The recent release of the kidnapped girls by the boko haram sect has prompted me to post this short story about the chibok girls I wrote a while back. I tried very hard to put myself in their position and I wrote this through their eyes in my mind. Tried to make it as real as it could get. Sit back and relax! I hope this strikes the right chords.
Spoiler alert: don’t expect it to have a happy ending.
‘Allahu akbar! I’m writing my final paper today. Alhamdulillahi!’
I am the third child of my Baba’s seven children but the second and last of my Mama’s children. The first child, who was also my Mama’s first child, was the only son. He died last year during the battle. My Baba is still depressed about it. Sanni, my elder brother, was a lovable person. He was tall and lanky like my mother and had her facial features too, though not as feminine. Even though I did everything to please father, Sanni was still his favourite child. He was twelve years older than I. Baba used to say that he had already given up on my mother and had to marry another woman to bear him more strong sons like Sanni that would help him cultivate his vast farmlands. But as fate would have it, my Mama had me. They said I came with my feet first and didn’t cry for a worrying minute.
I remember those days when Sanni would come home from different wars with stories and sweets. I would walk barefoot to the junction of our hut to wait for him whenever I’m told he is coming home. I would immediately start jumping when I see him trudging over with his large backpack. Mama would shout a warning, ‘Don’t go too far, Zulayha! Your brother is not running away’. Then she would simply shout ‘Allahu akbar’ as soon as she sights him and would start crying. Father was broken in both spirit and body after he died. He married more wives and tried to get them to give him Sanni, but none of his attempts was successful. They all bore daughters instead.
‘Zulayha,’ my Mama calls from her position on the mat. I turn to her in response. I’m wearing my best cloth and my hair is braided in cornrows. It is very black and shiny. Mama would sit me down on the floor while she sat on a low stool as she made my hair every Friday before Jummah.
‘Yes, Mama,’ I answer.
‘Which one are you writing now?’ she asks.
‘Biology,’ I tell her even though she doesn’t know the difference. A tingling feeling courses through me as I realize I’m getting closer to my dreams. I have studied hard for this exam, and I am a bit confident that I’m going to pass it. I wish I could get the highest score in West Africa so that I can be sent abroad for a scholarship like that Mensah boy from Ghana. I want to be a doctor. I have always wanted to be one since Sanni told me about how they were saviours on the battlefield. He told me he would be dead three times by then if there were no doctors. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to be a medical doctor too. I wanted to save someone’s brother too or mother or even child. I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to feel important. I still want these things.
‘Come here,’ she says as she taps the spot beside her on the mat. I look out the window and see that dawn is fast passing. I don’t want to be late for my exams especially since I’m going to walk so many kilometres.
‘Mama,’ I grumble.
‘Come,’ she says again and taps the spot. I go to sit beside her.
‘Zulayha, you know you are my only child. Please do not fail me. Do not let your Baba laugh at me. Do not shame me in the market,’ she pleads with me.
It’s a pity that Mama doesn’t understand that the morning of the paper is a bit late for this type of plea or advice, but I promise her all the same so that I can be on my way.
‘Be careful. Don’t wake your Baba,’ she says as she has always said for six years every school morning.
Our compound is quite large, and each wife has a hut that she shares with her children. My father has his hut too, making a total of five huts in the compound. I go and knock on two of the other three wives’ huts.
‘Aisha! Zainab! Mariam!’ I call my siblings. I’m the oldest of the children in school. I am nineteen years old. Aisha, Zainab and Mariam are 18, 17 and 16 years old respectively, though Mariam’s birthday is not till next week. We practised for biology all weekend, hiding from our father so as to avoid incurring his wrath. He doesn’t support us going to school both financially and consentingly even though he conveniently looks away when we call out his buyers when they try to confuse him with figures. I wonder what he would do if he knows we have been ripping him of his money from the farm produce business to pay our fees. He thinks our schooling is free and doesn’t challenge us since he is also uneducated like our mothers.
