I am in Kaduna, finding Binyavanga. Northern Nigeria is a complicated entity, a blurry image in black and white, and Kaduna is the epicenter of that complexity. Kaduna used to be a city of one people, one identity, but we stretched and stretched Kaduna till it became a city of parallels and faith an identity. I have not been to this part of Kaduna, the Christian part, for more than a decade now, since after the bloody crisis in the early 2000s.
A week earlier KT had sent me a message on Whatsapp.
We will be holding a literary evening with Binya.
Awesome, I replied.
I am in a hotel bar. A figure comes in, staggering, swaying. A colourful Mohawk: blue and a mix of cypress green on the side of his head. He is so informal. His informal is on another level.
“I am Binyavanga.” He stutters, his words elastic, stretchy and crackling, with texture and a measurable circumference. He talks with an air of nothingness, no pride, no puffed shoulders, nothing. My hands stretch to meet his. Handshake is soft. My palm feels lighter after. “It is a pleasure, Sir.” I murmur. Sir is short and tempered. I always wonder if it is the only word of courtesy in the English language. English does not have enough vocabulary stocked for respect. In Hausa, I wouldn’t need a word for it, the rise and fall of my syllables would have been enough. Hausa is perfect for relaying courtesy. Finding Binyavanga, I learn to lose courtesy, it flows away like a feather. Binya makes you loose and free, because Binya makes you talk and chew away something stupid like rusty courtesy.
I am in a hospital. St Gerrard Catholic Hospital. Binya is here for a check-up, maybe some injections, from a bout of malaria from the previous day. Sweat is boiling on his forehead, a combination of Plasmodium parasite and humid weather. He wipes away balls of sweat threatening to drown his lips from under his nose and absorbs the surrounding. “This is a catholic hospital, no? You could pick this and place it in Kenya and it will fit in perfect.”
We sit on wooden benches, creaking. We is: VT, small and thin but her golden voice occupies spaces; KT is wide with a broad laugh swelling from his mouth and his large frame occupies most of the small bench; they are flanking me. We are facing Binya and by his side is Mike: coarse and close to the earth, sitting, shifting, restless. We make an awkward round table.
Binya waits for a doctor.Meanwhile we are this weird squad of five in a catholic hospital. Talking. No. Shouting: Politics, afropolitanism, corruption, revolutions, history, literature, language. We talk about things, people, and places and feel the nostalgia of the fact that these things are the little things that build us and make us, crawl in our bellies and we talk and they become exotic. They are random sounds creasing in dirt like buried seeds and germinating into the fruits of our discussions. We talk of people and how places shape them, make them, and kill them. People intertwined with recurring issues. Painful revelations shared and shredded like dirty fat as we reveal ourselves, little dots following each other in queue.
Every so often, a female nurse officer will protrude her head and glance towards this odd crew, heralded by Binya with his one-sided Mohawk and three quarter baggie trousers. We are odd being looked at. We are carefree. Intellectualism binds us. And we are one together here, the only thing existing. All five of us different, but when we are discussing, we are bound. One people. One rhythm. Huddled together. We find a new lease of life under the zinc roofing.
We leave the hospital tired and shuffling our feet. I drive us back to the hotel. Binya sits in the front seat. KT calls it the hot seat (I realize that because I have to answer every single one of Binya’s questions) and Binya is like an empty well trying to fill up with knowledge. Fast. I am talking, I am learning. Slowly, finding Binyavanga…
We are in a hotel bar. Our legs are tired, soles throbbing, jaws ragged from all the discussions. We collapse into sofas like squeezed jackets.
Mike: “Binya do you want to go up and rest?”
Binya: “No. I want to talk.”
And we are African-ing and literati-ing with the walls and bottles of this bar. His talk is so big, Binyavanga, when he speaks, each word, dropping, steady, in a stutter, and so it makes you wait, expecting, mulling what it might be, what is it that is boiling in Binya’s head, before it hits you right in the middle of the brain.
We glide into the subject of literature like a see-saw: Hausa literature, literature of other tribes from Bajju to Nupe to Tiv and Idoma. I listen, Binya listens. I chip in with bits and pieces of Hausa history and literature: Sa’adu Zungur, Bayajidda, Queen Amina, Queen Daurama. Binya listens.
Binya: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, tell me again.”
