Fresias

Around 300 million people worldwide are affected by Malaria and 1.5 million people die every year from this illness.    The majority who die are the children of Africa. Deaths linked to malaria in Africa are on the increase due to changes in the environment, movement of populations arising from political instability and civil strife.  The mortality rate has not been helped by the resistance of malaria to common and inexpensive medicines, resistance of mosquitoes to insecticides, and limitations in national health services.

Malaria keeps Africa’s people poor. It prevents adults from working and children from attending school. Each year a family spends several months’ earnings on malaria treatment and prevention. Malaria during pregnancy is also of great concern, since it adversely affects the mother’s health and may result in a baby born too small to survive.

Forget your Tsunamis, 9/11, 7/11, Islamic Jihads, Cancer, AIDs, Murderers, heart disease, smoking, drunk drivers or kids not wearing a crash helmet on their bikes.

Malaria remains the biggest killer in the world, yet you never see anyone collecting money for Malaria Charities do you?

I wonder why?

Having sorted out our hostage job, the team split up and the majority headed back to the UK by different routes.  However,  I had decided that as I was so near and as  it was her birthday, I would visit my big sister in Kaduna,  which is North Central Nigeria.

I use the term “near” in the African sense of the word of course as it is in fact about 1300km away from where I was.  What I mean is, that globally speaking, I was sort of in the neighbourhood, and besides which, it had been a while.  Of course I had not bargained on having a travelling companion, but Marianne the French Journalist was reluctant to be parted from me, a sentiment I could understand if I was a George Clooney look a like, but as I am not it was a little harder to understand.

Anyway, we got a flight to Lagos, hung around a bit and then another internal flight to Kaduna.  When I have been on these jaunts “abroad” people always say “Oh Norman you are so lucky to travel with your work”  Most people of course don’t know the exact nature of my work, and most cannot imagine the nature of the majority of travelling I do.  I know they have a mental image of UN reclining in the first class section of a luxurious wide bodied jet, heading somewhere exotic, and being served champagne and canapés, whilst watching the in flight movie with the charismatic and very smooth George C.

The reality is that I am usually en route to place they have never heard of and to more abject human misery.  In the process of getting there I often share my travelling arrangements with a vast number of goats, chickens and a variety of weirdos- most of who I have chosen to work with, but that’s not always the case.

We got to Kaduna quite late, butwithout incident.  It was a long haul and very hot and Frenchie was dead tired. Cyclops had booked me in at a hotel earlier in the week but had been unable to arrange an extra room for the traumatised French lady.  I did not think it would be too much trouble to get an extra room but I was wrong.  So we were forced into continuing our rather odd domestic arrangement and for some reason she was  pleased at not having to spend time on her own.  Apart from being good looking and having a wonderful pair of breasts (two fine girls as the Minx would say) she is quite easy company and so there was no strain.  Apart from when she had complained about my snoring, until I pointed out that it was my bed and it could be worse, it could be wind.

“If it bothers you just hold my nose till I shut up, dig me in the ribs or roll me over” I said.

“Ah non I cannot do that, it is cruel” she said in her so French accent

“No its not, I guarantee it will not wake me up and I will not regard it as being cruel.  Okay?” I reassured her

“Okay,  but….err”

“But what?” I asked

“What  if I snore?” She enquired hesitantly

“Madame, let me say, that you are a perfect bed partner and would never snore and if you did , I would revel in the music of your slumber”

“Oh Norman are you sure you are not French you are almost a poet?” she said slightly mockingly.

“Oh quite sure my petit chou-fleur”

“But you are so…..”

“But you do fart” I interjected

She gave me a playful slap and for the first time since we had rescued her she actually smiled, nay almost laughed.  Progress

So let me tell you a bit about Kaduna.  Well first off it is quite a big place and I think the official population is somewhere around 350.000 people.  However this is West Africa and it is hard getting th figure right and it could be a 100,000 higher.  It is the home of the Nigerian Military academy , is the administrative centre for this region of the country and is an important industrial and manufacturing centre.  It has always been a very important market place.

Unfortunately it is a town divided by religion.  Forget the troubles in Northern Ireland, that was kids play compared to this place.