‘Kai, Zulayha. Sleep is needed,’ Mariam says as she comes out of her mother’s hut.
‘This is our last paper,’ I encourage her.
Aisha and Zainab come out of their Mama’s hut.
‘Let’s be on our way,’ Aisha says abruptly.
‘Ina kwana?’ I ask her how she slept but she doesn’t reply me. I think she is still sour that I won’t agree to tell my Mama to braid her hair too.
We walk several kilometres to school in silence broken only by the soft, rhythmic sound of our footsteps along the path. Each to her own thought. Even the chatty Mariam is quiet today. I’m excited, but I don’t talk because Aisha is sulking and when she does, Zainab does too, which leaves me with only Mariam. Trust me, I don’t want to start a conversation with her simply because I don’t bite more than I can chew. The day is getting bright, but the grass is still wet from the dew. I plunge my hand into the tall grasses of the bush flanking the path and feel the coldness on my hand as we trudge along. Soon, my hand is moist, but I don’t remove it. I like how it feels and smells. Of all nature, grasses are what I like best. Our teacher once told us hurricanes were named after females in America. I wished females were so exalted in Nigeria. This piqued my curiosity so I was reading about earthquakes and hurricanes last week. Alhamdulillahi. These do not happen in Nigeria.
I see the roof of our school, and I quicken my pace. When we enter the school, it is buzzing with the ‘last paper energy’. People can finally catch up on what they really want to do. Especially the boys. Idris smiles at me as I enter the class, and I smile back shyly at him; then I avert my gaze. I go to find a seat and rest my head on the desk. Baba says a man is coming for my hand in marriage this month. I pray he is like Idris so that we can go to America together and have kids that look like him. I sit up straight at the sound of wood hitting wood. It is Mr Danjuma, our internal invigilator, using his bamboo cane to hit the door.
‘You know the drill,’ he says in heavily accented spoken English. Our external invigilators have arrived with the question papers.
We file out, wait for the last three digits of our registration numbers to be called and enter the classroom again accordingly. I sit directly behind Aisha as usual.
We are not up to fifteen minutes into the exam when it happens. People are shouting.
‘Subhanallahi! What is happening?’ Aisha asks rhetorically as she turns to me in fear. I just hope it is not what I think it is. We have been hearing of this religious sect raiding neighbouring villages, but we never thought those victims could be us someday. Today.
A man enters our class suddenly, followed closely by three men. He shoots Mr Danjuma and the other invigilators in the chest, and I freeze. I can see Idris trying to get out of the class through the window, but he is shot in the back too. People have started to cry, but I sit still, my heart thumping wildly, my ears ringing with echo from the bullets sounds.
‘Salama alaikum!’ he greets, but nobody responds. He shoots in the air and that jars us. ‘Walaikum salam!’ We respond in autopilot. He smiles and looks round the class. His eyes stay on me for a little longer, then he shines his brown, rotten teeth at me before resuming his inspection.
‘We want to make you of Al jannah,’ he says as the three men who followed him start rounding us up. Boys are shoved roughly into a truck while girls are pushed into another. Papers and pens, forgotten. Corpses lying everywhere. The two trucks zoom off in different directions after they torch our school. I keep staring as the fire rises and till it becomes nothing but a shiny dot in the distance. That is when I feel Aisha’s quivering hand around mine. She is clinging to me tightly and is crying. She always didn’t consider me as an elder sister considering that I am just older by a few months, but now I can see it in her eyes that she wants me to take charge of the situation. I make attempt to smile but fail miserably. The only movements my lips make are slight quivers. Fresh tears pour from her eyes, but I’m helpless to even comfort her, especially since I need that comfort and reassurance too. I see her lips move again, but I don’t hear her, my mind far away in my lost dream. She pinches me, effectively jarring me.
‘Zulayha,’ she says in urgent undertone.
