I had just suffered heartbreak when I first discovered Garki village four years ago. I sought solace in the cool breeze of the early evening. Walking out of the well managed CBN Senior Staff Quarters on Ubiaja Crescent in Garki 2 where I lived, I headed across the road to a little close where a Hausa petty trader sold cigarettes. My nerves needed calming and I was battling my need for nicotine. I glanced at the tables with an assortment of cigarettes, steeled myself and walked past. I won. Looking ahead, I realized for the first time that the space between the two buildings behind the man’s table of goods was actually a thoroughfare.
I walked through to see where the path ended and turned left. Beyond the three shops and little mosque was a massive settlement of cement-plastered mud houses separated by foot paths and open sewage. The sudden change from the wide, paved and lit streets of Garki 2 to this slum reeking of urine and sweat and garbage made me dizzy. It was not the state of this slum that shocked me- I was born in exactly this type of environment in Kaduna, in a place that didn’t have a street wide enough for a car to pass, a place where you were torn between shutting your wooden shutters to keep out some of the stench from the open sewer right by the wall and suffering the heat and stuffiness or enjoying some of the breeze and enduring the stench. It was how these two realities- as different from each other as light from darkness- existed quietly side by side.
A mostly Hausa-speaking Muslim community, Garki Village is the huge area between Ubiaja Crescent and Lagos Street in Garki 2. It has a traditional ruler and palace right at the end of Lagos Street. It also borders the Police Barracks.
During the build-up to the April 2011 elections, inscriptions on the walls and posters declared almost total support for one of the opposition parties. ‘CPC Sak’ meaning ‘CPC only’ or ‘CPC exclusively’ was painted on almost every building in the area. Once, walking through Lagos Crescent off Lagos Street at night, I saw a crowd gathered in front of a Muslim preacher. I stopped for a few minutes and listened to the man weave wild conspiracy theories linking the ruling party to some sort of plan for Jewish world domination. Underneath his words, however, I heard the anger of a person who needed to blame someone for the extreme privation so prevalent in this place. I could see how the crowd of young men, some standing, some sitting on the dirt floor with bony faces and dull eyes, could nod vigorously at this man who declared any vote for the ruling party sinful.
Lagos street divides two ways of life. One side of Lagos Street has local Northern food: waina, masa, tuwo and miyan taushe. There is hardly any alcohol sold on this ‘northern’ side of the road. Opposite however are at least two open air beer joints. Late at night when the task force which rids the city of illegal structures and sex workers isn’t patrolling, sex workers line up the streets. Up the street, the sex workers are usually dressed in conservative Northern fashion: blouses, long skirts, head ties and veils to match. The more skimpily dressed ones usually hang around toward the back end of the street where cheap dingy hotels crowd together. They respect each other’s territory.
Usually when I couldn't fall asleep, I walked out into Lagos Street. Once, I came across a skinny woman with henna tattoos on her palms and feet, who but for her excessive dark make-up, might have been attractive. I must have been staring at her, enough to make her think I was considering her services. “Babban yaya,” she called in a slightly husky undertone, rolling her eyes and sizing me up. I had never heard “big brother” used so flirtatiously. It was at once shocking and exciting. I smiled and walked past. As I gradually became exhausted and ready to sleep, I was grateful that Lagos Street was always awake.
When it rains it is impossible to walk around Garki Village without slushing through sometimes an inch of mud and sewage. Of course there are no drainage systems and after a downpour the farthest I used to go is the tarred part of Lagos Street.
Over many months, walking down Lagos Street and into Garki Village served both as inspiration and therapy for me- when I needed to clear my head and when I wanted to observe people without participating. I became accustomed to the colorful sex workers, suya sellers, the men who peddled sex performance enhancers, the ‘yan daudu*- ‘effeminate’ men whose subtle, sexual innuendos amused and confounded me, and the many caftan tailors among whom I found the ever-smiling Usman to sew cheap caftans for me.
When eventually I lost my Garki 2 accomodation, I knew that as long as I lived in Abuja, I would never be far away from this place where people lived as simply as they could, and in spite of poverty, lived life to the full.
Over the two years I lived around Garki Village, I had twice heard rumors of demolition. Unlike other areas, there was no palpable tension in the village. Everyone seemed certain that this area could not be demolished. I am not sure why.
While I often hope that the government reaches Garki Village with paved streets, a drainage system and running water I feel guilty each time I return and want to find it the way it was- wade through the gutters to harass handsome Usman about my clothes, stand by the corner to buy suya, dodging the smoke from the fire, walk behind flirtatious ‘yan daudu, eavesdropping; I will miss this place that was my refuge when the concrete and showiness and of the city threaten to drive me crazy.
Since I moved two years ago, I have been back several times. A few weeks ago my dear Swiss friend who had once accompanied me and often endures my rhapsodies of Lagos Street, suggested we go there. A part of me hoped that I would be ‘disappointed’ and find development where once there was decay. As we strolled down Lagos Street, I tried to ignore people staring at the petite white person by my side so that I could take in the familiar sights and sounds of the street. This walk was different- for once I saw Lagos Street staring back the way I had been doing for years.