The female voice on the tannoy announced that the flight to Jos was finally ready for boarding. This flight had been delayed for 4 hours already and it was to the relief of all the passengers on the flight that we were directed towards the Nigeria Airways aeroplane that was to take us on this journey from Lagos Murtala Mohammed Airport. I was excited, as the moment had finally come when I was leaving home, going to that far-off place that I had always dreamt of. I was going to northern Nigeria where I had never been, for my one year of compulsory national youth service. It is the requirement for every new graduate of higher institutions in Nigeria to join the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) for one year of service to the nation. And it is the practice for 'youth corpers' to be posted to parts of the country different from where they originate, or where they had gone to school, college or university, the idea being to introduce young people to other parts of the country to which they had never been, and which they would otherwise have no occasion to visit. I was posted to Bauchi State, a place I'd only read about in geography books and heard about on the news. I had recently turned 21 and I was leaving home. And I was bubbling with excitement. The nearest airport to Bauchi town was the one at Jos, about 120km away. The plan was that I would fly to Jos and then complete the journey by bush taxi.
The Jos Plateau is a very scenic part of the country. The landscape was all quite new to me, as I had never been in a highland area. I know now that the weather was pleasantly cool, sub tropical. But at that time I thought Jos was cold, having lived all my life until then in the coastal equatorial steamy heat of Lagos. And it was with a sense of wonder that I sat in the city taxi travelling from Jos Airport to Naraguta, across the city, where I would catch the bush taxi to Bauchi Town. By this time it was about sunset, the flight to Jos from Lagos had lasted for only slightly over an hour, but because the flight had departed late from Lagos, we had arrived in Jos much later than had been expected. The journey to Bauchi from Jos would last another hour, when I eventually got on the bush taxi that is. No matter, I thought, surely the NYSC must have an office open all night, in the event that corpers travelling from other parts of the country arrived at an odd hour. It was the responsibility of the NYSC office to register corpers on arrival, accommodate them and manage their posting to whatever job they were assigned. I knew nobody in Bauchi, indeed in the entire north of Nigeria. And I was counting on the fact that the NYSC office in Bauchi would be open this evening when I eventually arrived. At the moment, I was too filled with wonder and excitement to think too much about what would happen. Or maybe I was too scared to even consider that the office might not be open when I arrived this evening.
Soon I was dropped off at the Bauchi Road motor park, from where I was to catch my bush taxi. There was a row of several taxis, all going to Bauchi, but I could see that they were in sort of a queue, taking turns to depart. None could leave until the first one in the queue had departed, having first filled up with passengers. When I arrived at the motor park, the driver of the taxi at the front of the queue had taken my bags and placed them in the boot together with the luggage of the other passengers who were already sitting inside the taxi. There was only one other empty seat after mine, so I realised that I had a few minutes to spare before the taxi would leave while we waited for the last passenger to turn up. I was excited. This was a whole new atmosphere, where Hausa was the main language being spoken, of which I knew not a word. I went a few metres to a little shop and bought a coke to quench my thirst and as I walked back to the taxi, I heard someone behind me say "Excuse me..". It was nice to hear someone speak a language I understood, so I turned around and saw this tall young man dressed in traditional Hausa garb, a sky blue embroidered caftan with matching trousers, and that cap on his head that is so typical of northern Nigerians. This fellow introduced himself as Abdulrahman. He was a student at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria and was heading to Bauchi to visit with relatives. However, he had not done his sums properly and now found that he was a few Naira short and needed some assistance to pay the fare to Bauchi. I agreed to assist him, not that I had a lot myself, but I could see straight away that he was genuinely in need of help. He was decent, polite and I thought that this could easily me in his position, seeking the help of a stranger. And so together, we paid the driver Abdulrahman's fare and got into the taxi, both of us sitting side by side. And so it was that for this journey into the unknown, I had earned the company of a young man of about my age who was native to this place. I was alone no longer.
