You will find my town interesting, a long-time friend of mine said to me when I ran into her and informed her that I was heading that way. Her positive review of the town raised my expectation. But I eventually arrived in the town in a foul mood and dogged by foul weather. The journey was long and laborious, eight hours from Abuja. The tedium left me sore and sombre. I disembarked from the bus tired and tetchy by 5 pm under the threat of an overcast that sent me frantically searching for accommodation. Not an ideal way of arriving in a strange town. What was worse, the unfolding landscape dismayed me. Sprawling old buildings, muddy roads and a traffic of chaotic circus of motorcycles. There was no deluxe hotel in sight. Neither a signpost to say, “Welcome to Takum.”
I saw sows and piglets ploughing through drains and dumps, middle-aged women clutching hen and vegetables struggling to cross the street, and a set of urchins pushing a sugar cane-filled barrow across the street without deference to the speeding motorcycles crisscrossing the streets. Journey-weary cars, long-distance trucks and trailers arriving in the evening. I found the scenery around me rather anachronistic. This first impression gave me a sinking feeling of disillusionment. I quickly prejudged that Takum was not a place to excite a stranger’s senses, neither was it a town that would exceed a visitor’s expectation. Coming from Lagos, a glittery cosmopolitan city, I felt like a traveller trapped in some thirty years’ time warp.
My opinion turned out premature. By the time I ‘dug in’ and dug deeper, this out-of-the-way corner of the country, close to Cameroon border has its peculiar attraction, a unique flavour borne out of the people’s simple way of life. In one week, my biases fizzled, replaced by fascination.
The streets’ plain layout give a false impression that Takum is a small town. Indeed, it is a big town, with an approximate population of 135,349 according to the 2006 census. Roads that branch off the main arteries lead to nooks and crannies of the town. Embedded in the drab and dusty outlook of the town are organs of a bustling metropolis: satellite prison, immigration office, 93 Battalion Nigerian Army Barrack, police barrack, PHCN office, local water board, area courts, NTA Channels 31, UBA and Zenith banks (located at polar points of the town.), 18 petrol stations spread over an eight-kilometre stretch. Underneath its rural facade, Takum has all the elements of a fully functional town. If you are writing a letter to the town, you have to post-code 671.
If you are coming from Southern Nigeria, you are likely to find this part of Taraba State a little bit complicated. The town’s population is a mosaic of three major tribes, namely Jukun, Kuteb and Chamba, with Fulani in the mix. Surprisingly, names in Takum are as simple as John, Mary and Derek. That saves the non-natives the difficulty of pronouncing jaw-breaking local names. Churches and chapels have an overwhelming presence. The Reformed Church of Christ in Nigeria (RCCN) spreads through to neighbouring villages. Bible-holding youths, choir boys and girls, returning home from church, and women groups going back home after church service are common around Donga and Yola Road; while hijab-wearing Hausa women and children trafficked around Ahmadu Street. Takum’s religious palette also includes adherents of African Traditional Religion.
The town wormed its way into my heart by its robust weather. Daybreak was at 5:45 am. The sun drowned on the western horizon by 6:15 pm. In the continuum was an extreme but agreeable tropical weather: mist-shrouded dawn, sun-drenched afternoon and rain-flogged evening. With temperature as high as 33 degree centigrade, the sound of the rain pelting on the roof after a sweltering day was a blessed relief.
If you have an eye for nature, you will develop a fondness for the town. The environment was relatively untainted. A ritual morning stroll through the town afforded me the opportunity to have my fill of rare sights while going about my assignment. Mist-covered mountains and luxuriant foliage enveloped the town. Takum has more to offer if you venture into the surrounding villages. Then you would have an eyeful of the wild, original, primaeval Africa. Swampy rice fields and ancient bridges that bestride free-flowing unpolluted rivers, roadside cannabis farms, vast mountain range and ridges, will not escape your eyes. The dynamics of food chain between birds of preys and nimble reptiles, and snakes sleeping in the sun were some of my observations as I trudged through primitive Tiv settlements of thatched mud huts. By my town-dweller perception, the vista was reminiscent of the Shire in Middle-Earth Lord of the Ring. On the third day in town, I took a trip by motorcycle to the border town and witnessed the border crossing into northern Cameroon.
