The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Antebellum: Layers of Dust
Like the delicate strands of a spider’s web revealing itself into an intricate pattern divorced of chance, a design of beauty and perfection, so while Rahila was in Jos trying to plumb the depths of her own heart and the many haloes of her soul, Faruk in Bolewa found himself in the eye of a scandal, an affaire fragrante of the sort that would in earlier times have seen to his expulsion from the town of his birth. Yet, even that exposure was the hand of fate, of discovery, grasping him by the wrist and pulling him deeper into it’s ceaseless flow, like a woman would when her lover feigns to scorn her love.
Two months had passed by stealthily without a word from Rahila except the things she said in his dreams, inexorably the things she had said when they had been together, when their love had remained between them, before he had desired that she be his fiancé and that the whole world come and acclaim them. But their society had other plans and in the boundless care-less enthusiasm that propels the path to self-destruct, their society had made them, their love, the arrowhead of a tension to be plunged into it’s own heart.
That morning, a Saturday morning, his friend Abba from the Employment Directorate came to see him at Hajia Astajam’s compound. He had been sitting with YarBaba, the old lady who had cooked for the house for upwards of thirty years; from the time the father of the Hajia’s husband had been master of this house. Indeed she had moved to this house along with the owner. YarBaba was a middle-aged Marghi woman from the south of Bolewa with the manner of a girl in her twenties, she tittered and gossiped and flirted with him, she had lost none of her teeth and the tiny parting between her two incisors gave her smile a surreal loveliness.
“In my day, men used to fight for me . . .” She was saying to the teenage girl, Mairo, who was blushing to the roots of her hair, “not all this cold cold water courting you girls do. Ah, in my day, I would have had Faruk riding from Kano just to see me. Hah! No scandals, nothing. Shame on you all!”
“You are still a stunner”, Faruk said, looking the older woman in her eyes, making his voice sound light like a lover’s, “YarBaba, all you need is to say the word and I will quarter any man who dares usurp your attention away from me.”
“My sweet, my darling. That’s a real chevalier for you. Hah!”
Just then Abba came into the courtyard, calling.
“Na’am!” answered Faruk “I am here.”
“Ah, Faruk. It seems you had not enough of your mother’s kitchen. Here you are with YarBaba, you do not even give her breathing space. Do you fear for your love?”
“No such thing”
“No such thing, Abba. Talking about it, that rascal you call your friend came her and stole his mother’s jewels. Allah alone knows what she did to get such a child. You do not advice him enough!”
“How skillfully she turns talk away from herself! Hah! Faruk, I fear for you, she will only break your heart!”
“Then, may it break, she will heal it.”
They all laughed and Faruk left the kitchen with Abba. They went to his room where Abba stayed a quarter of an hour before remembering what had brought him. He searched the voluminous folds of his Kano babanriga and finding what he sought, he handed over a dust patched letter to Faruk.
“This came in for you. It was sent a week ago, I have only just returned from Maiduguri after a few days there and I did not see it before I left.”
“Thank you”, replied Faruk, collecting the letter conscious of a growing radial pulsations running through he nerves of his back. It was Rahila’s writing, neat, looped cursive. Already, he could smell her perfume, even there under the layers of dust acquired in the long journey from Post Office to pickup van to Post Office. It was the first written communication he had from Jos since he’d left.
“Your face changes, my friend. It must contain love,” said Abba, looking Faruk straight in the eye, his mouth working dexterously on a kola nut, his face laughing.
“Something like that.”
Faruk entered the room and went to his bed, neatly opening the letter with a thin pocketknife he always carried. Blue ink writing on cloud blue paper.
It has been a while since you left and I have not said a word, I have not heard from you. I know that you left me with sadness and maybe you now hate me for causing you anguish. But it was not always so. And I never wished it to be so. I am just not strong.
“How is Bolewa? Is it cold, like the mountains here or is it hot, like Maiduguri? The weather here is fine, December approaches and the cool is here throughout the day, the hamartan is here also and there is dust on everything. But without you here, there is a new coldness within the coldness my heart feels.
“Have you been able to find anything about your mother? Maybe I should not have pointed you in the direction of that quest, for here, I learn that sometimes, the things that seem important are not really important in the long run. Maybe you might find something you don’t want to know and you will then be unable to un-know it. I hope that will not be so, for it will be one more burden on my heart even as I leave you.
“Faruk, I have thought about us and I think it is best if we part the way we are now, if we hold only our memories in trust, if you do not seek me out when you return to Jos. For a glorious minute I thought I was strong enough to stand by you and damn the entire superstructure but I find that others that I love will be hurt, that I will hurt myself.
I love you, but I cannot love you.
Please let me know when you get this letter.
So my heart will rest easy”
Rahila Weng Pam
Faruk’s eyes were glazed, as if he wanted to cry, his palms, in a motion of their own, squished the paper into a ball and he did not know when it dropped out of his hand, nor even notice it fall to the ground, rolling on like tears on the uneven floor.
He seemed like that Dali painting; the one of the prelude to the Spanish Civil War, the one with the giant rending himself apart, such was the anguish in his heart and the weariness of his body. The young man sighed and that sigh seemed as if breath had been drawn from all the oceans of the world, it sounded like the expiration of a dream, as if a principle held for a life had come undone at dotage, at the twilight of life. He sank into the bed, his back to the wall, his eyes blind, unseeing; his hands were on his forehead, and then on his thighs, and then tracing a line from his Adams apple up to his lips where they cupped themselves and covered his mouth. He looked pathetic, like a forlorn child. He felt cold in his sides. It was the very nadir of despair.
How long did he spend there, thus sprawled; minutes that ran into hours that seemed like days? Thought keeps a time of it’s own and very often, retrospection is like subatomic time, something that could not be measured by clocks and watches. He remembered the day he met her, with Nnamdi, and Greg. That was Greg before the campaign, before that unfortunate exposure. And the weeks of courting and seeking her favor, of living for he smile, of seeking the bounds of her mind and her heart. And then, the tension of their love, of their definitions.
