Keep Your Mouth Shut: Surviving Nigeria’s North

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.

Market in Northern Nigeria

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’.

She was involved in a dispute with a neighbour and it led to her death. Whichever turn the story takes, those of us who grew up in the north understand: your life is only safe when your mouth remains shut – especially in matters of religion.
Jennifer Chinenye Emelife is a graduate of Literature in English. She teaches Literacy in a private school in Lagos and works as lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature; an online literary site. Jennifer writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In 2016, she participated in the Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.
Jennifer Chinenye Emelife is a graduate of Literature in English. She teaches Literacy in a private school in Lagos and works as lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature; an online literary site.
Jennifer writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. In 2016, she participated in the Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.

18 COMMENTS

  1. You write really well. As someone who moved from Lagos to the north I understand you very well. Keep it up sister.

  2. I can totally relate to this. I was born and bred in the North too. We thread carefully at all times, always cautious of the things we say to avoid stepping on toes because, the warm and friendly Aminu you saw moments ago might just turn out to be a beast in the twinkle of an eye should you make the mistake of uttering any “careless” statement about Islam or their prophet.

  3. awww…u write so beautifully…..know this!…. for every group/ sect ( religious,ethnic or racial)of people there is always the good d bad and the ugly…over time I av come to realise people come into contact with the bad or the ugly and forget that that very same sect/ group av good people too….we use the bad or ugly we av come across as d model specie of d sect….I am sadened by what happened in Kano…Islam have greatly bn misrepresented ….it is true majority of d world population are Muslims…the sad part of it is that only few truly understand d religion…the saddest part of it is that even d good Muslims become. stereotype by d actions of the bad Muslims…and it becomes very hard for u to explain to people from other faith…there action is not suported by the religion they insist they represent…u can’t blame them…because most times they av heard or read( most times exaggerated stories) of how bad Muslims are …or have personal experience…..Muslims err they ain’t perfect they are human..don’t use them to judge Islam!

    • Fatima, nice write up there, however the truth is that there is no religion farthest from peace like Islam. It only takes a matter of time for the wickedness inherent in its practice to rear it’s ugly head. May God have mercy on the poor souls involved

      • u got it wrong…u might find it hard to believe…but the name Islam is coined out of peace…d basic rule of Islam is peace…bn at peace wt ones neighbour friends and relative….u do not understand this religion…u can’t be blamed for it…but just as u can’t use the Christians of today to judge or learn about Christianity same applies to Islam..A Muslim should never harm ( intentionally) …his neighbour and every single pason or animal he comes in contact wiith…christian,jew s atheist inclusive…A Muslim is suppose to be an epitome of kindness,tolerance, perseverance, generosity humility to all and at all times..violence is not and can never be part of Islam… it is milky ways away from it!

  4. awww…u write so beautifully…..know this!…. for every group/ sect ( religious,ethnic or racial)of people there is always the good d bad and the ugly…over time I av come to realise people come into contact with the bad or the ugly and forget that that very same sect/ group av good people too….we use the bad or ugly we av come across as d model specie of d sect….I am sadened by what happened in Kano…Islam have greatly bn misrepresented ….it is true majority of d world population are Muslims…the sad part of it is that only few truly understand d religion…the saddest part of it is that even d good Muslims become. stereotype by d actions of the bad Muslims…and it becomes very hard for u to explain to people from other faith..that thier action is not suported by the religion they insist they represent…or that islam is supose to mk them peaceful,kind,humble’ generous( e.t.c)…qnd not otherwise ..u can’t blame them…because most times they av heard or read( most times exaggerated stories) of how bad Muslims are …or have personal experience…..Muslims err they ain’t perfect they are human..don’t use them to judge Islam!

  5. Well written! The first thing i thought when I heard about the recent killing was;this woman lives there,she ought have known!I kist hope we’d all learn wisdom like your dad and know when to ignore certain things

  6. That religion is held together by fear. It kind of reminds me of how the defunct Soviet Union was held together. Terror is being used to keep down any dissent. Any faithful who dares to question what doesn’t add up is cut down so that no one dares to question any aspect or ask for change to the old way of doing things.
    I really wonder how long they can hold out; 20 yrs, 50 or 100yrs.
    What I’m sure of is that the fate of the Soviet Union awaits it

  7. Well written my dear. I learnt mine on my trip to Dubai. You don’t see women outside, only men, which you can’t talk to. If a woman is raped, she will be jailed. If you hold a man’s hand in public, and there is no evidence that he is your spouse, you can be deported, etc. They are so strict with their ideologies that it is life threatening to argue with them. I haven’t lived in the north… except Abuja… which is central, but even then, when passing those aboki-settlement, you walk like a ghost.

  8. Well spoken my dear, though i ve not lived in the north,but am really careful with muslems frm d north. Let me share one incident dat happened in d place where i ve shop,there re quite a numb of northern muslem that sales around me, so one morn, we noticed that all of then gathered tgether and almost lynched one guy,when asked what was his offence, they told me he said he is a mohammed.it was only God dat saved the guy frm their hands, since dat day i became more concios of my discussion with them. It happened in lagosooo!!

  9. well,in the north,the islamic religion is such a centrifugal entity,that it runs alongside socio,cultural and religious
    lines,in one word,everything is basically w
    oven into Islam. I don’t blame them,its the way their fore bearers charted.

  10. as a military officer In the north east,i see this things first hand. in those formative years of mine,when I get “whacked” by mom,oh mom beats me a lot,and when I cry she gesticulates with her finger on her lips,she says “Oya PIM”( keep shut your mouth).so folks always “pim” when it comes to religion in the north.

  11. As a girl,i schooled in the north and I quite understand the unspoken rules. The violence among the northern youths were and is still volatile. I was stoned for wearing sleeveless and trousers passing in front of a mosque,another occasion was passing an Eid ground something I never knew cos that’s my pathway home every other day. On both occasions,i ran for dear life once the first and second stone landed or else I wouldn’t be here now. May God help us all. Beautiful write up dear.

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