This painting is of the second girl selling Wara in Osogbo. Tiny in stature, and carrying her very young baby around with her (underneath her shawl for this picture). I was interested in her expression, hard working and really tough with a relaxed, confident air. I used the Yoruba words for petite and strong in the background, applying them in no-nonsense Gotham Black to the container wall behind her. On the canvas her complexion is more subtle, but here the image processor in my camera exaggerated differences between tints and hues. Something to do with white paint in the mix possibly.
On trips to Osogbo, we always buy Wara from the same ladies. It is a type of milk curd sold fresh and is delicious cooked either boiled or fried with lemon, and quite healthy, it turns out. Click here for more info and recipes. The ladies are familiar to us and come over to our car if they see us around town, as we will usually buy from them. This time around I asked for photos with a view to using them later. The girls were happy to pose with and without their bowls balanced on their heads. For this first painting I’ve used the light to describe the girl’s features, complete with tribal scars, as she poses in the shade. I covered the canvas in dark washes using a very limited palette and painted thinly throughout, doing just enough to describe what I was interested in and no more.
Keeping the West African theme going, here is a Broad-billed roller that conveniently perched
on a wire opposite the garden wall just long enough for a quick scribble in my sketchbook.
There is a three year gap between that observation and this painting. I kept the rendering lose and simple,
giving the flat blue sky some interest with vertical brush strokes, and showing off the subtle mauve and
maroon colours of the plumage. A fairly common site along roadsides in Nigeria, this species has the
brightest yellow bill that stands out against any background.
This painting is of a Mona monkey, part of a troupe that visit the Osun Grove regularly, where they are tame enough to accept bananas fed by staff and locals. Painted using acrylics, plenty of colour and the use of energetic brush strokes evoke the vibrance of Osogbo, the serenity of the forest and my excitement at being there.
Previously I have experimented with the faces of these monkeys with a view to producing some designs for t-shirts or whatever. Something that’s on the back burner, which is piled high…
Sketches from three years ago used as reference for this paper collage. Agamas, though absolutely
everywhere in Nigeria, never let you get close, and these two females looked down on me with
confidence, verging on smugness, knowing they could dash away at lightning speed.
I’ve recycled pieces of what was a ‘failed’ watercolour painting (we’ve all got them…), in this case
a landscape of a wheat field and evening sky, to hint at the texture and colour of the lizards atop
the garden wall in Osogbo. I omitted the actual wall, as I wanted to concentrate the viewer’s
attention on the lizards under the huge banana leaf. It may have been interesting to include
some shards of glass for a spot of urban realism, but I decided against it. For the impression
of bright sunlight bouncing off of every surface, it seemed ‘less is more’ was the way to go.
The first business of the day is to buy air tickets for our flight to Lagos. Once reserved over the phone, we buy the tickets at the bank using cash. At the ATM, the N60k needed plus another N20k for later gives me a fat wallet which I give up trying to close, it’s only a short walk after all. The revolving door ‘capsules’ are supervised by an attentive security guard in paramilitary style uniform, and I can’t help thinking if they also serve to keep the sand outside. Inside the bank there are a dozen or so men standing and sitting waiting for
this or that.
Most staff are dressed western style and very smartly, with many busy conversations ongoing at once, unlike a western bank which in contrast seems to be a place of orderly silence. Although there are computers, things written on paper are still an important part of proceedings here. We are ushered through to a back room where we will hand over our cash. There are piles of paper files, counterfoils and banknote wraps strewn here and there and our money is counted by an old but very serviceable counting machine. We pass back through the tiny revolving capsules and back out into the blazing sun.
Friday August 7th. Today we are leaving for Lagos, our flight stopping over briefly in Abuja. We have already met Babangida, a handsome and tall quiet man smartly dressed Hausa style, who has offered to take us to the airport as his wife Amal and young son Muhammed are also on the same flight. We leave on time in his new silver Toyota pick up and head off to the Sir Ahmadu Bello International, where ours is the only flight leaving today. There are many hands to make light work of helping you through the check-in process. They seem to be sharing one pen. The double height hall is light and modern with polished flooring reflecting the officials looking on from a balcony.
