Nampang, she remembered it all, the way a river remembers how to run. A long time ago, say when she was twelve, she joined the chase. When the rooster crowed, it meant two things. One, it was time to begin the hunt, trailing the slow moving spring like chivying honey out of a bottle. Two, it was time to get up and venture into what brought money for the family, making a puree of millet popularly known as kunu. How things worked few years ago, she never forgot. The memory crowded her distraught mind the way bees clustered the nectar of a glowing flower. Who would go through such strenuous search for twenty years and forget the stress?
Kowagwi, it lay along the steep slope down a plateau. It was a home for those who escaped the blazing Lafia’s heat and the unavoidable bleakness of the rock filled Plateau. A raw gold in the centre of flame, Kowagwi glowed in the sun. What made it glow was not concealed, the reflection of the ever scorching sun on the yellow soil and the red mud houses scattered disproportionately on the terrain. Surrounded by rocky hills, rigid cacti and adamant cassia trees, it shielded herself from the desert wind. It was hot through almost every part of the year. The ground baked by the sweltering sun cried helplessly for wetness. Patches sketched on the surface were proofs that it was desperately in need of water, abundant water that would sink down to the heart of its earth. And the villagers, they also felt the sun. It smouldered on their thick skin, leaving their skin sweaty in the day and sticky in the night. The colour of their skin was a distinct variant of dark.
Nampang, she remembered it all, like a woman remembers her child. The way she ran helter-skelter the few times the cloud poured down the unblemished liquid on their tattered roof. With her wrapper disengaging itself from her waist at intervals, she scampered for empty bowls. She gathered what she could from the encased corrugated sheet winded on every end. And the village children, they prayed for rain. They sang and danced as the water washed off the filth that had been glued to their tattered clothes in previous months. Those were the months when there was no water to wash the filth away. Then, they were assembled for washing. Their skins scrubbed with the local fig sponge and black soap. It was a thorough washing. Dirts rolled and the sponge foamed brown instead of white. They sometimes cried, poor children who were used to washing only their hands and feet before heading for makaranta. It was at that time of the year they had a proper bath.
She remembered, the search through the coarse road with the feet bare, the rounded pot on the head and the sucking child who never wanted to be separated from the mother strapped on the back, for the substance flowing from a rock faraway. The memory hobbled with essential details in her mind. She remembered, the strife for the calm and fresh fluvial plane miles away from their home. She remembered, the hustle, when the men of the house still rolled in their raffia bed, for the substance that refreshed from the pang of thirst. It was a herculean task, but they bore it graciously. They combed the rock-strewn areas for a spring. That was how tough the struggle was. That was the ordeal her mother also went through till she died. That was what killed her mother. Water killed her. Or was it the search that killed her? Anyhow it was told; the story of her death had to do with water.
When Nampang told people of the unfortunate events that led to her mother’s death, she started by saying she died on the road looking for water. Then, she lowered her head, a withered leaf suspended on the tree at the mercy of the wind that would blow it off. She sobbed and sobbed and stopped all by herself before she continued her story. That was a constant gesture she used to conjure pity and attention from listeners. The story had been told times she could not number. She told it to her relatives, the villagers, the king, the councilor and then to the Local Government Chairman and who else? Yes, she told it to the man who came to their land with an interpreter. She never knew grown men still wore somodobo until she saw him. He was always dressed in a blue khaki coverall, a yellow hard hat and a pair of black jungle boot that had been deprived of black polish over the years. The king said he was a schooled scientist. He had crossed seven seas to read about soils and very big machines. He came to check if water hid underneath their soil. That he might know of their pains and suffering, Nampang shared with him the story of her mother’s death. That was the last time she recalled she told the story, and it was then she got the effect she wanted.
