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The Legacy of Bolewa

By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)


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My first novel explores the themes of love, identity and history and the pitfalls of those three guardians of man. It also seeks to highlight modern Nigerian society and how the young see the Nigeria of their parents including such views as the nature and the necessity of democracy as opposed to benevolent autocracy. Yet, it is essentially a love story of Faruk Ibrahim, a Muslim from the majority Fulani ethnic group and Rahila Pam, a Christian from the minorities and the tensions that form and seek to determine their relationship.

Book 1

Antebellum: Layers of Dust



Faruk watched enthralled, his attention focused on the girl, on her slender wrists. There was a sort of music, a graceful fluidity, in the motion of the young girl’s wrists as he espied her drawing water from the rijiya in the center of Hajia Astajam’s compound. It was the rhythm of Bolewa; he had noticed a playful pattern forming itself beneath the hum and sound of daily life.
The mid afternoon sun was high up in the sky. At that time of the day, most of the schools let out for an hour thirty minutes break before reconvening for another two hours and finally letting off at four p.m. Even in the school, he had come to realize how in this town of his birth, there was a harmony of opposites; Bolewa was a place where everyone knew the news about town and yet that news importuned no assumptions, where the seemingly rustic was found in bosom friendship with the decidedly sophisticated and avant-garde. Take the school system; at the Government College, Bolewa, school opened at nine thirty a.m., leaving students enough time to do their chores and trade, for many of his students could be found hawking breakfast things early in the morning. When they were through with that, the rest of the day really belonged to them.
A fellow teacher, Mustafa, had told him that this arrangement had been worked out when the school was first opened. Many of the people in the town were - with the exception of the merchants and many officials were farmers or traditional cattle ranchers. They had only allowed their wards to attend the school if they could remain equally of use at home. So, in those early hours, the boys could curdle the milk their mother’s would sell or help out in workshops while the girls’ hawked bread and breakfast things. A surprising effect of this give and take was that the parents became even more interested in the school and ensured that their wards attended each and every day. Illiterate mothers could be heard hectoring their younger children to make sure they did the teachers homework. Faruk was amazed. He had gathered that the school was one of the best around in terms of performance and that each year they had at least half their pupilage getting into the University of Maiduguri at the state capital.
Consequently, Faruk was at home that afternoon, standing by his window when he noticed the slim, light skinned girl at the well; she wore a wrapper tied just above her breasts and something about her motions reminded him of someone familiar and faraway. The girl would drop the pail into the well by feeding it some rope, then when it was low enough she would flick her wrist ever so easily and obviously the pail would tip over and fill up with water which she then proceeded to draw out of the well and pour into a blue plastic bucket. What fascinated him was how she flicked her wrists, in that simple movement seemed a convergence of grace and practice, merged so seamlessly in a manner he recognized in so many things in the town.
He had been in Bolewa for ten days then. On reaching the town, he had easily located the Employment Directorate’s offices just near the main market and there he had made his first friend in the town of his birth. The liaison officer was a young fellow of about thirty who made a fuss about him, saying that the school was expecting Faruk and that he had had fears that anyone would want to take up a post, even if temporarily, at such a far and out place like Bolewa. He smiled when he said this, as if he meant some sort of understatement. But he was a good-natured chap and he offered Faruk some tea.
“Call me Abba”, he said, his eyes gleaming at this, and Faruk rose to the occasion.
“Why not Ishmael?” to which the other laughed, displaying a gap between his teeth, still complete but stained, no doubt by too many cigarettes and kola nuts.
“Just as well,” he said, “Just as well”
He was even more astonished to find that Faruk had a first class degree in Sociology from the University of Jos. A look of puzzlement came over his face as he looked through the papers in front of him.
“But tell me, Faruk, why do you come here?”
Faruk shrugged. “I wanted to get away and I wanted to find something.”
“Ahh”, the other said, as if Faruk’s words had provided the solution to a knotty theorem, “People do that all the time but not this far out. I shall ask no specific questions because it is none of my business. I am happy that you are here and will be pleased to render any assistance I can over your six month stay. Now, let us go to your lodgings. I have made arrangements for you at the house of a friend’s widowed mother. It costs N 3,000 a month and you will have your own toilet and bathroom though water will have to be gotten from a well. The electricity isn’t so good either but then, Bolewa is not as cold as the plateau top where your are coming from.”
“I am sure I can manage. It’s quite hot here”
“Let us go then. I see you have a car”
Faruk had moved some of his things from the front seat so that his new kola-nut chewing friend could sit. They soon arrived at the house after Abba had shown him the market, the Emir’s palace and sundry places of interest.
It was a compound built in the traditional sense, a structure of rooms with a main entrance leading into a large courtyard around which ran a broad corridor. The whole was made from thick mud bricks, which he noticed gave certain coolness to the corridor. A distracted little girl told them Hajia Astajam was in. The Hajia turned out to be a plump little woman with dimples on both cheeks, she was something a little over fifty, light skinned with Margi tribal scarifications of her cheeks that did something to accentuate her face; she must have been very beautiful when she was younger, Faruk thought. They had found their way to her quarters somewhere at the back of the house and Faruk waited in the little room while Abba entered her quarters. Her laughter broke out of the room and Faruk knew he would like her even before he met her.
She came out of the room with Abba, her right palm cuddling his upper arm to her, calling him “my sweet” as older women do when they try to indulge the coquetry of another time. It was obvious she was fond of Abba.
“And how is your friend, that rascally son of mine. He doesn’t come to see his mother, only sending bills, needing money for this and that”, she was asking him, “I fear I have lost my son to some University girl in Maiduguri and he is spending my wealth on her. Oh Allah, what shall I do?” she added in mock despair.
Abba was smiling sheepishly.
“‘Ya Gumsu”, Abba said, seizing his excuse, “here is your new lodger.”
