Sunday 8 March 2015

Fado fado

Fairy stories in Ireland tend to start Fadó Fadó in Éirinn . . .  or long long (ago) in Ireland.  Another minority commencement is:

Long ago and far away . . . in the town of Bilma, as near as dammit in the middle of the Sahara Desert, a girl-child was born and given the name Nanachunko. Which might be translated as Princess Silver-Dollar. We're not sure exactly when she was born but it was in the winter of 1911-1912, probably January. Her mother was a Toubou woman: they are the People of the Rock who make a living from herding livestock, with a little light cultivation of dates and grain for roughage, and some of them mine salt (NaCl) and natron (Na2CO3) [see R - mmmm wholemeal salt: so good] and sell that all over West Africa.  Her father was a French army officer (112e régiment d'infanterie de ligne, as you ask, who was rotated out of the West African theatre and back to Europe when Nanachunko was still a tot.  But she was a striking youngster who was deemed, in the phrasing of the time, to be evoluée - capable of being educated.  Accordingly, she was taken away from her mother by the French authorities, put on a camel (I believe literally on a camel) and sent to the coast to school.  "The Coast" was, more exactly, Kotonou, then in Dahomey now a suburb of Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin; and 1750km away from her birthplace. In school she learned French, arithmetic, and the Roman Catholic catechism.  Being of natural grace, she didn't need deportment, but she got that too. She also acquired a good French Catholic name. When she was bit older, she was shipped back to Niamey, still 1200km from home but at least in the same province, Niger, where she completed her education. At 16 she was apprenticed to the district nurse with whom she learned midwifery and how to cope with the sores and parasites to which the local women and children were prey.

She was thus a much traveled and fully independent young woman long before the age when the youth of today take a gap year abroad or cut the apron strings and go to college.  But her travelling days were not done yet because she fell for a dashing young Lebanese trader who had a truck, or a share in a truck with his brothers. They dealt cotton-goods and hardware in exchange for peanuts, and their base was at Kano across the border in the British colony of Nigeria. Our heroine lived for the next 50 years in a polyglot, multicultural society in the Sahel - where the tropical forest transitioned into the desert to the North.  She got to be BFF with the Muslim wife of the Emir of Kano, father of the local Hausa people, and spent a lot of time in the women's quarters, but she also acquired a reputation as a canny trader in her own right, a couturier and seamstress and mother of five children.  The oldest of these children, like her mother shockin' attractive in an exotic Sheherazade way, fell for a young Irish trader whom we've met before.

I don't hold a torch for Empire, and there is a case to be answered that Empire itself precipitated the post-colonial decline. But the general perception is that Nigeria has gone relentlessly all-to-hell-in-a-handcart since the Brits left.  Civil war in Biafra in the 1960s; omnipresent corruption and inefficiency; a failing business and failing sight; her husband's long illness and eventual death; set our heroine off on her last long voyage to become an early adoptee into Ireland's multicultural society in the mid 1990s.  She lived with us on the farrrrm for a few months when the girls were very small and helped materially to educate their affect and their sense of self.  I am profoundly grateful to her for that.

This redoubtable old lady died yesterday morning, quietly in her sleep, having suffered a stroke on Tuesday. Living longer than a hundred years is common enough nowadays, but Nanachunko's actuarial expectation of life at birth was probably less than 30 years even accounting for the care and attention lavished on her by the French colonial establishment; so living longer than 103 years makes her a rare bird indeed.  But it's not just the time-served: she has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Not attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion nor C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. But an Africa that was not yet sullied by a groaning excess of humanity, and people who were poor in all aspects of the material world but rich in music and relationships and in tune with the embarrassingly rich and diverse ecosystem in which they found themselves. All those moments will be lost in time  . . . like tears in rain . . . time to die.

1 comment:

  1. lovely to hear your words spoken so eloquently and elaborated on at this wonderful lady's funeral