“You make love seem like a machine. But you know it is not”
“You don’t know what you are talking about”
“I know about you”
“You know nothing of me except what I show you”
“But you are not a sun. To think you are is to burn yourself, to become a burnout”
“Love, and to love, are decisions”
“Not love. You do not decide to love me, you cannot. I know. I demand your love; in the same way you demand mine. It is surrender and not a decision, Rahila. To make love rational is to make the very concept of it a bromide.”
And then the unraveling of her flower, like lily petals in the sun.
“I feel I have a burden on my shoulders.”
“You don’t have to carry it. You can set it down”
“Faruk, I cannot. It is my identity at stake here.”
“Identity is like history, it should be a tool, not a burden. When you say it is a burden, I know there is something wrong.”
“There is a dialectic of power in this country. How can you not be aware of it? How can you not care for your identity? Is Nigeria enough for you? What does Nigeria mean?”
“Maybe I am comfortable with my identity, but not in the way you think. My father’s father is Kanuri, his mother is not, my mother’s grandfather was Fulani but I cannot say she was Fulani because she couldn’t speak a word of fulfulde; she spoke Hausa. So, which one do you want me to claim as my identity? Then there is a cultural dynamic. My father is of the Kanuri and they were the lords of Kanem-Bornu, they were caliphs for over a thousand years, centuries before the Fulani even became Muslim, yet, Fodio and his gang destroyed that empire, and today the chief of my village is Fulani. So, I should despise the Fulani, according to your sense of history and identity, not so? But my mother is Fulani! For me to take identity as seriously as you take it would mean fragmenting myself into at least seven bloodlines, seven cultures. So, I realize none of that past - who married who and who moved where and gave birth to who - is worth my present happiness and mental health and yes, I answer, Nigeria is enough for me. It is enough because it is a formula, just like all those identities you are trying to grasp. They are merely formulas.”
She had listened to him with a complete raptness, as one would when being briefed just before a mission for which one is expendable against the objective; for theirs was a relationship of education, of unraveling.
“Maybe it is too much to ask, for you. But I am different. I am the hills of this plateau, it’s weather, it’s climate, and it’s trees. My history is not as fragmented as yours, maybe that is why it is so important, and why it is so endangered.”
“The identity you are speaking of is broader than your history. What relationship in history has the Nupe man ever had with you and your Berom people? That is why it is so problematic, not endangered, problematic.”
And, her smile. Her smile was a mood, he could never even describe it’s effect save that it was a complete thing that affected his perception of life and nature, the color of the street, the idiosyncrasies of the marketplace, her smile gave a perception of the nuance beneath unspoken words, in a glance, in the eyes of the glancer. He loved her smile, he loved to make her smile because they were happy and they were in love.
“You never asked me if I loved you.”
“But your eyes say it.”
“Men! Such conceit!”
“I don’t know of men, just of me. And I tell the truth, so I don’t know of conceit either.”
“Of course. Your type of crazy.”
“How is it you have an answer for every question I ask?”
“How is it you have a question for every answer that I have?”
“Oh, stop it!”
“Ask me if I love you?”
“Do you love me?”
“Then your saying does not matter.”
“I love you.”
“Damn you Faruk! You make me sound like a trophy.”
“I am your trophy.”
“What have you done to deserve me?”
“You have been you.”
“I should have you whipped.”
“In Fulani land, one cannot marry a maiden unless he is whipped at a sharro festival; nothing-new there. I am Fulani, remember?”
She had smiled then. He said.
“I love you like the dry savannah grass during the hamartan, with a hunger, a bottomless faith, inexpendable. You are my rain.”
A sad shadow came over her eyes then.
“But they are coming, Faruk, and they will rend us apart.”
“How can they when our hearts cannot break?”
“How do you mean?”
“Nobody can break my heart. Except you, and you love me so you will not. It is the same with you, the same with me. They will see that and won’t even try.”
“They are stronger than you think.”
“We are stronger than you think. Think about it, you will know I am right.”
On the night of the Governor’s Ball, they had arrived just in time, about an hour and a half into the event. The first cocktails had been drunk; some were already on the wine. It was a crowd of about a hundred people, with perfumes fighting valiantly to create haloes of aura around their owners. Gold was on wrists, on teeth, in the eyes long accustomed to its luster. They knew everybody; everybody was beautiful. The various fabric of jackets gleamed with a darkness, recreating a stygian tone redeemed by the celestial brightness of shirts that had never caught a drop of sweat, and the inevitable bow tie, strings tied to perfection. Some were sitting and talking away from their women who sat and compared and gossiped on who and done what with who. The Ball was the highpoint of the Jos social circuit and the dresses worn were planned for months before; Paris, New York and Milan were raided personally or by proxy to yield the latest Gucci, the latest Channel and Armani. Mixed with the scent of perfumes was the smell of cigars, you either smoked a cigar or you did not smoke, esplendidos were the craze then, and there were many who could afford them, many even who could afford to give them out as gifts.
The younger people were dancing; the hall was schemed to resemble a pair of horns and while the elders could easily form their cliques of laughter buddies, a part of the hall had been turned into a dance floor, the music poured in from invisible speakers, cosmic sound. They arrived just then.
The temper of the room, its very soul, changed, transformed by their arrival; everybody stole at least a glance at them. Faruk in a black jacket, white shirt without a tie and gleaming leather sancho cowboy boots, looking as dark and handsome as an Ethiopian seaman and Rahila, wearing a flowing gown of golden brown silk that contrasted harmoniously with her complexion, black jewels, he remembered, pearls perhaps, were strung on her neck and her hair, the same color of her eyes and of the darkest sloes was done long with elegant strands of it held down beneath her ears and at the back of her head with a comb. The light played with the fabric of her cloth, catching the engagement ring on her finger, dazzling the eyes of an envy that found escape in outrage.
