Gombe was a small town in the late seventies, tucked in between the highway connecting the cities of Bauchi and Yola, the capital of the erstwhile Gondola State.
For the little Indian boy, who had never stepped outside the confines of two south Indian states, Nigeria was scary and strange. Never had he seen so many tall and intimidating looking people.
Coming to Gombe assuaged some of his unfounded fears. His father being a teacher, the Ministry of Education provided a large bungalow inside the Teachers College campus; a sprawling compound dotted with academic buildings and teachers’ quarters.
A barbed wire fence enclosed the entire campus and from his window he could see the railway tracks right outside the fence. A diesel train pulling creaking wagons went by in sporadic abandon.
It was mid March and the tail end of the Harmattan season. Dust covered the land like a brown tinted fog. The locals sported gold tinged hair due to the fine dust that entangled itself in the intricate curls. The heat was oppressive and stifling.
Though there was no ocean nearby, thick undulating layers of sand revealed the proximity of the ever encroaching Sahara desert.
The house was a large one, with an open garage attached to a three bedroom house. A perforated concrete wall served as the boundary for the backyard. Vultures made the top of the wall their home and conducted important meetings every morning before heading out on vulture business. Small rectangles cut in the wall mystified the young child.
There were three rows of houses in all and about twenty or so teachers occupying them. Everything was neat and orderly inside the campus.
Behind the house stood the houseboy’s quarters which comprised of a small room, a storeroom and a tiny toilet.
When he woke up on the first morning, it took Jitu a minute to come to terms with his new environment. He looked out the window and spotted the massive tamarind tree. Someone was sitting underneath it.
That someone turned out to be Bello, the octogenarian watchman who was as ineffective as a broom against the shifting sands.
Bello was a friendly man but spoke no English. Jitu spoke no Hausa or Fulani that he somehow understood as the language Bello spoke.
Both Jitu’s parents had gone off to teach and as he had come in between terms, he had nothing to do for two months. Bello was his companion and Jitu looked forward to each morning to rush to the tree.
In no time, Jitu picked up rudimentary Hausa. Bello had no interest in learning English. Many days went by in this idyllic fashion as the unlikely duo developed a special bond that cut across cultures and generations.
Rains started in earnest in the beginning of April. Jitu had never witnessed such ferocity. The sand outside the house disappeared under a deluge and the road transformed to a flowing river. Raindrops actually hurt when they hit the boy as he played outside clad only in his shorts.
The rain brought in cooler weather. The side of the house which was less sandy and had more soil sprouted weeds, grass and the all pervading calabash creepers.
Jitu had woken up early that day, his sleep disturbed by the morning shower some of which had sprinkled his face through the open window protected by a thin mesh.
Once the sun came out, Jitu went out to the side yard to see if the vegetable patch he had started had been affected by the rains. That’s when he heard the plaintive wail.
Turning around, he saw a small burrow in the wet mud. He could see something moving inside. Without thinking twice, his hand darted inside. What came out was a tiny shivering furry mass. It looked like a puppy but at the same time it seemed different.
Jitu rushed inside the house with the animal. His parents weren’t awake yet so he took the puppy to the sink and washed it with warm water. The animal seemed to understand that he meant no harm and relaxed. It had a dark muzzle and round pointed ears. Jitu dried the creature and put some milk in tray. It lapped it up.
When his dad woke up, Jitu took him to the puppy which was now well settled in Jitu’s bed. His dad took one look at the puppy and exclaimed “That’s not a puppy, it’s a hyena!”
Part autobiographical and part fiction, this is abstracted from my upcoming memoirs using a fictional character and plot but with a lot of real experiences