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The Mother Ship
By Tracy Johnston, Produced by Jay Allison

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    Dry Spell
    The dry season in the rural farmland surrounding Kano.
    In l993 and again in l995 I spent several months in Northern Nigeria living with the Hausa-Fulani people. I went there as an adventurer, hoping to make my way to some place most westerners have never seen, but I ended up trying to find out what went on in bedrooms, behind closed doors. I was curious about sex, but I was even more curious about marriage -- everything that went on between husbands and wives. I ended up spending most of my time talking to university educated couples, because their marriages were so complex. They were upsetting their families by trying to change traditional roles, and were confused themselves. They had too many choices, too many customs to follow - Hausa, Western, and Islamic.

    This is a chapter-in-progress from that book - the one I wrote about my walk with Auwalu to his grandfather's village. I learned a lot about marriage from the secret Auwalu tells me at the end of this chapter - and some day I hope to be able to tell it.

    CHAPTER 23:
    Even on Your Deathbed You are Fine

    We drove a couple of hours south of the city on a major highway and then, in the middle of nowhere, Auwalu just turned the wheel and we bounced across the shoulder of the road and headed into the empty Sahel. The Beetle barreled across the sand, skirting around rocks and trees, until we came to an impassable gully and stopped.

    "It's not far," Auwalu said. "We can walk."

    The sun was orange from the dust in the air, but it felt clean, and there was a cool breeze rustling the grasses and raising the hair on my prickly, damp, skin. This was the first time since I'd been in Africa that I felt as if I were in the fabled birthplace of man. Finally, the vista I'd heard so much about - the great African emptiness.

    As we walked towards the village, we began to hear animals - the brays and squawks of donkeys, goats and guinea hens. Then, in front of us, like a mirage, appeared an old man and a young boy - both barefoot and wrapped in rough cloth and surrounded by a dozen or so beautiful, hump-backed, long-horned cattle. They were "pastoral" Fulani returning home for the rainy season.

    The old man and Auwalu went through the usual lengthy Hausa greeting -- talking over each other, not stopping to hear each other, as if their voices were musical instruments and they were playing a duet. Afterwards, when I asked Auwalu what he and the old man had talked about, he said, "Tracy, you know this already: It's always the same. How is my health? How is my family? How is my sleep? He even asked how is the tape recorder that you are carrying. And my answer was always 'fine.' Even if you are on your deathbed you are 'fine.' You have to look at all the things you possess to make sure that every one of them is 'fine.' In fact.."

    Here he broke off and laughed. My stomach had given a very audible growl.

    "You're in luck, Tracy," he said. " Food is no problem. I can dig up a cassava and cook it for you right now. He squatted down in the sand and outlined a circle with his hands.

    "You dig a small hole and put some cornstalks in it. And then you make a fire and remove the ashes. You put in the cassava, cover it with sand, and in five minutes -- voila! You have a perfectly cooked cassava."

    "That's the stuff I call cardboard paste?"

    "And I know a place farther on where there are some good eating turtles."

    I made a face, imagining ripping the shells off turtle flesh, but Auwalu ignored me and we continued walking.

    "Now we are very close," he said. "Can you see that Baobob tree? That is where my grandfather is buried. But I have to say, I am confused; everyone must have moved. My great aunt's house used to be right here."

    "How easy is it to move?"

    "You just pick a spot of land near where you want to farm. Everyone brings thatch, the men bring rope, the women cook the food, and the boys help dig a small trench for the foundation. It doesn't take more than a day.

    "But how..."

    "Wait a minute, Tracy Now I am worried. This used to be a pond full of turtles: there were hundreds of them sitting in the sun. And also, the fields have no sprouting seeds. I wonder if there is a drought."

    We found the first compound by walking towards the sound of laughing children - it was just three round huts and two small granaries. Two old women came out to greet Auwalu --pinching their noses and emitting the high, loud, celebratory cry called ululation. In a few minutes perhaps nine more women appeared along with dozens of children. Auwalu started laughing and never stopped. After a few minutes he tried to translate for me:

    "I used to farm here in the summers, so they are teasing me about running away from my farm."

    "She is saying, 'Why did you come here? Did you lose your way?"

    "She is asking who am I? She can't recognize me."

    "And this one is saying she is disappointed. From what she heard someone had dropped down from the moon."

    For about ten minutes Auwalu and the women kept up the intensity of their teasing. The joy and laughter was non-stop. The men of the village were gone, it turned out - they had walked to a men's-only Naming Ceremony in another village.

    Finally Auwalu told me that a baby had been born that very morning and said we were invited to see it. The women led us to a tiny, round hut, whose door was so small I had to enter on my hands and knees. Inside, everything was dark, and so hot the air felt like a living, breathing presence. When Auwalu handed me a tiny, sleeping, baby, I felt as if I were with it in some kind of primal womb.

    When my eyes adjusted to the light, I made out a small bed and a stack of calabashes and finally saw a small boy sleeping on the dirt floor just inches from my feet. Then, in the back of the hut, I saw the mother, sitting on a stool next to the bed. Her back was facing me.

