If all he told me were recorded and replayed afterwards, I wouldn’t understand half of what I understood when he told me about his family, his fears, hopes and dreams. He told me about his cows too. He was gleeful all through his narration but not as gleeful as he was when he narrated his classic exploits as a cow boy. This assertion is rather queer because I am supposed to record all conversations and replay afterwards to be able to grasp the real meanings of all answered questions, unattached at that moment to the person being interviewed. This is the standard procedure. Apart from being standard, this procedure allows me the luxury of not paying serious attention at any time of any interview since I don’t have to remember anything afterwards. The tape recorder remembers for me. Of a truth, I didn’t set out to interview this puny little cattle boy from the north. It was not planned that way. As I sit down and begin to write about my encounter with this cow-boy, I imagine where he will be now with his ‘boys’…
He calls them boys. Both the males and the females, he calls them boys. And they answer him. If he needs to, if his call is to one of the boys in particular, he calls it boys and uses his long staff to strike the hump of the erring cow. The day starts early for them, both Abdul and his boys. Abdul wakes up as early as 5am in time to prepare for the Morning Prayer. He tells me, later, that his life and that of his boys depend on that Morning Prayer.
“You know you can tell what the weather would be like for the whole day by smelling the early morning dew?” He said this to me with a quick gesture of his hands. For emphasis, he turns his nose upwards at the cloud and sniffs at it. He looks back at me and smiles.
I sniff at my beer mug. He laughs and points a long, bony finger at me, in a warning gesture.
We are seated in a bar, somewhere on Elekahia road, Port-Harcout, about a stone throw from the train station. Abdul sits opposite me on a long couch. It is raining outside. The sound the rain makes when it makes contact with the roof is deafening. The other occupants of the bar are accidental customers too just like Abdul and I. Most are females. The few males include three middle aged men who appear to be together. These are seated on the same long couch that Abdul sits. They are talking to themselves. Two of them talk more while the one that sits in the middle appears to be listening to them. He seems older with this aura of authority on him that makes the other two submissive to him. Two other young men stand at the entrance of the bar. One is obviously enjoying the rain. He shifts his feet rhythmically to the music only he can hear. He has headphones plugged deep into his ears. He looks younger than the other man that stands beside him. This one looks worried. He watches the rain as if he is having a conversation with it; as if he is pleading with it to stop. The rain continues. Abdul and I make the total number seven. The females number up to twice the males. They cramp themselves on the other long couch. Those that can’t get a space on the couch stand behind it. Their hands at least get a space on the neck of the couch. They are chattering. All at the same time, they are chattering with themselves and they seem to be fine with it. The thick smell of boiling beef mixes with the various perfumes of the ladies. The bar doubles as a restaurant selling pepper-soup to its high-on-liquor customers. It is about a quarter past three in the afternoon on a rainy Friday and preparation is in top gear to get ready for the day’s business. Outside, in the thick of the rain, under some trees that has given up on providing shelter, Abdul’s cows stand in the rain. They are drenched to the skin. Yet they stand, betraying no emotions at all like they are soldiers on guard. Their distinct body odours waffle through the air and tickle our nostrils in the restaurant. We could have complained if we had been regular customers. But as it stands, we are at the mercy of the restaurant. None of us would have been in there at that present time if it hadn’t been for the rain. You see, the restaurant is beside the busy bus stop that we, the accidental customers, were standing before the rain started without warning. We all rushed inside to seek refuge from the rain.
We think it will be just a slight shower. And that it won’t last more than a few minutes. After twenty minutes, we are coyly reminded by one of the sultry waitresses that the rain won’t stop today. She says this about three times then she stylishly asks in a loud voice if she could get all of us something to drink. She says it in a way to imply that we are at this moment mandated to make an order. Two of the ladies immediately ask her for something soft to drink. She immediately reels out the names of the soft drinks available. The ladies settle for malt drink. The waitress beams a wide smile and rushes to supply them. As soon as she returns, she turns her attention to the men in the bar…
I pause to get my bearings. I look at my wristwatch. I relax now, knowing that I still have about two hours before I turn in my piece for the week. I smile as I remember how Abdul answered the overbearing waitress…
In a voice that sounds more like a command, the waitress, a quite cute but short girl, walks up to the section of the bar where I sit with Abdul and the other men and asks,
“What about you, Sirs?”
I am just getting to know Abdul. After we have exchanged pleasantries, I ask him his name. He tells me and asks for mine. I am about telling him when the waitress asks her patronising question. Abdul takes a long look at her and asks if she can serve him a very chilled, tall bottle of ‘fura.’ He says this with a straight face.
‘‘Fanta?’’ The sultry waitress is unsure.
Abdul repeats his order. He smiles at the waitress this time. The waitress shakes her head slowly at Abdul. Also, in that moment of confusion, she looks closely at Abdul and notices his unique style of dressing. Although simply dressed, Abdul’s dressing is unique. Dressed in the traditional attire of a real cow -boy from the north, he has a traditional long hat perched on his head. An armless, thin and silky top drabs his bony body. For pants however, he has a pair of worn out jeans that looks too short for his equally bony and long legs. He doesn’t mind the inadequate length though; he further rolls up the jeans up to his shin. He holds his long staff in his hands, props it rigidly between his legs. His posture assumes that of a sage.
