Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Crocodile

As pickpockets go, my travelling companion was short on technique, but I gave him high marks for artistic merit, or maybe that should be con artist-ic merit. Wedging himself next to Kristel and me as we rode in the back seat of the Kaduna taxi, he presented himself as slightly deranged and more than a little infectious, as he proceeded to sneeze all over the woman seated to his right. If you’re keeping count, that’s four of us jammed into a space that should only accommodate three. Depending on the size of the commuters and their respective asses, four people can survive the fifteen-minute trip to the heart of the city by taking turns with their breathing and not being especially sensitive about where their neighbours place their hands.

Soon after sitting next to me, my new best friend started behaving even more erratically. The battle for seat space is usually won through the covert shifting of one’s buns, but this guy took the fight to a new level. He began to stand up and wag his rear end like it had spontaneously combusted. After the second time this happened, the driver of the van pulled over to the side of the road and ordered him out of the vehicle. Being well aware of how much the taxi drivers value the collection of their fares, I thought anything short of an armed robbery or projectile vomiting would be tolerated, but the door was opened and the passenger shown the street. Except he refused to move from the back seat, even when the other passengers joined in the chorus calling for his expulsion. Promising that he had learned the error of his ways, the guy settled down beside me after receiving a serious staredown from an irritated fellow seated directly in front of us.

With the door closed and the van in motion, it wasn’t long before the ass wagging started again. Daggers came our way from the rear view mirror. I started to become suspicious that the ants in my neighbour’s pants might actually be serving a nefarious purpose, so I reached for my wallet that I hoped was still there. Unfortunately, the tight squeeze in the rear end (of the van, that is) prevented me from touching it to confirm its continued presence in my back pocket. Finally, after another repetition of the tailfeather shake brought renewed complaints from the other passengers, the driver reached his breaking point and pulled the van over for a second time. There would be no third chance given. As my friend exited the van, I spun around to check for my wallet, grabbing my right butt cheek so quickly that I also earned a silent rebuke from Mr. Penetrating Stare, who had apparently decided there was still one too many freaks in the back seat. To my relief, my wallet was still there, but sure enough, the gyrations of the nearly departed had forced it almost all the way out of my pocket. Only the fact that it was overstuffed with business cards and hand-drawn maps had prevented it from popping out like an overzealous jack-in-the-box. Letting loose a sigh, I noticed the question in Kristel’s cocked eyebrow, so I let her in on my brush with the criminal mastermind and we laughed about it until we reached our stop at the market.

The attempt at thievery was notable as much for its occurrence as its ineptitude. Kaduna has become my home away from home….away from home, and despite its status as the capital and largest city in Kaduna state, it often presents the same safe vibe that Kagoro takes pride in. Petty theft likely occurs on a regular basis, but one rarely feels targeted, even when travelling after dark. In other respects, however, the city lives up to its name, for “Kaduna” translates to “crocodile” in the local dialect, and like the crocodiles that used to inhabit its main river, it has proven repeatedly in the past that it knows how to bite.

On the cusp of its centenary, Kaduna finds itself still suffering the emotional outbursts of a raging adolescent. Most of the conflict stems from the religious strife that divides the city, and in this case, the division is physical as well as spiritual. Though no formal agreement was ever drafted, the two major religions have reached a tacit understanding about where their adherents should live, so Muslims occupy the northern part of the city, while Christians inhabit the south. The line dividing the two may be invisible, but it is also palpable. Of course, there are those who choose not to recognize the recommended plan and cross the borders to live on the other side, but they form the distinct minority.

Such a divide wasn’t always in existence, but repeated clashes between Christians and Muslims led to the decision that living together but separate would reduce the number of incidents in the future. Some of the battles are infamous and have attracted worldwide attention. The most notorious of these occurred in 2002 when the Miss World pageant decided to hold its annual competition in Nigeria. A writer for one of the local papers covered the event and threw in a comment that not only would Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, have approved of the pageant, “he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them”. The Muslims in the country were outraged by this comment and a subsequent riot in Kaduna killed at least 200 people, injured another 1000 and left over 10,000 people homeless. An even bigger outbreak of violence in February of 2000 killed over 2000 people in the city. In its Muslim-Christian divide, Kaduna represents a microcosm of Nigeria as a whole. As in the city, Muslims are strongly represented in the North and Christians dominate the South. The recent adoption of the draconian Sharia law by many of the Muslim states has only made the separation that much more tense.

