It is a weekday morning – I think it is Wednesday. The sun is not yet up. It is not yet 4.30am. I know this because the mosque beside our house has a megaphone atop its roof that is pointed directly at our house, and every single morning without fail, there is a call to prayer at exactly 4.30am. For any not familiar with mosques, a call to prayer or Azan is when the muezzin sings or chants in Arabic to inform other Muslims –men – that it is time to go to the mosque and pray. This happens five times a day. I do not know if the specific times are universal, but at the mosque beside my home, this occurs at 1pm, 4pm, 6pm, 8pm and 5am (actually, 4.30 and 5am, the former I assume to get the people out of bed – whatever happened to alarm clocks? – and the latter to signify the start of prayers). I am not a Muslim, and while the other Azans do not bother me in the least, the 4.30am and 5am calls are a nuisance. And it’s not just the call – the entire 20 minute prayer is broadcast over a loudspeaker. What makes it even more annoying is that the mosque was actually constructed illegally. There is a bigger mosque about ten minutes’ walk from the cluster of houses where mine is but for some reason, some people decided to build one smack-dab in the middle of the neighbourhood, right next to houses (like mine) where people live. And the residents are too scared to publicly complain, given the current tension surrounding Islam in Nigeria. But I digress.It is (probably) a Wednesday morning, and I am awake before 4.30. Why? I wonder. I think I heard something. I am not sure what “something” I may have heard. I close my eyes so that I can drift back to sleep… There it is again! This time I was conscious enough to catch it. It sounds like some kind of wail. But I don’t think it’s human – or at least, I hope not. It is surreal, eerie almost. My ears are perked, ready to hear it again. And I do. It is definitely not human. It is a cat. Wailing somewhere close by. I hope it’s ok, but I don’t care enough to leave my bed and look out the window. I let myself drift back to sleep…
Raaaaauuuuuw. Oh come on! I look at my clock. It is 6am. The cat’s still there? What the heck does it want? And then I think about my mother. She hates cats. Or she’s terrified of them. Or both. I wonder how she feels about being woken up by a wailing cat. Well, the sun’s already on its way up so I might as well get started with my day. My cousin I.I. is up as well. The cat woke her up too – not that she wouldn’t otherwise wake up early. We don’t have window blinds, the sun comes up at 6, and there are all kinds of birds that live close by who feel it is their sworn duty to sing their hearts out at the first hint of sunlight. So we wake up early, and sleep early – since there isn’t much to do at night anyways. But I digress.
The cat is still yawling as loud as ever. Finally I go to the balcony and I see it. It is perched on the lower part of the fence – the part that’s made of concrete. It is black, and scrawny and its fur is in patches. It looks like it’s had a hard life. I wouldn’t go near it if I can help myself. But I (as well as my mum, my cousin I.I. and our house-help Mama C) wonder why it’s meowling at our fence? Since we can’t figure it out, I.I. shoos it away by tossing a shoe at it. She does not intend to hit it but to startle it into leaving. It works. It’s gone. Finally we have some quiet. For about fifteen minutes. The cat returns. This time, I.I. chases it away. It doesn’t come back. Problem solved. We go about our business. I have lessons with some students so I leave the house at 9.30.
I return home at about 4pm to see I.I. and Mama C. beside the gate of the house, bent forward and looking intently at something on the ground. As I approach them, I can’t see what they are looking at. It appears to be the concrete slabs that cover the gutter that runs through the front of our compound. What’s so interesting about the concrete slabs? Or the gutter? I draw closer, and then I hear them. They are faint, only audible to one who is paying close attention; tiny, pitiful squeaks. Then I also bend forward to look and through a small gap between two slabs, I see something white. I squat to see better, and – oh, it’s a kitten! There’s a tiny baby cat in our gutter. Its eyes aren’t even open yet and it can barely move and it’s been stuck in our gutter all day. I look up at my cousin and ask: “what is a kitten doing there?” and she replies: “there are two”. Sure enough I look again and notice that there is a black kitten lying beside the white one, equally helpless. I had not noticed it previously because it wasn’t moving and there was not a lot of light getting into the gutter.
