Mind’s Eye Radio Broadcast, 2001.
We used to live in Wisconsin. Now, we live in Northern Nigeria. At first, we lived in Kano because our house in Zaria wasn’t ready.
Kano is the last stop for camel caravans that cross the Sahara. Or maybe the first stop for caravans going the other way. So Kano has a huge camel market.
But Northern Nigeria isn’t actually in the desert. There aren’t too many trees, but it’s not real desert, either. There is just bare red dirt with a few thorn trees and bushes scattered around. Most Nigerian buildings are made of mud, not wood. Even Mosques with their tall spires that loom over everything.
Nigerians call the land between towns “the bush.”
When our house was ready, we moved to Zaria. Well, not actually in Zaria. Our house is on the campus of Amadu Bello University outside the city. Zaria is just as hot and dry as Kano, but there are more trees. At least, there are on the campus. The bush is pretty much the same.
Our house has a lot of trees. There are three flame trees in the roundabout outside our front door. They are kind of spindly, but easy to climb, and have big green feather leaves and huge seed pods. Tom, our cook, starts the wood stove with flame tree pods. We only heat hot water on the wood stove because we have two electric stoves.
But the electricity goes out every Sunday. Sunday is Sam’s day off because he is a Christian. So if any cooking is going to be done, Mom has to do it, and she has to use the wood stove.
We don’t eat a lot of cooked meals on Sunday.
One of the roundabout flame trees has branches that grow over the roof of our house. Sometimes, I climb onto the roof from that tree. There’s a good view from up there, but it’s really hot in the sun with no shade.
Our house has an ‘el’ shape. The el makes two sides of a walled garden that holds more flame trees and a bunch of hibiscus bushes. The garden walls are covered with purple and pink bougainvillea, but hibiscus flowers can only grow at the tip tops of the bushes. Our pet duiker, Dab-Dab, eats all the flowers that try to grow lower down. A duiker is a kind of miniature antelope.
Except, the flame trees in the garden are no good for climbing. For one thing, everyone in the house can watch you. For another, our parrot, Aku, lives in those trees. He bites.
There really is only one great climbing tree — the persimmon-nut tree by the drive. It has green nuts the size of big marbles. Under a hard shell, there is stringy nut-flesh that is creamy sweet and tastes like persimmons. The Nigerians collect persimmon-nuts for ju ju, that is magic, and sell them in the ju ju market.
The pods on the next tree are also good for ju ju, but that tree has ants. You can’t climb it unless you want to be bitten by ants. Across the drive is another tree that looks like it would be good to climb, but it’s Abdul’s tree, like his house. It wouldn’t be polite to climb his tree, so I never have.
Abdul is our maguarde, the man who guards the house at night. He’s from the desert, and wears a sword at his side, a knife on his arm, and a knife on his leg. Maybe he has a knife on each leg. He laughs a lot and teases me. Not in English. I talk English and he talks his language. It takes a lot of hand signals.
Abdul sleeps on a mat under his tree. He has a little stove to cook and boil water for lemongrass tea that he picks from the lemongrass bushes that line our drive. Sometimes, Abdul has friends over. They sit on mats, drinking their tea, talking and laughing. Women walk by carrying food on their heads in bright enamel bowls. The women sell food to Abdul and his friends – maybe deep-fried dough in palm oil and pepper sauce.
That food looks pretty good, but my dad won’t let me eat any food from street sellers, and we never drink lemongrass tea. I wish I were one of Abdul’s friends so I could sit with him, eating and drinking tea.
Our yard is typical red Nigerian dirt. I’m not supposed to play in the dirt or go barefoot. If you walk barefoot, hookworms go into your feet and grow big in your stomach. Then you get really sick. So I wear shoes all the time. Only Stanley, our steward, won’t let me climb trees wearing shoes.
He says it’s not safe to climb trees except in bare feet so you can grip the tree with your toes. I say what about sneakers, they have grip. He says no, only bare feet.
You can always tell when kids are climbing a tree because there is a little pile of shoes at the bottom. I’m pretty good at sliding out of a tree to land on my shoes without letting my feet touch the dirt.
It’s easy to climb up the persimmon nut tree because the trunk splits in three near the ground. My favorite branch is straight ahead. It is wide and flat, so you can practically walk up. Near the top is a small fork surrounded by leaves. Sitting there, I can see Abdul asleep on his mat. He curls up facing the house with his tree in between. I can just see the bottom of his robe and his feet.
The bottoms of Abdul’s feet are flat and tough from always walking barefoot, and lighter than his other skin, but not pink like the palms of his hands. Dark skin looks even richer against pink palms. Once I was walking in the market and reached for something. When I saw my hand, it made me stop. I didn’t even know what I was looking at. I’d forgotten how pale we all are. My skin was so weedy, like a ghost, like it wasn’t even the skin of a human person.
I wish I had rich dark skin like Abdul’s.
It is very peaceful in the persimmon-nut tree. I look off over red dirt fields with stubble rows of guinea corn. The air is hot and full, holding me like a giant pillow, and Abdul’s robe makes little flap-flap noises against his mat. I feel safe, even with women chattering beneath me as they collect persimmon-nuts for ju ju.
I don’t know if Abdul can see me in the tree, but I expect he knows where I am. Like a guardian angel. You don’t see him watching over you, but he is.
Abdul says his prayers under his tree. Muslims pray five times a day facing Mecca. They kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground. It’s really important, but Abdul doesn’t make a big deal about it. When it’s the right time, he quietly goes ahead and prays.
I wonder if Muslims ask God for stuff when they pray like Christians do. If I were praying, I would ask God to let me stay up here in this tree for always.