And so they had danced, and danced, until they tired, saying no words to each other, their eyes speaking a language intelligible to all there that night, a language all had known while young, a language trivialized by the young; a language that they had contradicted out of their lives only to find it created a void impossible to fill with money, power and talk.
“Look at them,” the fashionable, cold eyes were saying.
Those cold, fashionable eyes meant, “Who gave them the right to be beautiful, who told them to love?”
It pained them because they too had once been beautiful, had once had the choice of remaining beautiful but had chosen to be fashionable, had chosen commonsense above sense. It pained them because they knew that they had let the coldness into their eyes and that that was not anyone’s fault save theirs.
All these things went through the mind of Faruk Ibrahim Dibarama, that afternoon, as he sat on his bed, in Bolewa, in the town of his birth, of his mother, all these things because he was in peril that his heart might break.
That morning, the air in Jos City had a peculiar quality about it, in the very green of the trees and in the grey of the mountains. The disturbing undercurrent was picked up in the wind, how it blew the cold chill upon the skin.
The Colonel stood on his balcony in his characteristic pose, palms on the balustrade and leaning slightly forward; his eyes seemed sad, looking out into the distance and picking from there an errant strain. He had been waiting for Mrs. Pam to make her move, for weeks now, and yet, nothing.
But he knew she had not forgotten and she was too far-gone to back out on her plans. In the weeks following Faruk’s departure, the party of Mrs. Pam, erstwhile fragmented, had begun to gather itself up with the cry of marginalization and how the “Hausawa” –people like him- were taking everything away from them. The underground reaction was getting more combustible and there, at the center of it all, was Mrs. Pam, more than willing to provide a spark. All because her daughter loved his son. He was an old hand; he knew that yet another crisis would be visited on the North Central and that people would die once again because of a simple love affair.
“Alhaji, what is the problem?”
It was Rose; he had not noticed her coming to stand by him on the balcony, until her palm tugged at his upper arm. Her eyes were concerned and worried.
There was something going on in this house, ever since he had told her Faruk had traveled to Bolewa. The Colonel had become more reticent and yet, there was a determination in his eyes, she saw – just like in the months after his wife’s death. Rose was also a daughter of the plateau and she could feel the ominous strain in the song of the hills. Danger lurked, but what type of danger?
The Colonel sighed. He had to tell her, he would need her help. He allowed her lead him back into the house where she already had a kettle of coffee brewing. They sat awhile, drinking coffee while the television screen playing out indifferent scenes of news too far away to matter.
“The girl Faruk is engaged to, you remember her?”
“Of course, the one he brings here. Rahila. They danced at the Governors Ball just before he left for Bolewa. What about her?”
“Her name is Rahila Weng Pam. Do you know her parents?”
“No. I can’t say I do, not really anyway. Her mother is in the Cabinet or something with the Governor. We’ve never met. I know nothing of her father though.”
“Her mother does not approve of their relationship because Faruk is a Muslim and her daughter is of course Christian, but it is more than that. There is a political angle to it, in the years since I came to this town, I have made enemies as well as allies. Some have been held by fear while others are held by loyalty. Mrs. Pam became one of my enemies sometime in the late eighties because she saw herself as a counter point to my politics.”
Rose looked at him while he spoke, stopping to fill his cup and then resuming her listening, her mind thinking. She knew that Ibrahim Dibarama had made enemies over the years, no one could really remain powerful for so long and not be resented by a varied company of traducers. But somehow, she too had fallen to the comfort of the ideal that his ends were altruistic and so would triumph until he died. Yet today, he was telling her something was going wrong with his politics.
If only he would tell her the whole story, she wanted to know what happened to him, before he met his wife and before his philosophy and politics were formed. Something had happened to the man and made an impression on him and she wanted to know what it was. Something had made him become a staunch believer in Nigerian unity, an ideal she shared, but not in this manner of driving intensity that had not burned out after over two decades.
“Meetings have been going on, they want to bequeath the country with another orgy of blood. They are using the local churches and the Muslims too have caught up, many are mobilizing on both sides for a showdown. She started it all; she was angry about my son and her daughter, then she started talking to her acolytes and suddenly what would have merely been a social scandal for her became the building block of cultural and religious hate. I would have been her opponent in the issue of Faruk and Rahila but she preferred that she would gather her people and fight the Hausawa as a culture and the Muslims as a religion existing in the North Central. Its pure madness but then, all atrocities start out of madness. The North Central is a time bomb waiting to blow. When it blows, it will be worse that the September 9th debacle a few years back.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I have the governor with me and of course Hassan is in power now so I am protected. But that is not enough. I am determined that no one dies from this but I can do that only if I have intelligence as to what is being planned and that I do not have. I know there are people going into the villages, inciting people to fight against the Hausawa, Fulani, and settlers generally. The arrowheads, like Mrs. Pam cannot be isolated because they are very powerful in the international media and all that, you arrest them, on what charge? Then everything blows up in our faces. And the North Central will still burn. I need to know where the trigger of this would-be bloodbath will be.”
“Faruk, is he safe?”
“That’s why I let him go to the Northeast. He is safer there than in Jos. Hussena told me he had come to see her so I arranged everything. I couldn’t explain the underlying tensions to him because Faruk can be stubborn and I did not want him to stay here and unwittingly ignite the powder keg.”
“You didn’t tell him?” she exclaimed.
“There was no need to. He won’t leave that girl for anything, any reason. He loves her. They had a quarrel following the Governors Ball and the next thing we would have heard would be they were getting married. His being here would have escalated everything; his being away for six months had bought me time. The only bait was to send him of to Bolewa, he wants to know about his mother and I found it appropriate that he go there and get that part of his education. A situation similar to this killed Ummi; you don’t know of it. I will tell you someday. The best thing was to get him out of Jos.”
“I need your help.”
The Colonel told her what he wished her to do.
It was a thing of such implication that for the first time since Rose had entered his employ twenty years earlier, she was afraid that he was endangering her. He explained to her that her security would be guaranteed as much as he could, he explained the plans he and Jamilu had detailed for her.
