The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Antebellum: Layers of Dust
Rahila stood on the verandah of her mother’s house, immersed in the aura of the morning. The cedar trees creating a fence around the compound swayed lightly in the breeze, dancing as if happy, as if they had lungs that filled with this philtered air. The sky was an azure blue with fluffy white cumulus clouds floating past in cheery abandon. A hundred birds in the cedars, robins, keneri, bluebells and their cousins bequeathed an already exhilarated morning with the gift of their song. It was such mornings as this that Rahila Weng Pam lived for.
She was still in her spiral wallpaper pajamas and her long black hair sat pilled in a high bun atop her head. The morning smelt of newness, that peculiar smell of dew and rain that comes rarely during the hamartan months. She thought of that odor as being the vaporization of the earth and the mist of the spirit of the plateau, and every breath she took was a rite of identification, of sublimation. When she inhaled she held it all in, not letting it go except for the promise of taking yet another breath. She wished she could bottle it inside her forever; she wished that the sun would not come up and chase it all away.
From where she stood, she could see most of the compound, the kennels for their dogs standing close to the gateman’s post, the hedge of prefects where she and Abba had held their birthday parties when she was younger. And then there was her mother’s garden with its water fountain and the large logs skillfully carved into seats and tables, there was the little hut where a man named Danjuma usually held forth grilling kebab and deli food those times when Mrs. Pam chose to give a garden party for her political friends. Each plant there, was, as she thought of it, planted by her mother and nurtured by her each and everyday. She thought of those times when the older woman would be shoveling and mulching, talking the language of rose and hibiscus bushes. And it was beautiful. Just after the garden was the garage. She could see her mother’s gray S500 Mercedes parked there, beside it was her own minuscule red Honda Civic. Abba was out of the house so often it never made sense for him to park his car in the garage.
She spread her arms out in salute to the faraway mountains for giving her a little bit of their presence, reminding her that they were as much sentinels of her as they were of her people and that all she needed do was to have faith.
She smiled; it was the beautiful smile of a girl who was in love again.
She had gotten his letter the night before, written from Bolewa. It had taken him a week to send his reply. In that week, she had died a hundred times from her anxiety and dread at what he would say. He had been in Bolewa for over four months; perhaps he had another woman already, perhaps that was the reason why he left in the first place, to go get a wife from his hometown. Her apprehension was like sand falling into an hourglass, a slow but steady accumulation of debris and stagnation; Sekyen had noticed it, so her mother. When her mother had asked her what was wrong, Rahila had laughed at her and Mrs. Pam was scared and for a flitting while she wondered if the girl had gone crazy. Rahila told her “You know why, mother” and had left the perplexed woman in the dinning hall. When Sekyen had asked her, she had burst into tears and told her everything. About the letter she had written to Faruk and how he had not replied and how she was dying from not knowing. She had burst into tears and Sekyen had accepted her into her arms, patting her back, as she would indulge a child. She had wept her heart out.
“You silly silly girl”, her friend admonished, “Why would you do such a thing as that? Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know”, she had sobbed.
But the reason why had come from her visit with Nabila, in something innocuous the girl had said. While they talked, she told Nabila of Faruk and the dilemma she was in, that her love and how it affected her identity and her love and how it went against her mother’s grain. Nabila had not understood the talk of identity; she said it was all foolishness and that if the trouble were that Faruk’s family refused him marrying a Christian girl then that would be substantive, not this identity. Nabila realized that not even the love of a man would sap the resilience of Rahila Pam; the real problem was with Mrs. Pam’s repugnance to the match. Rahila had told her that Faruk had gone to Bolewa and that she did not know if he still loved her, for they had had a big fight before he left.
Nabila had said, “From your talk, I think he loves you, he will return to you.”
So Rahila had returned and written the letter to Faruk, if he refused to accept her unilateral breakup then it would mean there was still hope for them, she could still dare to be optimistic that they would somehow get her mother to agree to their relationship. No sooner had she posted the letter than she realized how foolish it was. That realization set the down tick of her apprehension. She stopped eating. The coming detonation would be her answer from him.
The evening before, she had received his reply.
The Northeast is fine and I am in the most excellent health, my students like me very much and dread that I would have to leave them in barely two months. The weather is not as bad as Maiduguri because Bolewa is shaded by the Njimi mountains so while it isn’t as cool as Jos, it isn’t oppressive.
I have been finding out about my mother, my identity as you call it. She fell in love while she was very young; she was just sixteen and her love was fraught with tension. There were two men she loved before my father and the strain of it was just too much for her. I have been unable to find out what exactly happened but I will soon. I have been invited to see the Emir of Bolewa who is a cousin of my mother’s. He will tell me the parts of the story no one is willing to speak of yet. But her story is about love.
In your last letter I noticed some lines that were a bit unusual, you asked for advice about love. All I can tell you is that once you love somebody, you cannot unlove him or her; love is like a child. It really can’t be undone, not by the whole wide world and certainly not by weakness. That is what I think about love. And I love you. And I will continue to love you and you will continue to love me until the day you say you do not love me anymore and I look in your eyes and see you do not love me anymore.
On that day will we be parted and not before then, not for the sake of a universe of things.
Its hamartan season Rahila, we are both waiting for the coming rain.
That was why that morning was so beautiful for Rahila Pam; unlike Ummi al-Qassim, she could still immerse herself in the things that made her happy, without the spirit crushing guilt of how her intrusion had disfigured them. Like the mountains that guarded her, drenched with millennia of rain, Faruk could not be destroyed by her love for him.
