Essay: Universal Love and Sowing Seeds
A trip to Club Mud in Nigeria leads to Rita, Unekwu, and a lot of rain.
Illustration by Russ Ando
Neither the American nor the British embassies will give security clearance to any of their citizens traveling the Abuja-to-Kaduna road because of the risks of kidnapping, but I don’t know this as we motor down it in the predawn hours. Are we there yet? My head is fixed upon the false hope that Kaduna is right next to Abuja, and we must be arriving soon at my sister’s new home, but we keep driving and driving as the day breaks. Fatigue from the long hours in planes pesters me like a cloud of gnats.
Under the brightening, encompassing sky, the green of the surrounding fields deepens. Groundnuts, rice, beans, and corn stand lush. The rainy season is still in full swing. Beyond this corridor of congestion and exhaust there is a freshness that seems, for lack of a better word, optimistic. A new day. Mother Africa. She will outlast the messes we make. This road is a prime demonstration of how oil contributes its peculiar distortions. We’ve just navigated an eight-kilometer tunnel of tanker-trucks, one after another on either side of the roadway. Equally mystifying: all the filling stations and more in construction, some ornate as homespun temples with grand two-story pillars. It will take me a week before I realize that “Yes Gas” is not a brand but an announcement that the station actually has petrol to sell. Rita says there’s money in it. I don’t get it, and I don’t try to.
The highway in stretches is in surprisingly good shape, and then we slalom around bottomless potholes. Tufts of grass ripped from the roadside serve as traffic cones for disabled vehicles. In 1982, when I last visited, every road trip was a safari of wrecks. On one four-hour journey, I counted 37. Today, none so far. David, our driver, has that preternatural skill so crucial in developing countries to get the value out of every free centimeter. I have already achieved an enlightened stoicism. That fuel tanker barreling toward us? No problem. Whoosh. Still here.
Still here. My sister has lived in Nigeria for more than 40 years. She has built herself a new house in a village outside Kaduna—that is our destination I am eager to arrive at.
Roadside markets are coming to life: lemons in pyramids beneath a rickety assembly of branches, automotive flotsam, bags of rice. Women appear, walking, walking, walking, some in black or dark-brown sacks (who thought this was a good idea?), some (thankfully) wearing traditionally Nigerian colors, the brighter the better. Fulanis herd their bony cattle in the median strips. The Fulanis have had murderous exchanges with local farmers over land possession. It’s an issue as pressing as Boko Haram and an ancient story: cattleman versus farmer. (Farmer usually wins by outlasting.) In the papers, there is discussion about creating ranches for the nomads to inhabit.
Changes. Mud houses with thatched roofs have been mostly replaced by cinderblock, rectilinear houses with corrugated aluminum roofs in a pleasing array of colors: red, cobalt, green, gray, wine-colored, conveying a sense of prosperity and stability. It appears more people live in private homes—that the compound is disappearing into history. Perhaps the impulse to live in a compound has been resurrected in the filling station plaza. Many houses have an oculus—the satellite dish—attached to their roofs. News from the frontlines in Nigeria: It’s not just ravaged villages, abducted schoolgirls, bombed markets. How representative is the gloss of prosperity? Civil servants and teachers have not been paid their salaries in six months. “It never ends,” Rita says of people in desperate straits who come to her for help. She does what she can.
We finally leave the Abuja Road, and have our first sighting of big game: a huge semi scrunched on its side like a dead elephant rotting in the sun. Nobody pays it any attention. We cross a concrete bridge over a culvert, and navigate a rutted, muddy laterite track the final meters home. Rita’s dogs, Rex and Dona, come flying toward the car, ecstatic at her return. Rex is a Rottweiler, Dona a German shepherd. I have heard enough about their fierceness in protecting Rita to be on guard, but I am accepted with a canine shrug.
Restored to the vertical, I begin to explore the house and grounds. The yard is large by city standards, enclosed by a 7-foot-high wall with a locked gate. Unekwu, a young man I’m introduced to, tends the gate and does the mowing. At night there is a watchman, Augustine. Rita’s former house was burglarized; she was pursued and clubbed by the thieves. Here, out of the city, surrounded by rice fields and stands of okra and beans, there isn’t a hint of menace.
Except for some young, small trees—all edibles except for an umbrella tree—the garden is a blank canvas. A vegetable plot contains knee-high beans and rows of corn, “maize,” as it is called here, plus five or six spindly okra plants kept for the purpose of collecting seed, though it seems one fruit would have enough seeds to plant an acre. Next to the garden is a compost pile, which, I will happily discover, contains enough usable compost to last my stay. We will use it all.