Her love for the Colonel finally overcame the danger of this mission and that morning; Rose Dakyen became a chessman on a table whose dimensions she was unaware of, trusting only in her love for a man who could not know of such a love and in a loyalty to the hills of the plateau that had spawned her.
In Bolewa, the same day he received the letter from Rahila, Faruk drove to Ciroma Bindawa to pick up Miriam from the market. Their relationship had grown well within the bound he had set for it yet it was all so new for the girl that she could not comprehend the possibility talk less see the walls that surrounded her, protected her, from Faruk’s love. Everything was beautiful for her, she loved him, but she had not loved a man before so she defined love by what he did, unquestioning; she did not desire any fruits he had not shown her. Faruk, on his own part had grown fond of Miriam Bazza, and saw in her a potential to beauty and he was interested in her soul, to make it resilient and organic. Her love was an experiment, an involved analysis, his every move was tentative, testing, daring her to rise far above anything she could have every realized. She would mature into a breath-taking flower; that would be his legacy to Bolewa.
Yet, beneath it all was Rahila; inexplicitly, she followed him here even in this affair with Miriam Bazza. Driving down the dusty roads, he remembered the girl, Nabila, who Rahila had made her protégé, putting her in school and paying her fees. He had met her once and immediately, in the days before they fell in love, he felt a great respect for Rahila Pam, for he knew it took courage, a certain audacity, to take responsibility for the potentials of another persons mind. Even here, in Bolewa, her spirit reached out to him. How could she now clip his wings? She who had inspired him to fly.
Miriam was a girl, but in the Northeast, a girl is very quickly a woman. And when she looked in his face as she sat down in the car, she saw immediately that an unhappy shadow had fallen across his brows and she surmised only another woman could cause such a boding. She wondered what lucky woman could make him so distracted, so unhappy; if only he could see her as a woman to be desired! How different it would all be! But no, he loves me more than that, just not enough.
“What is wrong with you, your face is as long as the Ka’aba door,” she asked.
“Nothing”, he said, casting his eyes at her flittingly before returning his concentration on the road. She wore her usual flowing gown, light brown this time, and here hair peeked out of the diaphanous black veil, baby soft curls. Beneath that hair was a sad pair of eyes.
“A personal tragedy. Tell me, how was your day?”
“I waited for you and now you are here and you are unhappy with me.”
“I am not unhappy with you, I am here with you.” He said.
Miriam was silent awhile and he lost himself in his thoughts again. He was thinking of impossible things and how to withstand the exception, the possibility that Rahila would not come back. Then his thoughts went to the Old City of Bolewa where he had been weeks before. He had seen the Emir’s palace and the government buildings, the polo field and the central mosque. But this time, it was an old church that came to his mind. The church had been long abandoned and stood ghostly atop a knoll. In front of the church, under an ancient tree, was the church gong comprising a piece of railway track hanging down from a tree branch, it twisted in the wind and sometimes let out a “Kpong!” sound when it impacted with the metal chain link holding it down. Now he thought of himself as that old church, a house when the faith is gone, and a body when love is done.
Then his mind returned to the silent miserable girl beside him.
“I am sorry”, said he, reaching out to touch the side of her face and looking her deep in the eye. “You will always make me happy, Miriam, don’t ever think otherwise.”
She smiled because he had touched her and because he was so kind to her and it was important to him that she was happy or at least, that she felt good. She doubted she could be happy again, not as she had been before today and the knowledge that he loved someone else. But she could be happy, for him.
He smiled at her, his smile was so beautiful, and she smiled back. They were back in Wuza and were parked under their special kuka tree just behind her house where they sat and talked whenever they went out. Sometimes, when she could, she went to his room. She would take some couscous she had made just for him and she would watch him eat, sometimes, she watched him sleep and there was something pure and perfect about his quiescence that fascinated her and Rahila. That night, there was a strain between them as they sat under the kuka tree and talked and Miriam knew she had to get over it.
“Its another woman, isn’t it? Tell me about her.”
“What is her name?” she added.
They were sitting on the bonnet of the aging but trusty Toyota. The weather was a bit balmy and it was just five p.m.
“What is she like? Describe her. And tell the truth.”
“She is very beautiful, like glass.”
“More beautiful than I?”
“Of course not, she is beautiful in a different way from you.”
“Who is more beautiful, Faruk?”
“I respond to inner beauty. You are both very beautiful women.”
“Like the music you listen to?”
“Yes, like jazz music.”
“She is in Jos?”
“She is slim and delicate, like a Fulani girl but she is from the plateau, her skin is an unusual shade of brown. She has dark eyes and long hair. She is very beautiful but I cannot really describe her.”
“And you love her?”
Miriam was silent awhile, for a nail had been forced into her dreams, pushing them down into the earth.
“So why are you here with me?”
“I am running away and I am also trying to find something. I told you about my mother. This city is my native land and I wanted to know it.”
“You are the best of Bolewa. In a way, you are like my mother when she was growing up here.”
“But you are running away.”
“Something happened to Rahila and I in Jos so I set to find out my history because such things are important to her.”
“But she does not love you.”
“But she cannot accept that.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand that I love you while you love another girl who does not love you. You cannot accept me as someone to desire.”
“I will never lie to you.”
“That is why I love you and do not hurt.” The girl-woman said.
The breeze had begun to blow and the whether wasn’t as balmy as it wasn’t as stifling as it was earlier when they had arrived. It was getting late.
“I think you should go now. It’s getting late.”
“Faruk?” she said, getting off the hood of his car and wrapping her veil over her face again.
“I want you to walk me home. Just to the gate of my house.”
“Your father”, he asked.
“He wont be in yet.”
Her eyes said this was important to her so he walked her down the corners, she took the longest route, but soon enough they were at the gate of the modest house really not far away from Hajia Astajam’s.
They were just saying their “goodbye, goodnights” when a little red Toyota materialized out of nowhere, “my father!” Miriam gasped, just before a furious man jumped out of the car. His eyes smoldered with rage, that his daughter was carrying on with a man he did not know and that she had the insolence to bring such a man to his home. His temper was turbid and he seethed, seeming to grow darker than the gathering night sky.