One often wonders interminably if evil is hatched in the same way good is hatched, in the same incubator and if altruism shared foster parents with opportunism. This is so because the thinking man finds himself forever in the force field of contrasting currents from which he must wrest out his own identity. Yet, in spite of the centuries of Western, Eastern and African thought, to answer yes or no either way would either be simplistic at least or escapist at best.
The truth is of course more innocuous and hence more hideous than that. We like to think ourselves as being far removed from the Holocaust of the Third Reich and its sundry imitators ranging from Idi Amin Dada to the Khmer Rouge because we like to think that to be evil is a decision that is consciously taken by a certain type of defective or diseased mind, such defect or disease being absent from us because of our sophistication, our education or even our morality and ethics. Yet, time often shows that these fig leaves wither and we find that the same organic process of decay leads us down the road of the ignoble, cell-by-cell, fiber-by-fiber, and step by mini step.
While Rahila Pam remained in the cusp of her delight that morning, the underlying tensions she could not see were further enmeshing themselves surreptitiously, gathering the pressure necessary for a sacrifice of firstborn sons to the new Moloch. While the hills seemed to her idyllic and comfortable sentinels, in truth the bowels of those very hills boiled with magma so potent that it would be insuppressible in achieving its intent.
And just like the accumulation of magma before a volcano erupts, so it is that evil begins from a single impish thought and then grows to assume a destructive life of its own; and as with the volcano, the mountain itself is never the wiser.
“This is the last point at which we can terminate this operation”, the woman said, “Have any positions changed?”
It was a room at the Rail Station Hotel and there were five persons there that day. Sitting around the dining table were Mrs. Eunice Pam, Varak Ndaliman, Tyoorse Mark, Bolaji Ade and a man who listened and said nothing. With the exception of Bolaji, all were from the North Central. Varak was a Nupe man with the hard staring eyes of a natural agitator and it was he who was most animated and hyperactive, his whole body fidgeted as if he could not wait for the killing to start. Varak was a man with a chip on his shoulder and so had easily become a convert of Mrs. Pam’s. Following the failed southern Zaria insurrection he began to see the viability of violence.
Varak was the last of an old family that had been eclipsed into the Emirate of Gurara following the Kano Risings of 1902; his family of village heads had temporarily provided relief to the Magajin Keffi when the British wanted him for killing the Resident in Lokoja the year before. In retaliation, the British had exiled his father to Potiskum and he, Varak, was born there, the last son of a proud man without means, child of an impoverished prince. When his father died, the new rulers of the Nupawa did not treat his family well, denying them the titles of their nobility; the other houses had fortified themselves in such a way that he and his family became stateless in every sense of the word. He grew up impoverished and bitter and he never forgave his people for that shabbiness.
Tyoorse Mark was a burly and very dark, black really, Tiv man who detested the Fulani for the damage their cattle did to his lands; he still saw the Fulani as being slaves in a Kwararafa state in which he had been a citizen. He contemned them for the British having come to prop up Uthman dan Fodio’s caliphate at a time when it was already decadent, when the sweep of Rabih would have richly decimated them much in the same way their conspiracy had overthrown the Kwararafa and all it symbolized and had come to symbolize for him. He disliked their religion, Islam, the vehicle of the 1804 Jihad and spent his resources bringing in evangelicals from America and elsewhere to poison the mind of people with their ultra nationalist Christianity.
Bolaji Ade, wearing a Beach shirt and dark glasses was a man who could move guns and weapons across borders with the skill of a ghost. He really did not care so long as the price was right.
“I am behind this plan. I have set aside N15, 000,000 for the success of this cleansing. It is time a statement is made to let these Hausa-Fulani know that they may run the country but they have never, and will never, run the North Central. Ubangiji ne Allah.”
Mrs. Pam smiled. She looked beautiful. She could not have looked evil. She did not realize that even in her own book of religion, there was a story of a Persian prince who was married to a Jewish princess. In that story, a courtier had tried to destroy the Jews and he picked the date for the genocide by casting lots. She did not realize how arbitrary such a thing as lots were, how it could be this way or that way. She was too far-gone already and did not remember even the people she had once loved in the early days of her politics, when Solomon Lar was in power during the unfortunate Second republic. The blood of children would flow because of her and like the Kaiser long before her she could not see the end of her machinations.
“January 15th ”, she said.
The man with the long staff in his hands stood on top of a shamrock and looked out unto the fertile fields of central Nigeria stretching out in front of him like carpet of resplendent colors. He wore a long black caftan and a black turban on his head with the gold ring of a Fulani chief in his nose. It was a cold morning. He could see his herdsmen on their way to pasture his cattle, he had stopped going on the trail five years earlier and since he had sons, they followed the cattle.
The fields were rich brown as far as the eyes could see and farther than that lay the river Benue on its way to the confluence far to the south and then down to the mighty sea they said it flowed into.
The man, his name was Hodio Ardo, a chief of the Fulani of Guma, had seen the river many times, indeed he could smell it from where he stood but he had never ventured so far to see the sea made of salt. But he had heard of it. Some of his Fulani people had even seen it. His eyes were lined with the bequest of a thousand sun rays and a thousand rains, his eyes had acquired the experience of cattle thieves and rustlers and the tax men the central government sent once in a while into the backlands to try and tax the herdsmen. His eyes were those of a man present long enough to smell blood long before offence was given, long before machetes were drawn.
