A Review of Growing, Up North
Life through the lenses of a girl child from a minor ethnic group in North-Eastern Nigeria
This book was given to me as a gift! At the reading party of this beautiful piece of writing, a poet did a giveaway which opened up an opportunity for this review to be written. I have spent the last three days eating the words from the pages of the author’s mind. Now finished, digested and stored in my mind, this review is a recollection of what gave my mind the most nourishment. Listening to Ballie speak to me about her experiences has made an impact on me and this is what this review hopes to share. So let’s begin!
The first thing that captivated me is the title of the book, Growing, Up North. At the surface, it means what it means but at a closer look, Ballie plays a fast one on me. It took my Mom and Sister’s observation to open my mind to the play on words in the title. Growing, Up North in itself tells us about a geographical location. She did another thing on the title that I found fascinating. I wouldn’t know if it is intentional but I like it. If you are keen like my family, you will see the pun in that statement; Ballie grew up North (location) and she grew up North (identity) and this is the crux of this beautiful book. To the place, her place where she grew up. Her identity is embedded in growing up north and the title is an epiphany that she has become north. All the stories are an awareness of the fact that the north is in her. What a beautiful way to start her story.
The book captures the northern heritage. As a child from the Northeast, (Taraba to be precise), and I grew up north too, I could relate to a large chunk of these stories. But what made this read special, is that its from a female’s perspective. These stories are familiar to everyone down here but the view is different in this rendition. She makes it a relatable guide by using the trade language here, which is Hausa. Now, she has lived with the cultural nuances of other Nigerians who do not understand it and do not want to. For a lot of us, it is no different. Ballie addresses this issue to the joy of my heart. The title ‘Kabila da Yare’ resonates with me. Translated as “tribe and language”, she speaks against the misconception that everyone in the north is Hausa. I remember a time I was surfing Twitter, and I saw this trend where people who have been labelled Hausa were dropping tweets to declare their true identity. She is at peace with the fact that she knows Hausa is the major lingua franca here but she wants fellow Nigerians to get the point, that identity is diverse and it needs to be appreciated. Even though the language is on the tongue of all people from here, it is not their original one. Ballie does this by unapologetically using the lingua in her stories. This in a way is a revolt against the status quo and I love it. The point is this: Whether north or south, we have diverse cultures and we need to understand without sticking labels on ourselves.
My personal favourite part is Tuwon Shinkafa. The reason why this chapter is beautiful is that tuwo is special to me. Sokora(sakwara- pounded yam) comes first on my list but in the absence of it, tuwon shinkafa is next. I don’t know why she didn’t mention it, it’s okay, it’s not my book so why am I even whining sef? She talked about the necessary evil: Tuwon Masara. A sentiment I share. The beauty is that our differences should become a reason for disagreements and we can enjoy it too. I agree with her on one thing though; bananas are not debatable, period. She also has stories about other northern foods such as kilishi (beef Jerky), kunu (a refreshing drink), shinge and fara (Flying termite and grasshopper), masa and Kayan kwalam (Sweets and desserts). This shows her love for the cultural meals that have nourished her.
Rijiya, a story about wells was refreshing. In a world where miracles and acts of the supernatural seem to be doctored and staged, her family’s miracle shows genuine miracles still happen. The fact that she or anyone can’t explain it with human logic, makes it more believable. The narrative acknowledges that God did it and that settles it. If you are wondering what the miracle is, I won’t tell you, go and read it.
Rikici, a story of the civil unrest in the north also resonates with me. It is not because it is nice to hear, but because it is a reality I have witnessed and I hate the narratives around it. I have lived in two of the currently most volatile states up north. With all the press and narratives, there is one certain thing; all the crisis, insurgency, kidnapping and banditry are all problems that some of us have created and we are resistant to change. In the north, all of us in one way or the other are victims of the system. Ballie’s cry for change is as loud as the Imam who calls out for the first prayer of the day against the endless killings. She speaks for the unheard voices that have died for no reason.
Bautan Kasa (National Youth Service) is a beautiful story about her experiences in camp and throughout the year. One thing I share with Ballie is the reservation about the scheme. I know the history, and what is happening now is a far cry from what it used to be. I admire her honesty that the system isn’t what it is supposed to be. However, it brings together people from all parts of Nigeria and for three weeks to one year, all the discord that seems to abound is almost non-existent in the corps. This is not so perfect, it still makes a lot of sense and should be developed properly.
Bishiya or tree, is a story of a girl who loves trees. I love trees too and I relate to the fact that trees carry thousands of stories, and one could only wish they could speak like those in the Lord of the Rings. I like the end where she draws us to the fact that we can accommodate one another as they do. There is a powerful message in there that I will allow you to discover.
The last chapter Nema is special because, like Ballie, I am a bunch of questions too. I am always thrown into confusion when I am asked who am I? Like, what do I want to tell you? Well, Ballie has given a perfect answer and as I round up this segment I will quote her:
I don’t know. . . . Yet I mean, I thought the entire point of our life’s journey is to discover who we are as we live out heavenly realities here on earth. How does anyone expect me to know who I am after a mere two decades? I end on this note, we are all on a journey to self-discovery and we need to be patient with ourselves and others too. Understanding yourself is not a day’s job.
There are other stories in the book that are all relatable. Some were nice, but I have no recollections in my childhood because I am an urbanised northern kid to a very large extent but all the same, I got to see how some things made a difference to a northern girl. I would have loved to see a chapter about how northern boys have affected her childhood. She decided that we are not that important sha, but I will forgive her.
The writing is impeccable. It is simple to understand. Balpolam doesn’t create ambiguity. She uses her stories as a didactic tool to conscientize and draws us back to age-old traditions of love, peace, truth and satisfaction with whom one is becoming. One that bears mentioning is the fact that we didn’t care about your religious differences but shared food on Christmas or Sallah. I miss that though. Because we were living as a community not devoid of differences but embracing our humanity.
To Ballie, you have inspired me that every story is worth telling. This story may be your story but it’s our story too! I see a woman working in the steps of great icons like Ladi Kwali, Zaynab Alkali, and other writers like you.
If you have a copy of Growing, Up North, don’t plan to keep it on that shelf or table, and leave it unread. Ballie did not go through sleepless nights, crafting words and editing for you to keep her mind on the shelf where countless minds have been left unread. If you haven’t, get a copy and for your friend too.