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Ordinarily, I would have continued on my way to Enugu and only wondered what some brown huts were doing up a hillock when they should be located somewhere in northern Nigeria. But after pointing out these huts to a very indifferent fellow commuter, I was immediately consumed by wanderlust. I simply pulled out from where I was crammed at the back of a heady minibus and yelled at the driver to stop. Everyone turned around and stared at me. They continued to stare at me as I quickly disembarked and headed for the hill, matter-of-factly wading through the green coteau leading upwards. They must have thought I was off the deep end for just taking off in that direction, alone and on impulse.
Well, halfway up, I saw her, I mean the most beautiful girl in the world. She was walking ahead of me, probably returning from selling her nono or milk. She had slightly bouncing legs half exposed by a sparingly-striped white wrapper. This wrapper covered curvy hips in a graceful manner. One of her queenly hands was holding onto a finely decorated calabash bowl with a straw cover of rich tapestry on her head. She clutched a circular band in that hand also. Her few grey balls of fura or curd were packed in a transparent plastic bag which was itself partly covered by smaller bowls atop the big bowl. And her black braids cascaded about a nymph face that should command the seas to water distant deserts. Yes, these braids were of curly supple sheen and spotted carefully with a parade of milk-white cowries. As she turned to glance in my direction, large brass earrings jingled and sparkled in the sun, as did gold bangles and (I think also) cowries and the mottled beads on her smooth waist. Soft almond eyes, daintily carved nose and thin sensual lips filled my consciousness. Just then a rich Fulani smile and naked shyness blew away the hot sweat on my Igbo brows. This smile welcomed dimples that complemented her fine dentition out of which a gold tooth dazzled the sun and my awed eyes. Then she slowed down to study me and I instantly noticed she was at peace with the world, unlike those civilized commuters reeking from paranoia as they headed for Enugu. And as she waited for me to come up to her, even as the wind played on the teal camisole shielding her bold breasts, I employed the little Hausa I had snatched from onion merchants at Onitsha.
“Inakwana?” I asked, making as if I understood the full import of my enquiry. Well, it was something near the approximations of a good morning, though it was afternoon!
“Lafialon, Sanu,” she replied or rather sang. And her voice carried me to Mount Everest and brought me safely back to Africa and to Nigeria, atop a hill near Enugu, all in three seconds. We stared at each other. Did they say the Fulani were quarreling with the Igbo in Jos?
She said coyly, “Zakasha fura de nono?” (Would you take milk?)
I nodded for the opportunity of taking this milk I had always been curious, from a genteel point of view. She threw down the circular band and brought down her well-carven bowl to balance upon it. Then she squatted expertly and her flawless knees and part of her soft thighs were proudly flaunted. Soon she brought out a ball of fura, dropped it into a smaller bowl and poured some of the milk into it. She began to knead the fura with a small aluminum ladle and the ball gradually melted into the milk, thickening it in the process.
“Mei sunan ka?” I asked, not knowing I had made another mistake in my desire to know her name.
“Zainab,” she laughed. The fullness of her laughter was enough for me to contemplate human psychology. “Ba sunan ka ba. Kache Sunan ki.”
She had corrected me, advising me gently to use “ka” when referring to males and “ki” to females. I wanted to say I was sorry but did not know how. So I raised both my hands in acceptance, praying she would understand the implied apology, even though I knew that she had excused my blunder for my naivety in the use of the Hausa language.
Soon, Zainab brought out a special “turn-stick”, which looked like a miniature model of the frame of a turnstile. She inserted the stick vertically into the solution and began to rub her palms with its upper stem between them. As the lower stem of the stick turned in the solution, I immediately understood that the action was to achieve a complete dispersal of the curd in the milk by turning. And as she turned the stick, I imagined her silky palms rubbing an Arabian elixir into my mind – an elixir that would help me in the forthcoming task of convincing my sorry kindred of the dignity of the Fulani.
She began to sing a song. Without warning, a gush of happiness flooded me. Voice ahoy! My spirit set sail in the oceanic tunes from her throat. I joined her in singing the song, or rather muttering along, even though I knew not what I was singing. I was only content with her singing it on and on and my tagging along in mumbles. It was only when she offered me the bowl of milk that I knew I had to ask in my smattering of Hausa what it was all about.
She smiled shyly and said it was an epithalamium for her forthcoming marriage. I only understood completely what she was saying when she mentioned “aure”, which meant “marriage”. I must confess that I felt an anticlimax that I instantly became ashamed of and banished. I scooped the milk into my mouth with the small ladle and enjoyed its nourishing taste with my yearning tongue. It tasted much like regular yoghurt, but had a slightly salty tang for the fura. The small globules of fura my tongue ferreted out were joyously chewed by my ready teeth. But I was still curious about the song. She tried to make me understand something: the song would only be sung for the champion of a stick-fight among her suitors! I had heard about Fulani stick-fights and how stick warriors were rushed to hospitals. There was adventure in this, no doubt, and I felt I could fight too if a guest fight could be arranged for me. I wanted to fight, but I do not know why I wanted to. Yet another part of me wanted to make them stop such a culture. I asked her when the stick-fight would happen, as much as I could in Hausa. She said, by counting up to seven with her fingers, that it would be the week after. I wanted to see the man who sired her and the other inhabitants of the commune. So I gestured upwards, pointing towards the huts. Soon we began to walk that way again. As we went along, I brought out my wallet and fished out a five hundred Naira note and pushed it into her free hand. She refused to accept it by gently pushing my hand away.
