Thursday, 24 November 2011


I was travelling – very slowly- by car in Ilorin today when we were passed – almost equally slowly by a minibus full of people. On the side of the bus were painted the words ‘Saints on the Move’. To me it did not look much like the sort of tour bus that staff and players of either St Helens rugby league club or Southampton FC (nickname the 'Saints') would have chosen – unless those clubs were in dire financial straits. There were no  shining haloes, no cherubs strapped into their seat belts, no feathered angel wings nor wizened old men who looked as though they had come to a gruesome end  amongst the luggage bulging out of the back of the bus. As the bus eased past, it read across the back window: ’Missionary bus’.  I may be misguided or over-sensitive, but I feel somewhat uncomfortable about a level of missionary zeal that declares its own proselytizers to be saints! 
So who are these wondrous people, I wondered? They might indeed have been 'chosen' as their line of traffic seemed to be progressing a lot faster than ours, but I guess I'll never know.
It reminded me of that other window sign I saw that stated  ‘Jesus Saves’ and then underneath the team badge, ‘Chelsea’. What chance do the rest of the Premier  League stand if Chelsea have the Almighty playing for them.  In previous blogs I may have hinted at the observation that in general Nigerians are deeply religious – not necessarily spiritual.

My car journey ended in the office car park but before leaving the vehicle I was quizzed by the driver as to my own religious persuasion. He was greatly surprised by my reply and ended up laughing uncontrollably at my suggestion that some people don’t take the Bible literally and that heaven doesn’t lie somewhere high above the clouds.  VSO warns against getting involved in deep religious discussion, especially given current tensions in the country,  but I didn’t initiate this conversation and each answer I gave to his barrage of questions only seemed to produce more mirth and disbelief. 

There has been a spate of suspected ritualistic killings in Ilorin recently; although nothing has been reported in the local press, most people know about it by word of mouth and there is a feeling of unease and tension when you try to find out more. We know there have been four rapes/ murders in Sabo-Oke which does not make us feel too good and has confirmed to us that we are doing the right thing in leaving next month.  I briefly discussed this with my driver but his grim experssion told me not to go there so I just put up with his remaining questions : Was I a Christian? Did I believe in Allah? I answered ‘Yes’ to both. In the stunned silence that followed I said ‘Odabo’ (goodbye) and made my getaway.

For many people their faith is literal and unwavering and any attempt to follow through with a conversation on say, gay rights will result in quotes from the Bible and a complete, assured and unalterable belief  in their own position which leaves you a bit non-plussed. Anyway, in a country such as this, to have a firm belief in a higher power must be a great comfort - and I don't mean the government!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011



The Durbar festival dates back hundreds of years to the time when the Emirate (state) in the north of N igeria used horses in warfare. During this period, each town, district, and nobility household was expected to contribute a regiment to the defense of the Emirate. Once or twice a year, the Emirate military chiefs invited the var­ious regiments for a Durbar (military parade) for the Emir and his chiefs.

During the parade, regiments would showcase their horsemanship, their preparedness for war, and their loyalty to the Emirate – but sadly not their poo-picking skills. Today, Durbar has become a festival celebrated in honour of vis­iting Heads of State and at the culmination of the two great Muslim festivals, Id-el Fitri (commemorating the end of the holy month of Ramadan) and Ide-el Kabir (commemorating Prophet Ibrahim sacrificing a ram instead of his son, which his Mrs Ibrahim must have been dead pleased about – not to mention the son).

We recently attended the Durbar  festival in the Jigawa town of Dutse, perhaps not  the most mag­nificent or  spectacular in Nigeria, but still highly impressive and entertaining. Id-el-Kabir, or Sallah Day, begins with prayers out­side town, followed by processions of horsemen through the streets. Each surrounding village, town, district, and noble house is represented with riders and horses dressed magnificently. Last  to arrive, apart from the security jeep, is the Emir and his splendid retinue of guards and fan-wavers; they make their way to the front of the palace to receive the jahi, or homage, of their subjects. The whole  fanfare is intensified by drumming, dancing and singing – oh! and yes, the guy wearing shades and listening to his i-pod while rollerskating through the procession – a nod to the 21st century or just a local teenager getting in on the act?.

We did a lot of snapping and videoing and then noticed that at times the procession stopped so that those on horseback could take snaps of us!

In Katsina the festival begins with each group racing across the square at full gallop, swords glinting in the sun. They pass just few feet away from the Emir, then stop abruptly to salute him with raised swords. Failing to stop abruptly with raised sword would probably result in a life being stopped abruptly.

 After the celebrations, the Emir and his chiefs retire to the palace probably to watch African Magic or a Premier League Match (probably Chelsea), and have a nice cup of tea and a Hob Nob before going to bed.
 I was virtually instructed by a mobile TV crew  to be interviewed as the bature (white man –an old one at that) on the street. I spoke of the event in wondrous terms. ‘How would I set about advertising the event overseas?’ I was asked.  ‘Well actually that is not my job, thankfully, but before you can even begin to think in terms of mass tourism you’ve got to……’(don’t get me started!)