The Christians live in the south and the Muslims live in the North.  For years everyone managed to sort of tick along.  It was not perfect but everyone got by, well,  more or less.

Then in 2001 the Islamic Sharia laws were implemented and there was serious wide scale violence both before and after.  In 2000  over 1000 people were killed in Kaduna during one riot alone.  A very very uneasy truce exists at the moment but sporadic violence erupts at anytime.   There was violence against churches and mosques and a lot of clergy were killed rather brutally.  I know being killed is never too nice, but being hacked to death is, in my book,  a pretty bad way to pop your clogs.

So that’s a bit about Kaduna.

The next day I was up early to visit my sister is in the south of the city.  I was woken just before door by the voice of  muezzin echoed from the minaret of the central mosque calling the faithful to prayer.  I know its not the done thing to say this in Britain or the USA, and as a left footer I am probably committing a mortal sin, but I always loved hearing the call to prayer.  As a little boy it would wake my sister and I in the morning and would often be the last things we would hear before going to sleep in the evening.

“Allah is defined as the ONE who ALONE, without partners or helpers created all that IS created in creation, either known or unknown.”
1 Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar
— Allah is Great, Allah is Great

2-Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah – Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah
— I bear witness that there is no divinty but Allah

3 Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullaah
— I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger

Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullaah.
— I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger

4 Hayya la-s-saleah – Hayya la-s-saleah
– Hasten to the prayer, Hasten to the prayer

5 Hayya la-l-faleah – Hayya la-l-faleah
— Hasten to real success, Hasten to real success,

6 Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
— Allah is Great, Allah is Great

7 La Ilaha ill Allah
— There is no divinity but Allah

The sentiment is not so different to the Creed when you think about it, but hey what the fuck do I know.  Norman the Theologian – rather catchy title.

I digress.

I got to her early,  and jeeeeez it was bloody hot already.  A different type of heat to where I had been yesterday.  It felt much hotter, drier,  a real unforgiving heat.  I sat by her under the shade of  a tree and talked.

Obviously the first thing to say was I am sorry it was so long since I had been.

A rare breeze blew through the leaves.  Of course she understood.  It was a bit out of the way after all.

I was pleased to see that there was no obvious signs of damage or desecration around her after all the trouble that had gone on.

I told her about what had been going on with me although she probably knew most of my gossip.  I told her about Alison and the girls and had some framed photos to leave.

I yakked on about L and the nieces and nephews and what a great bunch of kids they were and how I thought things were getting better for me.

I had brought photos of every Tom Dick and little Norman as you tend to do and I probably went into far too much boring detail, but I didn’t want to miss anything out.

I suppose I was there for about two hours, when I heard the sound of foot steps on the gravel path.  There were two men, both Muslims, one was about my age but thinner and the other a tall silver heard man in his seventies.

They looked at me with hard eyes and the old man said

“Assalamu Alaykum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh” (May the peace of Allah descend upon you and His Mercy and Blessings).

I returned the greeting, slightly surprised as this is the pre Islamic greeting, and as far as I know not much used these days.  Under Islamic law “Salam” should not be used to a none Muslim.

Then without warning the younger man came straight towards me and grabbed my right hand forcefully with his,  the next thing I knew,  his left arm was around my neck and his hand was on my shoulder in a powerful bone cracking hold.  I returned the assault and grabbed him back and we stood there locked in a tight grapple.

He pushed me back slightly and looked directly into my eyes.

Then he smiled like an ugly black Cheshire cat and then we kissed on both cheeks before he  embraced me again.

This was Edward my first, oldest and best friend.

The older man came towards us.

“Norman I am so glad you came” said the old man “It has been a very long time”

“Hello Mister Banting ” I shook his hand and bowed to show the older man the proper respect but he held out his arms and embraced me, kissing me gently on the cheek and stroking my head like my father used to.  He held me for what seemed and age and everything was as it was when I was here when I was six.

“It has been too long Mister Banting, but I am so glad to see you both and to see you looking so well”

“And hansom” He chided me.  “You have grown” he said slightly surprised

“Yes well that happens but now its outwards not upwards” I laughed  “Its called middle age”

“Hah” he scorned “You’re still a cheeky little boy to me and him” – Pointing to Edward -“Is still as mad as Jimmy Rickets goat”. Jimmy Rickets was friend of my dad’s who had an exceptional mad goat.  In goat terms I think he would have been a Kray.

