IT is a New Year. We all renew hope and make resolutions. I have never been particularly conformist about many things in life. From childhood, I have asked uncomfortable questions and thrown pebbles at orthodoxies. The conventional wisdom has never satisfied my search for answers about our often mysterious but lovely world, either the natural world that conditions us and which we are very much part of or the social canons of existence. So resolutions at the beginning of a new year often resembled for me, an admission of human weakness. If there is a thing to change, why wait till the beginning of a new year? But just for once, I fell into line and made a resolution which I have never betrayed.
Sometimes in December 1981, I fell sick with malaria and had to go to the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital. But the more fundamental problem was that I chain-smoked and I was just three months past my twenty-first birthday. It was at the height of my life as an activist of the Nigerian Socialist Movement. I used to smoke about sixty sticks of cigarettes per day; yes sixty! I look back now and it was such a suicidal way to live; but growing up in a Muslim community, where alcohol was expressly forbidden, the cigarette was there from as long as I remembered and it seemed everybody just smoked: uncles; cousins; friends! So by the time I was 21, I had been smoking for long and a life of activism, debates and extensive reading and study made the cigarette a part of daily life. So, it was that Dr. Amurawaiye (whose younger brother, Rotimi, was my colleague at the Broadcasting House), played a very important part in my decision to kick the habit. He lives in Canada today, but that morning, he noticed that I smoked, despite my malaria.
That wonderful doctor asked how many sticks I smoked per day and without batting an eyelid, I told him that I finished three packs of twenty, each day. He drew a breath and made some calculation, after asking my age. What he said next shocked cigarettes out of my life. “At the rate you smoked”, he said, “you will not live beyond thirty-five years”! That meant the next 14 years! A lot of things raced through my mind and for the first time, I felt the need to make a resolution: stop smoking! So a few days later, at a minute to midnight on December 31, 1981, I stuffed out my last stick of cigarette and thirty-one years after, I have not smoked. And the beauty of it is that I don’t even remember that I ever smoked! That was what they call cold turkey break from the addiction to nicotine, but again I just felt it was a supreme expression of weakness to find it difficult to break an addiction.
At the weekend, I was back home in Kaduna with my family. And because I had been away from the children for a while, I fulfilled an old promise to bring home a table tennis set as well as a badminton kit for the house. I have always been a keen sportsman and was the best table tennis player of my final year in secondary school and in my 15 year old mind, wanted to be the first Nigerian world champion! I think going to work in broadcasting punctured that dream, because shift work just disrupted my ability to keep up with the training regime of the Kwara State team that I became part of. So at home, we encouraged the children to love sports and swimming seems to be the most popular with the entire household swimming excellently and I keep wondering whether my oldest daughter, Innawuro, should not begin to compete with the hope that she might one day get to represent Nigeria and thus help revive that old dream of representation of our dear country! Of course, everybody has been very excited about the additional diversions, especially as they complained that there wasn’t enough sports in their boarding secondary schools.
Absence of sports in schools
It was that discussion about the near-disappearance of sports in schools, which made me tell tales about my days in secondary school. The Government Secondary School (GSS) Ilorin was one of the great public schools of Northern Nigeria and sport was central to our education: football; track and field; hockey; basketball; volleyball; badminton; lawn tennis; table tennis; squash and fives! We had the whole lot. The kids asked me which was “fives”. It was a game the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardaunan Sokoto loved to play and encouraged in all the great schools of the North. Just by the Arewa House in Kaduna, are the courts where he used to play. Last Saturday I took the children there, as well as to the Sardauna’s old residence, to breathe life into lessons about our history. We toured the grounds where the Sardauna used to promenade as his generation of leaders attempted to build the society of post-colonial Nigeria.
On our way back home, one of the children asked if it was true that I wanted to be a railway driver, as a kid. I then told the story of the central place of the railways in the world that I was born into. It was particularly poignant in the month the Nigeria Railways Corporation was re-launching its flagship Lagos-Kano route. In 1995, I did the Kano-Lagos trip, as a programme for the BBC’s TALES FROM THE TRACKS series, to commemorate a century of the railways in Africa. Apart from my trip, someone did the TAZARA; another reporter was on the OUAGADOUGOU “CHOUCHOU” and then the lovely BLUE TRAIN, which is one of the best trains in the world, in South Africa. My trip was expected to last 36hours, but we were on the train for five days! The train broke down in different stations on the route. That year, railways staff had not been paid for nine months; they were ripping parts from their trains to sell! There’s a lot to catch up on, as we enter a New Year. Do you remember the old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times”. Happy 2013 and thanks for the privilege of allowing me to write for you every week!