I can attest to that tension, although its consequences were much less severe on the day that I witnessed it. Attending a double wedding in southern Kaduna, I watched as relatives of the grooms and brides were invited to come up and say a few words to the congregation. The uncle of one of the grooms stood before the massive group of people and said that they should all thank Allah for… I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence, because the collective gasp from the assembled throng drowned him out. Keep in mind that I said this ceremony was in southern Kaduna. Mentioning Allah in the House of God is a definite no-no in Nigeria, especially in Kaduna. Luckily, the pastor leapt to the poor man’s defence before he felt the wrath of the crowd, but he was too late to save an otherwise joyous celebration from being momentarily overshadowed by much darker thoughts.

All of this is not meant to paint Kaduna as a dour, dangerous place. The city hums with life and it has a vibrancy that is both exciting and exhausting. Prior to visiting it for the first time, my only experience in a large Nigerian city was the time I spent in Abuja. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Kaduna is about as similar to Abuja as Rome is to Ottawa. Abuja attempts to restrain chaos, while Kaduna embraces it. Plus, there’s a place in Kaduna that serves pizza with real cheese and olives. In short, this Crocodile rocks, and I’m glad I’ve been able to experience it, even if I have to put up with the odd mugger (with an emphasis on the word “odd”).

Monday, May 12, 2008

The SHIN Awards

May 17th marks the halfway point of my time in Nigeria. With six months under my belt, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the significant events and accomplishments of the past half-year. But instead, here are some goofy awards that I dreamt up to commemorate the fact that I’m “Still Here In Nigeria":

Best Alarm Clock: A goat jammed itself in my neighbour’s fence at 1 a.m. and wailed louder than an air raid siren until it received a helpful push from behind by a security guard.
First Runner Up: Same goat, after it realized that it was now trapped in my neighbour’s yard.

Who’s the Boss? Award: I never thought I’d be discussing Bruce Springsteen in Nigeria, but a patron of a local shop specializing in pirated CD’s wanted my opinion of his work. My Canadian pride received a boost when he asked, “Is he like Bryan Adams?” Ouch. Cuts like a knife, doesn’t it, Bruuuuuce?

Posh Spice Award: Next to my windup flashlight and earplugs, the item I’m most grateful that I brought with me from Canada is my jar of garlic salt. Is it a salt? Is it garlic? Who cares? It’s saved me from more bland meals than I care to remember. Take my advice and pack it for all of your desert island trips.

Taxi Driver of the Year: On the road from Abuja to Kafanchan, the driver of the station wagon kept looking at me and declaring repeatedly, “Today, we drive to Canada!!!”

Cereal Thriller Award: Breakfast cereal doesn’t usually get me excited, but a box of Cheerios imported from the US may have been the best birthday present I’ve ever received. A two-week vacation from soggy Corn Flakes and oatmeal. Worth its weight in gold.

Most Disturbing Karaoke Award: One of my male colleagues walked into my office singing to himself, “I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…”. No, I don’t want you, baby.

Sharp Dressed Man Award: Arriving at the office in a brilliant blue outfit of traditional Nigerian dress, my coworker smiled when I asked him what the special occasion was. “My jeans were in the wash, man”, he replied.

Beat Around the Bush Award: Seated in the front row for a performance of Hausa theatre, Kristel and I couldn’t have been bigger targets if we had painted bulls-eyes on our foreheads. Sure enough, during the last skit, Kristel is pulled from the audience and asked to speak with President Bush on an imaginary telephone. Her berating of the lame duck receives a warm ovation from the crowd. A Nollywood star is born.

Leapin’ Lizards Award: Described in my Nigerian guidebook as “comical and colourful”, the agama lizard that had hidden itself under my towel woke me up faster than any cold shower. Throw in the scorpion and cockroach that crawled up my shower drain, and my bathroom could have been featured on Wild Kingdom.