The woman disengaged Abba’s arm and put her hands by her side, she had not known Abba was accompanied and Faruk saw the glint in Abba’s eyes, amused at her brief discomfiture. But it was only for a few seconds for Hajia Astajam got back on her game with a beautiful smile, showing her gold teeth, while Faruk stood up and bowed as was customary.
“Welcome”, she said warmly, “we have been expecting you. How was your trip?”
“It was well, mara zaine”, he said, flattering her with the universal compliment of a fine lady. She smiled again.
“You are Kanuri. Where are you from?” she asked in Kanuri.
“I am from here”
“Oh. I don’t believe I’ve seen you before and my seven sons seem to know everybody in this town”
“I live in Jos, ma’am. I came up to teach in the Government College and try to get to know my people.”
“Ah, you speak Kanuri very well. Your mother has taught you well”
“My mother is dead”
“Accept my grief”
Abba cut in, “‘ya Gumsu, it seems you will like this lodger very much. His name is Faruk Ibrahim and he will be with us six months. Shall we show him his quarters so I can take him to the school? Then I have to get back to work.”
Faruk was shown into a room on the other side of the house; it used to be occupied by one of her sons who had married a year before. The room was neatly swept and had large clear windows that he could open to let in as much as of the breeze and air as he wished. A small circular Oriental rug, predominantly the same blue color as the walls, lay in the center of the room. Just above it was a white ceiling fan. A bed with a mattress and a large locker with a mirror completed the furnishings of the room. A flush toilet and a shower were en suite. Faruk declared himself pleased and honored to be her guest. She smiled her endearing gold-toothed smile again and told him there were always schoolboys hanging around the house, from the Qu’ranic School just across the road, who would always fetch him water anytime he wanted.
Food was usually served at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., she told him, but he could always make arrangements with the woman in her kitchen to have his food kept separate and warm until he wanted it. He thanked her for her kindness once again and together with Abba, who had been silent through the whole exchange, they closed the door and left the room.
Abba took him to the Government College where he met the principal, a balding rotund old man who looked very like Hajia Astajam and was as pleased as Abba had been at Faruk’s qualifications.
School was already out by then but the old man still took him around the premises. It was the strangest thing. The school was on an enclosed rectangular layout comprising academic offices, including those of the principal and the Staff Room on one side and a library and storeroom on the other. Between these were two long corridors on either side of which were the classes, Forms I, II and III with the Physics Lab on the one side and Forms IV, V and VI with the Chemistry/Biology Lab on the other side. From one end of the building, one could look straight to the other end, much like in a British Public School. To think such a building, in burnt redbrick, could be found here barely two hundred kilometers from the Sahara Desert fascinated him. It was to be the first of the many paradoxes that Bolewa held in its bowels.
From there they had returned to his lodgings after he was told to be in school the next day by nine a.m. so he could meet his new colleagues, his students as well as to receive the syllabus of the subject he would be lecturing.
The girl had finished fetching her water and left. Faruk moved away from the window and bent over the black locker beside his bed, picking out the little leather bound chest ‘Ya Hussena had given him in Jos; “his mother’s things”, she had said. He settled down in his bed and put the chest beside him while he made himself comfortable. He opened it and blew away some of the dust that had gathered on it’s rim. It contained papers in his mother’s handwriting and a little notebook with a hardcover. He sneezed from the dust he had upset.
He started with the notebook. He stopped to think it was almost as old as he was and paused to ponder what clues it held. His mother’s handwriting had always enthralled him for it looked just like her picture, the writing seemed to perfectly fit the woman and the subtle cursive of her hand as well as the deep imprint the pen made on the paper gave a clue to a personality of grace and firmness, they could also well describe her eyelashes and the strength she had summoned in the immediate years following the misfortune of Bolewa and her girlhood.
He opened the cover and there was a black and white picture of his mother with ‘Ya Hussena, they looked so young; his mother sat in a three quarter pose on the chair while Hussena stood behind her, also in a three quarter pose but facing the other way. The picture had been taken at an elevation for he could see the top of houses in the background; they both wore lappa’s of print and full blouses that had come across as black for Hussena and white for Ummi. Though they looked away from each other, there was the slightest hint of a blush on each of their cheeks, as if they shared some joke that the photographer was unaware of. On the flipside of the photo was the word, in his mother’s writing; Bolewa, 1967.
Faruk put the picture away. The book was a sort of biography his mother had started writing, the date on the cover was November 1974. They were already in Jos then. She had however not gone far as there were only about ten pages of writing in the entire book. He looked through the remaining pages and found nothing at all, not even a pencil mark, and then he returned to the beginning and started to read. She wrote -
“Today is a special, once-in-a-long-while sort of night. The moon is luminous and bright in the month of Ramadan and I stand here out of doors trying to decide whether to obey the cold chill of the hamartan or disregard it and lose myself in the aura of the night. Elsewhere crickets and a thousand other insects chirrup their chimes in the drying grass. The faraway bark of solitary dogs or the crying wail of sirens, sometimes, punctures the tranquility. Or gunshots do. They say the gunshots I hear are all in my head.
“I remember all those many years so long ago when my playmates and I would sing and dance with the moon on such a night as this. And we would fight and gossip about the boys. The sort of thing young girls did and talked about. There were no sirens and neither did we know of the sound of guns. We were still so alive then.
“So many years have passed since those carefree times. Yet tonight, here in this foreign land, I remember clearly the songs we used to sing in those days at Rigan-Bolewa long before history came along and happened, and the dances too. Long before I caused our history to happen. Rather strangely I remember now a particular incident. I could not have been more than thirteen and I had gone outside my uncle’s house with Hussena; we were somewhere near the stream. As we chattered along, we came across an old woman, shrunk and sporting a walking cane. After we greeted her, she blessed and said a prophecy for each of us. I remember her exact words. She said;-