“F-u-r-a.” Abdul repeats his order with the air of a patient father talking to his erring kid.
The waitress is now sure Abdul is speaking another tongue; what with his mode of dressing. He is definitely not a Port-Harcout person. She is however determined to get a deal out of him. So she tells Abdul in a shaky but quite loud enough voice that they don’t sell what he wishes to drink. Would he care for something else?
Abdul says no. He says it is either his very chilled tall bottle of fura or nothing. The unshaken resolve in his demeanour convinces the recalcitrant waitress that Abdul has given her his final answer. And so she transfers her aggression at me. She doesn’t ask me anything. She just looks at me in a manner that suggests it’s my turn to order for fura too. But I surprise her.
“A bottle of Harp, please.”
The other men quickly make their orders too and hurriedly return to their heated conversation. Abdul smiles as the waitress walks away. He asks me if it is not too early to drink. He says this in perfect English. I reply him in Pidgin English that it is too early in the day for the rain too. He laughs. Outside, the rain continues to pour with increased intensity. It is about forty minutes since it started. It is not showing any sign of abating. The cows still stand under the trees. Not as if the trees are providing the needed shelter from the rain. A few sit on the muddied ground. There are twelve of them; all fully grown. I think it will be very uncomfortable for someone to stand like that in the rain. Or sit. I ask Abdul whether he thinks otherwise. He doesn’t. He explains to me that it is the only way these cows get to have a good bath once in a while. How else do I think they get to take care of that important aspect of their lives? Or does he look like he handles that aspect of their lives to me? He asks me these questions with a large chuckle. Taking a great deal of time to sip little by little from my beer mug, Abdul and I talk about this and that while we wait for nature to finish its course.
He tells me a great deal about himself and his cows. He jokes about being a mobile millionaire.
“Each one of these boys costs two hundred and fifty thousand naira. You might want to consider a change in career.” During our talking about this and that, I had told him about my job as a columnist for one of the numerous newspapers in the country. He had chuckled and asked if I liked my job. Well, so so, could be better though, I said.
“I love my job. I love my boys. I cry sometimes when I sell one or two of them. You know, it is like selling a part of me. It is like selling a part of my childhood, you know. I watched them grow like I watched myself grow. But a man gotta do what a man gotta do, right?”
I raise my beer mug to that. He then proceeds to give me a crash course on how to raise cows. The most important skill is patience. It is we, humans, that are concerned about time. Animals can’t be bothered about trivial things like time. So you have to completely jettison the idea of time from your mind when dealing with animals.
“How do you do that? How do you black out the concept of time?” By now, this puny little cow-boy from the North is beginning to pique my curiosity. He looks every bit like an everyday cow-boy you see around in most parts of the country. These cow-boys are ordinary. They are mostly illiterate and oftentimes marinate in their illiteracy. But not so Abdul. He seems to know more than a handful and he’s quite comfortable with himself. He speaks fairly fluent English and pretends he doesn’t notice that I am replying him in Pidgin sometimes. Clearly, he’s trying to make a point. Hey, you think I don’t understand English, huh? You must be thinking like the others already. I assume that is what is going on in his mind right about now. Of a truth, I don’t think highly of cow-boys. I mean, who does?
Outside, the rain is subsiding. The clouds are moving out of the sky and glorious tiny sparks of golden arrows are flying down to earth as the sun prepares for its emergence. In a few minutes, the rain will stop completely and the magnificent sun will first pop out its shiny head like a baby coming out of its mother. It will gradually reveal itself bit by bit even as it claims the sky; letting down more glorious sparks of arrows. Abdul’s boys too are shifting in their different positions. The ones that are sitting are getting up and the ones that are standing are beginning to move about. They are ready to move. But they have to wait for their master. It’s his call. Abdul doesn’t answer my question about time. Instead he asks me where I am headed.
“The train station.” I say. I have been instructed to cover the movement of the just completed railway that connects Port-Harcourt to Lagos. It is a huge success; a collaboration between seven states’ governments. Prior to this magnificent feat, a lot of talks have been done on this by the federal government, stating the importance of connecting all the states by railways. Because they (the federal government) always pay lip service to serious issues as long as it doesn’t affect the production of oil, the states’ governors of the country under the aegis of Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), decided to take the bull by the horns. The states spanning the distance from Lagos to Rivers states; Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers, took the first steps in actualising this dream. It is a month now since the railway started operation. It is still the talk of the town. It should be. So a train runs from Lagos to Port-Harcourt and back every two days with stop-overs at the states in-between this route. Other states are beginning to move in this direction. Already, the benefits are glaring for all to see. Hopefully, the people pray, the Governors’ Forum will shift its attention to the power sector after this.
