When on July 17 this year, a good friend of mine working in the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Abuja called me on my mobile, asking me to prepare to be part of this year’s (2018) Saudi Government’s media team to cover the entire activities of the hajj, I was elated. I was elated for two reasons: that Allah was again inviting me to go and serve him about six years since the last time, in 2012, that I went there, and that because this time, it was Saudi government itself that was inviting me. It looked bumper, if you know what I mean!
From that point, I underwent some processes, including forwarding scanned pictures of my international passport, copy of my Curriculum Vitae and other relevant papers to the Embassy and to a mail address in Saudi Arabia that was forwarded to me.
But before then, I had already been slated to be on the Presidential media team to Lome, Togo, for the joint meeting of the Economic Community of West African States and Economic Community of Central African States known as ECOWAS/ECCAS, as well as ECOWAS Summit separately. I made the point known to the Saudi authorities that I would have to join the Presidential team to Togo before considering their offer for the working journey to that country. They accepted my term.
On my return on August 2nd, the process of my going to Saudi Arabia began, dovetailing into a pleasant meeting with the country’s Ambassador to Nigeria, Adnan bin Mahmoud Bostaji. Ambassador Adnan did not however tell me in his discussion with me, the nitty-gritty of the journey, only that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabian wanted to be heard loud and clear too on the numerous efforts it had been making every year to comfortably accommodate the millions of Muslims going for the pilgrimage. I did not ask him what were involved in strict term, believing that worldwide, foreign trip has one thing in common, especially if it is on the bases of going to work.
And on August 15, in accordance with the airlift schedule, I took off, en-route Cairo, Egypt, arriving at the King Abdul Aziz International airport in Jeddah the following day, August 16. After undergoing more than five hours customs and immigration entry processes, I was finally ushered into the airport, where I was picked by a waiting driver. The driver was so friendly and helpful, thanking me for finding time to come.
I was excited when I was taken to the Holiday Inn, Jeddah (a four-star hotel) for lodging. The hotel, to say the least, was exquisite, clean and comfortable. Meals were served free, so also was laundry service as well as other things, such as gym, swimming pool and so on.
After checking in, I stayed indoors for the whole of the day, until the following day, Friday, when I went to a nearby Mosque to observe the Friday (Jum’at) prayer. In the evening of Friday, I and more than 50 other journalists: three of us from Nigeria, some from Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Djibouti, America, Britain and other countries, were driven in a luxury bus to the main prison in Jeddah where Islamic hardliners, suspected terrorist and bigots are kept, trained and reformed. The prison and its environs, including the condition of the prisoners give a perfect impression of respect for human rights of even the prisoners. They have all the facilities including fantastic mini general hospital, equipped with state-of-the-art medical facilities, surgical equipment and even dialysis centre.
We were later in the process of the work which we were invited to do, hosted by the deputy minister of Media, the governor of Makkah and above all, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. We carried out several other duties. We filed reports of the activities and got them published by our various news media platforms back in our countries.
Indeed, those who arrived before me had earlier visited various Holy sites and security apparatus, men and officers, as well as riding in a helicopter to oversee the Kaaba itself.
And when it was time to go for the performance of the hajj rituals, the vehicles, fitted with air-conditions, internet connection (Wi-Fi) and other gadgets to ease our job, were provided us, with police escorts blaring siren to clear the ways. It was such an easy movement, so much that it didn’t look as if it was the hajj I had performed in the past, with all the hassles and thrills.
As a matter of fact, I had never enjoyed such accommodation and other services in the previous seven times I had been to that country for pilgrimage, beginning from 1984.
That was all about the ease that was provided by the International Communication Centre (ICC) under the auspices of the Ministry of Media. The ICC was coordinated by a very exciting and pleasant personality, Mr. Faheem H. Alhamid. He is actually the President of the Centre, doubling as Adviser. Faheem interacted with us freely more on personal level, and at every stage, was on hand to provide help to whoever needed it. He is a good listener, though sometimes, because of the pressure of work, one would wrongly conclude that he was rude. He speaks good English.
Through Faheem, we were made to look so important that people back home, who were privileged to follow our activities either on television or social media, had started calculating that we were going to be loaded with money. What about having a firsthand experience of visiting King Salman in his palatial mansion in Minah, situated down what looks a valley, overlooking major parts of Minah and Makkah? What about visiting and dinning with the governor of Makkah, a wealthy Saudi Prince, who interacted with us for nearly two hours to the extent that he laughed with us? What about being driven in a convoy of long, comfortable and air-conditioned buses with police escorts blaring siren everywhere we went, including Arafat, Muzdalifah and Jamra in Minah?