We came upon a small cowshed and a gang of three cowboys walked up to her and started conversing with her. They held long sticks, had their hairs plaited like girls and had long swords in shiny sheaths held in place by a leathery rope by their sides. Their attire was mainly Dan shiki gowns and short baggy trousers. They were looking at me furtively and at her questioningly. Suitors? I stood aside like the stranger I was. It was only then that I began to feel a little unsure of my reason for coming there alone. Was I afflicted with ajija, the Igbo spirit of aberration?
She pointed at me and my heart skipped a beat. Then I noticed that they smiled and walked up to me. We greeted one another and they offered to take me along with them to the commune. My feet suddenly grew heavy, but I had to sustain my happy-go-lucky pose or risk generating aggressive responses in my hosts. I swaggered along with them, even making strange sounds as I tried to imitate Zainab, if only to make them laugh. Well, they sure did and that helped to loosen the subtly tense atmosphere. Zainab tagged along from behind. She was humming another song that spoke of rain and the beauty of nature.
We came upon a clearing. It was tidy and on its sands there were zigzag lines made by a millet broom during the sweeping. I noted that the sweepings were dumped at a far corner of the clearing. There were five round adobe huts with low doors. The men were gathered in a circle on mats at the front of one of the huts. The eldest man sat in their centre. They were conversing cheeringly and clapping intermittently. The women were in a mango shed behind a hut, plaiting their hairs and nursing snivelling children. Two girls were milking a cow at the far end of the clearing. The cowboys began to speak Fulfulde with the elders on the mat. They were all looking up at me and talking excitedly. They were in good spirits – for what, I know not. I hoped to anchor my façade safely upon the shores of their humaneness.
Still, I had a subtle fear of the unknown. One of them quickly dashed into the hut and when he did so my heart skipped a beat again. I was expecting a sudden twist of fate like the thrust of a dagger in the air for a crazy duel or the challenge to a stick fight. But he came out carrying a round straw mat. This he spread on the ground before me and, in Hausa, invited me to sit. Of course, I sat down in lotus position like an Indian chief. I was grinning widely. I gestured that I was curious to know their ways and impressed that they lived at Enugu in a commune rather than in the north. I also said that I was there to buy a cow! Now that was an impulsive blunder, back of a sudden fear. They became very interested.
As I sat there like an Indian chief, I was very much aware that I had only the thousand Naira in my wallet that I had hoped would lead me to Enugu and back to Nsukka where I had taken off from. The thought of dragging a cow down that hillock made me almost guffaw. But I held my peace. I was interested in creating a rapport between the Igbo and the Fulani by my single visitation. I asked to take a photograph with my mobile phone. They did not fully understand my request, but after I had photographed them and they saw the snapshots, they all became very excited. The Fulani were very good posers. Men, women and children clustered around me, posing. I also increased their delight by recording their voices randomly. Zainab seemed to have had the lion’s share of my generosity. After a while, the excitement became less and I had the opportunity of sitting on my mat again. Nevertheless, Zainab had my phone for a while and she kept on taking snapshot after snapshot, a simple task she had just learnt and become enamoured of. She only stopped when the eldest man spoke to her rapidly – I sensed he told her to return the phone to me.
When she had done so, the man turned to address me in smattered English, “Igbo man, we peace people.”
“Good! Good!” I exploded.
“We have many cow,” he said.
“How much is a cow?” I asked, anyhow.
“Eighty thousand,” he answered calmly.
“I will buy it. But I have no money with me now.”
Now I had to buy a cow. Fortunately, my cousin’s wedding was coming up soon, and I knew he needed a cow.
“Igwe of Igbo know we dey here,” the elder said. “We help him for cows. He give my daughter jigida.”
“Zainab?” I asked, rather impetuously.
“Yes,” he replied, slightly surprised. “You know Zainab name?”
“She sold fura de nono to me and told me her name.”
“Oh! Leilei!” He laughed. I laughed also and for whatever he was laughing about.
“What is the name of the Igwe?”
“He stay for Enugu.”
“Okay,” I concurred, very much aware he had avoided my question. “I will come next week with money.”
“All right.” He nodded.
I stood up to go. The other men appeared relaxed by my consistent portrayal of true naked curiosity. The old man asked one of the boys to see me off. I looked around to catch sight of Zainab, but I could not see her. I had to leave, and now. Just as I stepped into the path leading downwards, Zainab appeared from her cowshed. As if on cue, my phone rang. It was my girlfriend. I told her to be patient and that I was coming. My escort was not carrying a sword. And his stick was more of a friend than a weapon by the way he held it upon his nape, with his arms dangling from it. He expressed great delight on hearing my mobile phone utter such a sweet ringing tone. He requested that I take a snapshot of him and Zainab: an exclusive snapshot. He held her hand and she turned away her face. Suitor? As I continued downwards with the cowboy, I took a backward glance and noted that Zainab was standing dejectedly, unhappy that I was going. On impulse, I ran back to her and gave her a very disarming hug. I did not care for any watchful eyes any more, even if they were those of a suitor. She melted in my arms and probably for the first time in her life, she gave a satiated sigh. Then I let her alone. But as I came down to the waiting escort, she continued to stand there. I waved at her and she waved back. As we descended from that height, her figure got smaller and smaller until she walked back slowly to her cowshed. I felt a sense of loss, but I stifled it…
To retain the friendship of my escort, whose ego I knew was not at home with that hug, I had already begun to play all the tunes I had on my phone. At first, he was only grinning. Much later, he was laughing heartily with abandon. Soon, even he too would have to go back. I shook his hand and watched him go…
A week later, I talked my cousin into buying a cow from Zainab’s father. I thought I would see a stick fight, but the Fulani man told me that it was to be held in the north, many miles away. He also told me that Zainab had travelled to the north, waiting to move into the home of the would-be champion in stick-fighting.