    Auwalu crawled in next to me and said something to the mother. She turned half way around on her seat. She was a child, no more than fourteen.

    "Ah-h-h-h," said Auwalu. "This must be her first baby.

    "Tell her her baby is beautiful," I said.

    "Auwalu said something in Hausa but the young mother gave no response.

    "She will not say much" Auwalu said quietly.

    "Why not?"

    "Because she is being very modest, very shy."

    "Can you tell her I think she's very strong to be up and dressed. After giving birth American mothers stay in bed."

    Auwalu started to translate, but stopped after half a sentence. "If I compliment her, she will be embarrassed. The compliments should go to the midwife or to her mother, or to her female relatives. If I compliment her she will just avoid us."

    Finally, when the heat began to overwhelm me, I offered the baby to the mother. To my surprise she turned away.

    "See?" Auwalu said. "She will not take her baby."

    "This is first child avoidance?"

    "That's right."

    "I don't understand it," I said, grouchily. A mother should be able to love her very first baby"

    "She will love it, but only in private."


    "She cannot show you that she thinks her child is special; she must say it is of no importance. It is not hers; it belongs to the family. This is part of the process of group socialization."

    I nodded, but I suspected there was more to it than that. In Hausaland, girls were traditionally trained not to have any personal desires. Once they got married they had to obey their husbands and ask for nothing from him other than food and shelter. Forcing a girl not to care about her first baby might be one way to teach this extreme form of stoicism.

    Before we left the compound, Auwalu tapped my arm and nodded at an older woman who's right nipple was encrusted and dripping fluid.

    "She says something is wrong with her breast. Do you think that's breast cancer?"

    "I don't know."

    "She says she is nursing, but only from the other breast."

    "Wow. I thought she was a grandmother. Can we take her to a doctor?"

    "We could, but she probably won't go."

    "Why not?"

    "I can give you some answers, Tracy, but none of them are good enough. What we say about our rural relatives is that they are very simple. Unless she is in great pain, this woman will die happy. If death comes, she will just say it is her time."

    I had heard the word "simple" a lot in Hausaland. It did not mean dumb; in fact, it was a word of praise. A simple person wasn't materialistic or aggressive or pretentious, and required only the small pleasures of daily life.

    The present Emir of Kano was not a simple man - he had been an ambassador and traveled widely and was rarely seen without an entourage of praise singers. He made official visits in a caravan of 2,000 men on horseback, and went on television every few months to ask Muslims to "practice patience." But the Emir before independence had been an extremely simple man and because of it, much loved. He almost never traveled abroad, took no concubines, and said he was happiest back in his village , tending the flowers in his garden.

    I wasn't a simple person, of course: I had my own agenda; I had a lot of needs and wants. Men in the city were afraid that I would give "ideas" to their wives, and they were right. In a tribal world I was an intruder. Already some people had cast me out.

    It was starting to get dark so Auwalu and I left; we had another branch of the family to visit. The slap-slap of our sandals as we walked on the soft sand mingled with the din of frogs and crickets. A young boy joined us for awhile and told Auwalu he had heard there was rioting in Lagos because Abiola had been thrown in prison. Auwalu said he wasn't worried about Kano; no one in the north cared about politics.

    I asked Auwalu to tell me about the trees I'd been seeing. Although the Sahel felt ancient and looked unspoiled, I knew it was as carefully managed as an European vineyard.

    Auwalu pointed out an enormous mango tree that had been imported from India because it's fruit was as smooth as the finest custard. Next to it was a locust bean tree whose leaves were pounded and used in African "soups" or sauces. There was a kapok tree, used to make cloth, and a Neem tree which provided quinine as well as twigs for toothbrushes. The Acacia thorn trees had been planted for shade because they lost their leaves in the rainy season when the crops needed full sun. There was a Dorawa tree whose bean shells were pounded to make the wash that preserved mud walls, and a Baobob tree -- "Sentinel of the Savannahs" -- which looked like a childhood monster tree with its odd tufts of leaves and gnarled branches.

    Suddenly, there it was again. A ululation: Le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le! Le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le! Le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le!

    When we got to the compound I decided to stay in the background time and let Auwalu bask in the celebration. At one point he looked over the heads of the women at me and I shouted: "I'm getting a contact high."

    He looked puzzled for a moment and then threw his head back and laughed. "This," he said, "is the great drug of Africa."

    That's what I loved about him - he got it.

    By the time we walked back to the first compound the men had returned and were washing for evening prayers. They stood up to greet Auwalu, but spoke quietly. Auwalu quickly sat down and did his ablutions.

    While the men were praying I sat by myself perhaps five yards away -- awash in sensual pleasures: the cool breeze that never made it through the streets of the city; the canopy of stars that floated above the blue-black night; the nasal sounds of Arabic that captured an unspecified kind of longing - for God, for purity, for goodness, for grace. It was as if the earth had been released from some vice.

    Richard Leaky says the feeling of recognition westerners have when they come to Africa is a kind of "genetic memory," close to the instinct that makes homing pigeons come home. I'd had the feeling before, when I'd been wakened by the first slants of sun in the Sierra Nevada mountains and stretched in my sleeping bag like a sleepy lion.

