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Sahara Wind

The environmentalist came awake with a shock. He used not to wake with such a start. While the research trip lasted, he would have to…

The environmentalist came awake with a shock. He used not to wake with such a start. While the research trip lasted, he would have to do without coffee. He wondered whether he would turn out to be another Ben Gunn or Thoreau. The latter must have had some provisions − perhaps even tea and coffee? Other than coffee, Ja’en Ja’en missed lunch, too. He had been munching kurna and sucking aduwa as he went along. The fruits had smartened his tongue and palate. He saw the folly of coming out on a scientific expedition (albeit a short one) without taking some provisions along. The fat of the land either stayed out of reach (birds scattered at his approach) or deprived him of his appetite (the two fruits). He was putting his life on the line in his pursuit of a lasting solution to the problem of environmental degradation in Kano, northern Nigeria. 

Ja’en wore jeans and sneakers and kept on the lookout for snakes. His woollen hair absorbed the heat and saved his scalp from getting sunburnt. But his feet felt on fire. The sneakers were poor conductors of heat; yet they afforded the best protection against snake bites.  Without wasting time, he began work on the farm where he had spent the night. He noted its size and the number and species of trees in it before taking a sample of their girth size. He likewise recorded the trees marking off farm boundaries. He scooped some sand and studied its structure and composition.  All the crop offal from the last harvest had been uprooted and burned. The smell of burning lingering in the air would be cleared by the first heavy rainfall. The researcher walked about farm-plots bordered off by Dichrostachys cinerea, Moringa oloifera and Commifora africana.

Ja’en thought of Chico Mendez, the Brazilian environmental campaigner, who lost his life to powerful interests bent on destroying the entire Latin American eco-system, and of Karen Silkwood, who lost her life in her pursuit of the whole truth before crying wolf. The two fallen hero and heroine acted on behalf of everyone, including people who would rather think that they were only remotely affected by such catastrophic disasters as the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear melt-downs and the Australian forest fires. He remembered the abandoned villages of the Niger Republic taken over by the advancing sands of the Sahara. 

As he retraced his footsteps at nightfall back to the base-camp, he saw the need to suppress individualism in favour of communal choice, to work for the common good, rather than the triumph of the individual will. On the following day, he embarked on a careful study of a large area of vegetation between bush and farmland. Trees grew wildly and in family clusters from wild seeds. Of the trees he examined here, Acacia seyal adapted best to the poor soil. They were either useful as sources of fruit (Balanites aegyptica and Diospyros mespliformis); medicine (Guiera senegalensis) or artisanship (Acacia nilotica containing tannin used in the tanning industry). These trees were few and scattered all over the field of research; their sorry condition extinguished the cheer in which he came out this morning to continue with his project. The scientist could only identify Pilostigma thoningii and Anogeissus leiocarpus, which were smaller than those on shrubland and much thinner than all the farmland trees. The few instances of Acacia albida and Parkia bigbolosa had perished due to neglect, disturbance and draught stress. These trees had dehydrated completely while still young; the little rain that had fallen and the manure cattle, sheep and goats had dropped as they foraged under the trees for leaves and pods had not been of much help in averting the catastrophe. Only exotic eucalyptus and neem were spared from the large-scale devastation. 

Ja’en stepped out of the demarcated, government-reserved area solely planted with a single exotic tree per plot of land and went deep into the open bush where he soon came upon trees of great diversity. Acacia ataxacantha merely defined the character of the vegetation for being forbiddingly thorny; Sclerocaya birrea produced perishable exotic fruit; Acacia polyacantha produced the gum used in making ink. But Combretum molle and Terminalia glauscens ended up as firewood.

