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Tuesday – How many roosters?

January 24, 2006

James has arranged for the women we are supposed to photograph and interview to meet us as the old water source at 7am. We arrive. They are not there. Someone tells us they are waiting for us at the chief’s house in Takkas. We go there. No sign of the women. No problem. We can photograph them at the well first, then at the old water source. We explain to the chief that we really need to do some work first, but will happily sit down with him later. We head towards the well. James says the women we want won’t be at the well because they live in another part of the village. Suzanne looks as if she’s about to belt someone. I don’t blame her. If the women are somewhere else, why the hell are we here? What about a woman, James asks, who’s used a COWAN loan to buy and run the village shop? What about her, we ask. Turns out she is here and can be photographed while they fetch the others. We carry on towards the well. Suzanne starts taking photos. Mary, who runs the shop, is an older woman who would not normally fetch her own water anymore, but we don’t care.

Justina at the old water source © Suzanne Porter

Justina at the old water source © Suzanne Porter

The other women arrive. We photograph Justina, a primary school teacher, at the well, then go with her, Mary, and the third woman, Suzanna, to the old water source.

Justina tells me that before the well was installed it would take her up to two hours a day to collect water from the stream. She had to take the young children with her. They were always late for school. She was always late for school, always tired, always feeling as if she’d fallen behind, guilty because the school children were not getting as much out of her lessons as they should. Now it takes her 15 minutes and no one’s late for school. She tells me that before the hygiene education programme in the village her children were frequently ill. She estimates that she and her husband Maxwell, the headmaster of the local secondary school, were spending and in debt for about 5000 naira a year in medicine and treatment. Justina has always grown a little subsistence maize for her family. With the extra time she now has and the money they’re saving on medicine, she’s been able to take out and pay back three loans which have allowed her to expand to five acres of maize production. She employs five people to work the fields and is able to sell the surplus at the market. All the extra money is going towards higher education for her children. She and Maxwell are agreed that an educated population is needed to address Nigeria’s problems.

Suzanna manages to mushi © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna manages to mushi © Suzanne Porter

As there is a second WaterAid well in the community and this is the one Suzanna would normally use, we go there to take her photo. Suzanna has some difficulty co-ordinating using the pump, looking at the camera and smiling. Her photographer namesake, Suzanne, at one point actually stamps her feet while yelling, “Mir mushi!” When I tell her this later, she does not remember, but is not surprised. While we are waiting by the Land Rover, a young woman, the parson’s daughter, turns up with a bucket and some plastic mugs. She has very kindly brought us some refreshment. Unfortunately it is cola and I haven’t yet acquired the taste. I ask for a very small portion and manage to knock it back. We arrange with Suzanna and Justina that we will come back in the afternoon to visit and take photographs of them at home.

Back in the village we meet up with the chief who offers us some refreshment. Not really fancying another warm soft drink I begin to decline, then catch Gimba’s warning look that this would not be appropriate, and say I’d love to take something. It turns out to be a surprisingly nice lime drink, Nigerian originally, now owned and bottled – surprise, surprise – by Coca Cola. After we’ve had the drinks, after the chief has thanked us for coming, after we’ve thanked him for his hospitality, he produces a gift for us. Suzanne has been told the next present, whatever it is, is hers. The gift is a big, orange rooster, its legs tied together with string. She shakes her head, laughs and said she knew this would happen. Gimba takes a picture of her holding the rooster. We all say our thanks again and clamber into the Land Rover.

Back at the guest house the rooster is deposited in the garden. When I go outside a few minutes later its feet are still tied together and I ask Gimba to get someone to cut the string so it can walk around. He shrugs, indifferent to the ambulatory ability of the rooster, presuming that we will be having it for dinner. Not a bit of it, Suzanne informs him. No one’s eating her rooster. Besides, Louis has already sorted dinner: the previous day Suzanne had asked if there was any way of getting some fish and he’s gone out to do just that. There are three huge buckets of water with various fish (the only one of which I recognise is a catfish) swimming around. We have the catfish, grilled, for lunch with salad. Delicious.

Suzanna with daughter Peace and son Fortune © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna with daughter Peace and son Fortune © Suzanne Porter

In the afternoon we go back to visit Suzanna first. She actually has two schemes on the go. She has for some time been making locust bean cakes (the spicy beans are mashed up and formed into patties which are used for seasoning in soups) and either selling them in the village or trading them for other things. With the time she saves collecting water she’s now able to make a lot more and once a week sells them in the market. In addition to this, she’s used a loan from COWAN to buy cement and is now the village slab maker.