The check-in instructions are hand written on a large yellow card taped to the side of the desk, and I assume they haven’t finished implementing the signage program. As usual there are men wearing combinations of paramilitary uniforms with epilettes, berets and desert boots, and nearly everyone else, whether staff or passenger, is dressed in native style. Even me. I’m wearing a new smock style kaftan and matching trousers (one size fits all) in subtley patterned lavender grey waxed cotton with intricate embroidery around the neck and collar, finished off with my black velvet fila hat and suede loafers. I opted for this garb instead of western clothing as it’s going to be a long hot day. I was right. Through the security checks and sat in the empty departure lounge, I see the agama lizards outside casually owning the rock landscaping that line the path to the concrete apron. The plane will be a while yet. I don’t think the lizards are at all bothered.
We duly arrived in Abuja, but our plane was then diverted to Calabar (with our luggage still on board) to bring stranded passengers back to the capital, as the sister aircraft had mechanical problems. This made our one hour stop-over more like five hours. Amal decided it might be best to pray while we waited, and left Muhammed and her luggage with us. After an hour she hadn’t returned, and I began getting a little anxious. We decided to go on up to the domestic departures lounge anyway, as she would presumably just follow on in her own good time. The young security guard at baggage check signalled me over, and as I began to raise my arms for the inevitable frisk down, he said “No, no… I like your attire” “Oh, right..” I said in relief, as I had fully expected “Have you packed this bag yourself sir?” which of course I hadn’t, and might have been slightly awkward to say the least.
Several people commented on my garb, and curiously they all said exactly the same words as the security guy. I even posed for photos once. When we finally discovered our plane was boarding (it wasn’t at all obvious, a flaw that needs sorting out, airport management please note..), much fuss was created on the tarmac while we identified our luggage. The trick is to physically point at it and make sure the staff notice you, stating your destination at the same time. For the paranoid, watching them actually take it across to the luggage doors on the aircraft is a useful extra measure. If not shepherded in this way it will not be stowed, the assumption being it’s destined for another plane altogether, and could then be as good as lost.
One of Amal’s bags was coming apart, it was a large carrier bag with handles, the type issued by superstores, and taped up. There were fresh moringa leaves spilling, holding up the flight a further ten minutes while tape was sent for. Eventually the bag was repaired to the satisfaction of the staff and we were on our way. Forty-five minutes later and as dusk approached, we landed at the cosmopolitan sprawl that is Lagos, now dubbed the Dubai of Africa. Outside, moths fly around the bright lights and in the noticeably humid night air a small scrum of boys are more than willing to help you with your luggage (if you let go of it, someone will literally take it from you and head on to the taxi rank, such is the urgency to earn some dash). Arrangements had been made for us to be collected and driven to our accommodation for the night with Rita, a relative, and we said goodbye to Amal and her son as her father-in-law loaded the trunk of his car with her moringa leaves. Tomorrow we will return to Osogbo but first, starving as I am, I will have to negotiate some Egusi soup.
Bala is a round, jolly young man with a very dark complexion and always smiling. Today he is showing us the nearby Zainab Saidu Usman D/Gari Orphanage, where he spent most of his childhood, but still was motivated enough to educate himself and avoid falling into the begging trap as so many disadvantaged do. Also with us is Mariam, a very tall twenty three year old wearing a cerise pink hijab. She also grew up in the orphanage. In a moment of madness and for reasons known only to herself, her mother decided to literally burn her infant feet, and so Mariam now lives life as a double amputee with scarred stumps, managing day to day using hand made leather shoes, which in reality are more like cups, and of slightly different sizes. She would benefit greatly from bespoke orthapaedic shoes that only specialists can provide.