The researcher was shocked that he had at long last stepped on the fringes of a vast energy resource centre that the logger considered his piece of pegged ground. It confirmed his hypothesis that some elements were conspiring to pave the way for the speedy envelopment of the entire region by the bogie of the fire of the Sahara Desert. Yet, he did not have enough evidence and needed to go further afield and collect more data before the rains began to fall. This research expedition afforded him the chance to work with just notebook and pen, flash-light, temperature gauge and measuring tape. Fear of loneliness would lack the power to disengage his mind from contemplating the beauty in golden grass; in the emerald shoots and ripe fruits adorning the thinning population of trees; in the emblazonry of its aviary and in the waning primitivism of its classification as bush.

He had evidence that twenty-five tree species grew per acre of farmland; that farmland trees were the largest of all the trees that he had examined; that each giant tree accounted for up to 400cm² of timber. Kyaya senegalensis had a height of up to 15m and an imposing girth of 100m.  The hard evidence he had so far collected confirmed the hypothesis that the farmer was the best custodian of the forest treasures of Kano. Such a farmer would nurse the trees on his farms close to home and those faraway in the bush and cut down only those which died a natural death for use as fuel. 

Ja’en needed more evidence about environmental degradation to support his claims with the scientific rigour required of the Sahara Project. Environmental degradation, which he knew to be a prohibition, would most likely be carried out under the pretence of satisfying the utilitarian concerns of wood-fuelling and slash-and-burn agriculture. For the young environmentalist, as he set off, once more, into the vast stretches of land, people’s concerns for sustenance prevented them from considering the harmful effects of their logging activities. They did them naturally on the side along with food production, which they presumed to be “all right”, “safe” and “as part of farming”. Their presumption meant that they entertained the comfortable notion of being the best of whatever the environmentalist could ever hope to be. 

He was ready to disprove that notion by continuing with his observations. While doing so, he would seize the opportunity to record sundry details about flora and fauna for use as background information to a series of journal articles to appear shortly in The Ecologist. 

The land, in all its vastness, here lightly-wooded, over there thickly-endowed, never looking, at the continuation of the environmentalist’s scientific exploration, bare but also never affording him a clear view, into the middle distance, between the ground level to the lower limits (about eight feet) of the crowns of trees − the land was becoming drier by the day even as some trees, Mangifera indica, in especial, was coming into bud, and Tamarindus indica continuing to ripen in time for the fasting month of Ramadhan when the faithful would use the pods of the latter tree, which has its own sweetener, to garnish their sunset, break-fasting gruel, a light porridge both refreshingly-sweet and highly-nutritious for providing the consumer with the bodily requirements of Vitamin C − an essential provender for those observing the fast some of whom would have to make do with this affordable source of vitamins alone for lacking the wherewithal to purchase expensive fare in the name of apples and oranges, papaws and pineapples and bananas and marsh-mallows.

The trees sported the greenest leaves of such luminosity that the young man put down to edibility or pharmacology. The first tree, a source for both, was adorned with the crown of the densest kind sprinkled with yellowish buds, which stood out sharply from a background of young liquid-brown leaves maturing into natural green. The second, Azadirachta indica, had tiny yellow-green buds that gave off the tang of its bitter leaves and tiny yellow-green buds − the active ingredient that cured malarial fevers. The third, Kyaya senegalensis, was intensely bitter and used as a purgative against fatty and sugary diets.  

That vastness of a land without ends, without limits, in all known directions; of a flat savannah without rises, with no mountains of any comparable height − the vastness of the land dispelled the monotony of there being no contours, no rises in sight. Rises of a particular kind abounded though and were a common feature of the landscape: the pyramidal stacks of cornstalk and the odd-looking power pylons, with the pyramids, flaxen and, along with the pale-brown grass underneath, being the best blend, of all the features, seen as of a magic canvas, on the light soil. Yet, mangoes and other leafy trees, fragrant with buds yellowish and leaves greenish maturing into brown, were a perfect blend, too, suggesting a painting-brush at work, turning even bulbaceous canary nests, yellowed with a deft brush-stroke, in competition with buds aplenty, into another excellent blend. So excellent that it fitted well with that other daub on the marshy ground below: paddy-field greenery, along with tints of tomato, onion and pepper shoots woven into a lush emerald carpet. That deep green colour, seen from the background of desiccation, looked almost like a novelty. Thus, the land was never a sign, an object, of hopelessness. Trees, bushes, suckers − these held on to dear life, while the dry-season sun deprived the leftover vegetation of the last traces of carotene and put in its place the pale-fire of disappearing grass.

