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”).

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