I also walked through the Old District that still wore the scars of ethnic skirmishes. Long before the Boko Haram holocaust swept across the North East, Takum has had its own taste of Apocalypse. There were once deadly days when Jukun and Kuteb clashed and the duels settled with Kalashen (Kalashnikov rifles). Some old houses razed during the conflict stood desolated, their walls pockmarked by bullets. These fearful sights had frightening stories too. But Takum, famously known as T.Y Danjuma’s hometown, has moved on from its turbulent past and has since been marching on the path of progress.
In no time, I acclimatized and soon acquired the habit of the town. The locals were visitor-friendly. They do not bother you with their problems. Each person you meet, you want to know him or her better; they are people who are ready to go the extra mile for you. Their down-to-earth disposition makes it easy to strike a friendship with them.
In this town, “everyone knows every other person,” my guide informed. Familiarity was derived by and large from active daily get-together under terrace trees at the Yola Road/Ussa Roundabout, which served as the town’s open-air pub. Refreshment consisted of beer, palm wine, fried chicken, jollof rice, pounded yam, served with egusi, or okra soup with bush meat. Customers trickled from noon and by evening they came in groups until a crowd built up and there was a lot of buzzing and boozing. Such engagement as I later observed was a daily therapy for the locals. Even on this last Sunday of October, a group of four men and five women came straight from a church wedding.
There was no distinguishing the sterner sex from the fairer sex when it came to the business of beer drinking. Both sexes indulged, and it came down to a matter of ‘what a man can do, a woman can do, too’––Afiniki, a 22-year-old acquaintance, downed three bottles of Star Beer diluted with palm wine within one hour and still kept her sanity.
In this convivial company, charged with an infectious feeling of comradeship, they bought one another rounds of drinks, beer or wine. ‘Palm-wining’ was one of the town’s ways of spending the evening.
There were other reasons for patronage at the joint. The gathering also served as the town’s information mall, where the locals picked useful information on diverse subjects, from local politics to weddings. Conversations drifted from different directions, competing for your attention, and you would have to adjust your ears, like tuning a shortwave radio.
“The old man may not know Beckham or Ronaldinho, he may not even know offside from free kicks, but his predictions about football have always been precise” one of the youth argued hotly.
“What are your proofs?” another challenged.
“Ok. When I told him Ghana would be playing Brazil in the U-21 final, he predicted a Ghana victory. He was even specific to the point that the victory will come via penalty kicks.”
“Perhaps, it was just an intelligent guess,” someone countered.
“No way. When Nigeria played Tunisia in Abuja, that morning he told me, the match would end in a draw. Now he told me Nigeria will not participate in the next world cup,” he dropped another bombshell.
“We shall see” one of them muttered.
Then another conversation, from two young women, drifted to my hearing.
“I see the girl last night o.”
“She don die. She go abort belle.”
“Why she no go die? How person go abort pregnancy wey don pass six months?”
“How you take know the month?”
“Na the guy wey get the belle tell me. Na soldier guy.”
In the same breath, they talked about life and death, marriage and divorce, good and bad news, arcane and mundane issues.
Wedding notices, in form of small posters, laminated and nailed to tree trunks, served as the town’s Acta Diurna of “about to be married” couples. Each poster detailed names of the couple, their wedding dates and the venues. They carried such message as “Be Our Guest” and “Consider This An Invitation.” Explaining the logic behind such practice, an acquaintance, informed: “We intermarry a lot among ourselves. So it is important to know who is finally marrying who, and in case anyone misses out on the invitation, these public posters will notify them.”
An evening strolls through the town would leave you with captivating memories. At the time, there were as many as 2,000 motorcycles in the town Takum.
Bikes were as personalized as mobile phones. They afforded a quick means of moving around. You get anywhere within the town or from one end of the town to the other end with ease and at an affordable fare.
Men and women, young and old alike, all loved motorcycles. Again, women compete with their menfolk in ownership and of motorbikes. Surprisingly, owners of motorcycles did not bother themselves with getting number plates. At a rough count, only three out of 28 motorcycles had number plates. With such a high number of bikes in circulation, one cannot traffic chaos. Downtown, traffic wardens were like ringmasters in a circus of bikes. Twice before my very eyes, motorcycles overturned, trapping their riders.
At the end of one week, my assignment––which included travelling to Jalingo (where I was almost arrested at the government house in a case of mistaken identity) and a short trip to Wukari––came to a close and I bade my Jukun friends goodbye.