In Rita’s suitcase are packets of seeds bought in San Francisco: cilantro, basil, rosemary, cucumber, beets, broccoli, spinach, marigolds, sweet peas, and a wildflower mix. When I decided to visit Nigeria, I did not conceive that I would spend my nine days here gardening, but I relish the thought. What could be better?
“A family tie is like a tree; it can bend but it cannot break.”
“So what are we going to do today, Boss?” I ask.
Unekwu gives a slight smile. He knows I am teasing him. “Oh, no, Sah, I am not the boss. I think you will tell me what we will do.”
“How about we plant the spinach today?”
“I think that is a very good idea, Sah” he says. “I will get some compost. Thank you, Sah, for helping to improve our compound.”
After working together for three days, I have the fantasy that I will turn the tables on the Nigerian narrative; that I will kidnap Unekwu and bring him back to the Bay Area to work with me. He is 21 and has an innocence and energy that is thoroughly refreshing. He is from the Igala tribe, whose homeland is south of here. He showed me inside the home Rita has built for him on the compound; a thin mattress on the floor, a teapot, a suitcase with his things. This is luxury; his own place. When he started to work here, he wanted to leave; he was homesick, but his cousin Benjamin, the cook, encouraged him to stay and now he is very happy with his new life. Asking him what we will do today is not all jest: He is more savvy than I in local plant wisdom, and he has a very good eye. What he doesn’t have are decent tools; he has only two: a dull blade and a curved hoe. I brought a hori-hori with me, which may have been the smartest thing I did in 2016. I will leave it here for him when I go.
While Unekwu fills the wheelbarrow with compost, I scout the vegetable bed for a place for the spinach. I am barefoot and in shorts, wearing a 50-cent grass hat. Some people prefer Club Med: I spend my vacations at Club Mud. Last night it rained on five separate occasions, two times a gusher. The beet and cilantro seeds and the sweet peas we planted yesterday may have been washed away. Who knows if any seeds will take root in this soil, this climate? Is the pH right? Will the seedlings get pillaged by snails? I found one yesterday. What about the spectacular black millipede inching up the cinderblock wall? What does it eat? Unknowns abound, but what else is new? Yet Unekwu has taken to calling me his mentor, so I take it on. By this I mean I actually read the instructions on the packet of seeds, and then demonstrate what inches are and fractions thereof. We scatter spinach seeds at the top of furrows in spots where there is a gap in the stand of beans, and he goes to find some sticks to mark the areas. Some of the bean plants will eventually need to be culled if the other seeds are to have their lease of light and air. I’ll be gone by then.
Gone. The week passes too quickly. I travel into Kaduna to a nursery, a collection of plants massed on either side of a congested road in what might be called a curb strip if there were a curb. With Adbullahi’s translation and bargaining help, we amass an assortment of shrubs and a vine. The only plant I am familiar with is a coconut palm, which I give to David the driver for his new home. The others are all ornamental, the chief criterion being a pretty face. The vine, without a bloom, is something Abdullahi recommends. He calls it “Golden Showers,” which I research later when we have a signal. Pyrostegia venusta? Rita says she knows it, that it is gorgeous. We plant it to grow up and over the carport. Ignorance is a dangerous bliss.
Unekwu brings me exciting news. The beets have sprouted, their tiny red standards unmistakable. We do an enthusiastic survey of other seeded patches. Maybe some spinach and some cilantro. Cucumbers, definitely. Marigolds? Probably wishful thinking. There are lots of weeds sprouting. Weeding is what we’ll do this afternoon.
For the seventh night in a row, it rains, again and again. In the morning the sun lumbers uncertainly through a crowd of clouds. Tomorrow I will leave. The rain barrels are full.
Lest this seem an enchanted time, we must have a crisis, and one presents: The mango leaves are pocked by lentil-sized eruptions. The internet is pressed into service again for a tentative diagnosis: a midge that if left untreated could defoliate the tree. Apparently, the problem is a difficult one and though there are options, none are particularly viable: cover the ground with plastic to disrupt the reproductive cycle (they hatch in the ground), spray with specific (unavailable) pesticides. But surely some local farmer knows the thing to do.
Here’s what Unekwu and I do: We remove the infested leaves (we can do this, the tree is barely overhead high), put them in a plastic bag, and drown them in the rain barrel. Unekwu thinks it is a good idea. It may be a crazy one.
Then, “Your last day here, Sah,” Unekwu says.
“I will miss you seriously,” he says.
Postscript (a month later): Everything is up and growing but the rosemary and sweet peas. The rosemary failing doesn’t surprise me but why no peas? “Golden Showers” is sprinting up the rope trellis Unekwu and I constructed. No further signs of midge on the mango. Unekwu checks daily, I’m told.
R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at Berrypicking.WordPress.com.
This report appears in the February edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Feb. 15, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.