All these were later to constitute tragic irony: a situation where we were inadvertently being set against friends and well wishers back home, thinking we had made it in the oil rich Saudi land.
Unfortunately, the last day before we all departed from Jeddah back to our various countries, the only thing that was offered to us at the closing media briefing by the Minister of Media, Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad was fresh flower. There was also a verbal thank you to all of us, and we left the Hall, all of us speechless.
There was no estacode and no money paid for the work we were clearly told we were being invited to carry out which of course, we carried out. While some of us managed to escape the financial embarrassment caused by such abandonment by our hosts, using our personal money (thank God, on my part, for the estacode I enjoyed from my Togo trip), some others did not prepare enough to enjoy such escape. A few of us returned to our countries without buying even a razor blade, because we were not given an inkling that we were the ones that would fund ourselves, especially on small shopping for family members and friends back home.
Just as I was trying to overcome the shock that followed our being used and dumped in the Holy land, as the Boeing 737 aircraft that finally brought me landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja on Sunday afternoon (August 26), ugly news came to me via my cell phone.
I had barely driven out of the airport when a friend phoned to tell me that my cousin, Idris Momoh Ondeku (known in his work place as Idris Mohammed Ondekus), who went for the same hajj in the group of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was dead in the Holy land.
This was the man I met at Jamra (Minah) where devils were stoned and with whom I had some lively discussion before I left for Nigeria.
Idris, born in December like me in 1960 (58 years in December this year), was the Principal of the Government Science Technical College in Garki, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. He had been Principal since 2012. He was another Chike Obi, the Mathematician. His mastery of mathematics and related subjects was legendary.
Information reaching me said that my cousin, who had finished all the rituals, including spending a night in Minah, standing a whole day in Arafat, sleeping in Muzdalifah, stoning devils for three consecutive days, visit to the Prophet Mosque in Madinah, circublating Kaaba seven times, performing Umra by walking between Safa and Marwa as Prophet Ibrahim’s wife, Sayyidatuna Hajar did while searching for water; and other hajj rituals, was struck by what clearly was cardiac arrest. He was said to have suddenly complained of severe chest pain, followed immediately by vomiting blood. Before medical help could reach him in the wee hours of Saturday, August 25, he had already given up the ghost.
I and Idris grew up in Okene, Kogi State, struggling on our own to make it in life. Like me, Idris once served as house help to a rich man so that he could make enough money to go to school as our parents were very poor. He started small, as a classroom teacher in Kuje Government Secondary School in 1988 on grade level 7 shortly after completing his Teachers’ Grade II at Ogori/Magongo Teachers College in Kogi State. He gradually climbed the ladder through a dint of hard work to become one of the longest serving Principals of the Government Science Technical College, Garki as Deputy Director on Grade level 16. He was Vice President of the All Nigerian Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools (ANCOPSS), FCT chapter.
It was only by the grace of Allah and providence that Idris and I were able to push our heads in the world that is very harsh to the poor and which venerates the rich and the mighty. How would Idris had been able to visit many countries, including Singapore, India and others if it were not his dexterity to make it in life all on his own, with God in control?
Knowing his situation in life, Idris lived a quiet life, always burying himself in his official work and helping people from his community with ideas on how to move the society forward and chipping in some money wherever it was needed. Here was a man who would not want to hurt fellow human being to the extent that if he knew you were not happy with him for one reason or the other, he would trace you wherever you are to seek for your forgiveness, even if he knew you were wrong.
Just few days before he travelled for hajj, he sent a text message to inform me. I responded to the text by saying that as close as he and I were, was it through the text message he should inform me of his plan to go for hajj. Not quite thirty minutes, he drove to my house to apologize, and to properly inform me of his intention. Such was Idris.
He left a wife, who herself performed hajj last year; five children (three females and two males). The first, Radifat, is working as medical officer in a Lagos hospital.
And to arrive at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, after over ten hours of traveling from Jeddah-Cairo-Nigeria to be greeted by the death of such a wonderful, gentle, friendly and generous cousin could not have been uglier.
And since Sunday that I arrived, I have been mourning, even as the thought of the experience of the moneyless Holy journey I made with all the trappings of enjoyment, coupled with family members and friends that keep on asking what I brought for them from hajj, keeps nudging at my heart. I am still wondering, amidst the myriads of thoughts crossing my mind, where in the world a person would be taken away from his family for a distant journey without an estacode.
It is a combination of feeling of satisfaction and thankfulness to Allah for a successful hajj, mourning the death of my dear cousin and regretting that for lack of proper communication and understanding of the thinking of my hosts, I couldn’t bring welcome gifts (tsaraba, baba oyoyo) to my children, grand children, friends, colleagues and well wishers.