Text and photos by Rob Koops
As we strode across the parking lot at the National Police Headquarters in Abuja, our guide pointed to a pile of vehicle carcasses in the distance, burnt and twisted by a bomb blast a few months ago – the insidious work of BOKO HARAM, who now seem to hold all of Nigeria in suspense as everyone wonders where the next blast will be. A bit later, on the fourth floor, while I was chatting with the Deputy Commissioner of Police, he pointed out an article in that day’s newspaper that claimed the police had recaptured a major Boko Haram operative in Yola. He immediately phoned a colleague who said he didn’t think it was the guy that had escaped from them in January. Paper says the movement is fracturing from within: certain ethnic groups complaining of not being chosen as suicide bombers.
People outside of Nigeria seem to know two things about the country: 1. Boko Haram bombings, and 2. It’s the scam capital of the world. Do you know anybody who has not received a letter saying somebody in Nigeria wants to give them a million dollars? Just send bank account number?
For a different view of Nigeria, I’m including a chunk of my “Africa Journal” for January-February 2012:
Feb. 3, 2012 It’s been a good day. I got a new spoon! The other night I was trying to cut my boiled yams into bite sized chunks and the flimsy spoon bent at a right angle. They’ve carefully kept knives and even forks away from me, so I had to gnaw my way, rat-like, through the rest of the meal. Speaking of which, I’m sharing the old pilot’s house at Lupwe with a family of creatures that may be Ratatouille’s kin. I’ve not seen one yet, though, and apart from one night when I left a loaf of bread out and they came down and gnawed through the wrapper, they’ve kept to themselves up above, dancing and scurrying the night away. Sometimes it sounds like a track meet up there.
The house brings back memories. The pilot loved reptiles. He had a crocodile pit with a nine-foot long crocodile in it. I remember because early one morning the beast escaped once and came to my house. I saw a bunch of people out front so I went out onto the veranda. They seemed to be looking at my feet. I looked down and there was this toothy crock – only about eight feet at that point. The croc eventually developed a hernia, and a surgeon, Dr. Channer from the local hospital, was called to operate. They strapped him to a board (the croc) for the event. He escaped a couple more times and the neighbors with pre-school children made the pilot send Toothy to a zoo in Jos. He took him there in his plane! Time doesn’t allow me to tell about the pythons he kept inside the house and what he fed them.
Ah bliss! Along with the sound of a dog munching the chicken bones I just threw out, a whisper of cool air just came through the window behind me – sweet relief from the sultry stillness of the evening. In the short time span that I have been here the weather has changed from the dryness of January and cool nights to the clammy humidity of February. I arrived in time to take an early morning walk and observe clusters of little kids crouching around burning piles of leaves and cornstalks around their houses, warming up from the cold night. I slept with a blanket. I was even treated to a night time “bushfire” that zigzagged up the ridges on the mountain across the road. That season is now past; we’re into what we call “bazara,” sweating season. I keep a rag nearby to wipe off my keyboard. A walk now includes an upper body workout as you wave your arms around vigorously to keep the flies away.
On Jan.18 I traveled with four Nigerians to the state capital, Jalingo, about 4-5 hours away on reasonable tarred road. We met at least 30-40 herds of cattle – escorted by Fulanis on the move toward the lower Benue valley. Oh for a chance to walk with them a mile! (Except for the flies!) It was like Jacob sending his flocks and herds to Esau; they just kept coming. The larger cows – or a donkey in a few cases – are loaded with kitchen stuff: pots, pans, mats, stools. The womenfolk trudge along with stacks of decorated calabashes on their heads. Little boys help with the cows, steering them around farms and off the road as best they can, though it was obvious from the state of the road that quite a number of herds had spent time there! The girls help the women carry stuff. A couple of two-year-olds had the privilege of being pushed along by Dad on the seat of a bicycle. Several herds had young ones that weren’t making it. At least one calf was being carried across the shoulders of his master, and we met another young herder sitting face-to-face with a calf, apparently trying to talk it into continuing the journey.
The way back was another story. About half way home, in a desolate stretch of road with no cell phone coverage, the fan belt broke. We managed to flag down help, and two of us went on ahead by local commercial transport, a beat-up Peugeot station wagon. It had no seat belts but the driver seemed to be on friendly terms with all the police, the militia, and the Road Safety officers along the way, so the belts weren’t an issue! The others ended up towing the vehicle to the next town and also came home by local small bus service. For them it was frustrating and tiring. I managed to write a report while waiting, and then enjoyed the scenery and the humanity wherever the vehicle stopped.
Marrarraba was the best. We stopped at the crowded exit of a major bus station. Vendors, passengers, officials, hawkers, assorted rapscallions and an awesome assemblage of other humanity surged, teemed, pulsated around me. The color, the sound, the smell, the sheer intensity of it all was intoxicating, kaleidoscopic. Just when I was about to burst from the glory of it all, three Fulani women, graceful as sailboats in a harbor crowded with jet skis and tugboats, drifted through the throng on their way to meet their families outside the town. Rural Fulanis are the epitome of “otherness” in Nigeria, vaguely like Gypsies, but without the stigma (well, a different sort of stigma). There are many clans, each with a different hairstyle and clothing, including the men. My epiphany was brief; our driver picked up three more passengers and we were bouncing down the road again.