His hand gyrating, making the narration to re-wind as his head shakes, confusion rattling his understanding.
More doses of rambling and unravelling are sent forward. He shakes his head and nods, confusion giving way to the joy of learning.
Binya: “I am educated.”
Binya gets it, and when Binya gets it, he beams and I swear the whole of Kaduna is lighted by that smile. We are, together, a fever of language and history.
Binya digs up more buried choices. We take up issues untellable in these surroundings and slice them, dissect them into different parts. We burst them out of their dry shells. We touch the Kaduna killings and the birth of the separation of a city into Muslims and Christians, where alcohol is prohibited in so and so, but you can drink to stupor in so and so and Muslim boys are the enemy and Christian boys are the enemy; religions in a drag battle. We touch the birth of hypocrisy and then diverge, crossing the road to the many Christian populations of northern Nigeria living in silent obscurity. We are now into the intrusion of religion into Africa as we travel history.This time we are here circa 1400 AD, then we are there circa 1800, we are Christianised in the 1900s, re-Islamised later on, and religion leaves us jagged.
Words fall from Binya’s tongue and he swallows them with a sip of coffee shaking his head and a smile of knowing escapes.
“So,” he says and leans forward, his eyes wide and shimmering like torchlight, and narrates in falling syllables. The words start from the back of his throat, long and slow, stuttering like brakes: the story of the Mourides of Ahmadou Bamba of Tuubaa in Senegal. He delights in revealing Africa with energy, like peeling leaves at the back of a maize husk.
The Binyavanga way is the hurricaning way, the thundering way, the lightning way. Mike has perfected the art of it. So we just keep hurricaning, thundering and lightning around Kaduna, talking with no time to breath.
I drive us through Kaduna, flying, crossing the river to the other side. But with Binya here, I now realize it is all on the same side. There is no difference. I see a singular city. The city never changes: Barnawa has the same trees in a pattern; you could mistake it for the streets of Unguwan Rimi. The difference is only in our imagination, our interpretation in fear-themed memories. On both sides loudspeakers are mounted on roofs: one side for the mosques and the other for churches, Keke Napepsspeeding between them hooting. We pass people on both sides—millipedes of cosmopolitanism—pass sprinkled skyscrapers—appendages of the past—then cramped houses that ceasedbreathing, then sweet aluminium roofing and past sour brown zincs ofslums woven around glossy Government Reserved Areas and sounds and smells of markets on both sides. Everywhere the same people speeding, sweating and smiling.
We pass an abandoned industrial estate. Mike tells us the story of this place. Place of Children Without Fathers. This community in Kakuri which is becoming ashes due to the crash of a once thriving textile industry, where economic recession invited truth, trauma, and death as men who were breadwinners committed suicide as machines slowed down and became quiet, one machine after another, suicide and depression becoming deafening. We are silent, mourning, and then we are talking again, from writing to agriculture, to geography, to everything.
We drive to the famous Hamdala Hotel. Hamdala is a giant, but a degrading one. It used to be a sky-scraping beauty standing majestically in the middle of Kaduna. It is now shabby and derelict, uninspiring. One among many northern edifices lying wayward. We tell Binya that Ahmadu Bello built them, lots of them. But now they are unbearable to look at.
Binya: “What happened to them? All the hotels?”
Silence. How do we answer this one?
Me: “Basically, same thing that happened to everything else in the North.”
We crack an uneasy laugh at my answer, but there is pain somewhere.
Across the driveway, after the parking lot, to the left, there are old antique and artefact shops cuddled together like corridors. About a dozen cats are sprawled in front of the shops sleeping, strolling, and staring. Two open shops by the side, and a spring of antiques within them: wood carvings, paintings, coin collections, leather bags, charms, and amulets. Anything old, smelling like grandparents. All manner of artefacts to sell, to the foreign hotel visitors I presume. Mike leads the way. How is it that I never knew this place? Binya is the collector. Wooden boxes, leather caps, leather shoes. I pick a leather shoe with a curved pointed head. I price it, the shopkeeper quotes a price: two thousand five hundred naira. I pass. Binya trundles in. He picks the same shoe. “How many Naira?” Shopkeeper picks it and examines it. “For this, you give me six thousand.” He understands Binya is a foreigner. I open my mouth to interrupt, but I do not want to spoil his hustle. I shuffle out of the room away from the whiff of the eighteenth century to the freshness of a windy twenty-first century and queer cats in a staring contest.
