I was excited. The moment had finally come when I was leaving home, going to that far-off place that I had always dreamt of. I was going to northern Nigeria where I had never been, for my one year of compulsory national youth service. It is the requirement for every new graduate of higher institutions in Nigeria to join the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) for one year of service to the nation. And it is the practice for 'youth corpers' to be posted to parts of the country different from where they originate, or where they had gone to school, college or university, the idea being to introduce young people to other parts of the country to which they had never been and which they would otherwise have no occasion to visit. I had been posted to Bauchi State, a place I'd only read about in geography books and heard about on the news. I had recently turned 21 and I was leaving home and I was bubbling with excitement. The nearest airport to Bauchi town was the one at Jos, about 120 km away. The plan was that I would fly to Jos and then complete the journey by bush taxi.
The Jos Plateau is a very scenic part of the country and the city of Jos is located right on the plateau itself. The landscape was all new to me, as I had never been in a highland area. I marvelled at the sight of those magnificent rocks and the magical broad open spaces that lay between them. Eucalyptus trees seemed to dominate wherever vegetation appeared. I know now that the weather was pleasantly cool, sub tropical. But at that time I thought Jos was cold, having lived all my life until then in the coastal, equatorial, steamy heat of Lagos. And it was with a sense of wonder that I sat in the city taxi travelling from Jos Airport across the city to the suburb known as Naraguta, where I would catch the bush taxi to Bauchi town.
It was about sunset. The flight from Lagos to Jos had lasted no more than an hour. But because the flight was late in departing from Lagos, we had arrived in Jos much later than had been expected. The journey to Bauchi from Jos would last another hour, that is, when I eventually got on the bush taxi. No matter, I thought, surely the NYSC must have an office open all night, in the event that youth corpers travelling from other parts of the country arrived at an odd hour.
It was the responsibility of the regional NYSC office to register youth corpers on arrival, accommodate them and manage their posting to whatever job they were assigned. I knew nobody in Bauchi. Indeed, I knew no one in the whole of the north of Nigeria. I was counting on the NYSC office in Bauchi being open this evening when I eventually arrived. But at the moment, I was too filled with wonder and excitement to direct my thoughts to what might happen. Or perhaps I was too afraid to even contemplate that the NYSC office might not be open at all when I would eventually arrive there later this evening.
Finally I was dropped off at the Bauchi Road motor park in Naraguta, Jos, from where I was to catch my bush taxi. There was a row of several taxis, all going to Bauchi. The bush taxi is a shared taxi that offers the opportunity of sitting in a confined space and in extreme close proximity with complete strangers, for hours at a time. These taxis are the veritable workhorse of the Nigerian highway, ferrying people from one city-centre to another, right across the land. But here, I could see that the taxis were in sort of a queue, taking it in turns to depart. No taxi could leave until the first one in the queue had departed, filled with passengers.
When I arrived at the motor park, the driver of the taxi at the front of the queue had taken my bags and placed them in the boot of the vehicle, alongside the luggage of the other passengers who were already sitting inside the taxi. It was a Peugeot station wagon, with three rows of seats. I was assigned one of the two seats at the rear of the vehicle. The front passenger seat was occupied by a middle-aged, very overweight northern Nigerian gentleman, who as I watched, bit furiously into the kola-nut in his hand, exposing teeth of a bright brown colour. In the middle row of three seats sat what seemed to me like a young family of three, the mother fussing about with her young child, seeing to it that the child was comfortable. Aside from my seat there was only one other empty seat in the taxi, the one next to mine in the rear section. So I assumed that there would be a few minutes to spare before the taxi could leave.
It was a whole new atmosphere here in northern Nigeria, where Hausa was the main language being spoken, a language of which I knew not a word. Rather than board the taxi straight away, I went instead a few metres to a little kiosk and bought a bottle of Coke to quench my thirst. The young lady at the kiosk had to ferret out the bottle with some difficulty from an icebox that was filled with drink bottles and stuffed with crushed ice. And as I walked back to the taxi, I heard someone call to me from behind.
"Excuse me please..." the male voice called out.
Instinctively, I knew this this voice was calling out to me and it was a pleasant surprise to hear someone speak in a language that I understood. So I turned around and saw this tall, dark young man staring at me, an uncertain look in his face. He was dressed in traditional Hausa garb, a sky blue embroidered caftan with matching trousers. On his head was a cap of the kind that is so typical of northern Nigerians, woven in a blue and white striated pattern. This man introduced himself as Abdulsalami. He was a student at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, travelling from Zaria heading to Bauchi to visit with relatives, but had failed to do his sums properly and now found that he was a few Naira short. He needed some assistance to pay the fare to Bauchi and asked if I could be of help. Agreeing to assist him was easy. It was not that I had a lot of money myself, but I saw immediately that he was genuinely in need of help. He was decent, polite, and I thought that this could easily be me in his position seeking the help of a stranger. So together, Abdulsalami and I paid his fare to the driver of the taxi and got into the vehicle, both of us sitting side by side at the back. And so it was that for this journey into the unknown I had earned the company of a young man of about my age, who was native to this place. I was alone no longer.