There were troubles in Wonderland − a land in which spindles, tufts of grass and glossy-green suckers abounded. Thorn-bushes sprouting more thorn than minute specks of green leaf, spreading both ways and daring the intruder to move on and/or try to get through sideways, at his own peril, were common along the footpath. There was the problem of bush-burning. Conflagration, at first sight, appeared to be minor: the fire was pushed on, before it finished its business, which, in these dry parts, at the height of the dry season, the scientist had expected to be thorough, by the wind. There were no stretches of burnt ground in sight. A thorn-bush, along the pathway, easily escaped the seasonal roasting. Yet, further on the ecologist came upon young trees and eventually giants gutted in the inferno, with the former all but singed and the latter damaged along the lower reaches, the leaves now half-and-half, sere brown and green only by half.

Ja’en was relieved to discover in some parts of the land where the cataclysm had been complete dark-green tussocks of grass that dotted the blackened earth. That led to the hypotheses that regeneration had been swift; that the fire was tame and that the footpath was a fire-fighting machine that halted the advance of the catastrophe. In the burning, in all the carnage, he saw the hand of idle subsistent farmers doubling as amateur hunters and setting the vegetation on fire to catch the edible vermin fleeing from the scorching undergrowth.

On bush-land, on this firing range, a new element other than hunting supported the imposition, on the weather cycle at the planting period of the year, of the culture of singe by the farmer to rejuvenate the land but the herdsman rejects it as a ploy to starve his giant herd of long-horn cattle. The land was caught in the middle, suffering from all the deleteriousness.

At a Federal Government Reserved Area, the windbreak had been reduced to charred pieces of wooden columns ruined to silence and bereft of all categories of feathery songsters.   The overall devastation, the loss of soil nutrients, the hardening and compaction of the soil, the escalation of the temperature and the devastating side-effects on the ozone layer − the devastation, seen in its sputter, in eddies of acrid smoke, wasn’t over yet.  It supported the idea of the ecologist erecting a grass-hut in the charred wreckage of Wonderland, a land he had admired, not long ago, in all its splendour, in the Technicolor shades of green, of yellow and of scarlet, but a land which was eventually reduced to a dull collage of primary colours, with sorry black spilling over and obliterating the entire magic canvas.

The regime of tussocks of rapid growing but also coarse and sparse grass had just put out seeds and flowers when regeneration, sustained by nutritious down-pours punctuated by claps of thunder, would have started taking place. At this final stage, farmers and herdsmen (but also farm extension workers who could acquaint them with the skills) could turn at least innovative and harvest the grass and, while waiting for fresh produce to fructify the whole landscape in proteinous green, feed the largesse as a supplement to their weight-losing herds of livestock. The proteinous green was dependent on leaf decomposition, which enriched the soil with nutrients. Yet, all the leaf fall was lost in the grass-firing.

Another leaf fall, which offered a protective cover to the scorched landscape, occurred many months later. Before which time, the land under the gaze of the researcher was gradually invaded by unpalatable thorn-bushes and turned into impenetrable thorn-scrub thickets, surviving on very low humus levels. If Kano were to suffer the same fate, it would then turn into another extension of the Sahara Desert, a land denuded of trees, a land affording no shade to grass shoots that appear after a dribble of rain only to be systematically yellowed by the pounding sun, a land taking on a permanent, withered-brown look.