Things I’ve Learned From Books Award, Part I: I’ve read twelve books in the past six months, anything I can get my hands on. Some came from the VSO library and others were cast-offs from those leaving the country. They’ve covered the spectrum from the very serious (Blindness) to the not so serious (Little Children) to the decidedly bizarre (Vernon God Little). Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything was a favourite, a science book for people who don’t know a test tube from an inner tube. Stocked full of amazing facts, the most memorable for me was the notion that objects don’t actually touch each other. According to the book, I’m currently levitating above my chair at a height of one hundred millionth of a centimetre, thanks to the opposing actions of the electrons in me and my chair. So, I can now take some comfort in knowing that the next roach that crawls over my foot isn’t actually touching me.

Things I’ve Learned From Books Award, Part II: According to Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

Between A Rock And A Hard-On Award: Hiking in the mountains on the outskirts of Jos, one of our French guides was eager to show Kristel and me a particular rock formation. When I asked him what was so special about this rock, he replied excitedly, “It looks like a giant erect prick!” Time to put the camera away.

So, those are but a few of the memorable moments from the past six months that I thought were worthy of mention (or at least made me laugh). Here’s hoping the next six months are filled with similar moments (but fewer scorpions and lizards)!

River Wonderful Waterfalls

Friday, May 9, 2008

Little Scorpion

(Sung to the tune of “Rubber Ducky”)

Little Scorpion, you’re the one,
You make me want to jump and run,
Little Scorpion, I’m awfully scared of you

Woo woo be doo

Little Scorpion, holy shit
I almost stepped on your stinging bit
Little Scorpion, you ain’t my best friend, it’s true

Doo doo doo doo, doo doo

Yesterday as I
Washed my face in the shower
I spied a little fella who
Made me yell “Aaaaah!” and cower


Little Scorpion, I’d thought you’d drowned
So I went to flush you down
Little Scorpion, you weren’t quite dead, were you?

Woo woo be doo

Yesterday when I
Tried bug spray to finish him
I found the little fella could
Run like hell around me


Little Scorpion, you’re finally dead
I dropped a frying pan on your head
Little Scorpion, I’m no longer scared of –
Little Scorpion, are there any more of –
Little Scorpion, maybe I’m still scared of yooooooou!

Doo doo, be doo

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Missing Girl

On Wednesday night, I’m about to sit down for another dinner of beans when I hear the mob approaching. Parades of people through Kagoro aren’t uncommon; usually, people are marching to celebrate their religion or a major holiday. But these voices aren’t praising God or singing Christmas carols. I don’t need to speak Hausa to recognize the wave of anger that’s coming toward my house. I assume that it must be a demonstration against NEPA, since the community has been without electricity for the past four days. Similar angry outbursts have erupted in other communities after prolonged outages, so it makes sense that my neighbours have taken to the streets to show their displeasure. The district chief lives across the road from me, literally a stone’s throw, so the crowd comes to a stop right in front of my house. The number of people begins to swell, as those trailing behind finally catch up to the others who have taken their position on the road. Angry shouts come from all directions, and a few of the people push their way into the chief’s house. Having confirmed that the mob isn’t here to get me, I decide to stop peeking from behind my living room curtain and find out what’s going on.

My front door makes more noise than a medieval drawbridge, so my entry into the front yard doesn’t go unnoticed. As is usually the case, a spotlight shines on me, though people are less interested in me than they normally are. I approach a couple of teenagers sitting on the wall next to the road and scare the hell out of one of them by tapping him on the shoulder. He and his friend have no idea what’s going on and just joined the crowd because it was there. As we talk, more villagers stream into the chief’s yard, until it’s clogged with people yelling at his house. NEPA still seems the most likely culprit, but no one is giving me any answers. Finally, one of the security guards for my house shows up and I ask him what’s going on. As it turns out, NEPA is the furthest thing from people’s minds.