A cold wind blew from the fields and he turned around to go back into his tenement where his wives would have hot tea and paturi for him and where his son waited for his mission. He sighed. He was not a pacifist and in his youth, he had been as quick as the slickest in joining fights but as he aged, he could not help wondering what it was that induced bloodlust and stopped men from getting along with each other. He liked to think it was an evil jinn that visited once in a while to cause bloodshed, laugh at the fallibility of mankind and then depart for the nether regions again.
The central Nigerian plains is the domain of Fulani herdsmen and the Tiv husbandmen and over a period of a three hundred years, tensions over grazing land and water rights had sorely tested the harmony necessary for them to live together in peace.
The central Nigerian plains are also the richest and most diverse regions in the country, its sheer heterogeneity makes it all at once the most volatile or cosmopolitan, depending on the balance of concentrating and disintegrating forces. The beauty that had nourished Hodio Ardo was that of Eden, containing the temptation and the tempter, the flaw of paradise lying just underneath the surface. He looked at the birds circling above and faintly heard the sound of rifle shots.
Hurami and his men, he thought sadly, considering how the possession of guns so easily induces a sense of invincibility even in the weakest of men.
This confrontation they sought, he knew, would end badly for the Fulani, in spite of the guns, they were too deep into Tiv country to expect help from the other minyetti, definitely not before the government intervened. So, what would be the use of it all, young boys would die, their mother’s will weep, but no one would be capable of answering why. That was why he had called his son to see him and like a dutiful son, Jallo had left his affairs and driven down from Makurdi to the southwest and even now awaited him.
Hodio’s son, Jallo, was a typical sedentary Fulani, not anymore for him was the cattle trail. He had grown fat from trading meat to the far reaches of the Niger, to the land of the Ibos in the Southeast State. Jallo sat in his father’s hut, waiting in the warmth of a cow dung fire burning pleasantly in the corner. He wondered what the matter was.
“Peace be upon you father. Weti jam na?” he said, rising to greet his father as the older man stooped to enter the little room. It was a compound of reed huts enclosing sleeping quarters and holding lots for the cattle. It was a practical affair.
“Mbali jam na, bingel am. Peace be upon you, my son. How are you doing? You look well. Alhamdlillah!”
“I am well, my father. Alhamdlillah!”
“And how is your wife and my grand children?”
“They are well, my father. I got your summons and I said, something must be amiss, I must set out for Guma immediately and here I am. I see that you are well.”
The older man nodded, noting his son’s anxiety and the manly way he had expressed it, city living had not made less of a man of Jallo.
Hodio twirled his gray beard thoughtfully before answering.
“Let us have some tea and I shall tell you why I have sent for you. I am well, but I am not well.”
“Allah keep misfortune at bay.”
The older man poured the tea from a flask and immediately the little hut was filled with the sweet acridity of tchai. Jallo smiled and his father smiled also, sharing in that instant private memories of mornings spent in this same hut before the boys would head out for the cattle trail.
Tchai is savored so much as drunk and before swallowing a sip, the flavor of its effervescence is inhaled and enjoyed for that was a stimulant in its own right. They sat awhile sipping and savoring the tea before Hodio Ardo cleared his throat and spoke.
“I need you to go on a mission to Jos for me.”
“As you wish, my father. But why Jos, why so far away? What is the trouble that takes us to Jos?”
“A rascal is setting fire on his father’s hut.”
“How do you mean?”
“Hurami and his sons.”
“What have they done?”
“You remember last year there was this great to-do when his cattle destroyed the sorghum crop of Tyoorse Mark. You remember how much trouble that almost caused and how your father here had to deescalate the trouble that kangodo caused us. He is too hot-blooded, too stupid. Now he is at it again.”
“How do you mean? You mean he is willfully destroying the meat eater’s crops?”
“He did it on purpose the last time. Why, he says not. You know how precarious we are. We are deep in Tiv country and though the land is good for our cattle and the river is close by, eliminating the long treks of my childhood, I am chief and with the exception of Hurami, none of our people have more than five hundred heads of cattle. We have lived in peace with the husbandmen so long because I have made friends with them and have ensured the minyetti respect the rights of the Tiv to their crops.”
“Yes father, I know all that.”
“Hurami has gotten guns from somewhere and has armed his men. They shoot scare shots discriminately and I know it will only be time before he does something more rash and our hosts retaliate. When they do, they might not be so discriminating as to visit their rage on that rascal, they may take it out on your father here and on the men Allah has put in my hands to protect.”
“May Allah forbid such a thing”
“Allah forbids, but we must take our precautions.”
“Why do you want me to go to Jos?”
“There is a man there I wish you to speak to.”
“He has guns?”
“Ah, my son, no. He does, but I do not seek guns from him. I have written a letter to him, he will know my situation and will find a way of easing us out of this difficulty.”
“Who is this man?” asked the boy.
Hodio Ardo told him and Jallo was open mouthed in surprise that his father could know so powerful a man.
“Do you know him well, father?”
“I know him well, my son”. But Jallo saw the glint of anger in his father eye.
“I am sorry my father.”
“You are young,” his father said simply.
“When do you want me to leave?”
“We cannot have any delay. I cannot hazard how long the Tiv’s will put up with Hurami’s provocation.”
“I will need to let my family know I am on a mission for you.”
“I will let them know.”
“In that case I shall leave within the hour.”
“I shall furnish you with all you will need. Let me know when you are ready to leave.”
Hodio Ardo looked into the fire burning and prayed -because he was afraid- for the fire to come not to come. He cracked his bony knuckles and as if in amusement, the fire cackled with him also.
