A Dawo Lafiya — Come Back Safely


Balpolam Idi
7 min readJun 7, 2024
Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

A Dawo Lafiya was the last thing I read before hopping on the lorry passing by Katako junction. As an almajiri boy, it is not every day Keke and cab drivers eagerly give you a lift. Even if willing, many passengers are distrustful and look at us with disgust and disdain. So, it is not unusual for us to jump on passing lorries, trailers, and trucks to go from one end of the city to another to stand a better chance at getting alms.

My last day in Jos started like all the other ones of the past six years since my arrival. It was a cold morning, and after saying our Asuba prayers, we cleaned up by rubbing a little water on our extremities, rinsing our mouths and ensuring there was no dried drool on our faces. Bathing was a luxury we could not yet afford - warm water and time, soap, and jelly to rub on afterwards.
Frozen toes and fingers give you so much perspective on the nature of the sun, her benevolence, and evident shyness in Plateau State. The sun slowly opens one eye and looks upon us with a blurred vision till about the third hour after daybreak, when she fully awakens. Even then, she is eager to hide behind a cloud for hours until coaxed like a reluctant bride coming to her groom. She could bestow her rays on you, like an angry ex, keeping up with pleasantries but withholding her warmth.

After our morning lessons, I went to mai-kosai by Sukuwa junction and fetched some water and firewood in exchange for kosai and kunun gyaɗa. Usman, my best friend, and I told the other boys we were going to Terminus. Some followed us. The lorry we hopped on was transporting yams and vegetables. Travelling with farm products rather than with cattle is much easier. You could sit on the cargo rather than hang on to the metal bar at the rear of the vehicles that convey cattle while trying your best to avoid poking horns and whipping tails.

A Dawo Lafiya was a green and yellow freshly painted car with a terrible drawing of a lion's face, a palm tree, a dagger, and a horse. It was the jackpot. I climbed into the truck’s trampoline-covered bed to rest on the yam mounds. Eight of us made that decision, enthused to be in a warm enclosure, away from the howling wind and biting cold, and in our frenzy to get good spots. We didn't notice someone was lying in a corner. We all sat facing the rear of the lorry, so we could see passing cars through holes in the trampoline and would know when we got to our destination.
We got comfortable and started chatting about Kasim and the underserved flogging he got from two older boys. Rashid was giving us an embellished recollection of the event. We were so engrossed in his gist that we did not hear or see the man get up. One moment, we were sitting on yams, listening to Rashid, and the next, we were covered by a big, dark blanket, overcome by a choking smell.

"This is not normal" were my last thoughts before I fell into the darkness of oblivion. I was eleven years old when we were abducted. The first thing I smelled was the pungent combination of urine and sweat, as my eyes fluttered. There was a dull, throbbing headache and dryness in my mouth, but it was the smell that made me aware of how much filth I was in. We were in a strange, uncompleted building. It was hot in the morning, hotter at night, and hottest at noon.

A few days after being there, we heard our captors talking about reinforcing the fighting boys. A dread that made my stool so watery you would swear it was smelly piss that overcame me. How very fortunate for us the younger boys who were lanky and malnourished. Soon enough, we were separated from the other boys, though Usman and I were lucky enough to have been sent off to a sugarcane farm together. I remember the despair that cloaked me as much as the perpetual sweat.
Years later, I will trace that location to the savannah sugarcane plantation in Adamawa state. There was the backbreaking work of farming sugarcane, the sweltering heat, the persistent unquenchable thirst, and the consistent bouts of malaria and typhoid that would drain you within an inch of your life. None of this broke me. I was positive we could work until we learnt our whereabouts and planned our escape. Nothing broke my resolve. Not the beatings, not the hunger, not the abuse, nothing. Until a snake bite
took my best friend’s life, that was when I knew what it meant to be utterly alone.

Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

I lay awake many nights, thinking about my life. The day Ummi and Abba dropped me off at Mallam Shamsu’s, I cried for hours. I cried through the introductory classes and most night duas. I cried for weeks, holding out hope that Ummi would come and get me. I was only five when Abba decided to send me to Mallam Shamsu for almajiri education. I was clueless; playing football with the worn-out ball our neighbourhood kids shared was my sole joy. I did not notice Ummi had become withdrawn, and quite clingy, while her co-wife, Ya Kadijah, taunted relentlessly. Maybe I would have understood that she was not in support. In a man’s world, the offspring’s fate is beyond the mother’s. I felt discarded, like a garment that could easily be replaced. It didn’t matter that all Ummi did was apologise and plead that I learn well and come back to her. I was lost, but Usman was the first to show me kindness.

At twenty, I had eaten stolen sugarcane to stay alive more times than I said my prayers. Sometimes, I would finish my work and sneak to the sorghum farm for extra cash so I could afford a new pair of slippers. I wondered quite often. Did Ummi miss me? Was she well? Did Abba divorce Ya Kadijah like he always threatened to? Life in Kebbi came to me in little flashes, a distant memory. It’s so faint, almost fictional, but I know I had a family once. Soon enough, astute observation, a sharp mind for numbers, and attention to detail got me promoted from forced labour to hired help. I got paid to do some inventory and odd jobs and moved from the farm’s ramshackle to the sugar company premises. I lived in the boys' quarters with three other men, Ahakapwa, Kamal, and John. I missed Usman terribly.

Time flies when you’re struggling to stay alive; and find meaning and identity. It has been eleven years since I naively hopped on A Dawo Lafiya, seven, since Usman stared at me, unblinking. I still remember the acrid smell of chloroform on the day of our kidnapping. The stifling heat of our ramshackle. Usman’s heaving and groaning before the convulsion and paralysis. These remain fresh in my head. But my life before Jos is now a blur. I wonder if anyone ever looked for me and if I was missed. I wonder what they told Ummi if they ever did.

Ban dawo lafiya ba - I did not return safely.

Thank you for reading. ✨I have been practising the principle of repurposing content for about six months now. And I thought ‘What better way to start than by sharing my ‘first’ works. A Dawo Lafiya was first drafted in 2018, on a cold harmattan morning. I was late for school and the hold-up around Katako junction was terrible. However, It was first published in SprinNG. The 2021 Writing Fellowship Anthology was named after it Come Back Safely.

Here’s a mini glossary for the Hausa words for my non-Hausa-speaking readers

Almajiri — Disciple — Almajiranci refers to a system of Islamic education practised in northern Nigeria, the male gender seeking Islam knowledge is called Almajiri, the female gender is Almajira, and the plural is Almajirai. This old system of education separates young children from their parents in search of religious education. In our modern world, children’s rights are more often than not violated, abused and the inadequate structure makes beggars out of them.

Katako — Wood (also the name of a famous junction in Jos-North

Duas — prayers/supplications (Arabic)

Asuba — Early morning

Kosai — Beans cake (popularly called akara in the southern region of west africa.

Kunun gyaɗa — a pudding made from paddy rice, groundnut paste and tamarind juice common in northern Nigeria

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Love, Ballie💖



Balpolam Idi

Live, Love, Give. But most importantly, Dream. Learner. Teacher. Wanderer.