Yashen explains that the mob has formed to demand some answers about a four-year-old girl who disappeared three days ago. She and her mother were returning from a trip into the Kagoro mountains when her mother, carrying food and other items, decided she couldn’t manage both her load and her daughter. Spotting a stranger headed in the same direction, she asked him to go ahead with the girl while she continued behind them. She asked the man to drop her daughter by a bridge that spans the river north of the village. After losing sight of the two of them, the woman met up with a friend and lost some time in conversation. Arriving at the bridge, she found no one there, and her daughter has been missing ever since.

Eventually, the man was located and he pled his innocence, saying he left the girl at the bridge as instructed and moved on. No trace of the girl has been found by the bridge or elsewhere. Word soon spread through Kagoro of the girl’s disappearance, but rather than contacting the police, who are widely regarded as both ineffective and corrupt, a native doctor was brought in the next day to find the girl. Native doctors, also called witch doctors by some, have considerable power and influence in communities like Kagoro. Described as having two pairs of eyes, one for the material world and one for the realm of the spirits, native doctors are often consulted when unexplained occurrences strike a community. In this case, the local native doctor was seen as the best chance to locate the missing girl. Blaming the disappearance on witchcraft, the doctor promised he would contact those responsible and bring the girl back, dead or alive - after receiving his fee, of course. He set a deadline of two days to produce the girl, assuring the community that she would be returned by Wednesday night. When the deadline passed without any sign of the girl, the villagers became furious and organized the rally leading to the present scene unfolding in front of me.

Where whispers of witchcraft begin circulating, people soon lose the capacity for reason and rumours become gospel. At various points in the evening, all of those involved with the girl on that day are identified as suspects in her disappearance. A secret cabal involving everyone she met is even constructed and blamed. Vigilante justice is as fierce in this community as it is elsewhere in Nigeria, so anyone suspected of a crime is immediately at risk of a beating or worse. Stories of people being beaten to death or buried alive in retaliation for a death are repeated throughout the country. As the rumours swirl through the evening, the mother of the girl is taken into the chief’s home for her own protection. The native doctor is also called in to explain what he has accomplished so far. At some point, the police are also summoned, because two members of the force show up and enter the chief’s house. Though seething at this point, the mob continues to be well-behaved and holds off on carrying out its threat to start burning buildings, an outrageous plan that few believe anyway.

Finally, after consulting all of those involved, the chief appears outside his home and addresses the crowd. He explains that the native doctor has been assigned the responsibility of finding those involved and reporting back to the chief by the next evening. Those whom he has identified will then be summoned to the chief’s house and ordered to produce the girl or they will be turned over to the police. In a community as small as Kagoro, keeping the suspects’ identities a secret will be next to impossible, so the greater danger faced by those involved will come not from the law but from their fellow villagers.

The next night, as instructed, the native doctor comes to the chief’s house and identifies the suspects. He points the finger at the mother and explains that she and a group of others are involved in the girl’s disappearance. I somehow doubt that he reached this conclusion through CSI-approved methods, but his word was good enough for the police, who take the mother into custody. Under interrogation, the mother confesses that she is responsible for the sacrifice of her daughter, but upon release, she recants, saying she was intimidated into giving her confession. She has yet to be formally charged with anything. No one else has been brought into custody. Somewhat surprisingly, the community’s reaction to all of this has been muted, and it appears that if the mother is indeed responsible, she will suffer no retribution from the villagers, as it is her own child that she has killed, and such matters are left to be dealt with inside the family and by the law, if it proceeds that far.

In the meantime, the little girl is still gone and is unlikely to ever be found, dead or alive. This is the tragedy. Forget about who’s to blame and whether witchcraft or the belief in it played a role. A child has disappeared as a result of neglect or malice and that’s a terrible, horrible shame.

By coincidence, I completed a proposal this week that requests funding from the Canadian International Development Agency to establish an Advocacy Centre for Children within the Fantsuam Foundation, the organization where I've been working for the past five months. The focus of the Advocacy Centre will be to raise awareness within the local communities of the rights of children and to lobby the state government to adopt measures already in place in other parts of the country, including the Child’s Rights Act that the National Assembly passed into law five years ago. Here’s hoping that the funding comes through. As this story amply demonstrates, children here need all of the help they can get.