A reported tale of a man who looks beyond apparent differences in his relationships with others.
I called him Masser. Some called him Kofas the same way they called the lot of visiting baby soldiers who always liked to wear white T shirts underneath their khaki uniforms and always looked the same regardless of whether they were male or female. Others, mostly the students who were his friends, called him Namdee. I always heard them on most mornings as they hurried past his quarters to the college orchard where they often went to water the growing Mango and Orange trees they were assigned to calling out ‘Dokto Namdee Ozikwe’ as a morning’s greetings. I called him Masser because it was what we called the white bosses in the company where I had worked as a growing man. The company had been in Lagos.
Masser was quite young. He had fair skin with thick dark hair. He wore spectacles and spoke his own turanci, his own English easily through his nose and barely moving lips. They said he went to a school in the white man’s land. It was how they taught you to speak over there. I remember hearing gossips that even the college provost found discussions with him cumbersome and always required the ready assistance of Mallam Isa, the most senior and competent English lecturer -which I also heard didn’t help much- whenever the occasion for a conversation with Masser arose.
Masser was assigned to teach the students in the lecture area and was also put in charge of the college library which stood very close to the school gate. From my work post, I often laughed at the thought of the students -who were largely from rural communities like myself- trying to keep up with his conversations in the class halls.
The college sat on large acres of land just outside Bauchi town and conversations outside and inside the premises were conducted mainly in Hausa. A lot of us never learnt to speak much English and this never posed an issue until the college ran short of Mallams and began accepting the Kofas from the government. That was when most of the remaining senior staff members started to complain. They said it was because the khaki wearing bunch always disregarded the traditions of the community. Because they always caused problems. I believe it was because they were never able to speak as much good English as the Kofas.
We lived in the junior staff quarters in the college compound; two rows of eight identical bungalows that faced each other and had washed out walls so bad it was hard to tell what colors had formerly coated them. Masser’s bungalow was at the edge, first from the right; the one reserved for Kofas. It was directly opposite the one in which I lived with my family. They called me Senior Security Officer in the college. I was a gateman
Masser lived alone. When he first arrived, he had come with two others -both of them females-. These disappeared one after the other in the following months. In those early days after the departure of his counterparts, Masser spent most of his time by himself. I often watched from the spaces in the dried millet stalks tied together to form a fence around my bungalow as he sat on a wooden stool in front of his building and smoked cigarettes while looking through books. And Masser really liked to smoke cigarettes. I would usually ask him, after we had begun to spend the days together and talk more often, ‘Cigare ya fi abinci? Is it better than food?’ To which he would reply ’Baabu. No. Ba ya fi abinci. It is not.’ And then he would light another stick almost immediately as though to say ‘I just lied.’
It was the cigarettes that got me to notice him at first and although I never grew to support the habit, I realized that I soon got used to sitting on my mat laid underneath the heavily branched eucalyptus tree bordering our houses over a bowl of Tuwo and watching him blow clouds of purple haze into the skies. I liked to think that I could see his thoughts as he smoked. The picture he created was serene. As though smoking was made uniquely for his kind. A meditative kind. Like the white Massers in the company where I had worked in Lagos.
Most of us indigenous workers in the college were allowed small parcels of land leased out to us in the far edges of the school property for the purpose of crop cultivation. I grew groundnuts and millet on my parcel. It was at the end of one of the harvesting days that I sent a bowl of groundnuts through Ibrahim, my eldest son to Masser. I watched from the spaces in the millet fence as his face lit with a smile. Minutes later, he was at the entrance of my compound smiling more and vigorously signing his thanks amidst his incoherent attempts at conversation. My repeated response was ‘Tank you. Tank you.’ like I had learned in Lagos. It was the first time we ever spoke to each other.
Masser was nice. Everyone said it. On wheeling my bicycle home from my work post most days, my children would run up to me holding up naira notes which he had given them. Kudin minti, money for sweets, they called it. Among the students of the college also, I heard of Masser’s kindness; they spoke of the ease with which he gave marks in class tests and assignments; the patience with which he attended to and offered explanations to their academic complaints; his ability to initiate an amiable ambience wherever he went. Even colleagues at the college gate sought the opportunities to throw banters and engage in conversations -which would often end up in chaotic laughter over the inability of both parties to completely understand each other- with him.