Allah protect us, he implored, Allah protect us.
“Tell my friend, your father, that he has done well by letting me know about this. Tell him that Hurami’s actions were induced from here and that he should look about himself very well. I will take care of this business from here. Give this to him. He will know what to do and no loss will come to us.”
Jallo collected the letter from Colonel Ibrahim Dibarama and opened the door of his black VW Golf, putting the missive into the glove compartment.
“Insh’allah, I shall be in Guma by tomorrow morning and I shall give your word and your assurances to your friend, my father.”
The Colonel nodded.
The young man entered the car backed up, waved one last time and then pulled out of Zinder Ranch unto a long journey to the farthest reaches of the North Central State where his father awaited him. When he was gone, the Colonel turned and went up the marble step of his house, passing the two sentinel ironwood crocodiles that guarded the threshold, his mind already deep in thought.
“Get Jamilu for me.” He said to the first servant he met.
A few minutes later, the security officer joined his boss in the dining room of the house.
“Sit down, Jamilu” the Colonel said “The lynchpin is Guma, they wish to set it all off using the old fault lines of herdsman-husbandman.”
“Religion” said the taciturn man.
“Yes,” Ibrahim Dibarama agreed, “The Fulani are Muslim and the Tiv are not only Christian but rabidly Catholic. Each side could be in battle formations in as much time as it takes to light a match.”
Jamilu na’Hauwa nodded.
“Have you met the governor?”
“I shall meet him again tonight”, the Colonel replied, and added, as if reading the mind of his security officer, “Our plans for containment will go on as we have planned them. I shall speak to General Hassan if necessary.”
“And your son? Do you want me to bring him here?”
“Let him remain. This will be a surgical containment and we need not complicate it. He still has a month to remain in Bolewa. Let him remain there.”
“I think you can begin to put your preliminary reconnaissance into operational perspective. Begin tonight.”
“That will be all.”
The Colonel stared at the retreating back of Jamilu na’Hauwa and he smiled.
The information Jallo Ardo had brought him was the best news he had heard since Faruk left for Bolewa and Mrs. Pam had begun her ruinous machinations. He knew that some would still have to die but by this blitzkrieg move he envisaged he would damage the wings of the disintegrating forces in the North Central and in the country, putting them out of the running for a long time.
The last time something similar happened, in Bolewa, he had been amidst the swirl and thus helpless to halt the madness. He had not even understood it at all; it had taken the death of Ummi and the reevaluation of the Civil War for him to understand it. But now, he was schooled in all the Janus faces of Disintegration and now, he was powerful and omniscient and he could force history to rewrite itself.
He thought of Rose Dakyen and knew that she too was playing an indispensable part of this dismantling of the disintegrative forces, working with the indigenous Christian communities of the plateau, gathering intelligence and finding out who the moderates were. He thought of her and all the loyal, simple people he knew and how much they deserved to live easy lives without fear.
People might still die but he was going to take the tension out of the identity question in the North Central State.
And, for the first time in many months, Ibrahim Dibarama did not feel old and tired, he rather felt like the dew he watched each morning clinging to the foot of the Vom-Bukuru Mountains where he had rooted himself and made his home away from home.
Through the window, Faruk could see the courtyard where his mother and Yaya Hussena had posed for that picture; the grounds had not changed in over forty years. He had been led up here by a dogari clad in ceremonial flowing gowns of red and green and black. He had been told to make himself comfortable.
It was large room of deep brown ebony panels and large, gleaming black and white marble tiles with a large French window opening into an elevated porch. The furniture comprised comfortable brown leather chairs done in some British style and the inevitable Oriental rug, shrinking the large room in a distortion of symmetry. There were pictures on the wall of young men on horses and in turbans, giving the room a very intimate “living” quality.
Yet the ceiling was striking.
The ceiling was suspended plaster-of-Paris and comprised a number of gold plated 12” squares with inscriptions in Arabic embossed in them. He was fascinated and stood up from his seat to decipher what was written in the squares. The ones on the outside rim held verses from the Quran and select hadiths of the Prophet written in highly stylized script. The interior squares, however, were different.
Some had names in them while others were blank. Then he realized it was a family tree. Four generations. The first name was “Suleiman al-Qassim”. It was the family tree of his mother’s family. Suleiman was his great grand father and he had died in 1837 AD. He had two wives. The strange thing about the list was that females were included in this dynastic pedigree. He entered into the list fully and soon he found Abdulrahman al-Qassim who had married Binta and of whom were born Zubairu, Umar Faruk and Ummi Habibatu al-Qassim. Died 1976 AD.
“You are looking to see if your name is on the list.”
Faruk nodded, even before turning his head to look at the voice that had spoken those words.
“Talaka ya giada sarki” he said, in Hausa, bowing low on his right knee while the Emir approached him and placed his palm on his shoulder.
“Stand up, young man, there is still so much you have to learn. There is nothing wrong with ‘talaka’ greeting the King so long as the suppliant one is the Emir’s feudatory. But you are not my feudatory and cannot be.”
“I am sorry. I have never met an Emir before.”
“You are forgiven. You have never met your uncle before.”
The man smiled. He was a man in his late fifties, slim of build with the clear intelligent eyes of a diplomat behind rimless glasses, he wore a simple caftan of light blue and were it not for the white gold embroidered cloak he wore with its golden clasp, Faruk would not have known that the man who stood before him was the Emir of Bolewa. The Emir grasped his upper arm and pointed with his right forefinger at a particular tile.