His ardency for the research undertaking, the ardour with which he attended to the task, the arduousness attendant to the Sahara Project – Ja’en’s hair soon rioted and turned into rancid dread-locks. His hair, before the delivery of squalls of rain, had rioted in a demonstration of his horror at the actuality of the destruction. But on coming into contact with drenching rain-water, it turned into thick rattails. The transformation from low-cut dandyism to dread-locked raggaeism told not of the researcher’s passion for Bob-Marley-Peter-Tosh music, but of the zeal of the young man attempting to decode the arpeggios of Sphenorhyncus abdimii, whose appearance signified the return of the rains. Its notes signified the rapidity with which the rain fell; its plumage signified the remediation the ecologist had been hoping to happen. 

Other than bird-song, there was other fare resounding not from the fast-growing grass but in the deafening thunder-storms leading to lasting rains. So deafening as to suggest that the wasted landscape, reading from the empyrean signature tunes, was in a defiant mood; that it could weather all the degradation, all the loss, in the ill-willed burning, of carbon, of sulphur and of nitrogen; and that, but for the anthropoid disturbance, it would have sooner turned the grassland savannah into woodland savannah − with a little help from a friend, from the lone ecologist, from Ja’en as to the confirmation of whose analysis of the sky-songs he found ample evidence on a land savouring the deluge of a season measured in due proportions of rain.

His careful examination led to the conclusion that, although the grass-firing was a stabilising factor, which controlled the class sizes of individual fire-resistant grass types, it was nonetheless a limiting factor to the vegetation. In a soil that was ferrallitic and ferruginous, the fine ions in the soil had undergone a remarkable change in the bush-fire, leading to the compaction of the ground surface and decreasing mean tree-height and specie-richness and diversity. He wasn’t consoled that he had recorded great increases in mean tree-girth sizes: wood-carvers, whose female customers keep in business because of the artisans’ failure, on the one hand, to produce energy-saving gadgets, such as specially-designed food-mixers, and, on the other, because of the penchant of Nigerian scientists, in an effort to conform in a culture that still venerates feudalism even in extremis, for the desk job, would attack such trees with great alacrity − for the production of wooden mortars in which the female cooks pound yams and millet, as well as maize and corn.

Other life forms soon began to stir in the ashes of burning wood. The appearance of a colony of ants led to the firm decision for the environmentalist in pursuit of his research initiative to move on to the loggers’ field of operations. The eventual appearance of Francolinus bicalcaratus, a slimmed down not so bright toucan look-alike feathered in brown and white, could not delay him any longer. This seedeater and, before it, the black-and-white songster gave the scientist the hope that regeneration had already been set in place and the courage and the determination to pursue the completion of the Sahara Project with greater vigour and an ever greater sense of mission.

He left in peace but was soon engulfed in gloom. Baobabs grew with such ease that their branches spilled downwards, almost touching the ground, before continuing with their gesticulations upwards. The evocation of the feminine metaphor, the case of a young scientist living the austere life of the lone ranger − it was characteristic of Ja’en, in his spate of loneliness, to invest images of longing on the physical aspects of the landscape set off by memories of his girlfriend. Ripening spherical fruits of baobab, mating birds, expectant female lizards seizing the opportunity to bury their clutch of eggs to incubate and hatch out after the passage of the rainy season − the imagery of fecundity spawning off the imagery of dreams: for a young man who lost track of time and somehow gauged its passage by the seasons, by the changes in the grass and the tree regimes, by what viands the fat of the land had to offer, his dreams of his beloved kept him abreast of her progress at school, with a degree, in medicine, to collect at the end of the skein of dreams.

The likes of which happy ending he failed to detect in other baobabs denuded from about four-feet downwards of bark for the strong fibre, deforming the trunk and turning the eighty-foot-high and forty-foot-wide giantesses into an ungainly sight − buxom dowagers divested of their layer of skirts. Stretches of forestland bare all round save for a few stumps − in this vast, open field, on the final approaches to the infamous loggers’ camp, the ecologist came upon a large herd of slow-moving zebu, stalked by a flock of porcelain-white egrets, further picking the remnant vegetation clean in a treeless plain resembling the Latin American pampas.  With most of the trees felled, the forest regime had more shrubbery than trees. 