Her mother wanted them to have something to eat. She needed water to sieve the chaff off the corn and to wash the seed coat off the beans. She needed to set the food in a clean plate with a cup of potable water. Because of these, she woke up as early as 4 a.m. when the roosters crowed to announce the dawn. With Nampang beside her, they tiptoed away from the silent hut. Two other women joined them. Down through the steep slope they walked all four of them, feisty women who were not afraid of the ravenous foxes or the evil ghost in the raconteur’s folktale that wandered through the rough paths. They walked through the pathways clothed by the morning dew, stamping their feet carelessly on the ground to awake the slumbering leaves. The birds from their nest watched the women like the stars watched the wise magi. Their quests were similar yet different. While the women searched for water, the magi searched for the new born infant master. Instead of a guide by the twinkling star to the manger where the new king lay, the women were guided by the oil lamp that whirl carelessly to the dictate of the wind for where water flowed. They heard the water frogs, the ones they sometimes hunted and simmered in their okra soup. They heard them croak to their love partners. Just when they heard the gurgling of the stream as water graciously splashed on wet stones, Nampang mother cried out. It was not the usual cry of joy at the sight of water, but a high-pitched scream like a woman in labour for the first time. The shrill sent a spasm of awe to the resting birds and they flew away in shock. The creeping creatures who heard the noise ran helter-skelter, seeking safety from impending doom. The leaves shivered and the tiny dew that had gathered on them through the long night escaped to the thirsty ground. The other women who were with her were caught in the same sensation of fright. They could hear the sound of their heart beat, vibrating loudly like the sound from djembe drum. They could not tell when they dropped their clay pots on the hard floor. Hundreds of shards lay scattered on the ground, the remains that showed they were once pots. From afar they stood, still in shock. Their heart fluttered, their lips shivered. When they had regained their confidence, they ambled towards her. One by one they moved, a procession for a rite of passage. Nampang’s mother groaned. Poor woman, she stepped on the tail of a rattle snake. In retaliation, the snake bit her. And the snake, it stayed, with such a fearless gallantry waiting to bite another who dared to disturb it. Stuffed up with vexation, the women stoned the snake to death. Nampang picked the remains with the intent of making a soup of it. One of the women rubbed the wound with the green juice from cactus; another made a tourniquet from a rag and wound it round the spot where she was bitten.
Nampang’s mother began to sweat. Her eye lids drooped. She could neither stand nor walk. They carried her all the way back home. Each woman took her turn to back a full grown woman who was dying gradually. Through the hills and the slopes, through the rough and the smooth, they carried her with the haste their feet could lend them. Nampang was by her side. She could not carry her but she encouraged her to hold on. There were stories of survival she held on to. Lomput survived a snake bite in the farm and Jamkit and then Shumnat; they were bitten by snakes yet they survived. If they did, her mother would. They walked, they jogged, they jumped, they ran, to make the one hour journey back home shorter. Then the moment came, Nampang’s mother heaved a sigh. To her, it was a sigh of relief from the mundane and encumbering world. To Nampang, it was a sigh of pain. As the only female child, losing a mother and becoming the bread maker was not a feat to look forward to. Her mother’s benumbed body became cold. The sweat had evaporated into the tiny pores. She smiled with her eyes closed; her wrinkled face graciously rested in peace. Nampang cried out “No mama, no, you can’t go now. You promised to see my baby. Please, mama, please, wake” but she could not hear her anymore, or maybe she heard but was not willing to answer. Who would have the opportunity to escape from a world of pain and suffering and then pray to have a come back? They cried to the village to seek the help of the village’s likita. There was nothing he could do anymore; the venom had already gone far. On the day her mother was buried, Nampang made a vegetable soup with the snake that bit her. The family gloated over it, flesh and bone, nothing was left to spare. But that as it may, making a meal of the snake was not part of the story she shared.
Nampang, she survived. Through the years of many fake promises, as fake as the smile on the faces of the politicians who made them. One after the other they took their turn in their starched kaftan to promise them one thing they knew they needed most, water. They promised them water, right in the middle of the village. Potable water, it will never dry. It was a dream they waited for years to see it come true. But it never came from the avaricious politicians.