“Look what is written in that square.”
The square held his name: Faruk Ibrahim Dibarama.
“So, you see, you cannot be my liege man. The blood in your veins is blue, the same color with mine.”
“My blood is red, like yours, your Highness.”
The Emir smiled and it was clear that he liked Faruk.
“Come, let us sit.”
“How long have you been in Bolewa?”
”Five months now, sir”
“Five months, and you did not think to visit your relatives. Or did your father forbid you?”
“He did no such thing. If I had come, what would I have said? I have not met any of my mothers family before.”
“What would you have said? This house is as much yours as it is any of the boys who have lived here.”
“I am not a prince, your Highness”
“Yet your name is on a tile amongst the names of princes.”
Faruk fell silent.
“There are two types of princes. There are those who are born with history on their side, like your mother and you and there are those others who are educated as befits a prince. So, you are doubly a prince. And you forget that your father’s family has held titles in Bolewa long before the Jihad. How can you have been a stranger in this house?”
“I am sorry. Please take no offence, your Highness.”
“I think nothing of it. I hear you have been teaching at our school here.”
“Yes, your Highness”
“What do you think of the students?”
“They are very bright. I have been happy to teach them.”
“How do you think their performance may be improved? ”
Faruk hesitated momentarily before saying what he thought.
“It gets very hot in the afternoons sometimes, I have thought of bringing in air conditioners to keep the classes cool enough to study optimally. ”
“Why did you hesitate to tell me that?”
“I was thinking of giving some to the school when I leave in a months time.”
“Okay. Tell me about your father.”
“You know he still lives in Jos. He owns a ranch there and a couple of other businesses. And he is in politics; he has a lot of influence. He was in good health the last time I spoke with him.”
The Emir nodded.
“I knew him quite well, before he left for Sandhurst in ’57. He was much younger than I, of course. A tall, skinny boy I remember.“
“He is not skinny anymore but he is still a fit man. And he is the best father anyone can hope for.”
“He has to be. He has raised you well. I remember when he was made Major, in ’65 or so. He came to Bolewa to see his old father just months before he died; your father came in an Army Jeep with a driver and a batman. He looked so fine in his uniform. Your uncle, Zubairu was also in the Army too at that time.”
“My father does not talk so much about when he was younger.”
“And why is that?”
“I don’t know. I never asked him.”
“Your father holds thing to himself.”
“Yes, he does.”
“He wasn’t always like that.”
“I have wondered what happened to him.”
“Something happened to him during the war. He drifted awhile when it was over, finding his footing with your mother. But then, she died also and by then he had already left Bolewa and the people who had known him when he was young.”
“You knew my mother, what was she like when she was young?”
“A very nice girl. She came here just as the War started; your grandfather was then a part of the War Committee in Kaduna. She was very well loved, lonely at first. I remember her well. But then, I am her cousin and was much much older than she was so we did not interact as some of the younger ones might have.”
“Something happened to her.” Faruk said.
“That’s why you came to Bolewa isn’t it? You wanted to rediscover your mother. She died when you were will very young.”
“Yes, it is a part of why I came.” He thought of Rahila but it was not necessary to explain that to his newly discovered uncle, an Emir no less. He wondered if Rahila had gotten his letter.
“Two boys loved her, Usman was the Waziri’s son and there was an Arab boy called Ahmed Anwar. They were both about your age now and in a way they all grew up here together. That was in the years if the First Republic. They burnt my father’s stables during one of their rivalries and he banished them. When they returned they decided to burn the entire town. By then, your mother was married and I think you were born then.”
“But why was it such a scandal? I have been in Bolewa for many months now and I know we are not easily scandalized here.”
The Emir fell silent, remembering the unpleasantness of so many years before, how it had all seemed as if the entire town had fallen under the power of hashish, unheeding until the madness was done and Bolewa lay in ruins. He knew it was the weight of that which stacked so heavily on Ummi al-Qassim such that in her depression she had lost her hold on sanity. Even now, many years later, decades later, he found it hard to say it. But he had invited this boy here and he would have to answer him, his nephew.
“During their exile, Ahmed Anwar became a Christian and Usman joined a Salafist brotherhood. The vengeance they wrought on Bolewa was a religious one, brothers were fighting brothers, cousins were set against cousins of the blood, it was an evil, abominable thing those boys did.
“They turned their native land into a nation of loss, there is no one family in Bolewa that was not affected by the events of 1972. It was a Civil War in this corner of the Northeast, just coming after the national war.When it was all over, we could not comprehend the things we had done during the madness, the death that was wrought and the blood spilt in the course of that brief strife. Never had it happened before in the history of Bolewa, not in the time of the Saifuwa sultans of Borno, not after that. That is why no one speaks of it. Even today.”
The older man sighed, the way a prince is not supposed to sigh, and Faruk, in his astonishment and in the sudden clarity of what had caused his mother’s neurosis and death, he saw that this man here, his uncle, an Emir, was typical of the perfection of Bolewa because the realization hit him forcefully that only in Bolewa did there still exist and live princes who had social consciences.
They talked and talked and the hours spent themselves and gradually Faruk’s bafflement turned into knowledge, transformed by the magic of the Emir’s words, for memory is the philosopher’s stone that clarifies and corrects and guides.