Habibi, owner of beauty
Bedecked in the pearls of charm

Your fairness shall ensnare lions    

Seducing princes and commoners
Habibi, owner of beauty
Precious pearl of all the earth
Your beauty shall never fade
For it carries sorrow by it’s side.

“So many things have changed since that day. So much water has surged beneath the bridge of yesterday. Perhaps only I have remained; Time has been merciful to me. I know I am still as enchanted as I was all those years ago. But now I wish I had asked that Moon-woman some questions; Why should my beauty ensnare people? Why should it be a twin to sorrow? If I had asked, perhaps things might have turned out differently . . . but no, I had not asked. I had not asked so many things had happened. I must tell you the story of my life; perhaps it is you who can understand.”
The writing stopped there and he knew she had stopped writing for a while for when it continued, on the next page, the writing was in different ink. Faruk held his breath, feeling as if he were hearing his mother voice telling him her story rather than reading her words decades removed from her decease. The memoirs continued with a question -
“How does a girl start to tell the story of her life? At birth? Or perhaps even before then? Such questions must remain with those who wonder for I have a story to tell. And my story must be told.
“My name is Habibatu Ummi, third child and only daughter of Alhaji Abdulrahman al-Qassim. I was born in Kaduna on a night none of the older women in my father’s gida would let me forget. I came with much struggle and pain. It was about 5 p.m. The sun was setting in the west and it lent a reddish brown hue to the sky. It was on such a night and at such a time that I chose to burst through into life’s journey and ease my hysterical mother of her pains. My first glimpse and my first infantile wail were to the setting sun and so it would seem my life has played out - setting suns after setting sun. In my childhood, my father as hardly ever around, his affairs in government kept him away and kept us, my brothers and I, well provisioned. I never knew my mother for she left to whence I had come while yet I suckled her breast. That was thirty years ago.”
Faruk thought; so, like me, my mother also did not know her mother.
And all of a sudden he felt a deep sympathy for the woman who had nurtured and spawned him because he was realizing how much more than genetics they shared. He continued -
“My life has been an indulgent one but with the attendant obligation of nobility. I was born an exponent of one of the younger though not less prestigious branches of the Fulani fief-holders. My grand father on my father’s side had fought under the flag of Caliph Mohammed Bello and won the emirate of Bolewa ta Gabas as his fief. His brother Hamid al-Qassim became the High Baron of Kaltungo. My mother was daughter of no less than the last but one Sultan of Sokoto. I am of the aristocracy and that informs everything about me. My early education was that of the modernizing Fulani nobility with whatever psychological pretensions that adds on. And that isn’t something I apologize for but I shall not dwell on it either, I mention it only because it might help in putting my story in perspective.
“I was twelve years old, just before the start of the Civil War, when my father moved my brothers and I from Kaduna, where I was born, to Bolewa. Thus I, youngest of all grew up there with my siblings in the home of my uncle who was the Emir. All the girls in the house were nominally under the care of my kaka {grandmother}. However in deference to her age and our own youthful energies and curiosities, she was spared our sufferance and we each were given nannies. My nanny was a very pretty girl whose name was Hussena though I called her Yaya {aunt}. Between us as the years unfolded there grew a strong bond, strong as love. I believe she was no more than sixteen then and she has remained with me to this day.
“Before the boys came along, she was the receptacle of my love. Hussena seemed so sensible and yet so free. She was beautiful. She was not confined by her birth, only by commonsense. She taught me the traditions of the people my forebears had come to rule and it was from the outings and absences spent with her that I came about creating a social identity for myself. I associated more with the common people she was aquatinted with than with the increasingly decadent feudalists to whom I rightly belonged. It was from her that I learnt of balance and understood the social essence.
“Bolewa ta Gabas was a big town of about 80,000 people living in harmony without strife. In those days, it was a beautiful place to live. It felt so pristine and pure; there really could be no madness here for life itself moved at a slow and unhurried pace. It was as pastoral as Grays ‘Elegy writ on a country churchyard’, one of the poems I studied with the Irish nun, Sister McMahon, who was our tutor. There was fraternity and togetherness between us. Even between my Fulani suzerains and the commoners for both knew that it was the land that brought us together. Allah out of his bounty gives us the earth to till and from it Life makes it’s meaning, all we are to do is to tend and love it with tenderness. We went about our days in simple reverence to the laws of the seasons and harvest time. 
“Some of us were the feudalists who claim was by conquest while others, the commoners, had an even greater claim to the land than we. Others were settlers- Berom people, Yorubas, Jarawas, Ibos, Michip and so many others drawn to live and love on our land because of it’s prosperity. Some of us followed Islam - the religion of the Prophet and the Jihad of 1824, while others were animists. We had a Jewish Quarter with Negroid Jews who had migrated from North Africa during the time of the Kanem-Bornu Sultans, too far back for anyone to remember and we had plenty of Christians, Catholics for the most part. The common people said the Jews, known for keeping to themselves, came out of the desert. But we all were bound together by the land everyone had come to love. There was no strife then. Such were those times”.
