I have long since considered myself an outdoorsman. From hiking to hunting, I have at different times engaged in all of that. But living in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, I often have to be contented with short hikes up surrounding hills and the occasional visits to the streams or fountains in the suburbs. At the end of such excursions (typically lasting just a few hours) I would stroll back to my house and wait for the next time I’d repeat it all over again. After some time, for a self-proclaimed nature lover such as myself, visiting the same kind of places in the company of the same kind of people becomes stale, the personal experience becomes somewhat less wholesome and would no longer cut it.
I was stuck in this space inside my own head when the opportunity to visit the Kainji Lake National Park, on assignment for EWP came up, and I quite literally jumped at it. I had spoken to the authorities of the park and I was drawn to the prospects of animals and a time away in the wilderness.
When I got to Kainji, the facilities turned out to be a disappointment due to poor maintenance by park management but the experience was amazing. The most important gift of that trip though, was not the trees or the antelopes loping lazily away from our approach. It was the native people of Kainji themselves and other surrounding communities that made the most impression on me.
Abuja is Nigeria’s capital city. Therefore, it’s an epitome of the hustle and bustle that characterizes cities world over. The 9-5 life here is at its peak and everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere, to acquire more money, to buy new clothes, to impress people they often do not even like. When I was working a 9-5 job, I would be heading to work in the mornings sometimes and find myself nodding off in the taxi. I was not alone in this; everyone around me seemed to be sleepy and always tired. I soldiered on though, until the day I looked up and realized I had lost something along the way. I am certain this feeling would be familiar with anyone who has lived in any major city anywhere else in the world.
On getting to Kainji, it was as if a switch had been flipped and the rat race called off. Life rolled by easily at a sedate pace and it still made sense but in a way that didn’t leave you struggling to breathe. I couldn’t place it at first but when I did, I realized that the uniqueness of the community was that the people were just content with what they had and happy with where they were. Let me explain. In Abuja (and I assume, a lot of other cities) happiness is most times equated with certain possessions; the playthings we can afford. For instance, the impeccably dressed young man on his lunch break bites into his pizza slice and smiles contently, a lady with a handful of designer shopping bags leaves the mall with an extra happy bounce off the staircase just as a group of teenagers nearby takes selfies on their iPhones and giggle gaily. See what I mean? In these cities, it’s almost as if you have to be buying or doing something else recognized as a thing ‘happy people’ do or purchase to be seen as happy. In Kainji, it was the direct opposite. They were very simply happy.
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I know you’re reading this, and right about this time, you might be tempted with a picture of a single narrative about the people of Kainji; a picture that labels them as an exotic tribe in “rural Africa” who seeks to preserve their way of life and shun any form of modernity. If this is the picture you see, I must warn you; that story is incomplete. They own and watch satellite TV in their homes and the young people I met, own smartphones and were familiar with the workings of their Facebook app. Their houses while sometimes made out of mud were air-conditioned and contained modern fittings while behind their homes, fathers fished the rivers and an old smiling man patched the holes in his canoe, amused by my stare. Mothers picked dried leaves off beans harvested from their farmlands and as I strolled through the community, I could hear music blasting from high-definition speakers from various angles. You see, the people of Kainji are as modern as they choose to be; they just concern themselves with the basic necessities for their survival and nothing more.
They could not be bothered with acquiring pretty things to impress anyone, and they spared no efforts to make this clear by their actions. As a close community, the kindness and contentment they radiated was palpable and when I mentioned my observations to one of the park rangers, he smiled and said “you don notice am abi?” (meaning “you have noticed it right?’’) He relayed that when he was transferred to the area, his plan had been to spend a few days and apply to be redeployed. However, after spending only a few weeks, he moved his whole family to Kainji and has been there ever since.
Even though I spent just a couple of days in the area, there was a temptation for me to “change it”. To somehow impose my desire to make things move faster, better. To question why there were no big businesses and malls around the lake. But in the end, I came to the conclusion that the people knew better. That the best I could do for them and for myself was to share in the peace, contentment and joy that they freely gave.
The Kainjis did not buy much; did not need much and did not waste much. Still, there were very much in touch with society. The only difference was that they seem to have figured out the best way to live in the modern world; to appreciate its speed but to live at your own pace.
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All images supplied by author.