Autumn in Nigeria

Mind’s Eye Radio Broadcast, 2002.

I was ten when we moved from Wisconsin to Zaria, Nigeria. Zaria is an old city surrounded by a wall with seven gates, and was named after Princess Zaria. But we actually don’t live in Zaria. We live on the campus of Amadu Bello University. Samaru Village is closer to us than the city. Ruth lives in Samaru. Ruth is English.

I love England, partly because my best friends are English, mostly because of books.

Autumn in England means rain all the time. People wear cardigans, and magic could take you through a wardrobe to a place where animals talk. In Wisconsin, it sometimes rains in the fall, but there are no wardrobes – magic or not.

Maybe someone in Zaria has a wardrobe, but autumn is the dry season. It gets drier and drier and drier as Harmattan winds fill the air with dust off the Sahara.

One hot, dry, dusty day in November, I decided to live in England. I was at Ruth’s house. As we passed through her bedroom, I spotted a book that I hadn’t read: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“Can I read this?” I asked.

“All right,” she said, “but not now. I want to work on the house.”

We were building a lean-to playhouse under her baobab.

Ruth’s baobab is a queen tree. Its trunk is huge, bigger around then a Nigerian mud hut and as tall as the sky. Flying buttress roots like thick, grey wings run down to the ground from up where its huge branches start. Two flying buttress roots make a space big enough for three or four kids to play in. During the rainy season, it grows fruit like green footballs on twisting green ropes.

In November, the rains are long over.

Just then Ruth saw her brother near our baobab house. She ran out to chase him off. I followed, but I was already reading as I walked. At the edge of the veranda, I sat down.

Ruth chased her brother around for a while. Then she called me, “Leave that book and come here.”

“But I want to finish this chapter,” I said.

When I read, it was frosty winter with crisp, cold air that squeaked in my teeth and pine tree smells. I wore a heavy fur coat and a mug of milky tea warmed my cold hands. But when I looked up, I had to wipe sweat out of my eyes, under me was the veranda floor of baked red clay, and a hot breeze teased the edge of my short cotton dress. I shuffled my sandals in red Nigerian dirt, while the Saharan dust in the air made me sneeze.

I had to go to England.

Ruth and her brother turned their chase into hide-and-tag around the baobab.

baobab tree by Quinn Norton [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Baobab, Quinn Norton

At least Ruth had a baobab and a veranda. It wasn’t fair. Her bedroom opened directly outdoors, onto the veranda. Mine opened into a big hall.

Ruth had a big dirt yard around a queen baobab. My house hugged a tame, little garden of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and flame trees.

It wasn’t fair. If I had to live in heat and dust, at least I ought to get a veranda and a baobab.

I looked at my book. Leaves turned color, people put on coats, and snow fell. I looked up. The sky was a hazy white-blue, and the yells of Ruth and her brother sounded thin in the dry, hot air.

“You said you’d play a long time ago and you’re still reading,” Ruth stood at my side frowning in her best schoolmistress imitation.

I sighed and marked my place. Some day, I would leave heat and dust to live in a country with snow and wardrobes. Just then, I was going to play tag around the baobab.