I do not have this presentiment that I am going to find nothing new when I am introduced to my guide, a writer who lives in the area. Sameness seems to be a quality that only an outsider can afford to see. But then she tells me after five minutes of meeting her that she too is new, having moved here only a few months before. We walk around, randomly choosing places to go to in this large area lying roughly adjacent Kubwa and before Bwari. At the end of the day I leave with no new insights apart from the ironic and ubiquitous existence of ‘House for sale’ signs side by side demolition notices from the FCT.
I go back a third time to look for something beyond the demolition signs, some distinguishing character in this familiar tale of poverty and privation. I find hills and big rocks attractive and going far into Dutsen Alhaji near the foot of the hills which is densely populated by houses is more for my personal edification than the quest for a story. The settlement is named after the hills around which it lies, Dutse being the Hausa word for stone, rock, or hill.
There, close to the foot of the hills the sameness begins to disappear.
One of the most solid looking buildings painted in puke green is the public convenience. This catches my attention because it has always struck me as odd that in the capital city, there are no functional public conveniences, forcing people to make unplanned detours into restaurants, banks and hotels. Right in front of this building for about 200 meters ahead is an almost perfect square of wood and zinc shacks. In the centre of the square is a huge heap of what looks like rubbish.
It is a Sunday but the guys inside the square are as busy as flies in a Nigerian abattoir. I go round and round the square looking for a point of entry. I find it and as I come in full view of the centre of this square and the people working inside it, I realize it is impossible to be invisible and sneak around. One of the boys drops the old bag of empty flattened soda cans that he is sewing up and sizes me up. His eyes ask me: ‘What the hell do you want?’ I smile and walk toward him.
‘Yaya dai?’ I greet nervously. I am not sure whether to stretch out my hand to make his suspicion go away.
‘My name is Danlami,’ I say in Hausa and add quickly, ‘and I am a journalist.’
His eyes light up. I am suddenly sweaty. I am not sure I should have said I was a journalist.
‘Ok?’ he says.
Behind him people lift up bags and weigh them on a big rusty improvised scale.
“I write for a newspaper,” I tell him rolling over the words quickly in my best I-was-born-speaking-this-language Hausa, “and I am doing a story about your trade.”
His eyes soften, but then the others in the background become interested. I become a subject of curiosity as much as, if not more than, these people I am curious about. I am uncomfortable but keep my smile, careful not to extrapolate hostility from mere inquisitiveness.
I see old slippers, tins and cans, plastic, damaged household electronics and kitchenware all packed in separate old rice sacks. I ask my questions quickly, feigning prior interest in the subject. I keep my camera concealed in my pocket. As much as I am itching to take a photo, I find that increasingly, people become aggressive when they see cameras.
He tells me that most of these things are gathered by ‘yan bola, scavengers who go from rubbish bin to rubbish bin.
“There are two groups of people here. The ‘yan bola who go picking rubbish bins and the guys who purchase good used items. Those ones don’t meddle with rubbish bins.”
“I am a ‘dan bola,” he adds, resuming sewing the bag of flattened soda cans.
Slowly a crowd grows and I know I must leave quickly. Before then I learn that the items are weighed, sold and transported to Kano and Kaduna where they are recycled.
“Are you paying us for this?” a muscular bony faced boy with a plastic comb in his hair asks.
“I am a journalist, I do not pay to talk with people. And I am not making money from talking to you either, I am just doing a job.”
“Well then you are doing the wrong thing. We have hierarchy here. You do not just jump into a place and start talking to the people down below. You start by asking who is in charge. That is how things are done.”
“Well then, I am sorry. Where is your oga then?”
He points to the lanky man by the scales. He is wearing a faded orange t-shirt and sporting rough pre-dreadlocked hair. I walk quickly away from the small crowd and meet the head of this dump. He tells me he is busy and asks me to speak with one of his deputies.
The deputy he points to is sitting leisurely on an old rusty refrigerator. At first he doesn’t want to talk with me but then I smoother him with smiles, silly chit-chat and a prolonged handshake that says, you need to be friendly or feel very very guilty about being rude to a harmless friendly stranger.
He softens. He tells me they live in the wood and zinc shacks and repeats most of the things the first guy told me.
Conditions are harsh and apart from the public bathroom and toilet nearby, there are absolutely no amenities here in this slum within a slum. However, amidst this pile of rubbish is meticulous organization and an almost religious observance of the hierarchy. The buyers of scrap negotiate with the head of the dump or his assigned deputy after weighing. There are those whose job is separating the items and arranging them into heaps and those in charge of bagging them.
“If you were to have audience with government, what would you say your needs are, as a community?” I ask.
He is exasperated, glowers at me and kisses his teeth.
“Please don’t ask me those kinds of questions,” he says. “I thought you wanted to ask questions about our trade.”
I am struggling to understand the sudden hostility.
“Who cares about government? What have they ever done for anyone? We just try the best we can. I don’t need the government.”
I thank him profusely for his time and for letting me, albeit only a little, into the self-sufficient world of scavengers. I walk away without looking back. A few meters ahead, a boy coming from the opposite direction stops to beg for money. He is chewing sugarcane that still has its purple skin. I give him one hundred naira. It is not pity. I am not quite sure what it is, but I had stopped giving alms to healthy beggars. Somehow this didn’t feel like the same.
I do not continue my journey to the foot of the hills to finish the process of self-edification cut short by a potential story. I turn around and make my way home, knowing that this will be no routine tear-jerking story of communities abandoned by the government and living in the shadows of Abuja city. There is no unhappiness in this story of people who live dangerously under high tension power lines. Only enterprise, schools with names like ‘Pinky and the Brain’ and ‘boutiques’ encouraging you to walk in and pick items of your choice with signs that say YOUR GRANDFATHERS HAVE PAID FOR YOU.
On my way out, I stop to buy the fresh avocados I had bought the first time I came here. I ask the jovial gap-toothed woman if she worries about the demolition marks on her house.
“No,” she says. “Dem just talk say, anytime we see them, make we just take am like that.”