I had forgotten how beautifully golden a bundle of dry grass could be. We passed hundreds of them, freshly cut and bound, standing in rows in nearly every homestead, ready to be rolled onto an old leaky roof or onto a new roof-frame of sorghum stalks. A few were still on their way home from the fields, on the heads of cyclists nearly buried by their load, or in carts or tied precariously on the backs of motorcycles. After cutting, people plait the stalks, a few at a time, into a 40-foot-long, loose mat with a single seam, and roll it up. The buyer, or the house-repairer, secures one end into one of the spars of the conical roof and unrolls the bundle, working his way upward. Several bundles will be used on a new roof, and when he gets to the top he will run a rope around the loose ends of the grass forming a Tintinesque tuft. Then he will find an old metal pan with the bottom rusted out and put that round the tuft, come down, and go in to enjoy the coolest, quietest roof you’ve ever slept under.
Morning walk Tuesday. On Bika road I turned off east and walked through the fallow rice fields, which stretch out gold and lazy to the east and south along a valley. Two large herds of cows were grazing on the stubble. Birds were plenty: Abyssinian rollers, long-tailed shrikes, a coucal, graceful cattle egrets zapping bugs stirred up by the cows. A man carrying a log turned out to be someone we knew as a boy – a confirmed kleptomaniac in those days – now the sole surviving son, occupying the family dwelling in Bika and making a sparse living selling firewood.
Electrical power is our challenge. Amazingly, the solar panels left behind by a previous resident are still working and I have the best light on the campus, but no wall power and no 12-V adapter for my laptop. We manage to get through each day on the quixotic national grid and the slightly more cooperative project generator. The “gen” did fine until the second to the last day, when it got aggressive and burned out my adapter and that of the project.
My assignment was two-fold: finish a dictionary and consult with a team translating the book of Genesis into the local language, Kuteb. Right from the get-go the Kuteb Genesis provided fodder for debate – or stream of consciousness meandering: what did the spirit/wind from God do over the water? No satisfactory word for “hover.” I grinned dreamily as I remembered the speaker I had heard in New Mexico read it as “hoovering” (British for vacuum-cleaning) and from there I drifted to the speculation that the only hoovering the Bible talks about will happen at the Rapture, and we’ll probably not say “Hoover me up, Dad” but “Beam me up, Dad; I’m ready!” I start awake to hear someone asking me a question: Can the Hebrew word mean “covering?” Yes, it can, but no, that won’t fly well because it is not something continuous. What about just kyang ikyi (“walking”)? Well, do spirits walk? Well, literally, it is “walking,” but almost anything can kyang ikyi, even without legs. Birds do it in the sky. Cars do it. So spirits probably can too, so – that’s it until a better word comes. The spirit of Rimam (the Creator) was walking-moving over the water.
Then there was the firmament, which needed some careful negotiation between Hebrew cosmology, local African cosmology, and modern science. The Hebrew word suggests a piece of metal flattened out. It had to be strong enough to hold the water in the sky. Kuteb tradition holds that there’s a big flat skin up there: apwa. We’re going with that, with a footnote. The translator begins laboriously keying in the change with the hunt and peck method. My mind begins to kyang ikyi again. Along the road on the way down from Jalingo, two little goats on a log rear up, come down and butt heads – all in the three seconds it takes us to pass. Nice little show, guys. Was it just for me? The chicken tracks in the cement floor of a room I was in looked like a line of arrows pointing toward the door. Was that for me? That heron that labored into flight over the Bika rice fields that stretch, golden, palm-lined, up the valley as far as you can see – she seems to know where she’s going. Is her flight intentional? Was I supposed to be inspired by that? Intentionality, is that not the key to the ultimate Unified Field theory? Molecules & Metaphor, fact and fiction. Yes, that’s IT!
Someone bumps my shoulder. Oh, yes. Hagar, Bilha, Zilpah – concubines. Are they isa in Kuteb? Illicit wives? Mistresses? Or actual “co-wives” of a lower status? The institution doesn’t exist here. The problem in this case was not so much accuracy (uwa “wife” would have been close enough in the context) but the translators’ fear of providing support for polygamy by using the word “wife.” Translator types a footnote. I fiddle with my pencil, thinking about Dr. Walter Mitty and his amazing surgery on, what was it again, a Fulani cow? Or was it a baby goat?
Everybody should have a flock of goats. There’s nothing cuter than a day-old goat, except maybe a two-day old goat, or better yet, two of them. They are nimble, frisky, exuberant. They seem born to frolic. They’d as soon go sideways as forwards. They leap straight up just for the fun of it. A flock of 8-10 live on the campus where I am staying. Of course, to get kids you have to put up with the less pleasant aspects of goat husbandry, particularly the noisy courtship behavior. Billies have a well-deserved reputation.
Another bump on the shoulder. “We’re in chapter 25. What do we do about Abraham, where it says ‘He died, an old man full of years’? We don’t say that about people when they are old.” Well, what do you say? “We say, ‘He wore out his walking stick and died.’ Nice idiom. Go for it.
Our prayer for Gallup Journey readers: May you wear out your walking stick!