    Perhaps on the walk back to the car, I told myself, I'd ask Auwalu to tell me the story he'd been avoiding.

    We started out talking about his visits to the village and I asked if he felt guilty for not coming more often.

    "Frankly speaking," he said, "I do feel guilty. And if the men had been there when we arrived I would have felt even worse. Everyone would have been pooling their eggs and trying to catch a guinea hen and we wouldn't have been able to leave without a feast."

    "Do you think the women were trying to make you guilty?"

    "Not really. I feel as if they were telling me I am wanted. They were telling me I can't take them for granted. They were telling me if I don't visit them more often, one day I will come and find that nobody knows my name. And that's the truth. They are right. During the Second Republic when the Nigerian government was encouraging educated northerners to go into politics, the village wanted me to represent them as a son of the soil and run for office. I was coming here then to farm in the rainy season, planting a new strain of seed distributed by the World Bank. By not keeping up that kind of contact with the village I have already given up that political possibility. What I want to do now is keep my identity with the village on a personal level.

    "You mean, establish your ancestry?"

    "You see, for awhile I was completely confused about my identity. I had spent all my time on the road and didn't really have a home. But now, if I want to prove that I am a Nigerian, I can come to this village and the people here will know me and can name my father and my grandfather and my great grandfather and maybe even those who came before him. "

    "What was so apparent," I said, "is how much you are loved."

    "Tracy, that is it. I am really loved. They love me and I feel the reflection of their love for my mother and grandfather. I'm sorry you couldn't be here in the l970s when the village was larger, when the sons didn't have to go to the city to find work. You could just feel the extended family all around you; you could feel it deep in your bones. We have a Hausa proverb, "Any bastard knows the house of his father," which means that if you don't know where to go at the end of the day you will feel empty."

    "What else do you miss about rural Africa?"

    "I miss the food. We cook the same food in the city, in the same way, using the same ingredients, only it tastes completely different. I think it must be because here they use only ash pots and cook over a fire made of cornstalks, which is smoky. I love the taste, and I miss it."

    "Why don't you come here more often? Is it that after awhile there's nothing to talk about?"

    "No. There is always something to talk about. You talk about domestic things. And it takes your mind away from the stuff you crack your head analyzing in the city: things like the Structural Adjustment Program and the World Bank. Here they make you feel like there are no problems in the world at all. And there are no hard feelings whatsoever. You may have more money than they do, but they don't care. They have no electricity, no water. They don't care. Things are very simple. They don't have to travel eight kilometers to buy a baguette, spend 100 Naira to buy butter, and travel another eight kilometers to go home and put the bread in an oven. They are completely satisfied to just dig up a cassava and sit down on the ground to cook it. So at the end of the day you start to wonder why you've been worrying yourself over things that to them are just...nothing."

    We were walking easily in the moonlight now, avoiding the scrub-brush and erosion gullies. A cobweb draped like a silvery thread over Auwalu's ear and his white teeth seemed luminous, like seashells or pearls. I knew there would never be a better time to ask Auwalu about the fight with his family - why he'd never taken me to the big family house at Kofo Mata. I needed the story for my book, even thought I didn't want to disturb what Hausas call "the softness." Also, I was afraid he might tell me and then ask me not to write about it, leaving me with an ethical dilemma. I saw Auwalu mostly as a trickster character, as he must have been on the road with his grandfather: picking up new languages and new ideas like so much candy; making up a life for which there was no precedent; plowing through the centuries so gracefully that no one noticed he left a broken wake, like an ice-breaker. But there were times when I was afraid of forces too complex for either of us to understand, and that using him as a character in my book might be one of them. I wasn't sure I could trust myself.

    But I decided to take the plunge. After walking in silence for a moment or two, I asked him about his family feud.

    "You see Tracy, I can tell you the story, but I will have to make sure you don't write about it."

    "That's what I was afraid of."

    "Unfortunately, I must ask for your promise."

    "Maybe I could change the details.."

    "You can't change them enough. The person I'm worried about would recognize it."

    "Maybe that person can take care of himself."

    "That person is Sa'a."

    "Oh." Sa'a was Auwalu's wife.

    He started the story and continued it when we got into the car and drove into town amidst the blinding full-beam headlights. But for once I didn't notice the shadows that streaked by the windows. I was in another world altogether: inside the crowded Kawu house by Kofo Mata. I was in a family meeting that had been called just to talk about Auwalu and Sa'a. I listened without taking notes and at the end of the story I understood that Auwalu was trying to bridge more centuries than I had ever imagined. I knew, too, that if he had told me the story earlier, I would not have been able to understand it.

    Back in my room that night, with Kano still peaceful despite rioting in the south, I lay on my bed under the long-stemmed fan and let everything about Auwalu's personal story come together. I had the dramatic thread that would pull together all the themes of my book and I knew that some time, in some way, I would find a way to use it. Someday the cameras would whir and the people would huddle in the darkness and the scroll of the sky would roll back to let in a storm. And in the rain and thunder one little secret could be cast off.

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    Copyright 2000 The Kitchen Sisters