I was four going on to five when my Dad – a Major in the Nigerian army at that time was posted to Kaduna city – a beautiful city in northern Nigeria. I haven’t been there in a long while, so I don’t know how it is now, you know with all the terrorism caused by fanatic religious groups. My mom and my three other siblings along with my most favorite cousin of all time, aunt Dupe (she’s five years older than me, but I call her ‘aunty’ because in the Yoruba culture everyone older than you by one year automatically becomes titled with aunty and uncle *shaking my head – by the way, she hated it when we titled her name) and her mom all tagged along. During our short visit, we stayed in this cute house in the government reserved area (GRA). It had two bedrooms and a living area with a kitchen and a dining area that was adjoined to the living room. The house smelled of ripe guava and blackcurrant juice, and ….happiness. In the mornings, it was always cold, and my siblings and I and aunt Dupe would cuddle up under the blankets, and when we woke up, there was always warm Milo – a chocolate drink – waiting for us in the dining area. Till date, that visit is still one of my most happy childhood memories. Until then, I had never visited anywhere outside Nigeria, so this visit was for me my abroad/overseas experience, and years later, when my classmates bragged about visiting London or America etcetera, I too would say I had visited London :). Kaduna was my own London, (I say it with pride) and even now, it remains so (as I’ve still never been to London)
Anyway, living in the back quarters was this family of eight. They were Fulanis, but they spoke Hausa, and you didn’t have to look them twice to know that they were poor. Very poor. Their clothes were worn, and you could sometimes see healed sores on the skin on some of the children. They all lived in the one bedroom that made up the back quarters, and the children were all girls, but they all seemed to be the same age…my age. Of course, I knew they all weren’t my age otherwise that would make them octuplets… which I also knew they weren’t. But one of the signs of poverty is malnourishment and when one is malnourished, it leads to physical developmental delays, which was the case for these girls.
Yet, in spite of the poverty, you could tell that they were a happy family. The girls were always laughing, and making jokes. I didn’t understand a word of what they said, since they spoke in Hausa (I know it was Hausa because my Dad speaks the language very well and he would communicate with them this way), and I spoke only English and a very flawed Yoruba, but we would use our hands to communicate and my mom, ever the kind soul- my siblings and I call her the good Samaritan/ mother of the world – would send us off to play with them. Sometimes, she would ask us to deliver to them her prepared meals – and occasionally, the too-tight clothes my siblings and I could no longer wear.
I also remember that the girls had very long hair. Their skin, even though it was dry, – and carried scars from, I’m guessing measles or chickenpox- was a lovely yellow-brown. I also remember that they had brown eyes. As a child, I loved these girls. I loved their long hair and their straight noses. True we didn’t speak the same language, and true, I didn’t know their names, but there was an innocence there that brought joy in its wake…in the way we all dealt with each other. To me, they will always be dear friends, and years later, I often wondered about them…wondered what became of that beautiful family.
During a Romance Writers of West Africa Writing challenge spurred on by Kiru Taye, it was the memory of these girls that helped me to write the story The officer’s Bride. Initially, the name of my protagonist was Zainab, but then, I was researching names and came across the name Nafisah. According to Baby names country, Nafisah means precious gem, and since reminisces of these girls remain precious to me, I decided to go with the name Nafisah. Set in the nineties, the Officer’s bride is the story of Nafisah, a Fulani woman whose family was violently taken away from her, but who later found love in the arms of Eddy, a powerful man in the Nigerian army. I can only hope these girls found as much love as Nafisah did.
Wherever they are, my heart hopes the best for them.