As expected, the journey to Bauchi took just about an hour. When we arrived in the town it was already dark and as in most of the tropics, the transition from daylight to darkness had been brief, almost sudden. Bauchi is not a very large city when compared to Lagos. It is an old traditional Hausa settlement and I had read somewhere that there is an ancient adobe city wall surrounding the old city. With modern development, the city has spilled out over the wall and beyond it. And although the walled 'Old City' retains its traditional role and located within the city walls' embrace is the traditional heart of the city comprising of the Emir's palace and the Central Mosque, the city of Bauchi is now a state capital, the capital city of Bauchi State. As a result, political power has long shifted from within the confines of the old city wall to the ultra modern office-block complex that now houses the offices of the Bauchi State Government, located along a broad avenue just outside the city wall and close to a magnificent, ancient, but well preserved city gate that formed a part of the old wall. The expansive state governor's residence too, located nearby, is clear evidence that the Old City retains little of its power.
The road leading into Bauchi town from the direction of Jos was very wide and brightly lit. And it didn't feel as cold here in Bauchi as it did in Jos. Abdulsalami had explained that shortly after we left Jos, we had descended from the Jos Plateau and that we were now on the vast savannah, which covers almost the whole of northern Nigeria. In the bush taxi travelling from Jos, I had told Abdulsalami who I was, and explained why I was travelling to Bauchi. He said he knew where the NYSC offices are located and that the taxi would drive past the building. He suggested that it might be a good idea if we let the driver know, so that the driver would stop in front of the NYSC place and I could get off, to which I inclined my head in agreement. Abdulsalami then raised his voice and said a few words in Hausa to the driver, who grunted in acknowledgement.
When the driver eventually pulled up in front of the NYSC offices in Bauchi, it was already about 9pm. The street was brightly lit, as was every major road that I had seen so far in this town. But the NYSC building! There was not a single light in sight. Not an open window. Abdulsalami had pointed out the building to me as the driver pulled the taxi to a stop in front of it. And as he did so he must have seen the shock on my face, because he immediately decided to alight from the taxi with me, even though the stop at which he ought to have left the taxi was yet one kilometre further down the road.
I was in Bauchi, in a strange city, with all of my worldly possessions, late in the evening in front of a locked office building, with nowhere to go and no idea what to do next. I was thankful that Abdulsalami had chosen to leave the taxi and stay with me, because the task of rescuing me from this predicament now fell squarely upon him.
Taking in the situation as we stood on the pavement in front of the NYSC building, I could see that Abdulsalami was thinking hard. He must have felt he was somehow responsible for me, because shortly he started to speak. He informed me that his uncle whom he had come to Bauchi to visit lived not very far away from where we were. He suggested that we go to his uncle's house and stay there until the next morning when I would return to this NYSC office to get myself registered. Of course I welcomed this suggestion. I did not have too much of a choice after all. The only option that would have been left to me was for me to heft my luggage around town in a strange city, at night, trying to find lodgings that I could afford. And all of this in a language that I did not know! It was unsurprising then that I jumped at Abdulsalami's idea. So we set off, he and I, him helping me with my heavy bags. Abdulsalami flagged down a passing city taxi, which after some haggling in Hausa between him and the taxi driver, took us to his uncle's house in a part of town that I assumed was where all the important people lived. On the way there Abdulsalami told me that his uncle was the State Commissioner for something or the other, sort of like a state government minister.
No wonder then that the house was very nice, set in a beautiful arid garden. The north of Nigeria and especially the Savannah land is an arid zone that lends itself to arid gardening, where plants of the Aloe and Euphorbia families dominate. There was an amazing specimen of that stately tree Aloe ferox. I marvelled at the immense good taste in which this front garden had been created and how lovely it looked in the floodlighting set strategically among the various cacti and succulents. The taxi had set us down at the entrance gate, more than fifty metres from the main house. Walking through the garden and past the main house, Abdulsalami and I went straight to the back house, commonly referred to as the 'boys quarters', another fifty metres or so further back from the main house. A back house of this kind is usually accommodation provided for the domestic workers, the hired help who work in the main house. But in this case Abdulsalami's cousin, his uncle's son, had laid claim to one of its rooms.
It was into this room that we entered after Abdulsalami had unlocked the door. And although it was not a large room, my first impression was that it contained too many items of furniture. It was obvious that its occupier had gone to great lengths to prove to anyone who entered that he was not a servant in this place. Abdulsalami showed me around, the conveniences and such like, and then he left me and entered the main house to inform his relatives that he had arrived. I think he must have at the same time also told them that he had come with a visitor, because shortly afterwards he came back to the room accompanied by two younger teenage boys about thirteen or fourteen, who appeared eager to see who this person was who had accompanied their cousin to their home. They were friendly and I felt very welcome. Abdulsalami said supper was on its way and in the meantime I could freshen up if I wished. Of course it had been a long and eventful day, so I welcomed the opportunity to take a shower and change my clothes. Abdulsalami went back into his uncle's house with the two boys.
