bodies vibrated. My friend who lit the fire opened his mouth in defence. I tapped his shoulders and whispered into his ears:
‘Keep your mouth shut. Stay away from trouble.’
He sat back; silent and handicapped, swelling from the words in his head pleading to be out.
Two days ago, a woman was reported to have been beheaded by a mob in Kano. Her crime was ‘blasphemy’. She was guilty of speaking. A crime punishable only by death. Today, the news says it didn’t happen. She is dead. She wasn’t beheaded. But she is still dead, killed by a fanatical mob ‘fighting for their God and Prophet’.