“Welcome back, Baba”, Miriam said, for want of nothing else.
Her father cast a fiery eye at her and she wilted immediately.
“Who are you and what are you doing with my daughter?” he bellowed.
Faruk took it all in and he was not the little bit afraid, he had stared bulls before at the ranch in Vom and he knew that it all came down to balance and composure. He knew that raging as this man was now, he could make a friend of him as he had made a friend of his daughter because the same concern the father felt for his daughter would transform into reassurance once he knew all was safe.
“Answer before I visit evil on you!”
“I am Faruk Ibrahim. I am a friend of Miriam’s and I have looked forward to meeting you. She tells me a lot about you.”
“Meeting me? You sneak up in front of my house and talk of meeting me? You rascal! I have a mind to kill you right now.” The older man said, the veins on his neck bulging, his eyes yellow with anger though something in the cadence of Faruk’s words made him cautious.
Faruk decided it was time to take the offensive, for he had not been a poor student of the customs of Bolewa and how they related to a young woman.
“Kill me?” he said, keeping his voice low but firm “For your daughter? I have not dishonored your daughter or your name. Your daughter is a maiden and I am a man of this town, it is not yet even sundown. If you try to kill me, I shall have to fight you – and I am younger than you are. But,” Faruk paused for half a breath, considering his next parry, “May Allah forbid the occurrence of such a misfortune that I should engage unpleasantness with Abdulkadir Bazza, the greatest merchant of carpets and perfume without equal in Northern Nigeria on account of Miriam, his beautiful, chaste and well brought up daughter.”
“You are younger,” the older man conceded, “but you are not stronger. Yet, your words are wise and chosen with skill. God forbid misfortune between us.”
Abdulkadir Bazza was not as strict a man as he presented to the outside world, it was just that he was very concerned for his daughter and lived a considerable part of his day in apprehension that she would expose herself to some unsavory element and bring his displeasure on her. The children of too many of his friends had done that, hence his caution. But the young man here seemed a gentleman and not the rascally sort.
So he smiled and turned his attention to his daughter who had all the while been silent as her father and Faruk sparred, and said to her in a voice of mock exasperation mercurially removed from the indignation of only a minute before.
“It is sundown,” said the father, “what sort of well brought up maiden stands outside her house listening to the talk of men? Be off and see to dinner for your brave friend here will sup with me tonight”.
Miriam scampered away, hardly believing her ears that the altercation she anticipated would not come, that her father had taken a liking for Faruk and the manner of his words. As she went about her duties, seeing that food was laid for her father and Faruk, who had become the old man’s guest. She thought, with resentment, that her father had become fascinated with Faruk who could not love her, who loved a hardhearted girl called Rahilat faraway over the hills in Jos.
“Come with me, or will you not indulge an old man?” said Mallam Bazza, looking Faruk in the eye and noting that Faruk was amused but not overwhelmed by him. What a fine young man, he thought, they don’t come like this anymore and more’s the pity that.
The zaure of the house was very large and was filled with indicators of status. On the floor was the largest, most intricate Oriental rug Faruk had ever seen, more elaborate by far than the one in his father’s office in Jos. He wondered how many stories it could tell. And then there were prize ceramic figurines and plates of gold and silver behind a glass covered wall at the far end of which was the door into the rest of the house, concealed by curtains made from raffia palm. On the near end of the carpet was a single black three-seater sofa of genuine black leather and four cushions of brown cow leather embroidered with stylized Arewa signs faced a large television set on the far end. The walls were white and an air conditioner gave the room the coolness of early mornings at Zinder Ranch.
“Come, sit down. You are my guest,” said the older man, sitting down on the carpet, his back leaning on the black sofa; Faruk joined him on the ground there. “I notice you are looking at my rug.”
“Yes, they are very elaborate, very nice.”
“I had it made by my supplier in a little village in Hindu Kashmir, they told me a story one night and the next time I went there, they had this for me. The story I was told.”
“It is very fine.”
Two young girls came in with low tables, which they placed before the men while a third brought a tray containing a flask and coffee mugs. Miriam’s father poured him some coffee. It was very good coffee.
“What did you say your name was again?”
“And you say you are from this town?”
“I am from this town.”
“How come I have never heard of you or seen you before, and Ibrahim, I know many Ibrahim’s but I cannot find their faces in yours.”
“I was born here as were my parents. But I grew up in Jos. I came back to teach for six months at the Government College.”
“Hmm”, the older man considered, “And that is where you met my daughter. But why would you leave the city to come to this far out town in the Northeast? Did you kill a man or something?”
“I did no such thing.”
They ate their meal in silence. The main meal was balangu, a populardelicacy that is prepared with a year old lamb spiced and cooked in a small drum for half a day and then barbecued with more spices being added. The meat was soft and succulent, almost melting in the mouth. And delicious. They ate with their hands and when they were through the same shy girls cleared the plates without a word. Then they brought a tray of cold drinks.
“Do you want a beer?”
“No” replied Faruk, “I am a Muslim”
Abdulkadir Bazza opened a beer for himself and offered malt to Faruk.
“So, what brings you here? To Bolewa?”
“History, don’t answer me with riddles boy, I can tell you enough to take you a score of years.”
“I wanted to get to know my people. My mother is dead and my father hardly ever comes up here.”
“And why is that?”
“That is why I am here.”
“Why didn’t you ask him?”
“It was not the sort of question I wanted to ask, if he wished to tell me, he would have himself.”
By then they were smoking cigarettes.
“What is your father’s name?”
The old man perked up as if a needle had pricked him. Faruk was astonished, for the second time the name of his parents had induced prompt reaction, first with Dije and now with Miriam’s father.
Then the man smiled and Faruk was confused.
“And your mother?”
“Her name was Habib Ummi”
Faruk was shocked.
“Did you know my parents?”