Hours later, a day maybe, we are moving again. Naziru Ahmad is the tinny sound springing from the traditional music of my car stereo: Wannan kidin mata ne / ashe zuma tana nan zaizai. Speakers releasing beats in ripples.
Binya: “Is this Hausa music?
I want it.
We are going to buy it.
I like it.”
A smile creases from the edge of my lips climbing. I turn the knob and increase the volume. Rhythms continue to bounce along the interior of the car. I sing along and alone, head swinging.
Fifth Chukker Polo and Country Club is our next destination. We are moving, hurricaning. It is a twenty-five minutes’ drive out of Kaduna in the town of Maraban Jos, a small town at the intersection of Kaduna and Plateau States surrounded by greenery and a people converged by a market.Dust from tattered roads flowing in the winds kiss you, a noising welcome.
Cars are all packed in parallels. Young couples and a retinue of young girls, make-up and contours flashing, dressed to kill for the Eid Festival glowing in excitement alighting and walking towards the polo field. Fifth Chukker looks like a radiant main house thrusting up with mazes in contrast to the servants’ quarters that is the town hosting it, an enterprise to service the ego of the elites out of the morass of Kaduna. The landscape is illuminating. Embedded with traditional architecture. Rooms modelled in the form of huts, like traditional Hausa city-states circa eighteenth century, cutting through modern driveways. It is a paradise situated in a heaven surrounded by a town of dirty ponds.
We settle on our seats and are surrounded by a decoration of posh traditional attires. We are strikingly different in the midst of these flowery spectators watching a polo game.
I struggle to get the game. I try and try. I get bored. I just cannot pay a matchstick length span of attention. It is a weird game, an army of confusion playing field hockey on horses, frightened horses going forward and backward.
Binya is too curious to just seat and watch an amateur game of polo. He says they are not that good, and he is curious to breathe in the greenery. He gets up and decides to look around.We follow.
We are treading past fine equestrian facilities, proud horses strutting and local boys brushing horsehair in air-conditioned stables. The landscape is a beauty, a pattern of flowing green and you just have to breathe it.
It takes some ten minutes to walk round across the polo field to find the clubhouse. A restaurant and a lounge bar provide an extensive view of the polo fields. State of the art, just the way it is in fancy Hollywood movies. Binya is meeting Chef L for some recipes he seems to be collecting. There are bundles of guests. Chef L is a busy pot. His number is slid to us on a piece of paper. Binya asks for coffee. Yes, they have coffee.
Binya: “Finally I will get a very good cup of coffee.”
Waitress: “Sir, we have Nescafe for you.”
Binya: “No cappuccino?”
Waiter: “No, only Nescafe.”
Binya: “Thank you. No Nescafe. We will be leaving now.”
It is getting to dusk as I drive back approaching Kaduna. The sun is splashes of deep yellow painting a blue sky. We cannot stop talking. Not for a minute. We cannot stop laughing. We smell of dried sweat, neck muscles stiff and cracking. My white kaftan is now a shade of brown, soles of my feet dusty, and the car a bit cranky from all the potholes. I am tired, a squeezed piece of paper,but there will be a reading.
It is dark when we reach the hotel for the reading. By 7pm there is a bar room full of literary enthusiasts glowing under dim lights. We are here to drink from gourds of literary enterprises. Our tongues rediscover magic, they unroll and chat under that spell that writing and books put you. Binya’s eyes run over everyone, every detail of a story, a poem and spoken word performance, and nods and nods and agrees to every comment unbundled. He is held by the enthusiasm of the conversation. We are held by the charisma of his pen.
We are a rushing whirlwind, branching at Mustapha Bookshop. Binya asks for Hausa books in translation. There are none available.
“You can find them at the post-office maybe, the ones they spread on the ground, just outside.”
It is disappointing when you cannot find a piece of your language, a flex of your tongue to read from. I pick up Kojo Laing on the recommendation of Binyavanga and peep through the first lines: ‘his chin was strong enough to box with, even with the sun on his tongue. He kept his science in his chin’ I will be revisiting Mustapha Bookshop very soon.
The spirit of all these books upsurges up a passion in Binyavanga. I can see he is itching, trying to say this and the words are coming, pacing like a fat snail:
Binya: “I have read your story.”
