When I relocated from London to Liverpool in 2008 it took my family and I a little time to settle down and one of the first few Nigerians we met was Alhaji Abdullahi Abubakar. He was an amazing elderly man who had a successful career with a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Shipping Line. On the surface he looked quiet and a bit reserved. But as soon as you sit with him and begin chatting you realise the he’s a very friendly and chatty.
Liverpool was, incidentally, the first city in the UK I visited when I first came to the UK on a visit, long before I came back to live. The trip was sponsored by the British Council as part of its Connecting Futures programme. I was part of a Nigerian team of eight and we were required to visit a city and spend about four days with the locals. We were hosted by a local group, Hope Street Limited, in Liverpool and a Liverpudlian, Giles Agis. During our brief stay Giles and members of this group made sure we met the Nigerian community in Liverpool.
Our brief stay in Liverpool was memorable. It was in this time I observed that there was a large Nigerian community, largely made up of an ageing population. I interviewed some of these Nigerians and realised that many of them had either come as students or worked with the NNSL and eventually settled down.
So, when I got a scholarship to do a PhD at the Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies at Liverpool Hope University and University of Liverpool, I was overjoyed to return to Liverpool. I looked forward to meeting that Nigerian community again and, possibly, learn a bit more about the ageing population.
In a 2002 Daily Trust article I had described Liverpool as a City of Blacks and Beetles. The piece chronicled our visit and my experience with the locals and historic places like the Beetles and the International Slavery museums. As a kid I remembered reading about the Beetles and listening to some of their songs.
I also recalled reading about the city’s notorious image as a route for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I remembered reading about John Lennon and his Beetles’ teammates’ peace campaigns through the medium of music.
All of this accelerated my excitement, especially knowing that I was going to spend at least three years doing a serious research on war and peace in a city that contributed immensely to the perpetuation of the world’s worst cruelty and witnessed one of the UK’s most disturbing race riots in the 1980s.
Despite my sincere eagerness I received some pieces of advice from friends back in London who didn’t think Liverpool was the right place to relocate to with my young family. They were worried about racism and crime. I was, surprisingly, not alarmed.
Liverpool turned out to be the perfect place to live. Meeting people like Alhaji Abubakar made it even more perfect. And from their life stories, my observation about the ageing migrant population turned out to be true.
From the day a friend, Dr Mohammed Sulaiman, introduced us to Alhaji Abubakar my son, Imam, who was nearly three years old, and daughter, Ni’ima, who was less than a year old, became very connected to him. They called him Kaka Alhaji (meaning grandpa Alhaji).
He always gave them treats, which they quite liked and never got tired of visiting him. He had been separated from his wife and lived alone. But he was always in the local Ar-Rahma Mosque attending the five daily prayers. So, he was hardly at home. But whenever we passed by his house, which was just a few yards from ours, and the kids observed he was in, they would insist on seeing Kaka Alhaji. And we would knock and say ‘Salam’ to him.
He always liked our often impromptu visits and, sometimes, he would pop in to see us and hand the kids sweets and pizza. He fondly called Ni’ima ‘Shortie’, to which she usually responded by calling him ‘Shortie’ too.
He also had a playful name for Imam, which was ‘Chewing Gum’ because the boy always went everywhere with me, including the Mosque and the university. He would often say “where is your chewing gum” and the boy would say “I am here”.
Whenever we met, either at his place or mine or on our way to or from the Mosque, we would chat about life, religion, politics and many things. He would tell me his life story. He loved kids and had two sons and daughters of his own. I only met the children a few times because they, the men, live and work London. As a captain he spent much of his time on the High Seas and the children grew up not seeing much of him.
He rose to head the NNSL operations in the UK, Germany and one other European country. He was well paid and made sure his family was financially well looked after. He owned a property in the highbrow part of Liverpool. He told me about an incident that once happened when a policeman spotted one of his sons in the area, on his way home. He said the police officer stopped the boy and asked what his mission was and was shocked when he replied that he was on his way home. He, apparently, didn’t believe a black man could own a property in the area. It took the intervention of the parents to convince the officer.
Liverpudlians, from what I observed and heard about them, are ordinarily nice people. But Liverpool has since lost its wealth, which came with its infamous role as a trans-Atlantic slave trade route. It is, today, very impoverished and there are fewer jobs, which is why the locals are perceived as hostile. Many well educated children of migrants like Kaka Alhaji are forced to leave Liverpool in order to secure good jobs. And this is why those left behind are the ageing population.
I always enjoyed listening to his life story and he repeatedly reminded me that he was the youngest of his siblings, after his younger brother, a medical student, had died. He, like another another elderly family (Gerald and Judy Henderson) was always available to support my family and give me the fatherly advice my father’s death had deprived me of.
One day he visited and saw Imam had hit his head against the sharp edge of the radiator in the living room. He was very visibly disturbed because the boy had sustained a slight cut and was crying. He insisted that we saw a doctor to be sure there was no internal injury. We did and were reassured. Upon our return he sat me down and gave me a lecture on the fragility of body parts like the head and why extreme caution must be taken. He ended the lecture with the sad story of one of his older siblings who, as a child, had crashed his head on a hard surface during play with his mates and died within hours after the incident. The story is glued to memory.
When I was leaving Liverpool in January 2013, even though I was quite happy settling down in Coventry where I had started a new job, I felt quite sad leaving behind good people like Kaka Alhaji and the Hendersons. I tried to keep in touch with them by visiting until I had an accident on a motorway that seriously impacted me. Getting Kaka Alhaji on the phone was a tough job because he was always in the Mosque, turning off his mobile phone or, when at home, observing his leisure.
I was aware Alhaji Abubakar’s health was not very good, especially due to old age. But he went on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia a few years ago and went through a very stressful experience that further effected him. He was placed on admission in the hospital and recuperated. We met, afterwards, at his son’s wedding in London and spent plenty of time chatting. And when it was time to part ways, it was difficult saying goodbye, which turned out to be a final goodbye.
It was from Dr Mohammed Sulaiman, who came visiting from Nigeria last week, that I became aware that Kaka Alhaji was in the hospital, again, and had undergone a surgery after a serious accident in his home in which he sustained a critical head injury. Dr Sulaiman visited him in the hospital and came back with an even more depressing story. But, as Muslims, we hoped on Allah to heal him. I was also planning on visiting, together with the Ameer of the Nigeria Muslim Forum UK (NMFUK), Dr Abdullahi Ahmed, who is married to his grand niece, perhaps over the weekend, to see him alive at least one more time. But it never was.
Sadly, it was a head injury that he so much dreaded and was always cautious about that killed him. But such is destiny.
In him I have lost a father and a friend, exactly 17 years and one day after my father’s death. May Allah forgive their shortcomings and reward them with al Jannat Firdausi.