“You are the Colonel’s son aren’t you?”
“Yes. Did you know my parents?” asked Faruk, again.
Abdulkadir Bazza lit another cigarette and drew it in heavily, exhaling slowly and then quashing it into the half full ashtray between them.
“In a way.”
“Tell me about them.”
“There was a scandal here years ago. You mean that is what you came here to find out?”
“Yes. What was it?”
“Its no use. Don’t you see why your father did not tell you? Sometimes there is no use unraveling the past.”
“But it is important to me”
“Because I cannot live with an incomplete tale. I never knew my mother; I was too young when she died. She lost her mind and died. Something happened here in Bolewa that caused my parents to leave and my father never to return. I want to know what that episode was.”
The earnestness in the young man’s voice made the older man sigh.
His thoughts went back to Bolewa during the war and those ante-bellum days, when they were all young together, when hope and happiness and beauty were still alive and well. When a whole generation did not have to forget an incident they could not come to terms with. And here now, in his own house, three decades later, this boy, a child of that event was here to make peace with the knowledge of its particulars. We run into what we run from. Every time and now. This young man was Ummi al-Qassim’s son, no wonder, there was something noble about him, and his father was Colonel Dibarama. Ah, the agonies of fate! He sighed.
“It is so long ago now. I used to work for the Waziri then when the affair happened.”
Faruk listened with every cell in his body, watching the old man trying to come to terms with memory, then Abdulkadir Bazza snapped out of it, opening his eyes and wishing it all away with a slick motion, the balling up and unballing of his fists.
“There is someone you should meet. His name is Bala maiAgogo; he is a retired professor and was a close friend of the Waziri’s son. He will tell you as much of your mother’s story as he knows. If it is not enough, I will tell you the rest that I know.”
“Where do I find this man?”
“In this town. But you do not find him. He is eccentric and one has to be careful. I shall arrange a meeting with him for you and if he is willing, and he will be, you shall meet him within the week.”
“I am obliged to you”, Faruk said.
“No, my friend, you are obliged to history.”
Three days later, Faruk showed up at the GRA, at a house just behind the palace of the Emir. It was a few minutes to six p.m. and the sky was gradually becoming overcast with darkness. His appointment was at six p.m. At two minutes to six, he drove in and parked his old Toyota beneath a guava tree just in front of modern neo-classical northern Nigerian building. While the single-story building was new, less that a decade old, the style was old, in the manner of the old houses that could still be seen in parts of the town, it looked like a part of a city wall, a sentinel gatehouse. At the top corners of the roof were stylized posts and just beneath it were conventionalized arewa symbols. Faruk wore a blue polo shirt and ash chinos trousers with black palm sandals. At six p.m., he knocked on the door of the house that promptly opened to a young Fulani girl of about thirteen with very long hair plaited in two long strands behind both side of her head.
“I am Faruk Ibrahim. I understand the Dr. is expecting me?”
She nodded. “Follow me.”
They passed through a smallish obviously disused zaure and then unto a corridor. He watched the girls back and she walked silently in front of him, his attention on her for she was wont to take sharp turns as if she was unaware that he, a guest, followed her. There were many flowers in pots all over the place and it reminded him of ‘ya Hussena’s residence in Jos. Finally, they entered through a door into a little anteroom and she stopped.
“Always keep your hands by your side or where they can be seen”, she said. “He is inside and is expecting you.”
With that, she turned and left.
Strange house, Faruk thought, taking a deep breath then knocking first before grasping the steel handle and pushing the door open and inwards.
It was a room of the most dazzling light, a library of books and cool air-conditioned air. He stepped in and felt the chill hit him, much as it had at Miriam’s house days before. There were so many books, book on the floor, volumes on chairs and tables. In the center of it all, was a halo on the deep plush red carpet at the center of that lounged a man, his upper body resting on a large blue cushion, a pen in his hand and his eyes engrossed in a book. The man wore a simple white jallabiya and a brown skullcap lay on the floor before him, just in front of a silver tray containing a white china service. Faruk stood just inside the doorway, unsure how to proceed, very conscious now of the whispers of eccentricity told about this man.
Almost as if he could read his thoughts, the man looked up at him and smiled a dazzling smile. He was a well-kept man in his late forties. He had deep, profound eyes that stared at the boy and made him uncomfortable for the first time since he had arrived at Bolewa. There was a quality of the ineluctable in the eyes that communicated the soul of a man who lived in perfect harmony with himself, it told Faruk that the man who had not even spoken a word to him yet, knew and had known for a long time that he would be there that day.
The smile was the smile of a savant.
And then Faruk saw how the abundant whiteness of the walls contrasted jarringly with the plentiful books, books that were not dusty and seemed as if they were read each day, all of them. And then the clearing in the center of which reclined the smiling man, Dr. Bala maiAgogo. There was a rifle hanging on the wall beneath a picture of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
“Come in, and sit with me. Pick up one of those cushions over there.”
The voice was sonorous, affected by Ivy League accents yet retaining the secure quality of a Fulani man speaking fulfulde. The man was light skinned and corpulent, he was losing most of his hair but it was still a strong black color, like his eyelashes, which were flared out unlike the hawk’s perch that was typical of Fulani men around here. Faruk sat down on the cushion and while conscious of the being appraised, he too noted the man’s fingers, fine, delicate, manicured. Then it hit him; an ascetic mystique emanating from this man suffused the room.
“Greetings”, Faruk said. The man nodded.
“I am Faruk Ibrahim.”
“I know who you are? Do you know who I am?”
“You are Dr. Bala maiAgogo.”
The man smiled again.
“There is so much of your mother in your face, and then, I look at you again and I see the face of a Dibarama. Come, pour us some tea, you have a lot to tell me.”
“I would have thought I had things to hear from you.”, he said, wondering this strange enchanted man, starting to pour hot water into the cups.
“The same thing,” the man said as soon as the aroma of Ceylon tea filled the room. Faruk put a cup and saucer in front of his host and raised his own cup to his lips.