I can’t help wondering how she’s managed all this time.
Set in several hundred square metres of ground large enough for a few trees and for growing some crops, the main building is raised above ground level by a few steps and consists of a single story square layout with a central open air courtyard. One of the dorms serves as a dayroom, with children from toddlers to teens watching tv or sleeping, sitting or lying on the bunk beds or on the bare tiled stone floor. There are forty children here, the older ones go out for the day but there is little to occupy the younger ones. One baby, asleep in a cot cleverly fashioned from steel bars and tubes and softened with two colour basketry contained a baby that had just recovered from malnutrition, looking a little thin in the arms and legs but we were assured she was out of danger.
Another room was for babies, mostly sleeping in their cots. There are only two full time staff looking after all these youngsters, and they do their best. The roof leaks in places producing large stains and bowed ceiling tiles, and the air is stale and thick. Replacing all the bedding and redecorating throughout would be a good thing, followed perhaps by a rota of chores for the older kids which would help out the staff while giving them some routine and a sense of responsibility, certainly better than sitting around all day watching western tv.
Outside in the sandy yard washing is hanging on the line strung between two trees and cooking takes place over an open fire, pots large and small and the traditional wooden pestle and mortar for pounding yams (called an Odo) are strewn about. Most of the grounds look a little neglected, and the children could be actively involved in projects that could improve their environment, such as a kitchen garden or safe play area, or decorate the dorms and dark corridors with their artwork. Some of the grounds are used to cultivate crops, but the children receive no benefits from this. At the moment at least, it appears that nobody cares that much, at least they are all off the streets.
We come away with plenty to think about.
I’m standing on the balcony of the newly named Entrepreneurship Development Centre, Emir Haruna Road, Kebbi. Directly opposite is a door and gatemaker’s yard. There seems to be a standard size, with most having quite intricate patterns welded on to the panel faces. The sun is high and the shadows are short. A hawk swoops by fast and straight across the road and disappears over the trees. Could have been any one of a dozen or so species, but the silverbill finches in the small tree in the yard remain undisturbed.
A man passes by dressed entirely in white with a white tray on his head, too far away to see what was in the tray, suffice to say it was also white. The finished shiny doors catch the sun as they lean on the perimeter fence on display, and the occasional welding flash erupts from the rusty stacks of sheet metal in the yard, shaded by the Neem trees.
The Centre is set up to give young people a helping hand setting up their own art and craft business, anything from shoemaking and beadwork to basketry and jewellery. The taylors are the main focus though, and have been brought here from Osogbo in the South to expand their business. They have a full order book.
Something of a hub of operations for Jumoke’s various business endeavours, the Centre is being visited today by the Kebbi State governor’s wife, Doctor Zainab Atiku Bagudu. Thanks to some frantic phone calls and last minute changes of schedule in response to the (inevitable) short notice her PR team gave, everything is in place to show off the products and talents on offer. She is due to arrive at ten. Five hours later an advance security detail appears and gives the layout and exits a once over and quietly informs us the official cars will arrive within the next half hour.
I watch from the balcony as the motorcade overshoots, reverses up the road and pulls in to the forecourt, all this maneuvering causing them to temporarily close the road while the vehicles assemble. Across the road boys on machines with their pillion passengers stop to look on. Half a dozen soldiers step out of their black SUV, and are directed to the perimeters of the forecourt by their commander who looks pretty cool in his dark glasses and beret. At this point I move inside to be on hand as the governor’s wife and daughters with entourage and photographers duly arrive upstairs and their tour begins. The whole place is suddenly jam packed with colourfully dressed ladies with their PR contingent taking photos and video on various cameras and tablets.