Faruk sighed. The writing had stopped again but surely enough, he turned the page and saw that she had continued in yet another ink. It dawned on him that she was writing vignettes of her life, rather than a coherent story; she was writing what she remembered when she remembered them. But Ummi was impatient to continue -
“It was the very worst time of the year. November. In Bolewa, it was a time of wailing hamartan winds blowing dust and dryness from the Sahara that lay not two hundred miles away. Everywhere the grassland was being set afire and bare-chested young boys made game of the scurrying glasscutters and rodents. It was very cold. In the old calendar, it was called the month of Flames for fire ruled side by side with the dry northwestern winds. At night, there was a cold chill and one could find no one in the streets if they could help it. If you looked hard enough, you could see the Cold raging personally, menacingly, towards you, bristling and blowing his disdain across the fields. It was at such a time that Usman left me.
“Usman left without word. He left without a goodbye. I waited for him but he did not come, he was gone. It was said that he had left for Sokoto. Those months were filled with much anguish for me. The pain I felt was deep in my heart.  I cried my heart out. Hussena and the girls tried to comfort me with games and distractions. But they could not comfort me. How can you comfort a girl whose heart is broken? Usman had scorned my love without so much as a backward glance.
“Most days, I remained at the palace, most of the time just pining away. My brothers had already left, one for University in the United States while the other had become a wartime officer, so I was alone. It really was about the sky; I could not see it. I could not see the sky. All that I saw seemed drab and grey. The mist of my melancholy had tainted all the things that give pleasure that I had once enjoyed.
“As such things are I remember that it dissipated at once just as it had crept in subtly. It was a Thursday afternoon in April. I was with Hussena playing chess when she made one of those impossibly absent-minded moves of moving a knight from ‘black’ and ending up in ‘white’ exposing her king to my perpetually checking bishops and knight. Like we all, she too, saw it too late.
“Ah, but there was something in that move for me, the climax of an epiphany for it was then that I first felt it on my lips after a long age of dullness - a simple smile. In that moment it seemed as if a weight had been lifted from my chest and I felt light and airy as beachside breeze. I looked up through the windows and for the first time in a long time I saw the rainbow beauty of the peacocks preening themselves in the courtyard. The colors were red and blue and indigo and brown and all the colors of bright and beautiful things. The sky was bright and blue and I felt like a bird in the sky. I smiled again and Hussena hugged me and I was healed of my malady.
“Ahmed used to come to see me even when I was still with Usman. Of course I could not love him then but yet he persisted. He was a very fascinating person, full of tenderness and dignity. Even during the time of my malady, he still came to see me. He used to bring me poems! Beautiful poems, funny poems that made me smile. But I must have been very cold then. When it was over, I encouraged him to continue his courting and he did woo me. It was not long before I felt that my heart was beginning to bud once again. Our love felt different, more calm and sedate, much more collected. But I knew that I loved them both in two different ways. They were two different people but that doesn’t mean I loved any of them less. But I knew also that I did not always feel for Ahmed as deeply as I knew he felt for me.
“Ahmed was very handsome, although, in a more debonair sort of way. He was of Arab parentage from somewhere in Yemen, his father was dead but his mother was a merchant woman of gold from Medina. She was very influential among the Jews and in my uncle’s court. But it was in that aspect alone, beauty, which he seemed like Usman. They were like the two ends of a spectrum and I was the prism itself between them. While Usman had been loveable with a seemingly untamed wildness about him that stripped one of pretensions, Ahmed was collected and cool at all times. He had this self-effacing yet arresting intellectuality about him. He was an unassuming young man. And he was a poet; his lines could have melted the heart of any cultured woman as it melted mine.  Such it was that I fell in love with him for his reasonableness and intellect.
“His walk was the step of benevolent authority; his smile? everything! Ah and how he loved me! There was this night when he told me in many beautiful words how so much he loved me, how so much his heart beat for he knew that I loved him one fifth of what was in his heart for me and that that was enough! He talked of prophets and messiahs and many things, many many things that made me feel that I was like the strings of a gwogie plucked by the fingers of a son of god.
“Yes! But I remember what I said to him, that night, in Arabic. In Arabic, the adjective ‘ishq’ is denotative of madness; extreme passion; truth so great that it’s sublimity renders it indecorous, it meant many esoteric things.
‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s merely passionate words, you cannot mean all this poetry!’
He replied me in Arabic.
’Yes my love, I am mad! Ishq is in itself a degree of the highest madness. My insanity, habibi, rises each time I see your lips part in smile. It is like the full moon. All my caged emotions break out in one giant scream