Faruk said the noonday prayers with the Emir in an enclosed mosque and then they had their midday repast. The Emir requested he sleep at the palace that night and Faruk agreed. A dogari was sent immediately to inform Hajia Astajam that he wouldn’t be that night. Faruk met some of the children in the palace, many of them younger children, their elders already in schools as far afield as Kaduna and Al-Azhar. He met the Emir’s chief wife who said he had wronged her by not coming to visit them earlier in his tour of duty. She was a fine old woman and he appeased her with the promise that he would be more often and profuse thanks at the meal she had organized for him.
He was shown into a room where he had his siesta, the Emir having required his presence at five p.m. The room was one of high walls done in teal green wallpaper with miniature, hardly visible polygon spirals. The floor was covered with lush brown wall-to-wall carpeting and inevitably, a little oblong Oriental rug laid in the center of the room. There was a television with complimenting gadgets beside it. He realized that the room was arranged the exact same way his lodgings at Wuza were arranged and he was amused to think that he was in a the house of the lord of this town and that Hajia Astajam might not have been surprised at his not returning to the lodgings that day.
He had his bath in the en suite bathroom and changed his clothes, folding them carefully at the bottom of the bed and putting on a cotton jallabiya he found in the closet. The air conditioning worked just fine.
He lay on the bed and fell deep into his thoughts. Now, he knew why his father had sent him to Bolewa, of course it was about Rahila and him. But the lesson of the visit was as yet unclear. He still had questions to ask the Emir and he knew that there were questions that his uncle could not answer, those questions that were in the knowledge of Yaya Hussena alone, for the venerable old woman was the only one actor in his mother’s past who had the objectivity and relative remoteness from involvement to afford her a full understanding of the big picture. He knew that this same room where he lay had been the room of Ummi al-Qassim when she had been a little girl before she grew to know affection and learn the sad dialectic of desiring and loving.
And Rahila, she must have gotten his reply by now, how right she was, how incomplete his life would have been without coming here to Bolewa and learning all this personal, private history from the lips of Abdulkadir Bazza, Bala maiAgogo and the Emir! He felt a stirring in his sides, in his mind and with it a calmness he had not had when he had been banishing history and identity to unimportance, a confidence so complete he had never dared think of any man who possessed it.
He thought of how ignorance is like an open wound, as the Shehu Uthman dan Fodio had said, and how only knowledge can salve it, making its tissues heal into a comprehensive beauty. Faruk knew that a little of Ummi al-Qassim’s story lay with Dije, the beautiful sad woman teacher, and he resolved to see her as soon as he could.
He knew that his father, Ibrahim Dibarama, was giving him a sounding in the underlying contradiction of love, of his peculiar love for Rahila Pam, and that he was, as all times, within a continuum from which he could emerge only by an exegesis of the histories of Usman Waziri, Ahmed Anwar and his mother, Ummi al-Qassim.
Faruk felt a little hand touching his temple, and he broke out of his deep sleep, he had not realized he had slept, not even how long he had been gone. But he did feel rested, he felt free, like a blank slate. He opened his eyes, it was a little girl of about ten he had met earlier in the day but he could not recall her name.
“Iya Faruk, the Emir has asked that you be with him by five o’clock.”
“Okay” he said, it was about a quarter to five, “I will be there. What’s your name again?”
“Samira”, she said, and he remembered she had been a giggler for even now her mirth overwhelmed her. He smiled.
“Thank you Samira”
Faruk yawned and got up, stretching himself before going to the bathroom and running cold water over his face. He emerged five minutes later and put on another cotton jallabiya from the cupboard, putting the sweat stained one he had slept in into a large purple, plastic basket he had been shown.
He stepped out of the room and found a stocky well built young man in the black caftan uniform of a dogari apprentice waiting for him just outside the door.
“I hope your highness has rested well?” the young man inquired and Faruk was temporarily astonished at the attribution before he got his composure back. Did this young man notice that? What did he think of it, Faruk wondered, about this way a man can sleep a commoner one night and wake up to be acclaimed a prince?
Nothing in all the republicanism of his father could have prepared him for all this and yet, Ibrahim Dibarama had lived his early life as one of the gilded citizens, in a house much like this one with the acquaintance of the nobility of Bolewa as a given. And in a way he was just a little bit ashamed of, Faruk acknowledged it felt good to be called “Your highness.” What had the Emir said, ‘that princes are either born or educated’, well, even if he, Faruk, had not gotten used to being born a prince, there was no harm in bearing that toga as regards the education of his mind now was there?
But, it still tugged at his heart. If being a prince didn’t mean a sort of assumed superiority over other men, and that thought was quite at odds with his plebian though not necessarily anti-monarchist upbringing. There were really no anti-monarchists in Nigeria; there were just too many kingdoms.
“Yes,” Faruk replied, “I have rested well. Will you take me to the Emir?”
“That is why I am here”, the boy said and with a low bow, he turned and Faruk followed him through many corridors.
He was being led deeper and deeper into the palace for he noted that the air had become much cooler and the walls narrower. The adobe walls were done in a deep but cool aqua green shade and the low ceiling were lighted every two feet by a fluorescent light stick giving a very beautiful sheen to the walls. The coolness oozing from the old walls had the effect of reducing the tempo of thought to the point where deep introspection and profound speculation came with the ease of a smile.
They stopped at a large door made of some heavy looking brown wood; they stopped just long enough for Faruk to scan the scene depicted on the panel. It was a hunting scene that seemed to him the work of a master, there was an Emir and his men gaining on an entrapped lion, their bows and arrows poised for the final fatal thrust. The faces of the Emir and his party were so lifelike that one could clearly imagine having met them somewhere sometime someplace only last week. On the two lateral sides of the door were many miniature symbols chief amongst them being the chameleon and the metaphysical spiral arewa sign. At the top of the door was a long inscription in Arabic but Faruk did not have time to read it for just then, the young man knocked the door and turned to him.