While some other villages begged the government for good roads, Kurgwi begged for one thing, water. While the cities craved for streets with glamorous lights, Kowagwi craved for one thing, water. They needed water to drink and to cook. They needed water to wet the soil for their sprouting yam and their growing millet. They needed water to quench the thirst of their livestock. And for eight years, they sent delegates to the council to present their case beore the people they voted for. The Local Government Chairman who promised to give them water went back on his words. However hard one tries to retain the taste of honey, it cannot last in the mouth forever, so it is with power, fame and position. A tenure ended and he needed their vote for another term. He came to entice them yet again with sweet words, a suitor seeking to beguile a damsel he once jilted. But the villagers, they had had enough. No need to play hide and seek “give us water and we will give you our vote” they unanimously told him. Thus, he sent his men. They came during the season when rain spatter softened the hard soil. They began to dig and yes, they saw water. The villagers, their joy knew no bounds, gullible people allured at the sight of transient water. They fetched and fetched until there was nowhere to save water anymore. It wasn’t long before the shallow well began to bring out brown water, like the mixture of fura with nono. Then the water was no more. When they put in their long-roped doro to draw out water, dry sand came up. They waited each day for the well to spring, but it seemed the well had forgotten its source. Beyond doubt, the well had run dry. Once again, they went back to the stream three miles away, seeking thirst-quenching water within the rocks.
Nampang, she remembered. It was a year ago since the man in blue khaki came. He made a speech in a sultry baritone voice. His parlance was lyrical. It went up and down and then it stopped flat, like that of the white men who came to mine tin in Jos. He was sent by one agency from a faraway land, a non-governmental organization that sourced for money to help people like them. When she looked into his eyes, she saw his commitment to helping them get water. And yes, unlike the politicians, he meant every word he said. The concern written on his face, the way he moved up and down with passion and the way he shook his head when he paused revealed his intent. When Nampang told him her mother’s story, she used an interpreter. The interpreter did a great job, because after her story, the man in blue khaki, he wept too. He felt her pain and the loss of her mother.–“Call me James” he implored her. “We will try our best Nampang. We will ensure your village has water, the one that will run and not run dry.” With a team of five men, he worked from dusk till dawn. They drilled through the hard soil, soil that had been frosted of water a long time ago. For that purpose, the man in blue khaki brought many engines that made a lot of noise. The machines rumbled louder than the grinding machine that ground their corn and millet at the mill. As for the noise, the villagers bore it with good fate. It was only going to last for a moment, and then it would stop and then water would flow. However, a new noise would evolve. Cling-clang cling-clang, the metal pole would sing as it drew water from the earth. Like a father-to-be panted after his wife in labour, expectant souls wheezed to the village square where the machines drilled the soil. Good things don’t come easy; they drilled and drilled yet no water was found.
Nampang, she remembered vividly, a night before the Christmas Carol; when the noise from the machines overrode the soulful songs of the birds, and the tremulous vibration of the driller subdued the chirping of the crickets. The machine stopped with a stillness that startled the villagers. It was still early to be the usual end of the day’s work. Noises followed, they heard the team rejoicing. With the illumination from oil lamps, the villagers ran out. The ground had honoured them with the gush of water. Stunned by the sight of potable water, the women joyfully sobbed. The men made bonfire and danced around it. They sate their elation with burukutu and goskolo, local gins that sent them to temporary ecstasy.
For months, they went, morning and noon to lift the handle of the water pump, up, down, up, down. Water whooshed out from the spout to fill their bowls. For months, they feared the water would run dry, like the shallow well the Local Government Chairman once made for them. But this was different; it continued to flow through the dry and the rain. Potable water, enough for them, their farms and their livestock. Thus, the stream that lay three miles away became free from the foofaraw of humans in disordered files. No one went there anymore except the few who still hunted water frogs. Nampang knew a day like this would come. Long it might take but a stammerer would one day call his name.
Nampang, she sat on a stool in her brick hut. Her body basked in the present; her mind revelled in the past. Her hand stuck to her chin. She had come back to life from pervading thoughts, thoughts of what it used to be a long time ago. Behind the bukka, his son washed himself with clean water. The splash cascaded swiftly from his head to his feet; as it did, it carried along the foams and buried them in the craving soil. At a corner was her daughter seated before piles of clothes, washing them. Now, the story had changed, thanks to the good people who spent their money to give them water. They wrote their names on a big wooden board beside the pump. Though the villagers could not read the words; they knew their surname name. “God bless the family of Mr and Mrs Philanthropists” the interpreter taught them and so they prayed.
Nampang, she earnestly waited for another day, a day James, the man in blue khaki would come visit her land once again. She had a gift for him, the fattest of her goats.