  1. habibi, habibi ,cant you see

you alone can cure, my malady!’
“I remember that when he was through pouring out our hearts to me that night, there were tears in my eyes. I was . . . I cannot say what it was that I was that night. Something’s cannot, are not meant to be described - cascades of joy! - only to be felt once and then locked away in the heart from where memory alone will recall it in snatches and taint the sad world with rainbow raptures of bliss.
“For me, Ummi al-Qassim, Fate had reached its climax. For that last time too, the stars in the sky shed their tears for me”.
The writing stopped.
It was just about four p.m. but the room had become unbearably hot for Faruk. “tears for me”, he repeated. He took off his tee shirt, leaving only his white cotton undershirt on. He rose from the bed and put his feet to the ground. His palms cradled his head just above his knees, covering his ears while his fingers slowly worked crab walk wise through his dark curly hair. Ummi’s hair. He felt giddiness in him, radiating in spiral cords through his stomach and his brains, like the reverberations of a spring that had been dropped. Faruk looked up, he was alone in the room.
So this was my mother, he thought. Ummi al-Qassim.
Gradually, his tension subsided. She would have been a fine writer. What had happened to his mother in this town, what had happened to his father? Who was Ahmed and who was Usman? Who was the mysterious Usman who his mother had first loved, who had left her and broken her heart? She had said not much of him. And then there was the Arab, Ahmed Anwar, who had reclaimed her love and given her a new sense of self worth. What had happened to him? Could he find all these people, put together all these missing links? The questions coursed through his mind, some emerging from or melding into others while others stood starkly, engineering new and more in-depth permutations of themselves.
There was a knock on the door.
It was one of the boy’s, Tahir, and he had come to inquire if Faruk needed some water.
The rest of the papers were fragmentary and did not really make any sense, some of them held sentences standing isolated on the paper. On one was a single sentence that ran on and on and on and when he was through reading it, he gasped for air because even though his mother had said nothing sensible throughout the stretch, she had been able to hold his attention through it all, her description was vivid.
Then there was poem in Arabic written at the back of a picture, it was the picture of a slender tall young man mounted on a white horse, holding a riding crop and a polo stick in his hands. Faruk knew the man was Ahmed. Ahmed was smiling into the camera; he had fine thin lips and even, perfectly placed eyes beneath a nest of eyelashes. It was hard to say which, between the rider and his steed, was a more magnificent creature. The poem. He read it, it was written in everyday Arabic but the style of it was unusual, it was not an Arab style at all but an Iranian one.

Who am I to desire to hold you
What impudence initiates my song
Who is the merchant’s son to aspire
To hold the waist of gold?

I am a poet, Habibi, a singer of songs
I am a painter of lives, giver of dreams
I am everything that ever can be
If only you’d believe

A poem is beauty frozen in time
A poem is a perfect moment forever
A poem is synchronized heartbeats
Hurting and bleeding and sighing and loving

Faruk inhaled deeply and started to put his mother’s things back into the leather bound box. He was swept into her story and now that he was in Bolewa, he would find out who his mother had been and what she had lived for, the times she had lived in. Her story was a story of love and he now, her son, was bound in an impossible love. There was something here in this land of his ancestry that he needed to know and he could only begin knowing it by seeking out who Ahmed and Usman were and where they were now.