We sat under the tree and talked.  When my dad first lived in Nigeria in the early 50’s before I was born,  Banting worked for him.  He was a house boy and his job was to clean and cook.  I suppose Banting was about 20 at the time,  and the term boy although standard form of address back then sounds so derogatory now.   Mind you the term cook was equally misleading.  Banting had unique domestic management skills.  His cooking was legendary or should I say infamous!  The other people working for the Colonial Office could not see why my dad kept him on, but the simple fact was they liked each other and were friends.  Edward was named after my dad, and I know that my dad never ever forgot his birthday and always sent gave him a Christmas present.  Edward is a bit younger than me but only by a year or so and we spent our early years together.  We were and still are great friends.

They told me their news and I told them mine.  Bayo, Edwards sister now had three children but the youngest one was sick with Malaria.  I did not know that Banting’s wife Abeo had died suddenly earlier this year.  They were sorry to hear about my mother

“She is in a better place” said Banting nodding his head and sounding more English than the English. And so we chatted on.

I Looked around.

“The place looks really good” I said “And the flowers are lovely you have done a great job keeping on top of things, it can’t be easy”

“Ah yes we do them every week. it gets a bit tricky sometime whenit is so hot and some of niggers don’t control their damn goats” said Edward frowning.  Then je stopped and said suddenly  “And I still grow freesias for her birthday. I used to get the bulbs from Father Burns until he erm died….well was erm killed…you know….” he was embarrassed that a mutual acquaintance had been hacked to death in the name of religion.  In this case his, but it could have been ours ” But now” he continued ” The new fella gets them for me.”

“Its a bit of a risk for you isn’t it?” I said

“Hahahaha Noooo she’s worth it,  besides I promised Dr Edward and my best friend to look after his sister and that is what God would want” He laughed. “Besides you would do the same thing, now wait here”

He walked back down the path towards the gate and reappeared a few seconds later clutching  a pot of freesias.  His pleasure and pride at growing these flowers for my sister glowed from him.

He passed me the pot of flower.

As I stood there under the tree it struck me how time and circumstance alters perspective and how your memory plays tricks on you.  In a UK florist or supermarket those flowers would have looked like a straggly small bunch, you would probably sneer and think “Why bother”.   In the scorching heat of the late morning sun, the little pot of flowers were a vibrant highly scented bouquet.  It also struck me that when I was a little boy,  my sister was always much bigger than me, but then of course she would be because she was two years older than me. I always think of my sisters 9th birthday,  because that was the day she died of Malaria. Today her grave in the Christian cemetery seemed so small, yet it was immaculately, lovingly  tendered not by two “Muslims”, but by two kind loving friends.

“Happy Birthday M”

6 Responses to “Fresias”

  1. dl says:

    So sad, and so beautifully told.

    D.

  2. John Humphries says:

    My sister died when I was 10 and every year we commemorate her death. It must have been very hard for your mum and dad with her being so far away.

  3. This is so well written, Norman. And very sad.

  4. Beautiful and heart wrenchingly sad, Norman…
    Kisses for you and your little sister.

    I find it hard to understand the lack of attention Malaria gets on the world front. It is endemic in these poor places.
    We turned down a job in Tanzania because the incidence of cerebral malaria was so high – and that wasn’t the only reason, of course!!!
    However, it has been common all throughout Indonesia and we have many friends who have suffered with it.
    The mention of it, and the ubiquitous call to prayer bring back so many memories…

    xox

  5. Sally says:

    That is so sad…..

  6. Uncle says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    It was hard for my mum and dad. Loosing a child is the worst thing that can happen and I think leaving her behind when we left, must have been almost like she died twice.

    The happy part of the story is, that there are people who care about people and not religious or racial divides, and for that we should all be grateful.

    I am glad I got to visit, it doesn’t bring somebody back, but she is not forgotten.

    I can be a bad tempered, grumpy fucker sometimes, but this trip made me realise how lucky I am to have such good friends.

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