from the PREFACE
Patience’ Parlour is a small mud walled bar in Northern Nigeria in the village of Samaru. Samaru's geometrical grid of dirt streets, originally laid by the British, provides a market, a mosque, churches, beer parlours and houses for junior staff at Ahmadu Bello University across the main road. Beyond and around it is farmland where guinea corn, maize and groundnuts are grown, and you see white humped-backed cattle watched and mouth-clicked at by a ten year old boy with a stick and a raffia hat.
At the time the poem is set, Patience herself is thirtyish and has lived in Samaru for some fifteen years, first as a student, then as a lecturer in Politics at the university, a job which she has given up partly because of junta pressures on radical academics and journalists, and partly on principle: it seems to her that political education has to happen elsewhere.
Though her origins are far south in Benin City, she has got used to Samaru and it has become home, despite the periodically whipped up local prejudice against non-Hausas and non-Muslims. The bar was attacked by the so-called Ayatollahs in 1988, her fridge and tables wrecked, her bottles smashed in the streets, and it would have been torched had it not backed onto the property of her well-to-do Hausa landlord.
If you leave the university by the back gates, cross the road to the trestle table stalls on the other side, go alongside the market, pass the mosque, and then follow the dirt streets with their mud houses, cinemas, food hotels, stalls of kebab griddles, you get to her bar with its coloured bulbs on a board outside. It is adapted from a traditional compound with a large patio around which are set other rooms, built as separate structures. The largest, which you come into from the street entrance, forms the inside bar, essential during the rainy season. Other rooms are used for a kitchen, store room with two fridges full of bottled lager, and there is a traditional shower/toilet into which, at night, you take your candle and smear/stick it on the wall. There is electricity, but not throughout, and the main lighting comes from hurricane lamps which don’t go out in the frequent power cuts. The patio is filled with rough plank tables, benches and chairs. There is a well at one end, and further rooms where Patience’s teenage daughters live.
In the 1980s Patience’ Parlour was a watering hole for radicals from the university. But the drinkers, who form the ‘cast’ of the poem, come from all walks of life (see end-notes to individual cantos).
The letter is set in 1993 at a time of unrest just before President Babangina was to annul the apparently perfectly fair elections which were won by Mashood Abiola who, although very far from being a man of people, was both a Muslim and a Southerner, and so promised to be a truly national choice. Hence the unity of the nation was felt to be threatened and ethic differences came to the fore.
The Letter Writer writes from England to which he has returned with his Nigerian wife and children to nurse his dying father. His parents had been musicians in music hall, pantomime and summer shows, his maternal grandfather a Cornish tin mining engineer who, after the collapse in of the industry in 1860, went to the gold mines of South African, where the Letter Writer’s mother was born.
The poem as a whole represents the hours from about 1 a.m. when the Letter Writer starts writing, to first light when he leaves off.
About Letter to Patience