Bala maiAgogo raised the china to his lips.
So this is the son of Ummi al-Qassim, he thought. It was a thought that brought sadness with it but long before then he had repudiated sadness in the face of life. The boy brought back memories of childhood and young manhood and those memories were beautiful to recall so long as one was prepared for the gloom of realization, that it had all been so long ago and how everything had withered in time.
He had become a historian, chronicling the passage of time in the same way time had marked it’s passage on his youth and the beauty he had shared with the friends of his youth in the far off days before faith had struck them all and dispersed them each to their personal prisons and tragedies. This boy seeks to liberate himself from the chain of account starting long before he was born by finding out it’s form and it’s composition. If only they had paused, as this boy paused now, to examine – perhaps things would have turned out differently?
“So, what do you want to know? Abdulkadir tells me you seek answers that I might have.”
“Did you know my mother when she lived in this town?”
“Yes, I did. I knew your father also.”
“Did you know ‘Usman’?”
The older man wavered just slightly but Faruk noted a quick dim in the intensity of those eyes just before they looked away from him unto the open book on the carpet. The Dr. looked up at him again.
“Who is he to you and why do you want to know about him?”
“I am trying to reconstruct the life of my mother, Ummi al-Qassim and she mentions him in her writings, vignettes of her life she wrote before her death which I inherited. She mentions him, it seems they had an affair and he broke her heart. I felt I could start from the story of their love.”
The story of their love echoed in Bala’s thought; the tragedy of that love.
He sighed and thought of the years past, and then he looked at the eyes of this boy and he knew his entire story, he knew that Ibrahim Dibarama had tried to conceal the story from his son and he knew why. What he did not know was why he had all of a sudden allowed the boy to come her, for he knew there were no coincidences in the Colonel’s doings.
But then, this boy has a glint in his eye; perhaps he was being too analytical, maybe the boy was just here as a result of a random roll-of-the-dice fate.
He finished the last of his tea and twirled his goatee thoughtfully awhile before answering.
“Usman was the younger son of the Waziri of Bolewa. His brother is the current Waziri.”
Faruk nodded. “But, where is he now?”
“He is dead . . .”
Faruk’s chest fell, and maiAgogo added
“ . . . and has been dead a long time now.”
“But”, he paused, “You knew him well?”
“Yes, I said I did. He was something of a brother to me.”
“I am sorry. Can you tell him about him and my mother?”
“I will”, said the old scholar, “I will”
“So many tales have been spun over the years about the fatal attraction that lies at the heart of your mother’s tragedy. Some of these contain snippets of the truth here and there while others are simply grand fictions dreamed up by extremely fertile minds. Such is the nature of Myth. I cannot say I knew all that happened between Usman and her for I cannot know. However I shall speak of the parts of the affair that I saw with my own eyes, for who can doubt the testimony of his own eyes? I will tell you.
“It started one morning in 1968. It was quite early in the morning, no later than 9 a.m., and I was trying out how best not to wake up. Half asleep, I heard a voice calling what perhaps could have been my name. It did not seem to matter so I turned over and tufted my pillow some more. The very next thing I felt was water being sprinkled on my face. I jolted awake with some curse on my lips only to see the grinning face of Usman bent over me with a glass tumbler in his hands.
“Oh put that away, will you!” I said.
“You see, Usman was my friend since long before I could remember, something of boon companion. I held my peace that morning for we were brothers and between us there were no ungodly hours or inappropriate times. We grew up in Zungeru before re-meeting after a year’s interpause here in Bolewa. Our friendship continued to bloom even though he was titled and I was a commoner, albeit a wealthy one. Those things were very important in those days, nothing like the pseudo Marxism ‘unequalable Equality’ movement we have now. My mother used to say we were the twin born heirs of the Chief of Mischief.
“We were always the ones to upset the girls and break the windowpanes. Ours had begun with the bliss of catapults and bird catching, childhood adventure of the sort that assuredly brought us home tired and dirty each evening. We never were any good at schoolwork either for our genius was just too restless for that settled drudgery. We fought against each other. We fought side by side. Together we discovered girls, leaving our own share of broken hearts and stale love behind. Later on we took up polo playing and guns, the country was in a distant Civil War then, and our chemistry grew. So I held my peace that morning and let him speak for he seemed rather excited.
“ ‘By Allah’ he said, ‘I saw her this yesterday. I was in the woods shooting with Mahmuda when I saw her. I felt the leaves rustle. I resumed my shooting and by the time I turned back I saw, Wallahi, I saw the most enchanting houri straight from al-Janna. It seemed the whole of the wood came alive when I saw her. She was smiling at me. I smiled too . . .’
‘Yes?’ I inquired, interested, amusedly I recall. Archery was his latest sport and each morning, he liked to shoot in the woodland just outside his father’s house not far from here.
‘. . . I shot an arrow in her direction, an excuse to go and pick it up. By the time I got there she had scampered off like a pigeon!’
“I burst out laughing, much to his chagrin. I wondered what had come over my friend? Poetry . . . Usman . . . it was too good a joke. Al-Janna? My friend waxing religious, now surely there was something of a joke here.
‘What has so amused you, Bala?’, Usman asked, sitting on a stool just by my head, I turned up with my palms on my cheeks and my torso leveraged on my elbows.
‘Oh forgive me, ‘ I said ‘She must be a beauty then?’
‘Ah’ my friend rhapsodized, ‘fairer than the most beautiful steed from Argentina . . . she is. . ” and on and on he went with superlatives.
“Such it was then. For the first time it seemed one of us had fallen in love and that one was Usman. Although I concealed it in my mind, I feared the sort of emotion my friend expressed just then. I knew being the carefree happy-go-lucky chaps we were that love if anything would cramp our style for it meant to me then and still does to this day a sort of delightful captivity. Delightful, yes but captivity nonetheless. The girl, her name was Ummi al-Qassim, could not have been more than fifteen. We were both seventeen.”