I am afraid. I am afraid he will roll his eyes and spit doom. I cannot write. I have failed.
“You are talented.”
My heart somersaults back into its chamber.
“But you are writing about war. It is a difficult territory. The Caine Prize has already been won for this. Write something. New. Fresh perspective. It is too cynical.”
I hear Binya, but my heart wants to disagree. I want to go to the dictionary and find the true meaning of cynical. Maybe it will come out in a good way. I am disagreeing, cynical is not so bad. Cynical = arrant nonsense. No, he did not say that;the curved smile on his face did so. I am afraid. I am resilient. What is Binya thinking? No, no, my story isn’t changing. He might have noticed the reminiscence of his smile, a mirror image spreading outward in my own face. I am afraid. But I am thinking, creating, changing.
The last few days are magic, electrifying. Oomph, passion. Literature finds a purpose. My writing finds its purpose. Another world just got unlocked out from mazy clouds. I realise that years of reading books, every book in my father’s library is a constant accumulation and stocking of knowledge and that when required I will be able to divulge every word, story, and discussion and chew it all out. All it required is Binya knocking, and my brains click, my tongue roll and details pour out. I talk like I am shuffling pages, talk of 1804 Jihad like I am a warlord, of the history of the Hausa people. I know this not because I want to. Not because I force myself to know them. To be honest, I never realised I knew this much of my history, but I am glad I read every single old book sleeping on my father’s shelves. If you cannot tell your own history, then what is your purpose? All those years, I never needed to write out anything, I did not bother. I just read and read in Hausa, and it is beautiful when you read in Hausa, it flows subtly within your tongue. I read and watched my society with keen interest, listened to my father talking, talking, talking and my imagination is fire. And I see things I read, and if I don’t see them I read and ask Father and he will talk and I will see them. A lot of times I want to bring these things out, strip them naked, to make people see them, but it seems they are invisible little threads. Today, I make Binyavanga see them, the way they are, not the way they are projected. Binya finds the North, this North and not a cocooned pillar, not a closed coconut shell, not the North he is promised that is supposed to be a beast, to lynch him, bottled hungry hyenas released to eat him. He was promised demons but like a creative, he came prepared, eyeing for the other narrative and he unearthed it. A bristling Northern Nigeria without pinching fingers looking for bloods, no large group of people rotten, stinking of fear and scowling at non-conforming aliens. This North is tender, singing in coherence.
We host Binya, this diverse collective of open minds in open space. An oddity forms a brotherhood within twinkling lights of literary exploits. That’s what Binya does to you:makes you channel your oddities into a uniform background and share them in piece meal then serve them in plates on a simple platform.
We all reveal little pieces of ourselves in few days. We are a laughing orchestra, understanding our unique situations in our societies. While finding Binya, we find ourselves. VT wants an escape for solitude, but so do all of us. Binya invites us to Kenya, I think so, I dream so, one day, someday. We are already imaging it, painting it into a billboard and hanging it to dangle in our arteries, like the creatives we are: we are packing and leaving, there is fire in our eyes: we are planning and scheming to get away from worries and be buried in literature, finding literary heaven, boiling with talks and laughter and writing.
We talk and laugh, laughing fireflies, deliberately oblivious, that with Binya leaving so will the four walls of this bar disappear, and this city will separate again, and a horizon of uncertainty and fear will re-establish itself, and Kaduna will be separated by a river again.
We are riding back to the airport. I am not driving. We are sardined in the back of a yellow taxi. The heavens open their mouths and rain falls heavy and battering. It rains and we all look out at the wet kiosk of an airport in front of us.
We drive into teary clouds, and between the clouds, the rain dries up. Fresh clouds reveal themselves a constellation of white smiles and wish Binya a safe trip. We bottle little pieces of ourselves and pass it in little hugs into the soft chest of Binya.
The road back from the airport is dry and lonely. Even the wind misses him. We are streams of quietness. Music from the cab is digesting across the vacuum. We stare forward and brace up to embrace new experiences. It is not everyday that you get into an adventure, finding Binyavanga …
About the Writer:
Sada Malumfashi is a writer living in Kaduna, Nigeria. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Saraba Magazine, Transition Magazine and New Orleans Review amongst others. He is interested in the intricacies of languages and works on translations bilingually in English and Hausa.