It was with a pleasant memory emblazoned on a magic canvas that the young man ended his scientific survey of Wonderland. And now, with the coming rains, sorry black had finally given way to natural green.

The young, dread-locked researcher held back. He hesitated, as he regarded Bera and weighed the consequences on his research project if he were to carry out the ideas that had occurred to him concerning the young, runaway woman. He assumed that the execution of the ideas could put his life in danger. He had at this stage of the research initiative written a number of scholarly articles and was busy putting finishing touches to “The girth-size spectra of Adansonia digitata”. He would rather get on with the writing than let what he called the human element deter him from attaining the final stage of the Sahara Project − that of saving the ecosystem of Kano for posterity. Nevertheless, dealing with more than one pressing problem at a time, even when the link between them is at best tenuous, should be expected of the man of science whose forte ambidexterity is.

Unlike the Project, Bera’s problem provided a diversion in the form of deception as to whose realisation both she and Ja’en had a part to play. The former denied the ecologist recognition and the latter paid her back in the same coin by assuming the persona of a young man about town, who the logging-camp riff-raff gave the nickname, Rasta. Bera had fled an arranged marriage and didn’t want to go back home. She would never marry if she could not have Ja’en for a husband; she was held in thrall by a transvestite, Sila, for whom corruption had the added allure of cleanliness. Releasing Bera from captivity was the central idea that had presented itself to the astute environmentalist for his consideration. Yet, a solution would lead to a quandary: what to do with her after she had secured her freedom. He would stop short of establishing with her any amiable relationship.

The signs of her captivity, of a bird trapped in a gilded cage, were there, sharp and clear, for him to see: the statuesque limbs, the soft, rounded curbs, the healthy skin glowing of its own natural juices playing on an ever-brightening duskiness, the bushy springiness of a hair shown off in a defiant afro-cut. She wasn’t responsible for all the glamour; she chose to become the vehicle of its advertisement in return for the secure guardianship of Sila. In the absence of a biological parent, one settles for a patron. Bera found the arrangement very conducive, for the life she was leading in alias. Yet, the attention being lavished on her prevented her from apprehending the similarity of the relationship as that between a man and his pet goat, which he could either sell or slaughter, on short notice, for a particular end.

It occurred to the ecologist that Sila was dangling Bera as bait. The bait was very tempting. In her presence, Ja’en found it very difficult to stay de-tumescent. Yet, there was the vow of the environmental campaigner never ever again to fall for such gratification. He resolved to preserve his seeds for broadcast in lawful matrimony.  

“You seem to be in the highest spirits,” said the host whom the guest had found busy at work at his cluttered desk.

“I am,” said Bera with candour. “Nothing bothers me whatsoever.”

A serious problem did loom over her head. A lesser problem for him was contending with the smell of femininity for having to sit rather closely to her. Yet, it wasn’t hot enough for the early-morning caller to begin to sweat.

“Are you not in the best spirits, too?” she asked.

“I wish I was.” He could imagine her trying to find out whether, in his phrase, they were on the same wave-lengths. “My concerns are purely scientific. I care for the environment, which, in the meantime, is not in the best of health. How, then, can I be happy?”

“So, you are in mourning.” She leaned back against the wall: to sit more comfortably, her host wondered, or to project her frontal torso into better view? He stared, noncommittally, and admired.

“There is some hope yet. That should stiffen my resolve to continue with my work-

“What work?” she cut in. “I only see you walk about and write for hours on end.”

“I watch and record my observations.”

“You call that work?”

“If you mean money-earning work, I load trucks with deadwood for a fee.”

“Why do you call it deadwood?”

“The dead tree is finished; people may as well find something useful to do with it.”

“You sound as if…” words failed her.

“For you, at least, I can say it is with a feeling of great distaste that I work at the loggers’ camp. It will be all the better for me if they would leave the trees alone.”

“You should try persuading them.”