As expected, the journey to Bauchi took just over an hour. By the time we arrived it was aready dark. In the tropics, the transition from daylight to darkness is brief, almost sudden. Bauchi is not a large city. It is an old traditional Hausa settlement with an ancient city wall that surrounds the old city. However with modern development, the city had expanded outside the city wall. This was now a state capital and the road leading into the city was broad and brightly lit. And it didn't feel cold as in Jos. Abdulrahman had explained that shortly after we left Jos, we had descended from the Jos Plateau and that we were now on the vast Savannah, which covers almost the whole of northern Nigeria. On the way from Jos, I had told Abdulrahman who I was and explained why I was travelling to Bauchi. He said he knew where the NYSC office is located and that the taxi would drive past in front of it. He suggested that it might be a good idea if I let the driver know, so that he would stop there and I could get off. I agreed and then he said a few words in Hausa to the driver, who nodded. When we arrived at the NYSC office in Bauchi, it was already about 9pm. The street was brightly lit, as every major road seemed to be in this town. But the building! There was not a single light in sight. Not even an open window. Abdulrahman had pointed out the bulding to me and as he did so, he must have seen the shock on my face, because he immediately decided to get off the taxi with me. I was in Bauchi, with all my worldly possessions, late in the evening in front of a locked office building, with nowhere to go and no idea what to do next. I was thankful that Abdulrahman had decided to leave the taxi and stay with me, because the task of rescuing me from this predicament now fell upon him.
Abdulrahman told me that his uncle whom he had come to visit in Bauchi lived not very far away. He suggested that we could go to his uncle's house and stay there until the next morning, when I would return to this office and get myself registered. It was not as if I had any choice, so of course I welcomed the suggestion and so off we went, him helping me with my heavy bags. We got a taxi that took us to his uncle's house, a very nice house in a part of town which I assumed was where all the important people lived. On the way he told me that his uncle was the state commissioner for something or the other, sort of like a state government minister. The house was very nice, set in a beautiful arid garden. The northern part of Nigeria is an arid zone that lends itself to arid gardening, where plants of the Aloe and Euphorbia families dominate. There was an amazing specimen of that stately tree Aloe ferox. I marvelled at the immense good taste in which this front garden had been created and how lovely it looked in the floodlighting set strategically among the various cacti and succulents. Walking past the garden and the main house, Abdulrahman and I went straight to the back house, commonly referred to as the 'boys quarters'. This is usually accommodation provided for the servants who worked in the main house, but in this case Abdulrahman's cousin, his uncle's son, had laid claim to one of its rooms. It was into this room that that we entered after Abdulrahman had unlocked the door, and although it was not a large room, my first thought was that it contained too many items of furniture. It was apparent that its owner had gone to great lengths to prove to anyone who entered that he was not a servant in this place. Abdulrahman showed me around, the conveniences and such like and then left me and entered the main house to inform his relatives that he had arrived. I think he must have at the same time also told them that he had come with a visitor, because shortly afterwards he came back to the room accompanied by two younger teenage boys of about 13 and 14, who appeared eager to see who this person was, who had accompanied their cousin to their home. They were friendly and I felt very welcome. Abdulrahman said supper was on its way and in the meantime I could freshen up if I wished. Of course it had been a long and eventful day, so I welcomed the opportunity to take a shower and change my clothes. Abdulrahman went back inside his uncle's house with the two boys.
Coming back to the room after my shower with only a towel draped around my waist, I saw that the door was ajar and it was obvious that there was someone inside the room. I was a stranger in this place and didn't want to upset anyone, so I carefully knocked on the door and peeped inside to see who it was. There was someone inside the room, but not somebody I had met before. He had his back turned to the door and turned around just as I entered. He seemed surprised to see me. Well, obviously he didn't know who I was, or what I was doing here. "Hello", I said. "I arrived a short while ago with Abdulrahman". "Oh..?", was his reply. He smiled at me and for the first time I saw how very handsome this light skinned Fulani man was. I was naked under this towel that was wrapped around my waist and was embarrassed that he was seeing me for the first time like this, but I smiled back and extended my hand. He seemed to understand how I felt because after shaking hands, still smiling at each other, he left the room so I could get dressed. Not very long after that there was a knock on the door and Abdulrahman returned with the same man who had been here when I entered after my shower. Abdulrahman introduced him to me as his cousin, his uncle's son and his name was Garuba. Garuba and I shook hands again and I said that we had already met. There was something in Garuba's eyes, and gosh, he was so very handsome, you know, with those very fine facial features that is peculiar to the Fulani. Garuba was very well groomed, with a neatly trimmed moustache and perfectly manicured fingernails. A loud knock on the door, and a woman entered carrying a tray on which was set a huge meal of rice and peanut stew with beef. The aroma was heavenly. The tray was set down on the floor, and the woman, obviously one of the uncle's servants left as quickly as she had arrived without saying a word. She returned a few moments later with a pot of piping hot tea, which I was told is called chai, and some mugs, and then left again. No cutlery was provided, and as is the tradition among the people of the north, all three of us sat around this tray of rice and beef and ate with our hands directly from the tray. The food was delicious and Garuba was very pleasant. And he kept smiling at me.