I am introduced as a foreign visitor and only just managed to remember the Islamic etiquette to not shake hands, but not before my arm flinched upwards. Thanks to a very discreet slight body movement as a prompt from Dr. Bagudu my arm stayed down. I’m sure only the two of us noticed! As the cameras turn my way she asks “And have they shown you some interesting places around Kebbi?” “Yes we visited the Argungu fishing village yesterday which was…”
I started to reply, not finishing my sentence as she turned towards the cameras and staff taking down notes, “I was brought up in Argungu” she proceeded, recounting a childhood detail. I could see how well Dr. Bagudu was versed in the whole meet and greet side of being a public figure here, and how cleverly she turned the question into a self
promotional anecdote for the cameras. I also appreciated how carefully managed
these things are, despite the (again, inevitable) schedule overrun.
When it was time to leave, a group of people were waiting by the vehicles for handouts. News travels fast around here, I thought, as it seemed only half an hour or so had passed since they first arrived. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip” Dr Bagudu said with a smile as I took her photo. “I’m sure I will” I confidently replied. Lengthy goodbyes were exchanged and everyone climbed back into their respective vehicles and left. The whole visit was chalked up as a success.
Earlier today we bought tickets for our flight to Lagos. Once reserved over the phone, we buy the tickets at the bank using cash. At the ATM, the N60k needed plus another N20k for later gives me a fat wallet which I give up trying to close, it’s only a short walk after all. The revolving door ‘capsules’ are supervised by an attentive security guard in paramilitary style uniform and I can’t help thinking if they also serve to keep the sand outside. Inside the bank there are a dozen or so men standing and sitting waiting for this or that. Most staff are dressed western style and very smartly, with many busy conversations ongoing at once, unlike a western bank which in contrast seems to be a place of orderly silence. Although there are computers, things written on paper are still an important part of proceedings here. We are ushered through to a back room where we will hand over our cash. There are piles of paper files, counterfoils and banknote wraps strewn here and there and our money is counted by an old but very serviceable counting machine. We pass back through the tiny revolving capsules and back out into the blazing sun.
The sun is high as we weave slowly down an axle breaking dirt road into the bush. After every obstacle, our man looks round to check our progress and waits for us to catch up. On either side of us the pink granite-like rocks glitter as the sun catches them. The leafy green bushes are interspersed with small trees of various shapes, and as always I keep an eye out for birds. The track rises through the high ground and down into a flatter plain where small scale agriculture again dominates. Over to our right, people are gathered in the deep shade of the low trees, and we wait briefly while the site engineer is found and advised of our arrival.
We arrive at the mine, and while we wait for the engineer following, it is a relief to sit in the shade and feel a slight breeze. We enter through the gates and as it is Sunday, no-one is working. There are Chinese workers here, and they are taking delivery of their bottled water supply. Looks like enough for a month, though in this heat, perhaps not.
“Welcom from Ingaland” shouts the loud and curious security guard with the Kalashnikov. After brief introductions, our mini tour begins. We pile back into the pick ups and drive the short distance up the hill from the compound. It’s too hot and too steep to walk.
Our tour guide, the mine engineer, is from Cameroon and studied in Belgium, he says.
We are looking at a large, dynamited water filled crater, where serious operations began only a year ago. Back down the slope, we are shown the massive machines that break up the rocks and the whole process is explained in Pidgin English and a little Hausa. The view from here is spectacular, with mile after mile of green wooded hills as far as the eye can see, and so I think about this site in context of the landscape. I could describe it simply as a large hole in the ground, a blot on the landscape, surrounded by derelict equipment and broken vehicles, but that would be unkind. The people that are showing us around are visibly proud of what has been achieved here, the 24 hour operation recently hitting the vein of gold. Unfortunately container loads of unprocessed rubble holding gold and whatever else within regularly leave for further processing in China, something the new government would like to change.
As we leave, the security guard again cheerfully shouts “Welcom from England.” I smile and wave convinced I’ve made a new friend, should I ever pass this way again.