“His Highness is inside and he waits for you.”
Then the dogari bowed and floated away.
Scarce had this happened that the door opened inwards for such had been the mastery of wood that actually there were two panels and not one as he had thought.
“I see you have rested.”
“Yes, thank you for your hospitality, your highness”
“Think nothing of it”, the other dismissed.
The Emir was alone in the room save for the dogari who had opened the door to let Faruk in.
The older man was reclined to Faruk’s left on a chaise lounge of deep blue fabric and rosewood at the end of a flowery gray Oriental carpet. The room, like Bala maiAgogo’s room, was a library, holding a lot of books; though, unlike at the scholar’s, these were neatly arranged into low shelves. The walls were in the same aqua blue and the room suffused with light; a large screened LCD television hung from the wall beside which Faruk stood. Faruk noticed there were two closed windows and a number of little gratings at the top of the walls, letting in the cool air; the ceiling was cantilevered, divided equally into four parts.
“Sit down. Sit down right here beside me. You are wondering about this house aren’t you? What are you thinking?”
“It is striking”, replied Faruk, sitting beside his uncle, his back resting on the chaise lounge. He had already reconciled himself to the others uncanny ability to preempt his thoughts. It must have something to do with having heard so much from so many men with just as many motives - one becomes skilled at reading men, Faruk thought.
“I mean in the sense of beautiful. I have never seen anything quite like this and cannot trust myself with adjectives, striking is what comes to my mind. I have of course seen pictures of the palace of the Zaggawa Emir at Zaria. I have never seen it though, really.”
The Emir smiled.
“I can see you are also skilled with the nuance of speech. Your mother was like that also, quite sensitive to the hidden shade in all things. Yes, this building is unlike the place where you rested for some hours, the room where your mother used to live before she married and left us, for good as it turned out. This is the very heart of the palace and women are not allowed here.”
“It was started by my grandfather, your great grandfather Suleiman soon after he won this Emirate”, his uncle continued, ”and you mention the Emir’s palace gate of Zazzau. You are right. The same man, an Arab master builder called al-Bakri whom the historians and ulama of the Central Sudan have called danMaigini, built this room, and the external gates. He built a number of houses for the Fulani nobility in Hausaland but this was his last commission. Some of his family are still in Zaria but he, he died here.”
Faruk looked at the Emir in askance and the older man smiled his benevolently, turning his head ever so lightly as if to shrug off what he was about to say.
“Suleiman al-Qassim had him killed just after he finished the gate.”
“Why?” Faruk exclaimed.
“al-Bakri wanted to leave and your great grandfather could not bear to have another house built for some other Emir that would perchance rival his own. So, the Arab died. You must remember, of course, that this did not happen a decade ago, back in the 1820’s men, even and especially conqueror Fulani rulers like our ancestor, were not as enlightened as their descendants today. Surely, you would not have killed al-Bakri, would you?”
Faruk sighed a no.
“Have some dates”, the Emir said, taking a platter of dates and Arab raisins from a stool beside his head and placing it in front of his nephew who picked some and popped them into his mouth. They were succulent and wonderful.
“Tell me, uncle, why Bolewa is so different?”
“How do you mean ‘different’?”
“I have visited many towns in Arewa but there is a different ambience here, I can’t really describe it, but then. This Emirate has more Christians and foreigners than any other I have seen yet there is no strife, I don’t know, there isn’t even the concealed resentment I have seen in so many places between the cultures and religions I have found here”
“But you forget the story of your mother and the two men she loved.”
“I mean in spite of that. What I mean is that there should be a residue of that fire still burning somewhere beneath the surface here, but, I don’t even see ash, think less a flame.”
“Bolewa is a different sort of Emirate. Suleiman al-Qassim got his flag from Caliph Bello, son of Uthman dan Fodio, but his influences were not those of Sokoto or Gwandu.
“Suleiman was a soldier for the Saifuwa sultans of Kanem-Borno before he fell out with them and fled here to the southern tip of Borno. He lived just in a village just south of Kukawa and he had a lot of gold for his father had been in charge of the Mai’s fortified trading port in the bahr al-Ghazal in the modern state of Sudan. His influences, though he was a soldier, were from a Zaghawa scholar named Hakim who instilled in him a respect for the Turkish mevlevi tradition, which I am sure, you know is not Sunni Islam. So while he remained a Sunni, he was partial to his teacher Hakim and not dan Fodio.”
“The jihad in Bolewa occurred fifteen years after the last one in Bauchi and what really happened was Suleiman al-Qassim’s usurping of the dwindling power of Borno over the Margi people amongst whom he lived. El-Kanemi had not yet risen but it was obvious that the Saifuwa were in decline. His was a political jihad, the local nobility simply acclaimed Suleiman Emir. He became Emir not because he had bested them in battle but because his wealth guaranteed them protection, not from the Borno sultans but from rising power of Rabih whom they still feared.
“Suleiman ruled almost twenty five years before he died and the mevlevi Sufi tradition of his tutor Hakim together with the manner of his ascendancy made him quite predisposed to whatever the Margi and all the other indigenous tribes did, so long as they did not obstruct Islam or become rebellious. The effect was that by the turn of the century Bolewa had Christians as well as pagan maghuzawa and we saw these many men as merely cultural but not religious differences. It is the same today.”