Faruk had just finished a lecture with the Form V students and he went into the storeroom to wash the chalk off his hands; as he came out of the room, folding the sleeves of his shirt, he glanced up and met the eyes of a girl looking at him, it was the girl at the well, from days earlier. He smiled weakly and moved on. So she was a student here.
He enjoyed the lecturing very much and had been at it for three weeks. His students were so eager to learn and he found he had so many things he could tell them, not merely about Nigerian Ethic, which he was paid to teach the Form V but also about life generally. The school was of unpainted redbrick and perhaps as a compromise to some original plan, graded gravel stones had been poured in the center of the hallways where carpet grass would normally have been. In the center of this island of white stones flanked all around by a 4 feet concrete walkway bounded by brown burnt brick stood a green white green Nigerian flagpole, it’s flag flying high above the buildings, seeming to point a haughty finger at the sun.
Before going back into the staff room, Faruk stopped awhile at the Biology laboratory, a vast cold room tenanted by Nyam, a short little man from the North Central with whom he had become fast friends. It had been years since he had last seen so many specimen, dried leaves and insects –moths, butterflies and beetles- seemingly etherized for all time and he surprised himself by being able to name quite a number of them. It was mainly for this respectful recall that the middle aged Mr. Nyam had pledged friendship to the new temp from Jos. Peter Nyam was a very dark rather smallish man with an exaggerated stoop gotten from bending over too many petri dishes and pinning down so many specimens. He wore large horn rimmed glasses and lived for biological sciance as he pronounced it and Faruk, attracted to him instantly, knew the old bachelor would die pleased if only he could more interest the students of Government College, Bolewa in the study of dead or sub cellular things. Faruk found it amusing that Biology was the symmetric opposite of Sociology.
Soon he pushed open the door to the staff room where throwing around a couple of smiles and hello’s to his colleagues, he found his way into his corner, demarcated by his desk. Most of the other teachers were out to lectures or just not on seat. The staff room was exactly that, a room for the staff. Unlike the rest of the school, however, it had been plastered over and painted in white. There were ten identical tables and as many chairs placed in two rough semicircles broken only by the water treatment station and a large filing cabinet they all shared. The floor was of black and white plastic tile and though there were two ceiling fans hanging down, the room also had a lot of windows, which were kept open most of the time. Each person’s table contained personal bric-a-brac that told a lot about who they were, embellished by his own interpretation, for though the teachers were all friendly and showed him the ropes, with the exception of Peter Nyam and a couple of others, there had yet been in his three weeks no opportunity for the development of personal relationships.
 Directly in his line of sight at the far end of the room was Miss Smith, a young woman who took Physical Education and had the tough luck of always being caught staring in his direction, usually at him. Something of dreamer this one, he thought, for on her desk was the picture of a debonair man in his early thirties whom she called her fiancé but he always felt there was something more to the story because she was sometimes distracted and because the man in the picture had, to Faruk, the married look about him.
Mallam Abubakar took English and his desk was just to Faruk’s left, at the corner of the room, his privilege as a HOD. Mallam Abubakar was a tall, light skinned man in his last youth, somewhere around thirty-eight, thirty-nine and though he was married and had a child, a daughter, he still had an eye on some of the more mature female students. This underlined something about Bolewa. So long as there was no crisis or no complaint, just about anything could go on, there was just something about the people that precluded them from importuning anything underhand to any person. The English teacher had a fashionable razor thin goatee and laughing but penetrating eyes beneath the dark brows of a born rake.
And then there was the touchy Francis, a man of his own age who took mathematics. It seemed that Francis had gained a dis-reputation for himself among the teachers for being the sort of person who laughed at anything, the sort that one could never rely on because he was pathologically facetious without meaning to be. Peter Nyam had warned Faruk about him. But apart from that warning, the dark complexioned Yoruba man with the receding hair was otherwise a regular person.
The staff comprised six males and as in any colony, there was bound to be a queen bee. Dije was in her fifties, a still beautiful woman who one could only imagine what she must have been when still young and sixteen. She was Kanuri, that sort of woman whom troubadours sang about, who could at once be both the strength and undoing of any man for she possessed that rare ability of doing nothing and yet having everything, even a storm, happen around her. He liked her and had no problems with her, he could after all not contest with her in anything so he flattered her and called her his mother. But Nyam, who had a way of knowing everything, had told him of Aseenat Buba, a hapless girl from years ago who had come to teach at the College and had had the effrontery to dispute with the elder woman, charm for charm and perfume for perfume. She had not lasted long before leaving and marrying soon after, the dark eyes of Dije could do anything and Faruk read them well.