Faruk found himself being woven into the story being told by this man, lulled by the voice, the beauty of it but he started when he heard his mother’s name mentioned. The older man stopped long enough to look at him, as if warning him not to interrupt the concentration of his recall. Then maiAgogo continued.
“I granted that she was beautiful and told Usman as much. I also remember telling him that one ought to beware of beautiful people such as she for like fairies, the aljanu that haunted the riverbanks at twilight, they tend to flit away into the mist leaving one in the impenetrable sadness of hollow reminiscence.
All he said, I remember, was ‘Nonsense!’
He was in love.“
“Your mother was a very beautiful woman. The beauty of her body and manner was ethereal. Fair skin. Long black hair. Lips just right. I remember her so well. She would have done justice to any of the naiads described by the Arab poet Abu Nuwas. I could see that she too had fallen in love with my friend. Together they seemed like a pair of pigeons, playing on sunny evergreen fields. And they enchanted the entire town though they were very discreet for Bolewa was a place of modest people. I remember the times when we used to drive in my Morris Minor car, never once did they betray their dignities and no scandal was consequently linked to their names. Theirs was a love story, pure and simple.
“I have always wondered the way of women,” Dr maiAgogo continued, pausing as if to consider the knotty wonderment once again, and then he continued, “They never cease to fascinate me. Sometimes they are crazy with love for a man because he is kind and gentle and that is reasonable. Other times they want a rough riding chap who is anything but complacent. In those days, Usman and I were more of the latter yet we were always in company of the most attractive women, maiden and courtesan, from Kano to Kaduna to Maiduguri. I guess she loved him because he was so restless with so much passion and energy. In his own case I think it was because she was so patient with his intemperance and the self-effacing awareness that such a beauty loved him. I am not so sure now but I believe they were together for about two years. I think she was about sixteen when Usman left Bolewa.”
“What happened?”, the question jumped out of Faruk Ibrahim’s mouth before he realized it.
The older man smiled a sad sympathetic smile and went on with his story.
“I left Bolewa in the tumultuous years that followed. I decided that the winds did not forebode too well. As the clouds darkened in mini degrees I felt it was time to take the search for knowledge more seriously so I traveled to the United States to study Linguistics. I am a doctor of English now. In my time there the works Greece, classical lore, fascinated me. I read copiously of the work of Ovid, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Virgil. Also the work of the Arab poets. I never learnt of the pantheon of the Bolewa before the Jihad but I now find myself wondering if they had a goddess of strife as Minerva served the Romans. I recall the opening chapter of the Aenead of Virgil and how it was she who nursed strife between the goddesses and caused the wanderings of Aeneas. I wonder about this now because fate played a similar script upon Ummi al-Qassim and my friend, Usman Abdullah al-Waziri.
“You see, throughout the time they spent together, they never fell out with each other, as is often the way with lovers. That is, save for once. And just that once as enough for the Minerva of their fate. Years later, when I met Usman in Cairo, he told me it was over a trifling issue which then he could scarcely remember. I remember he had been quite angry about it and refused to speak to her for a couple of days. Neither did he entertain her emissaries. On the third day, the Waziri, his father came.
“The Waziri was a man I held in utmost dread for his temper was infamously short-fused. I remember him so well. He was a wild man standing over six feet tall with a great black moustache on his face. Usman feared him greatly too and it was relief to us that his affairs in business kept him away from Bolewa for long periods of time. In his absence the townsfolk heaved sighs of relief for he was a prince as disagreeable as he was wealthy and he seemed to have a quarrel with everyone. The Waziri rode into town with the temper of a storm. It did not help his hearing the news that his younger son was seeing a girl from a house he was not in friendly relations with. Aah, it would be impossible to describe the darkness of his anger!
“I did not see Usman for two days. Early in the morning on the third day while it was still dark, Usman stole to my chambers; this very room in which we sit, and told me his father had ordered him away from Bolewa. He was to proceed at dawn with the Waziri on ziyarah to the Shehu’s tomb at Sokoto. With suppressed tears we said our good-byes. Maybe in foreboding, he gave me his Woodsman rifle – that rifle hanging over there. I gave him a talisman I had always worn about my neck, which my mother had given to me. It is said that it was recovered from him in the end”.
“How did he die?”, Faruk asked.
“Not Usman yet, the Waziri. Eighteen months later, the Waziri died and was returned to Bolewa for burial that very day. Usman was once more free to return to Bolewa. But no, the script of Fate, the vortex of tragedy was already spinning in motion and gaining momentum. Another had claimed the girl he loved”.
At this, the man stood up abruptly, before Faruk could say Ahmed Anwar, before he could ask anything.
“It is sundown, let us have supper. Then we will return and I will answer what other questions you wish to ask.”
He followed Bala maiAgogo through the corridors of the house, thinking of all the man had told him. An important part of the puzzle proceeding from his mother’s memoir was beginning to clarify itself. So this was Usman, his mother’s first love. He could imagine him and how their love was, a sort of impulsive person. Muy macho. And here, in front of him, was a man who had equally loved Usman the Waziri’s son, who had been his truest friend. Something in the voice of Bala maiAgogo hinted to his maledicting the day Ummi al-Qassim had met his friend, yet, it was not the malediction of one who was angry but of one who was still sad after twenty years.
Bala had become an academic; he could not have known what love was. Faruk immediately saw the parallels with he and Rahila. He was intrigued by the story just told him and through the dinner set before him, he ate physically but his presence was far away, roaming conjectures and testing hypothesis with his mind.
Bala was also silent throughout the dinner, his thoughts equally as far out, exploring a past already sifted a hundred times; trying to see if there was something he had missed. For the boy here sought the truth and he would give him the objective truth without color, cadence or nuance.
It was all the older man could do in memory of the Bolewa he had grown up in, lost now forever. In memory of the youth of all those fine people, Usman, Ummi, Ahmed, Ibrahim and even this boy here, all of them mere strands in histories in which they had no choice because choice was not a privilege given them.
Faruk was thinking of the man of whom his mother had written-
“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. 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.”