By and large the people of this region are working hard but are mostly stuck in a time warp. You cannot uproot them from what they know and are used to – not even with technology. That wouldn’t be fair. Technology can allow them dry their tomatoes faster, or pick their beans but decades of visionlessness means that millions will become unemployed.
My recent visit to Katsina is my second in about eight years. I first visited to condole with the Yar’Adua family upon the passing of President Umaru, the gentle. I didn’t actually meet the man while he was alive, but the haranguing by Nigerians drew me to him and I felt he was most unfairly treated by us. Story for another day. In that visit, I arrived a bit late and couldn’t see much of the town. I went prepared this time, even though the first visit was most enjoyable for the serenity of the place. We hadn’t lost our innocence as a people then. Boko Haram came later, but Katsina is one of the safe States till date.
The road to Katsina is mostly good but for the now disgraceful Abuja-Kaduna express road, which is presently undergoing rehabilitation. From Kaduna through Zaria, and then through Kafur, Malumfashi to Katsina is mostly great road. The road network within and leading out of Katsina is indeed great. The region is helped by a weather that allows roads to last, plus the roads were well-built in the first place.
Armed with my amateur camera and a clear mind, I was prepared to capture interesting sights as we rode along. I was interested in knowing how the locals of northern Nigeria manage their lives. We stopped and filmed a group of people trying to build a mud house. Two rooms. Total cost: N200,000 from foundation to roof to windows. Delivered (I can link you with the building contractor at your request). If you need a latrine attached to your house, plus soak-away, you can add N30,000. We watched them measure the ground. Here, there are no unnecessary building codes, and no village planning. They just get by somehow.
Next to Kafur, where we saw a sea of tomatoes being sun-dried. This covered a space larger than three football pitches. It takes 10 days for the tomatoes to dry. The locals prefer the dried tomatoes for cooking. The tomatoes need to be sliced in two to allow for proper drying and not cooking. I understand that Erisco was to build a tomato paste factory around the corner but the project may have fallen through. Dozens of young boys sat under the scorching sun, slicing away and placing the half tomatoes face up in the sun.
…these are people who will go to any length to help you; who feel like they are your kin, even if they’ve never met you; who are not suspicious that you would harm them just because you parked a car and need directions. There is respect in the North. Mutual respect. The real locals are guileless. They betray no prejudices at all.
Before I continue, let me say that I am always so touched by the simplicity, friendliness, in fact some sort of infectious innocence of locals in northern Nigeria each time I’ve been there. Nothing can suggest to you that this is a dangerous zone. Absolutely nothing. I confess I haven’t been there at any time when people went crazy, though it’s obvious that politics – for power through religion, or tribalism or whatnot – could be used to manipulate these poor people at any point in time. Otherwise, these are people who will go to any length to help you; who feel like they are your kin, even if they’ve never met you; who are not suspicious that you would harm them just because you parked a car and need directions. There is respect in the North. Mutual respect. The real locals are guileless. They betray no prejudices at all.
Even the police in northern Nigeria have immense respect for Nigerians. In the stretch of say 1,000 kilometres from Abuja to Katsina and back, never were we harassed for once by any policeman. We weren’t even pulled over by any team that may claim it wants to check your vehicular documents. The police were friendly. All the mutual hatred and suspicion between the people and the police that we see down South was not there at all. I could never drive between Akure and Abuja without being stopped at least 10 times by aggressive policemen who would want to make your life hell or wring money out of you. I didn’t see that annoying hunger and lack of dignity the police – and other services – display down South. These same policemen get posted to the North and suddenly behave themselves. I still need to find out why, and how. Even the culture of horn blaring is absent in these parts. People seem more patient behind the wheel, even though the accident rate is high – I hear that tramadol and codeine plays a part in these, especially among commercial drivers.
On my way to Katsina, I also branched at a farm where children and women were picking beans. They all ran away upon sighting my camera and didn’t warm up to us until I gave a small token. I wouldn’t know why. I was merely fascinated that all those people were working so hard, on a Sunday. They don’t understand the concept of Nigeria’s weekly breaks in these parts. Those who need to work – in their farms or for pay – just got on with the work. My fear for them though, is that they could never earn enough to survive in this our expensive globalised world. These were people who could do backbreaking work for N200 a day. How would they handle a major health crisis, or afford electricity from a modern-day power distribution company (DisCo), manned by tie-wearing, Harvard-flaunting executives who need to declare billions of naira at the end of the year?
Oh, and by the way, it is easy to see why necessity has made them good farmers in the North. Rafis – some sort or artificial ponds – dot the road sides every 500 metres. These are large basins where rain water deposits. Though the waters eventually dry up, but it affords the farmers some stretch of dry season farming. Remarkable. I just discussed with an agriculturist in my office this moment and we wondered why we haven’t done something similar in the South. He said that was the FADAMthat A project and that the World Bank pulled out at the stage when the third phase should be in the South. I then wondered, why with all our professors and technocrats, we needed the World Bank to give us this kind of idea. It must be because we believe we have no problem.
…I suggest a gradual, determined, approach, whereby we can introduce innovation, while investing in better living for these people. That way, this growing generation can add value to their societies and to Nigeria as a whole. The World Bank Human Capital Index scores Nigeria 34 per cent, meaning that a child born in Nigeria today has only 34 per cent chance of achieving full potential.
My one night stay in Katsina was eventful. My good old friend, Danad, showed up. He hosted our entire team in his house! Mennnn. Hospitality that puts one to shame. He even paid for my stay at the hotel! Why? Our ANRP guys also showed up big time. They were organised and the event was amazing. I felt like an important man, right in the president’s backyard. Twice I’ve been in Katsina. Twice I’ve loved the place.
On my way out next morning, we had the opportunity to view the schools. It was Monday. I first noticed many students trekking or cycling to school. Contrary to the idea that children are reluctant, what I found was that they were eager to learn. I then branched in one primary school to see what went on there. The teachers were friendly and wanted to really show us around. They explained their challenges without being disdainful. All the students lined up outside for inspection. Most of them were very neat. This is what education is about; the chance to interact, socialise, make friends, be children. But I notice they could do with a bit more hard teaching so that the education will become ingrained in their minds. There were no chairs or tables at all in the first school we checked. But I saw a remarkable thing; the Ministry of Education had made a provision for pre-school learning for children under the age of five. I met them singing… in English. This is a great innovation because its important to catch them young. Leaders in northern Nigeria should take better notice of education in that region. All the children need is a bit more attention and some direction. They want to learn. They want to catch up with children in other places. In their eyes I see that innocence. They want to be world changers. They want a better nation and they believe they can get it done if given a chance.
From one school to another was the same story. No chairs, no tables. Not even a place in the classroom for a teacher to organise himself and deliver teaching. School, on that Monday, was a great big, playground. Only the brightest of minds will come out of such situation and excel academically. For about two hours I drove within Katsina, and the children were still outside, either strolling to school or wherever, or just playing in the field. A child will have to teach himself/herself in these circumstance.
Well, this is what I can remember for now. By and large the people of this region are working hard but are mostly stuck in a time warp. You cannot uproot them from what they know and are used to – not even with technology. That wouldn’t be fair. Technology can allow them dry their tomatoes faster, or pick their beans but decades of visionlessness means that millions will become unemployed. So I suggest a gradual, determined, approach, whereby we can introduce innovation, while investing in better living for these people. That way, this growing generation can add value to their societies and to Nigeria as a whole. The World Bank Human Capital Index scores Nigeria 34 per cent, meaning that a child born in Nigeria today has only 34 per cent chance of achieving full potential. Not an enviable figure at all.