Returning to the room after my shower with only a towel draped around my waist, I saw that the door was ajar and there was someone inside. I was a stranger in this place and not wishing to upset anyone, I carefully knocked on the door and peeped inside to see who it was. There was someone inside the room, a man, but not one I had met before. He had his back to the door, but hearing the knock he turned around just as I entered. He was startled and seemed surprised to see me and this was understandable too, since he would not know who I was, or what I was doing here.
"Hello", I said. "I arrived a short while ago with Abdulsalami".
"Oh..?" was the man's reply. "I didn't know Abdulsalami was around..." the man said, his eyes lighting up suddenly, as he moved them from my face downwards to my naked chest and then to my bare feet. He looked back up into my face.
"I think he's just gone into the main house..." I stammered, struggling to maintain my composure and to pretend that I had not noticed how good looking this stranger was.
He smiled at me and then I saw how truly handsome this man was. I was naked under this towel wrapped around my waist and I felt a bit embarrassed that he was seeing me for the first time like this. But I just smiled back and extended my hand. Perhaps he sensed how I felt, because after shaking hands and while still smiling at each other he left the room, presumably so that I could get dressed, closing the door behind him. Not long after I had finished dressing, a knock sounded and the door opened. Abdulsalami returned accompanied by the same man. Abdulsalami introduced the man to me. This was his uncle's son, his cousin. And his name was Garuba.
Garuba and I shook hands, again, as I muttered to Abdulsalami that Garuba and I had already met. There was something in Garuba's eyes. And gosh! He was so handsome, you know, with those very fine facial features peculiar to the Fulani. Garuba was very well groomed. His curly jet-black hair was sharply cropped in a crew cut and from the way his hair sat it was obvious that he had recently been wearing a cap. His moustache was neatly trimmed and he had perfectly manicured fingernails.
A loud knock on the door and a woman entered carrying a tray on which was set a huge meal of rice and peanut beef stew, the aroma of which was heavenly. Having set the tray down on the carpeted floor, the woman, obviously one of the uncle's domestic workers, left as quickly as she had arrived without saying a word. She returned a few moments later with a pot of piping hot tea, which I was told was called chai, together with some mugs and then left again. No cutlery was provided and as is customary among the people of the north, all three of us sat on the floor around this tray of rice and beef and ate with our hands directly from the tray. The food was delicious and Garuba was very pleasant, as he politely showed me how to manipulate the rice and meat with my fingers.
Garuba stole glances at me during the meal and there was no doubt that he could see that I too was unable to keep my eyes from him as we sat on the floor facing each other, the tray of food between us. Looking up from the food, our eyes would meet again and again and it began to feel as if Abdulsalami was not even present with us, although now and again Garuba would say something in Hausa, perhaps just to keep Abdulsalami involved and engaged. At this meal the communication between Garuba and I was silent, but it was real and tangible. There was a warmth about him, in the way that he looked my way with that sparkle in his eyes when he smiled or laughed about something. He was smiling at me, I knew it. I saw the excitement in his eyes too, which I thought must mirror the excitement that I was sure he could see in mine...(To be continued).
Copyright © Anengiyefa Alagoa 2010.
I grew up in a suburb of the city of Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970s and spent all of my childhood and formative years there. That city more than any other, is my home. I fulfilled my childhood ambition of becoming a lawyer when I was admitted to the Nigerian Bar sometime in the mid 1980s and went straight into law practice. But it was not very long before I became disillusioned with the system in Nigeria. I persevered for as long as I could, but seized the opportunity when it came to relocate to the UK in 1996. I have been living in London, UK since then and have since re qualified and been admitted to the Roll of Solicitors of England and Wales. I enjoy the challenges thrown my way in the work that I do and my profession is a big part of my life.
But then I've also discovered another love, a new found love of creative writing. In February 2009, I surrendered to a long held desire to start a weblog. In writing the blog I gradually drifted towards writing stories, episode by episode, making up the details as I went along. The stories I have written and the ones that are still at the embryonic stage in my mind are all based on real life experiences and situations, of myself personally or of others I have known. But the accounts are fictionalised.
I stumbled upon ST while on one of my web surfing expeditions. I was moved by the fact that several other African people were similarly motivated to write creatively such that I felt a compulsion to join this group of African writers. And I was pleasantly surprised when Ivor Hartmann read one of my scripts and thought it good enough for me to be admitted as a ST author. I have never had anything published previously, save for the odd contribution here and there to Nigerian and British newspapers and magazines, usually one strong opinion or the otherr. ST is the first venue at which my creative writing is published and I cannot say how pleasing this is. I know this is supposed to be an autobiography, but I was not going to let slip the chance of expressing my immense pleasure.