Bolewa was a town of about a hundred thousand people and it was the capital of an old emirate called Bolewa ta Gabas and the entire town could be walked around in about twelve hours. Faruk set aside his fourth Saturday in Bolewa to discover himself the nooks and crannies of the town for by then he had begun to perceive it’s peculiar aura. He left the house at eight p.m. just after having his breakfast and seeing to his car’s washing. He wore a loose cotton jallabiya gown, white with thin black stripes, that he had brought from Jos over a neutral colored Chinos trouser and black sandals.
Unlike Jos, there wasn’t so much dust here; the hamartan contented itself with reigning at night – during the daytime, a pernickety, sometimes kind-sometimes harsh sun held sway.
In Bolewa, the houses were packed close to each other and with the exception of the main street that led out of town and thence unto the Maiduguri, the streets were all quite narrow. Yet, each house, when it was not of the enclosed type like Hajia Astajam’s where he was lodging, had some space around it. It was rather the narrowness of the streets that gave a certain packed quality to the town rather than the proximity of the houses to each other. The streets could take no more than two cars going in either direction at the same time.
There were eight wards in Bolewa, each about five kilometers square; the highway separated his own part from the rest so he had to cross it first. The name of his ward was Wuza, a more recent addition to the town. In his ward was the College, built in the late seventies and a health center. At night, every corner was turned into tea-and-coffee ‘houses’ where men could be seen sitting in makeshift stalls that served as rendezvous points for everyone, for though Bolewa could be quite hot in the daytime, it could be relatively cold during July-August and the ‘ember months. Women and girls were seldom out of their homes after eight p.m. Faruk knew most of the parts of Wuza already so he set out for Bama, the next ward.
His hair was already in need of expert attention and he hoped he could find a barber for there was none in Wuza. Sometimes as he walked along, one of the three buses passed him on their route through the town. A dog boy was always perched precariously standing on the open side doors of the busses as they made their hasty way past him in a pointless rivalry for fares that would always be there. Bama, like the next ward, danZazzau, was mostly a residential quarter with a primary school, few shops and plenty of salesmen pushing or pulling large carts of assorted ware ranging from nail cutters to kerosene lantern wicks and the like. There were many women about.
Some of the women drove past him in cars while others sat in front of their houses; it was then about ten a.m. and he assumed they were resting from the morning chores, the children safely off to school and gathering strength for the afternoon repast. There were women in the streets too, passing him; some looked at him, the younger ones, while some did not. In Bolewa, one could tell a lot about women from what they wore. If she wore a lappaya, a sort of dress like a nikab that revealed only the face of the wearer then the lady was married and was most probably Kanuri. Sometimes he tested his guess out by saying wushe kendiro and was wished a good morning back enough times to conclude that indeed he was right. Sometimes, the woman could, of course, be Shuwa. Marghi woman hardly ever wore the lappaya, their preference being flowing gowns of a blue, black or grey silk-ish material. They never wore hijabs either; rather they were wont to drape their faces with a white lace gele, which covered their hair and their shoulders, but leaving their necks and faces bare. More often than not, Fulani woman wore print wrappers around their waists together with a simple mono-color matching blouse and of course, they had their scarifications on their cheeks and were sure to have henna designs, some faded, some new, on their hands.
The young girls were however a different story as one could never guess who was from where; some of them were impudent and flirted with him with their eyes as he passed by while others, more conservative, kept their gazes lowered to the ground. Many of the young girls wore jeans but never a trouser among them; all were cut in long skirts that went well below the knees. Sometimes they wore blouses, sometimes tee shirts. Most covered their hair with a playfully looped gele that left just a bit of the promise of hair. All were comely.
Once, a nubile Fulani girl distracted him. She had been chewing tobacco leaves, as many did, and it seemed she was returning from shopping for she carried a black cellophane bag which was full and he could see the top of spring onions peeking out of it. She was something around eighteen. What struck him, from afar off, was her complexion that was for the entire world like the brown color of cardboard packing, the color of Rahila’s skin. For a second, he wondered what she could be doing here in the Northeast, here in Bolewa for that matter. Right down to the way she walked, a slight lilting walk that had remained so well in his thoughts.
But that skin! It seemed the girl noticed for she smiled at him when they passed each other and he nodded his head lightly with a smile, knowing now that this girl was not the girl he loved, merely one come to remind him of her. The Fulani girl’s face was a bit narrower and she lacked Rahila’s hips; her waist was too thin. He thought how he had loved to hold the other, those strong hips that tapered down gracefully from her waist. Strong, that was the only word to describe her.
The Fulani girl brought him back to thoughts of Rahila and he remembered that he had not made any progress, any move at all, towards deciphering his mother’s life in Bolewa. Part of the reason he left Jos was apart from the gathering storm that had trailed them both following the Ball was that he also wished to punish Rahila with his absence, an absence made to discover his identity, a thing that was very important to her. So he had left, leaving her a note at Nnamdi’s gallery. He knew he wanted to be with her; he knew she wanted to be with him and he also knew all too well that she understood all possible meanings of his leaving Jos and that her pride would never allow her write to him. And that it was important that he not write. A month had already gone by. As he walked along the sandy side streets of Bolewa he thought of how delicacy, pride and beauty had come to be found in such balance in one girl and how he would never let her go now that he had found her. His absence would merely be incubation for perpetuity.