In the space of three months, his became an anticipated presence in the college. He was a fast learner and soon became conversant with the essentials in language and culture of the environment. He wore a djalamia more often and with more comfort than he wore his baby soldier uniform. Our increased chitchats bore lesser hand signals and more ease and laughter. I learned that he wanted to become a Soja Ruwan, a naval officer. And that he didn’t have a Mata, a wife; which to me was a shame because here, we got married as soon as the hairs between our legs began to sprout and thus were able to learn early enough to be accountable for our families. My children preferred to crowd his quarters, squatting before his television whenever he was home and refusing to heed calls for meals. They said they preferred his strange food to the ones their mothers made. And they filled my home with the noise of the turanci they learnt from Maser: Awayoou, Fyme (How are you? Fine); wam, pime sepum, seez… (Distorted numerical counting) although they had never been to school.
Masser liked to join the students as they hunted the numerous snakes that crept about the school compound especially with the approach of the hot dry season. I once came across him holding and admiring the dried skin of a black cobra. He smiled and lifting up the limp mass of scales, said ‘Maciji. Baba Maciji. Big Snake.’ My uncontrolled laughter was fuelled by two reasons. First, he could almost pass for one of us. And second, it was stupid of him to ever think that he could really become one of us.
He fed the stray dogs that came to pick up leftovers from his waste bin. These were the same dogs that would growl at him threatening to tear him to shreds as he made his way alone to Gidan Fulani, a nomadic settlement that lay far in the bushes, a good distance away from the edges of the school property. When I inquired about his reasons for visiting Gidan Fulani, he replied ‘Za nje Gidan abokina. I’m going to my friend’s house.’ I didn’t even know he had a Fulani friend.
On some evenings he would visit me at my work post at the college gate and sit with myself and my colleagues drinking shai, lighting more cigarette sticks and chatting. Masser didn’t like corrupt politicians; he always said they were the reasons why we had more Almajiris than Alhajis here in the north; he said they were responsible for the disunity and ethnic misunderstandings that had become customary in Nigeria; he said they preferred a country with a huge communication gap between the citizens. It was easier to maintain power in a divided nation than in a united one.
One morning, as I sat on my mat having just concluded my first prayers of the day, a small mob led by two senior Mallams in the college walked briskly into Masser’s building. Then they led him out and took him away. Nothing was said to anyone outside the mob but some of the available students who were curious enough to follow them as far they could go reported that a police van had been invited to convey Masser and most of the mob to Bauchi town. It was later at my work post after the sun had risen that someone told me that Masser had been accused of doing Kwarikwanta, having intercourse, with females from Gidan Fulani.
Fulani women were like dogs and they smelled underneath their wrappers because they didn’t bathe regularly. It was shameful even for us Hausas to do kwarikwanta with them. I didn’t understand why Masser would.
He returned late in the evening and shut himself in his quarters through the night. The smell of burning tobacco coming out of the windows of his quarters told me that he stayed up very late. Very early the next morning, Masser was gone. The open door of his apartment was what attracted me. Some of the furniture was still there but you could tell he had left and was not going to return. The remnants of his room were purloined before sunset.
It was a windy evening nearly one month after Masser’s departure when, sitting on my mat after a day’s job, I was visited by two young Fulani men. As I watched them approach, I knew who they sought. The elder of the two asked to see the Turankeji, the white man who visited them often. He said the white man had been teaching some turanci, some English to the children of the settlement for sometime before suddenly ceasing to visit. And since it was almost time for the community to relocate in search of pasture for their animals, they had come to inform him and bid him farewell.
Listening to him whilst watching life crawl by slower than a snail in the college, Masser’s opinion on the causes and effects of communication gaps in the country filled my mind. My erstwhile suspicions of the falsity of the Kwarikwanta story were strengthened and I couldn’t help thinking how easy it was for man to reject help even when it walked on its feet and knocked on the door of his home. Here were the low classed Fulani men understanding the importance of self-improvement and striving to attain it. A real shame that the people here weren’t so wise.
I resolved to be better. Not to make the same mistake. Ibrahim and his siblings would learn to speak turanci. And through their noses if it was possible. They would learn to communicate and not be estranged from the other parts of the world. They would improve themselves and then help to improve the society as much as they could. They would someday wear the khaki uniforms that the baby soldiers wore and be called Masser wherever they went. And their difference would interest those around them. I like good things, too bad if some others do not.