I.I. slips her hand and forearm through the gap in the slabs and wraps her hand around one of the kittens, but the space is too small for her fist full of kitten to pass through. I try, as I have smaller hands and thinner arms, but the result is the same. We call the neighbour’s children to try – a scrawny brother and sister. The brother (seven years old) refuses flat out. He is scared of animals – including snails as we would find out some weeks later. His sister (five years old) is much braver and tries to rescue the kitten, but to no avail. The space is much too small for a fisted hand, to pass through. My heart sinks. Are we going to leave them there? I’m not much of an animal lover, but the thought of leaving a baby animal to starve to death seems incredibly cruel to me. And apparently Mama C feels the same way because she squats down over a slab, puts each hand through the gaps on either side of the slab, grips it firmly and pulls. We see what she’s trying to do and help. It doesn’t work. The slab is either too heavy or too closely wedged in. But Mama C doesn’t give up. She shifts sideways to the adjacent slab and tries again. This time, the slab shifts slightly. It’s a tiny movement, but enough to fill us with optimism and energy as we join her in pulling. Success! We lift the slab and open the gutter. I.I. brings out the two kittens. It is only then that we notice the mamma cat – the black scrawny patchy one who’d been meowing her head off earlier – has been watching us the entire time. She approaches cautiously, not sure what we’re about to do to her babies. I.I. places them gently on the ground and we step back. She walks forward, picks up the black one in her mouth and scuttles off to only God knows where. She’ll be back for the twin – we hope.
It takes a while before she comes back, the mamma cat. In the meantime, we can’t just leave the kitten lying on the ground, under the hot sun. We find a cardboard box and put it in, then place the cardboard box under some bushes in the backyard so it’s shielded from the sun. I squat beside the box and gaze at the kitten. I am awed by its vulnerability and helplessness as I watch it waver between sleeping and mewing. It must be famished having been separated from its mother for something close to twelve hours. I have never liked animals, but at this moment, I feel a wave of protectiveness over this new-born. And worry. The mamma cat’s been away over twenty minutes. What if she doesn’t come back? Where do we get fresh milk to feed the kitten? Unless we can find Fulani cattle herders, it’s nearly impossible. The supermarkets near where we live don’t stock fresh milk. Maybe powdered milk might do. I let myself dream about adopting this baby cat – my mother would not be thrilled at the thought. And then I hear it. Mraaaauuuuw! She’s back! I carry the cardboard box to the front of the house and mama cat walks cautiously toward me. I place the box gently on the ground, she hops in, scoops up her baby in her mouth, hops out and struts away. I watch her pass in-between the fence’s metal bars, turn left and walk away until I no longer see her.
It may not seem like much happened today but I am euphoric. We rescued kittens! Well, I didn’t do much, but Mama C. and I.I. did, and we live together, so I share in their success. I still wonder where they live, the cats. And I wonder how the mama cat got into and out of our gutter1 and if she couldn’t find her way back in again to get her babies. And I wonder if there was another kitten that the mama cat had taken with her when she first got out. And I wonder what would have happened if Mama C and I.I. hadn’t been curious enough (or irritated enough) to check why the cat was yowling all day at that particular spot. And I wonder if all animals cry for help when they or their babies are stranded. While I may never get the answers to all these questions, I am glad. In a life were we often watch helplessly as lives and property are destroyed by nature, human apathy, human wickedness or a combination of the three, we did something meaningful. The cat might not remember it, and the kittens will probably never learn of their first day on earth, but we will always know that despite the hours it took us to understand the source of the cat’s distress, we re-united a mother with her babies and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, we saved two lives.
- We live in a row of houses and in front of this row there is a long stretch of gutters is covered with concrete slabs.
There are two possible entrances to the gutter, one fairly easy to access but far away from the kittens’ exact position, and the other closer but clogged with rough grass. My guess is that the mother cat in labour was disoriented and confused, and wandered into the gutter by accident (or maybe she was seeking a clean, dry, sheltered place), gave birth, left to go home, and even though she could smell her kittens, she couldn’t remember how she had entered that morning or the night before.