Another slow drive along the trail leads us to the mining camp. The river to the left is running at a trickle through the grassy clearings and shrubby thickets, with deeper pools spread out across the bed of pink sand and boulders. Picturesque is the word that comes to mind, even though we are in a harsh and obviously unforgiving environment.
It is mid afternoon as we arrive at the camp. There are dozens of young men here gathered under the trees. Cooking pots and fires, machines and tarps are dotted around, but there is no mining machinery here as yet. Many men carry long machetes.
Advanced word has been given of our visit as everyone is paying attention except for one or two who are lying down out for the count – there is an amount of weed smoking and glue sniffing here. Some young girls from local villages are selling food and cooking for the men. Staying close to home and with little or no ‘education’ these girls are hoping to find a husband here, something of a cultural imperative, then. The makeup they are wearing shows that they are available. The eldest is barely 14.
Jumoke gets an update from the young graduate who supervises the site, while we take photos. There is a lawless atmosphere here, and the young men digging in the dirt all know the risks they take. For instance, just feet away from the gathering are hand dug holes in the ground that looked to be several metres deep – I couldn’t see the bottom. A definite hazard even in daylight, I dread to think what can happen here at night.
We leave later than planned, and as the sun casts long shadows across the crops, I watch all black, red eyed fork-tailed drongos flying off from low perches to catch insects, my thoughts turning to the obvious and stark culture differences I’m seeing on this trip. There will be more. The long straight roads back to Kebbi are in good enough condition for Sanusi to speed along at a reasonable lick, travelling at night here has it’s own dangers. Making allowances for other road users with no lights, too much light, and Fulani cattle herders, we arrive safely back in Kebbi just after dark. I’ve not had many days like this one.
Birnin Kebbi stands on the southern edge of the semi-arid Sahel, close to the border
with Niger. Today Sanusi is driving us North to visit a working gold mine, and then
on to another, much less well developed operation in which Jumoke has an interest.
On the road out of town, the Neem trees lining the route have large puddles sitting in
their shade from last night’s rain. Business is conducted under them. It’s also common
to see boys taking time out, lying lengthways across their motorcycles, or machines.
A two hour drive on long straight roads, the flat landscape of leafy bushes, sand and
rock is broken by patches of corn, rice and watermelons. Larger trees and palms
have been left standing here and there and provide shelter from the sun and rain.
The blue horizon of higher ground is covered in rocky woodland and bushy scrub. The occasional worker in the fields, termite mounds and strange trees attract my attention as I take all this in. Some trees have the look of a baobab, cartoon-like with bunches of leaves on the end of fat branches and even fatter trunks. There are cattle egrets, rollers and kestrels, swallows and swifts, and I imagine the leopard, caracal or jackal that may be lurking in the distant rocky outcrops, staying out of site until the end of the day.
Roadside compounds are enclosed with neat mud brick walls and rustic wooden hurdles. There are lean to shelters and canopies with benches underneath for socialising, mostly in the early evening. Looking past the pile of discarded tyres and plastic litter I see that inside the walls there are round, thatched mud brick huts of varying sizes raised off the ground. I allow myself to imagine that this stockaded community style is necessary to protect livestock from wild animals. May even be true.
We slow down to make way for cattle and goats being herded down the highway by Fulani men and boys. Traditionally dressed with long cotton gowns and pointed straw hats, their long walking sticks are used to encourage their red Sanga cattle to keep moving. The goats follow the cattle, and some kids that are too small to keep up are carried. Two men lead camels which are fully loaded with all the equipment the group need, for these are truly nomadic tribesmen. Some Fulani, or Fula people have settled, and as an ethnic group they are spread across many African countries. There are about 7 million in Nigeria.
Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track for a hundred yards to a corral of wooden hurdles where some men are waiting in the shade of a small tree. After a brief discussion, and a much needed leg stretch for me, a tall, thin middle aged man with prominent cheek bones and a pencil moustache leads us on his machine to the