“Oh great! My boys and I are on our way there too. We are going to Lagos.” Abdul enthused. They had all came all the way from Kano according to him about a week ago by the usual way. The usual way of transporting animals from one part of the country to another is by packing them in lorries and going by road. Most times men and beasts are packed together in a journey that can take days. The days can turn into a week sometimes because of some unforeseen occurrences that are unique to road transportation. These cow-boys don’t mind being house-mates with their cows for as long as it takes to get to their destination. While the northern parts of the country boasts of animal husbandry, the other parts boast of massive consumption and hence commerce. Hence, there is a commercial reason for the exodus of these cows and their accompanying cow-boys from the northern parts of the country to other parts. It is not a clean job, this movement of cows from the north to other parts of the country. It is messy. It is not a job for the broken-hearted. It is mainly a job for the uneducated ones because it requires brute force. In the days of yore, these cow-boys and their cows have been known to traverse the breadth and length of the country on foot. Legends have it that some of these boys were born on the road like the calves of their cows. A whole family will move with their cows in search of pasture and sale from one state to another for months and sometimes years, procreating as much as their beasts along the journey. It is a way of life for some tribes in the north.
By now the rain has stopped. The customers of the bar are moving out one by one. Some of the females have made new friends; these ones move out in twos and threes even though they came in individually. I have a new friend too in Abdul. And I am excited about the prospect of our friendship. He is the first cow-boy that I will have as a friend. He walks out majestically towards his boys. They shift about softly and make ready for movement. They are pretty. They are pretty and big, looking well fed. Their long horns glisten in the sun and the large humps on their backs look like protruding rocks. I have never been this close to a large number of cows; a total of twelve. They are so cool. I fall in love with these adorable boys immediately. Abdul speaks sporadically in a native language at his boys for some few seconds as I watch in awe.
“Walk with us, please, my friend.” Abdul makes me an offer I can’t refuse. It is about a fifteen minutes’ walk to the train station from the bus stop. I know I will not see these boys again once they get on the cargo train. Spending fifteen minutes with them will be an honourable way of saying goodbye. Also, I get to be a cow-boy for that duration of time. The thrill itself makes me excited. I mean I get to control these big beasts with just a staff. It reminds me of Moses and his staff and the miracles he performed with it. And so I walk with Abdul and his cows.
He is the third child of a family of ten. And no, he is not Hausa as I have wrongly assumed. He is a Fulani. I apologize for my wrong assumption. I have always assumed that these cow-boys from the north are all Hausa descendants.
“Your other wrong assumption is that you think I am an illiterate, a riff raff.” He says this with a sly smile and looks at me as if he’s daring me to deny. I do not deny. He continues and tells me that he is a biologist, a graduate of Nigerian University. After the mandatory one year national youth service, he had decided to become a cow-boy.
“Not because there are no jobs. Of course there are no jobs in the country, but because I want to be an entrepreneur and own my own business. I grew up in an environment that taught me animal husbandry free of charge. It comes natural to me. My ancestors did this for a living and handed it down to posterity.”
He tells me how it would have been a ‘clean’ job if there were railways that connect the whole country. I admit with him. He likes his job, he says for the umpteenth time. Soon, he won’t have to move about this much. All he needs do is to put his boys on the cargo train to wherever the market is. He can decide to move with them or take the faster means of transportation. He says that is the most important aspect of the business; transportation.
“You think we like this, don’t you? This moving about on foot with cows for long distances? It is the way things are. If only we could build the railways ourselves…” He trails off. By now we have walked about ten minutes. We can see the railway in front of us. We hear the hustle and bustle of its surrounding from a distance. The cows are marching slowly by the roadside without much supervision from Abdul. As I notice, it is a common sight to see cows plying that route since the inception of the railway. Abdul gives me the staff to hold for a minute as he rummages in his tiny bag that is around his waist. And I become a cow-boy for about a minute or two as I guide the boys on. I feel powerful…
I will later help him and the railway staff put the cows safely in their section of the train where they had been booked a fully furnished coach. While we wait for the whistle to blow and the train to move, my friend and I talk more. I shamelessly indulge myself. Here I am, on an assignment to write a report about the railway but I am doing something better. Yes, Abdul is one of the beneficiaries of the project. It is quite heart-warming to see the enthusiasm Abdul put in his job. And it is inspiring to know that there will be more young educated people that will be willing to try their hands on jobs that they love when other sectors of the economy are fixed. I wonder if there were educated cab-drivers out there already. What about educated laundry men if the power sector is fixed? I wonder what it feels like to be an Abdul, an itinerant millionaire. We exchange phone numbers just in time before the whistle blows. And yes, he says he is on twitter and facebook.
“You will see a lot of pictures of my boys and the different places we have been to on facebook.”
I promise to check him out. The train finally moves and I am suddenly alone. Thoughts of Abdul and his boys keep me company for the rest of the day. At a point, I entertain the idea of a career change. Abdul will love that, I’m sure…
I look at my time. I am on time. Maybe I have learnt how to jettison the idea of time.
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