Faruk was beginning to understand something.
“You mean then that the event which my mother is linked in was an aberration?”
“Precisely. And there was a context. Sardauna Bello was the head of the Northern People’s Congress in the First Republic and his altruism and conservatism, coupled with the fact that he was the son of a Sultan of Sokoto gave him great power in Northern Nigeria. But his power was not universal. Within the NPC, there were factions, an example of which was Aminu Kano’s talakawa NEPU movement of the underclass. Bolewa was not insular from the rest of Northern Nigeria.”
“Tell me about the political factions in the First Republic.”
“The biggest faction was called the ‘radical republicans’. I was a bit older than that crowd of young men but I did find them interesting even if a mite idealistic, shockingly idealistic in a way I must say. As I said, the Sardauna did not have absolute control of the North. The arrowhead of the republican bloc was Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister. Primarily, it included the merchant classes but in Bolewa, many of the fine young men, men like your father, belonged to this faction. They adored the Prime Minister and though they were willing to remain within the conservative NPC Party wagon of Sardauna Bello, they were not exactly partial to the Fulani aristocracy that followed the collapse of the Hausa states. Many of the fine young men from many ruling houses were republicans; they believed that the caliphate was an anachronism, even then. There were just so many ideas flowing all around. Nkrumah, Azikiwe, the Civil Rights wind from America. The republican bloc was essentially pan-africanist and saw the dismantling of the Northern Nigeria Trading Company as an acceptable price towards African brotherhood.”
“My father was one of them?” Faruk asked, thinking of the picture of Tafawa Balewa his father kept in his office and the reverence the Colonel showed each time he looked at it. So that was where it came from, a memento from youth.
“Yes he was”
“And it all ended in 1966”
“Yes, and then there was war.”
“Your father and many of those soldiers, the officers especially, did not go into that war for the sake that the Premier had been killed, no, it was the killing of their hero, Balewa, that stoked their hearts.”
“For another generation, it was the killing of Murtala Muhammad”
“Yes,” agreed the Emir, “But, like the Civil War itself, that is a story for other historians more competent than I. ”
The spontaneity of the moments were not lost on Faruk, that he would be sitting here in the heart of a house built by his great grandfather, sitting with his uncle, exhuming history, seeing history for the first time in the way Rahila saw it, as an organic process he, as she, was a part of. He realized what he had never realized before, that history had a use and that history must have a use. The pieces of many things, innocuous incidents in his life, began to fall in place and though he did not yet get the big picture of his life and the life of his mother and father, even of his love for Rahila Pam, he was aware that there existed a big picture that could resolve itself gradually and that people could resolve themselves into determinedly. The first was history, he knew, and the second was identity.
“That is what made the actions of Usman ibn Waziri and Ahmed Anwar so terrible a blight in the memory of this town. When it was all over, everyone, Christians, Muslims, pagans - all were shocked about the killing that they had fostered in those few hours. And in a way, that is why it was easy for us to successfully will ourselves to forget, because indeed, that incident was an aberration that had to stay an aberration. Now you have come to remind me of all those years ago.
“But I do not recall those things bitterly. We cannot really know what we do or what we do not do. I think your mother and the Waziri’s son and the Arab were victims of their own fates and Allah alone writes fate. Who knows? We are in the grip of forces we cannot describe and cannot control, my boy, and all we can do is to never abdicate our conviction that we are the captains of our destinies, let fate be what it will. And that, is of course, why you are here.”
There was a cadence in the Emir’s voice that made Faruk look up. The old Emir smiled at him and something in the warmth of it made Faruk smile also. And it seemed then as if a sunrise, breathtaking in all its beauty and majesty and magic, had illumined the ancient walls of that room such that Faruk felt as if he were a different person altogether as he stepped out, for the first time into his own promising and glorious dawn.
The next evening, when it was time for Faruk to leave, he went around palace, greeting all his extended family, the Emir’s wives and the little collateral children, thanking them for a gift whose worth he alone could properly esteem.
“You will still be here during the festival wouldn’t you?” the Emir asked.
“Yes”, Faruk replied.
They were standing at the balcony he had glimpsed the day before, where Ummi and Hussena had taken that picture thirty years earlier, “I will still be around then.”
“And you will come and see us before you return to Jos?”
“I will. You are my family.”
The Emir laughed with a smile of delight in his eyes at Faruk’s answer.
It was clear to the younger man that he would make everybody happier if he had decided to stay longer or move in to live in this house. But of course, he couldn’t, there were other people to consider.
“You will stay with me on the podium during the festival, would you like to ride a horse?”
“No, Your Highness, maybe some other time.”
“I have a friend, a ‘commoner’, and I would like to see the durbar from the public stands.”
“The perfume merchants daughter?”
“She is my friend.”
The Emir nodded and looked into Faruk’s eyes; so this was the future of al-Qassim? Suleiman would have been overjoyed that such a boy as this was his descendant. Brown eyes, the heart of a true prince, not the rascals and imbeciles being turned out by most ruling houses in Northern Nigeria. Alas that this boy could not one day rule Bolewa, the Emir sighed, knowing that the boy would not do so –accept the prisontude of kingship- even if he stood in line to.
Faruk left the room and even as he entered his car and drove away, he could still feel his uncle’s eyes looking after him from the palace mezzanine until he took the first turn and headed back into Wuza, unto Hajia Astajam’s lodgings, and Miriam Bazza.