“For them, the forests are endless − the wood would last forever. But it wouldn’t.”

“I find so many uses for firewood.”

“After taking the wood out of the forest, what do you put back in?”

“Nothing of course!” She laughed. “What should I put back in? Ashes?”

“Living seedlings.”

“As if I own the land.”

“You don’t have to own it to help to sustain it. A single seedling is an endowment, a legacy, for all posterity.”

There was a pause before she said with a pout, “It has always been like this.”

“What?” he asked suspiciously.

“Ever since I began to call on you-”

“-I have only talked about my work, about saving trees.”

“Yes, and nothing else.”

“It’s my work, you know. I’ve no other interests. It’s very close to my heart.”

She paused, leading to the rise in her companion of the worry for dropping that strange word − “heart” in a way not entirely connected to what he knew to be the interest she harboured for him. A deep interest she gave expression to – by the numerous visits at all times that she paid him. Each call, he was made to realise, was special − so special that it led the caller into making an appearance in her everyday best − not for any particular day, but for all days, which the consumer of all that glamour was expected to consider. 

He now made up for lost time by working late into the night. He had already published four research articles in The Ecologist and had two more to write before he sent an application to the World Conservation Fund (WCF) for financial assistance to help set up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) devoted solely to the protection and sustainable use of the natural resources of the Kano ecological region. Six articles written on the data he had collected on the tree and the grass regimes of Kano − that should give him the recognition that he required. The writing would be the best defence that he would put forward before he could receive the much-needed funding for the Sahara Project. He now refused to indulge her in what, on assumption, she would consider entertaining conversation. She would continue to disturb him; he would refuse to budge. She would continue to hope; he would insist on disappointing her forever more.

Ja’en had met Bera on the very day he arrived at the infamous place. The ecologist had been aghast to find Sila serving food to the loggers, men in their twenties and late thirties. It had been the newcomer’s intention to eat a proper meal before he looked for a suitable accommodation where he planned to complete his work, in the first instance, on the Sahara Project. He had lost his appetite on catching sight of Sila handling the food. Sila, in like manner, had detected dirt on the dread-locked young man. But he was so drawn to it that he showed no traces, as he must have seen on the visitor’s face, of disgust on his animated visage.

Bera had become very friendly and invited him to come over and stay the night. Her decision led him to regard her as a young woman of polish, of ideas, of subtlety. This subtlety, this imagination of sorts, he soon realised was put on display in pursuance to the attainment of the dream to draw him to her in a frenzy of innocent love. He could still detect the bashfulness in her. He pitied her now for being held in thrall by the obnoxious Sila. The ecologist would not “have her” any more than that Sila should maintain his secure hold on her. Her unrequited love, her captor’s desire for him − these circumstances started a trend of thought in the mind of the concerned researcher.

He began to have ideas, the problem (the young woman turning to him for love) that would afterwards come about notwithstanding, as to the possibility of securing Bera her freedom. He couldn’t, as he phrased it, get on with it head-on. He would have to act with a subtlety all his own, such creativity, as to safeguard his life, as well as hers, from danger.

Thus, he held back and sought refuge in procrastination. He wasn’t in the least interested in her as a playmate whose endowments had kept the desire of the logger community for her at a permanent fever pitch. In his attempts at “damage limitation”, arising from Bera’s frequent visitation as to whose termination the research scientist somehow failed to sum up the courage to request of her, on the ecological project he had undertaken, he now turned away from her and leafed through his dog-eared copies of The Ecologist.

It came to him that, although gentle persuasion would not succeed, he had to find, by whatever stratagem, a way to get rid of the distraction without so much as arousing her powers of apprehension. He needed a break. He would rather take a break sharing a laugh over a lewd joke with the loggers than exert himself in the shapely arms of the lovelorn Bera. 

She had chosen to drape the garb of seclusion over her person and looked forward to divest it when it would be safe for him and for her to revert to their former selves − and, starting afresh, fall in love all over again.

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