Suzanna with one of her slabs © Suzanne Porter

Suzanna with one of her slabs © Suzanne Porter

When I suggest to her that in some communities (certainly all the ones I’ve visited so far) that this might be considered men’s work, she grins and tells me anything a man can do a woman can do, agreeing with me when I add that some things a woman can do a man can’t. We finish taking the photos and thank Suzanna for her time, saying we will see her the next morning at the market. As we leave, Gimba tells me there’s another chicken. Get outta here, I say. But it’s true. My turn’s come round again, so this chicken (which turns out to be a scrawny rooster) is mine.

Justina

We make our way to Justina’s home. The maize has all been harvested, but she has a number of storage units in her compound, so Suzanne takes some photos of her there, along with pictures of her with her family. I’d already spoken to Justina earlier about meeting up at the market the next morning. We need to meet them at 8am, but normally they don’t get there until 9:30. This is bad not just for the light, but because we need to drive back to Abuja. She tells me they would have to pay a driver 1500 naira to get there by 8am. I tell her we will help with this. When I mention it to Suzanne at lunch time, she says we should pay the whole amount if it will guarantee they will actually be there at 8. So, I take Justina to one side, surreptitiously hand her the 1500 naira, eliciting her promise that they will be there for 8am. She assures me they will, tells me there will be a woman in a COWAN dress to meet us at the gate and show us where they are. As we are leaving, she presents us with a fat white hen. Technically this one is Duncan’s, but, despite Suzanne’s suggestion that it would be hilarious to take it to and present him with it in Abuja, it is generally agreed that it will not survive the journey.

Back to the guest house with our fowl collection which we again deposit in the garden. Gimba says we should have at least one of them for dinner that night. Suzanne is adamant that no one is going to kill her rooster. I’ve been eating chicken at least once a day for the past week, but somehow I, too, have a problem with killing our gifts. Gimba looks at me as if I am slightly mad, points out that is why we were given the chickens. I go out into the garden and look around. Suzanne’s cocky cock (reminds me of the old cartoon Foghorn Leghorn), clearly determined to rule the roost unopposed, is already pecking at my poor boy. Oh, go on then, I say to Gimba, no quality of life on offer for this guy. Put him out of his misery. Louis, informed of this decision, asks what we plan to do with the other two. He agrees that Suzanne’s rooster is a mighty fine rooster that will probably get the hens laying a lot of eggs and should, therefore, remain. (How much of this was said to placate Suzanne who was forced to entrust Foghorn’s welfare to him was not clear.) Unable to use my digital camera, I take a picture on my mobile of Duncan’s chicken, so we can show him what he missed, and tell Louis to chuck the fat hen in the pot, too. What with the fish and the two chickens, we now have a lot of food to get through, so Louis suggests, as it’s our last night, we should have a bit of a party. Absolutely, we agree.

Suzanne and I both ask for some hot water, split a beer in the garden. When the water’s ready we go to our rooms to have a bucket shower and do some work before dinner. I put on the only dress I’ve brought with me – an old, longish, lightweight cotton dress. When I emerge, Louis’s set things up in the inner courtyard. Oh, no, I say. We have to eat out in the garden. After I leave it could be months before I sit in a garden again. Louis can understand that, but isn’t sure how he is going to sort out the boombox someone is bringing. He tells me he’ll figure it out, moves the tables back outside.

There is a fish soup to start which is fantastic. As it is served I comment that one of the things I love about the Peace Guest House is that it doesn’t have terrifying wiring. No sooner have I said this than Louis starts to do something highly suspect with the fairy lights in order to plug in the boombox. Suzanne rolls her eyes and tells me this is all my fault, that I never should have mentioned the wiring. Somehow he gets it to work and we have music. Louis asks Suzanne to dance, Godwin asks me. At some point we switch partners. When we sit back down, a surprised Gimba and two of his mates tell me I am a very good dancer. Coming from African men I take this as quite a compliment. Louis’s wife has made two different chicken dishes, a spicy one for the men and a tamer one for Suzanne and me. Enquiries confirm that we’ve scored the fat hen. It is the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. The men are welcome to my scrawny rooster. There is a bit more dancing, then the boombox guy announces he has to leave. I am surprised to discover that it is nearly midnight. We need to leave by 7:30 the next morning, so time for bed.

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