Monday, 14 November 2011


The term ‘Almajirai’ is a word borrowed from Arabic  that refers to  people who leave their home in search of knowledge of the Islamic religion. It is an ancient  tradition in northern Nigeria where is has acquired a rather sinister reputation founded on exploitation and injustice bordering on cruelty.

I first heard of the Almajirai during our recent stay in Jigawa when we were shown a DVD produced by Almajirai children themselves. For the Almajirai have had no voice. They are boys, usually, who , from the age of 4 or 5 and up to twenty, are taken by their parents away from the family home – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, to be placed in the home of a ‘mallam’ or Islamic teacher for the purpose of learning the Koran by heart in Koranic schools.

Perhaps a dozen boys will be provided with sleeping accommodation – no more than a mat and floor space in a room crowded with others. They receive no food and have no option but to beg .
Every morning they are sharply woken by an older boy wielding a whip or stick and quickly flow out into the street with their begging bowls where they are abandoned to fend for themselves. Scavenging from waste bins behind hotels and restaurants or in compounds is common, as is roadside  and door-to-door begging, and scrabbling round in markets for damaged or rotten fruit..
The entire system is unregulated and the mallams untrained, some running their schools in a ‘faginesque’ way, praising those who return with useful items and beating those who do not. There is a common belief among mallams that the more beatings they mete out, the more rewards they will receive in life, which is no consolation to the boys who, after an hour or two of begging must return to the school for prayer and lessons i.e. committing chapters of the Koran to memory – the school, often a shack made or rusted corrugated iron sheets, or a dark musty room in an abandoned building.  Several hours a day are spent reading and chanting the scriptures, sitting cross-legged, unkempt, unwashed with a small slate or torn scrap of paper with Koranic verse scribbled on it. Sometimes one-to-one with the mallam who will gauge their progress and administer punishment to those who do not meet expectations.  The threat of 100 lashes if they fail to recite a chapter accurately would, I imagine, focus minds intensely. The regime is harsh and unrelenting. An Almajiri boy has no rights and receives no respect; they are usually seem as a nuisance. Occasionally an Almajiri may strike lucky and be given alms or be taken in by a family to run errands, as a house boy or may get a job as a shop assistant but wherever they go, they are viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

Eventually, having graduated from the school, the boys are sent back to their families having had no useful education and completely unemployable. Having struggled to exist in the fast lane of urban life, they find it hard to settle back into rural life, estranged from their parents and siblings  and so drift back to the cities where their prospects are bleak – often a life of crime, or being the victims of crime.
In Kano alone it is estimated that there are 1.2 million Almajiri children. Some had been groomed by mallams as foot soldiers in religious clashes and sent to fight, and a real fear exists that Almajirai will be the breeding ground for future terrorists and suicide  bombers.

The State governments concerned pay only lip service to addressing the problem although there have been pilot programmes to try to integrate the Koranic schools into the state system.

So why do parents put their children through this suffering?  Some believe they will reap rewards in the after-life; others believe the official line that the children are being taught a true understanding of poverty and humility – I guess they are also learning about injustice, cruelty, intolerance and bigotry along the way too. Some families clearly see that off-loading children in this way means financial savings to impoverished households                                  
In Sokoto, VSO has provided funds for a shelter for Almajiri boys, but with an estimated 8 million of them in Nigeria, Niger and Chad, the problem seems only capable of being properly addressed at federal level.
The DVD, produced with help from the Goethe Institute in Kano, is the daily life story of Almajirai in their own words and according to their own direction and acting. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves a wide audience

Friday, 11 November 2011


(For all of us who were privileged to enjoy  Lucy and Lawrence’s hospitality in Jigawa this Sallah).


I rise and greet the half-light at Imam’s strident call

And wonder if my shirt and socks can last another day;

I unwind frustrations of an arid road as I sip and

Savour tea and oranges from afar

And  slowly  slowly slide

Into your deep cool shade.

I sit beside a well beyond the breakfast hour

Watching the gecko and the butterfly,

Trying to glimpse the small small bird with purple  voice

Through the mango-filtered light.

The dappled sun-splashed floor soaks up tales

And stories that come all the way from Ireland

As skills are shared  and lives we seek to change, and

With fine food and beer come all the way from Holland

We forget the hour but

I welcome that the day yet has time for me

To lie in hammock sway

Toasting tranquillity and companionship,

Gifts to us from Africa,

Till the night-birds song

With time of day forgot

And, for the moment , no reason to care

And every reason to belong.

Thanks to all for a fab experience


Wednesday, 2 November 2011


Just a quick note to let you know, if you have read the blog that is called  This Blog Contains Disturbing Material', that the head teacher at Pakata Girls School has declared that corporal punishment will no longer be tolerated in her school. Sincere congratulations, Mrs Y. - a bold step into the unknown for you and your staff and a huge forward step. I trust you are not contemplating capital punishment to replace it and that the information on Assertive Discipline proved to be useful bedtime reading - Ekuse!