I am still in Sallah Mode and want to elongate it further. So, allow me not to comment on “Lifeless” or “800 Metres”, or even Prof Wole Soyinka’s “Trance” statement of earlier this year. I leave analysis on these issues to the political pundits and will stick to ‘human interest’ – my area of interest. For I am human.


During a recent Sallah get-together with colleagues from secondary school (no, not the ones who called me Tomato-Face; those were Primary School mates), a discussion on the issue of ‘human struggle’ cropped up. I told them of Ado Sanusi Sabongida, a subject on this page a few weeks ago and told them how Allah has now blessed Ado’s struggles as he has now been ‘adopted’ by a Governor and a Minister.


I also told them about another ‘Struggler” I learnt about recently; a wheelchair-ridden young female student who, for several months, rode her manual hand-powered three-wheeler bike from Dakata to Gyadi-Gyadi Court Road in Kano (a distance of more than 10 kilometres) every day to study Graphics and Design so she could start a business and fend for herself. She has finished the course, and her next ambition is to get a laptop.


I also told my friends the story of two bright female students of this university who are respectively suffering from leukemia and sickle cell disease. Both of them are practically succumbing to their ailments – for want of a few millions of Naira to pay for medical care. (To be fair, unless such issues are brought into the open, there is no way those who could help could know, as Ado’s matter is a case in point). 

And we say for all these “Strugglers”: May Allah make it easy for you.

I also told my friends the story of the Cairo Shoe-Shiner which appeared on this page back in September 2007, eleven years ago. Titled “The Obstacles in Our Path”, the piece always resonates whenever I discuss human suffering brought about by the incompetence of others. I will re-share the store today.

While in Egypt in the mid-1990s as a student at the American University in Cairo, I witnessed a spectacle on television which, to this day, I have never forgotten.

There was this mixed grill programme on Egyptian television called El Saa Khamsa (Five O’clock), similar to FRCN Kaduna’s Jakar Magori or Freedom Radio Kano’s In Da Ranka. It was a programme dedicated, in part, to exposing the tardiness (or too much bureaucracy) in government work, and the social cost of that bureaucratic inaction on the common people.

In one particular episode, then Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak was shown going round Cairo streets chatting up the masses: shoe-shiners, shop-keepers, street urchins. At the gate of the equivalent of Abuja’s Federal Secretariat, a federal building called Mogamma (a massive, Russian-built structure on several floors in central Cairo, right opposite my university) Mrs. Mubarak had an encounter with a certain shoe-shiner. She asked him the usual social questions: where he was from, whey he came to Cairo, how much he made in a day, etc.

The poor shoe-shiner narrated what brought him to Cairo, and his story brought tears to many an eye. He said a son was born to him about ten years previously in his village deep in the Egyptian south, far from Cairo. In the tradition of Muslims to await the seventh day before giving a child a name, and realizing he had to provide a temporary name for the hospital records, he nicknamed the child after a common dual-gender name (such as we have in Hausa: Talle, Yalwa, Gambo, etc). That was recorded, and a temporary birth certificate duly issued.

But because the shoe-shiner was unlettered, he did not realize that the registrars (who had neglected to ask the nurses what gender the baby was) had inserted ‘Female’ under the gender column, as the name given could take either gender. And he didn’t know he had to re-register the child when a proper name was given.

From then on, the shoe-shiner continued telling the then First Lady, his troubles started. Whenever he wanted to take the child for immunization or any routine hospital or other appointment, he would be denied service because the birth certificate showed that his son were female. But the last straw, he said, was when he wanted to enroll the child in school, and the school would not accept the boy because the birth certificate had said ‘female’.

The poor shoe-shiner continued to tell the First Lady that he would explain and explain that it was not his fault, and even untie the boy’s trousers to show evidence of boyhood, to no avail. He was advised to go to Cairo and get a change of status for the boy, as it was not possible to do that in his own village. So off to Cairo he went.

He brought the boy to Cairo and asked his way to the Mogamma (Federal Secretariat). There, he was told to go to, say, the 17th Floor, Office 274. Not knowing lifts, he lugged the child on his back and started up. A Good Samaritan guided him to the lifts. At the 17th Floor, Office 274 he was directed to, say, the 6th Floor, Office 71. For that whole day, said the shoe-shiner, his son and him were brick-batted from one floor to another, and from office to office.

Had he got the change of name the next day or the next after the next, the story could not have made it to El Saa Khamsa. The poor villager was to spend FIVE YEARS going up and down the Mogamma building, looking to change the gender of his child on a birth certificate.

He said after the first week, when he realized the struggle was going to be long, he had returned the child home, and had come back alone to fight the battle. When a week or two couldn’t solve the problem, he acquired shoe-shining equipment and started a trade right in front of the Mogamma. 

Every once in a while, when business was low, he would go up into the building, still trying to do what brought him to Cairo. At the end of the month, he would travel to his village, spend a few days and return to continue – both as a shoe-shiner and as an applicant for change of child gender status. He brought out the well-worn ‘certificate’ from under the shoe-shine box: it was grimy for age and handling.

The moral of the story is not whether he got his change of status, but it is that HE KEPT AT IT FOR FIVE YEARS. The obstacle in his path did not deter him from persevering and trying day after day, month after month, year after year.

The Egyptian First Lady was flabbergasted. She first made some heads roll; she then had the shoe-shiner’s son’s gender status changed immediately; she then had the father compensated (and, if I remember correctly, given a job). She went further to sponsor the child through school, and appointed teachers to give extra instruction for the boy’s lost years. Mrs. Mubarak also immediately put into motion far-reaching reforms such that municipal activities such as registration of births and deaths and the like could be done in the provinces. El Saa Khamsa, and a role for First Ladies.

Nigerian masses are suffering similar or worse indignities from government officials. Most of us have been victims of the high-handedness of government officials in NITEL, NEPA, Nigeria Airways and others. No wonder those institutions ended the way they did. We suffered.

The motto of my post-primary school, Kano’s School for Arabic Studies (SAS) is “Man Jadda Wajada” (Whoever Stuggles, Succeeds).


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