For many who live outside the Federal capital, Abuja is a paradise of sorts. Some people, I’m sure, imagine her streets lined with gold and her houses floating mid-air. Am I the right person to scorn them? I really don’t think so. Reason? Some ten months back, I was a strong member of that school of thought.
I had spent all my life roaming the south. My childhood was filled with memories of the hustle and bustle of Lagos, though, sparsely interrupted by infrequent visits to other states within the same region. And so it was sweet relief when I learnt of my posting to the capital for my youth service. That was one moment of ecstasy I had experienced in my life. I packed my things, without even saying my goodbyes and headed straight for camp.
We spent long hours making the trip, and with each hour that flew past, the itching to see the fastest growing capital in the world became more severe. I swallowed lumps of saliva every time I visualised it through my mind’s eye.
Finally, after hours of tension building up, I saw a dirty signpost that read WELCOME TO GWAGWALADA. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were so many people cramped into a small space. Hawkers peddled their products; traders displayed their wares indiscriminately, vehicles honked viciously as we all struggled for space on the thin stretch of road. We got stuck for a minute on a small bridge that had a putrefying odour emanating from underneath, and I started to think we hadn’t arrived yet; that my mind was only pulling a fast one on me. I just couldn’t digest the fact that we were here afterall. Even the once notorious Oshodi was heaven when compared to this place.That evening, I strolled into the orientation camp with dashed expectations. The Soldiers at the gate tried to impress us with commando-like displays but even that wasn’t enough to up my morale.
Soon, I learnt about the many shanty towns surrounding the centre itself. I still remember with nostalgia how many of us (fresh corpers back then) spent time binding and losing so that we wouldn’t be posted to remote areas like kwali, kuje and worse of all, Abaji. I learnt about the natives of the land (the Gwari people) who bore their burdens on their shoulders because they thought their heads already bore too many troubles. I visited the slums in Kado, Zuba and Gwagwa-karimo. Mararaba and Nyanya, both boundary towns that formed part of the neighbouring Nasarawa state, also had their ghettos. The pile of dirt they held could compete favourably the streetlights and paved highways of the city centre. Decrepit structures dotted their surroundings to create such a devastating effect.
Even the Aso villa didn’t impress me much when I visited. It was nothing like the magnificent sight you’d see on television. My breath didn’t cease. My pulse remained normal. I was not impressed by the white walls, or by the fact that it was the seat of power. The hours I exhausted lounging at exquisite spots couldn’t make up for the minutes I spent taking in sights of those clustered shacks people called a place of abode. They lived there happily, even when without the basic amenities of life. To cap it all, you would find people who lived in these sorry parts bragging to their folks back in the village or elsewhere as if they were the occupants of Aso rock itself.
Many people living in the centre also learn to live within tight spaces. Space is a luxury so many people can’t afford there. For instance, you would drive past a block of flat and find so many satellite dishes hovering above. Then on further enquiry, you could find that 3-bedroom flat housing up to six families; that they shared the rooms among themselves with several partitions to spell out each person’s territory. That way, they’d be able to cope with the exorbitant sums landlords charged as rent.
Looking back now, I think the experience has been worthwhile. At least, now I know Abuja is really not that absolutely amazing beauty I thought it was. I’d rather choose to describe it as a beautiful capital with too many ugly parts.