Hayyal at salat, hayyal at salat
Hayyal al fala, hayyal al fala
It was the muezzin of a nearby mosque calling for the noontime prayers.
As salat hairu’un min al naum
As salat hairu’un min al naum
La ilaha illallah, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!
Allah is indeed great. Faruk found the mosque, a little affair for no more than twenty people, built into the side of a private residence by someone who desired to hear the call to prayer on his own premises. Outside the little mosque was a large drum of water and plenty of kettles; Faruk fetched some water and, bunching his jallabiya in between his thighs, bent down to do his ablutions before prayer. While he was at it, others came and joined him and at the final call, they all went in just before the amir gave the opening benediction.
It was two-thirty p.m. when he reached Ciroma Bindawa, the sixth ward. It contained the commercial center, the main market, offices and warehouses. The local government council was also located here. Faruk realized abruptly that he had been to Ciroma Bindawa on his first day for Abba’s office was located here and he tried to redefine the orientation of the town because he could not understand how it was to this ward he had first come. Deciding that there was no better way to discover the town than by playing the sleuth, he set out on The Case of the Contrary Paths. It was a mystery soon solved however for he soon found out that the road he had traveled on from Gombe was a state road that passed on through the back of Ciroma Bindawa, meeting up with the main road that led to the Maiduguri Highway farther down.
The market was quite large, much larger than he expected of a little town like Bolewa. Bindawa market had been named for a man obviously from the bordering emirates of Katsina or Daura and it had grown into a very important market in the Northeast. The town’s ease of access to both the Chadian Republic to the North and the Cameroonian Republic to the east made Bolewa, and Bindawa market, an important hub for legitimate traders as well as those of the other variety who choose to pay no import or export duties to the Nigerian government. It was also a very well organized market, ordered according to rough but distinct categories; clothes and textiles, household items, meat, foodstuff and cooking materials, heavy machinery and so on. It was, as markets are in Africa, mostly an open-air market though energy had been spent to ensure that the makeshift stalls were neatly and lineally arranged and apart from a few traders who had their wares in movable carts, customers could very conveniently move about and between the stalls.
An oriental rug caught his attention; it was red, a very deep royal red and had a hunting scene woven repeated semi-diagonally in it’s center. How much would such a rug cost, he thought.
“Hello”, she said simply.
Faruk was taken aback but only briefly for the girl in front of him was no other than the girl who had been drawing from the well at his lodgings weeks earlier. She was alone, dressed in a black gown with an ash veil covering most of her hair; he saw at once that he had not been wrong for she was very comely.
He also felt foolish for he knew that in spite of her youth, she could not be more than seventeen, here in the Northeast, young girls mature very early and know about men. He felt foolish because he knew she noted his bridling. She smiled.
The shop sold an array of Persian and Pakistani carpets; a large glass showcase of exotic perfumes formed the interior wall. He smiled also.
“Do you want to buy something?”
”Yes, that red rug caught my eye”
She smiled, flirting with him with her eyes, subtle things.
“Your eyes are very fine then. It is from Kashmir in Pakistan, hand-woven. It will make a fine rug for a man who appreciates beauty or a gift for the truly discerning.”
He laughed.
“To hear you say it, it would seem a shame not to buy it. The market has taught you well. How much does it cost, I hope not an arm or a leg?”
“Much more,” she said, “N12, 500 only”
“That is my head then”
“You ought to haggle. I can give you a good offer”, she said boldly.
“N 8,000.”
She chuckled and sold him the rug for N 10,000.
“Please keep it aside for me. I will come and pick it up insh’allah tomorrow evening”
“May Allah bring you”
                She was young, yes, but there was an abundance of cultured authenticity about her.
“What is your name?”
“Miriam Bazza”
“You are a student at the college. Are you a merchant woman also?”
“The shop belongs to my father. He will be here soon”
Silence. Faruk turned to go.
“Why were you looking at me the other day?”
“Why were you in my compound the other day?”
“To draw”, she replied.
“I like to look at the well sometimes”
Miriam giggled again. “You are funny. I will come to see you again soon”
“Beware of your father”, Faruk said to her, leaving the shop with her eyes on his back and knowing that this would not be the last of this gutsy girl who spoke so well.
It was already four p.m. and he saw it was getting late so he headed back home to Wuza. He had seen most of the town. He had only been unable to go to the old city where the Emir’s palace was located and the last quarter, which was called GRA where the really affluent and the bluebloods lived. He knew he could not lose his way in Bolewa anymore and with this confidence he could begin to unravel the faces of Ahmed Anwar and the mysterious Usman who would clarify the past for him. And as he made his way back to his lodgings, he also realized that he had made his first real female acquaintance in Bolewa and even if for only that, the long days trek had been well worth it.

Continued ...

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