I look at her but her face is blurry. ‘Where are Mariam and Zainab?’ she asks in a whisper.
My brain freezes. ‘Subhanallahi!’ I say out loud and clap my hand over my mouth in fear, my eyes wide.
A brute of a man shoves his way through several girls to reach me. I hear their whimpers and sobs as he butts me with his Dane gun. I black out.
When I come to, girls are jumping over me to alight from the truck; my head is pounding, and my eyes are sore. It is night, and I can see the stars twinkling brightly in the sky. I see Sumeiya, our local chief’s daughter in her expensive attire and tear-streaked face. She whimpers as she passes by me. Sumeiya always used to seem so certain of herself, but right now, I don’t think she could look more unsure. Soon, somebody is grabbing me from the truck by the collar of my blouse, like a sack of onions my Baba made us drag to the market on market days. I start to cry as I remember my Baba. He became bad-tempered after Sanni’s death, but I would give my last kobo to be with him right now. When my body hits the ground, I feel the pain in every part of me. Even in my mind. I pray Allah saves me from this. I hear uncontrollable crying somewhere, but other than that, the night is silent. My assaulter drags me behind the other girls all the way to the camp. I don’t know for how long or how far, but when we get there, my blouse and wrapper are ripped in different places and stained with mud; my head scarf and sandals have long fallen off somewhere, and I like grasses a little less.
They put us together in a raffia shed and immediately they lock the door, the other girls start crying again. I push myself up onto my elbow and peer into the darkness.
‘Aisha,’ I call loud enough for everyone in the shed but low enough for anyone outside. She rushes over to me in response and places my head gently on her laps. For the first time, tears rush from my eyes, falling down into my ears and her laps.
She croons softly to me for reasons best known to her because it doesn’t console me.
‘Mariam and Zainab?’ I ask feebly.
‘Mariam is at the back,’ she says as she avoids my gaze.
‘Zainab?’ I prompt her, fearing the worst.
Her tears answer my question before she does. ‘Mariam says she is no more,’ she states simply as she swallows down a sob.
My tears dry up as my heart breaks. I remember Zainab’s smile and know that I will mourn for a long time though Aisha would mourn more. She was her mother’s child, and they were very close. I can’t believe this is actually happening to me. I wish Aisha would pinch me, and I would wake up from this nightmare. I long for the days Mama would drag the wrapper off my body on a chilly morning so I wake up for school, snatching me from my American dream. I try to sit up regardless of the pain shooting through my arm and head and succeed. I look around properly at everyone. I recognize most of them. Sumeiya is still crying. There is another girl named Aisha who was my academic rival. She is seated in a corner and eating a corner of her scarf which she has pulled down from her head. I can see fear written on everyone’s face. No one slept through the night. I think about what my parents would be going through right now and feel guilt wash over me. Maybe Baba was right after all. Maybe school is not meant for females because I don’t see any boy here. I imagine the boys being distributed back to their homes and feel shame wash me. I caused this. I’m the reason my sisters and I were kidnapped. I’m the reason one of us is dead. The next morning, they come for a few of us and take them away in a truck. We hear their wails as the truck roars to life. Sumeiya was one of them.
Several mornings pass and they come for more girls. I stop feeling when they come for Aisha too. Even Mariam stops talking altogether. They don’t allow me pray my solat, yet they tell me they want me to enter Al jannah. One day, they come for the rest of us, but they don’t bundle us into trucks. No. Instead, they assign us to different tasks. I get assigned to the kitchen. I don’t know where they assigned Mariam to. I gradually become emotionally detached from her because I know that I don’t want to go through the pain I went through when they came for Aisha. She still often nods at me through the throngs of people, for we met several other people that had been kidnapped before us and after. I nod back and occasionally smile back. I give her my food or share with her when the food is not enough to feed five people instead of the hundreds of people in the camp. But that’s where it ends. Nothing more, especially since we are both powerless. Sisters became strangers. We go about our daily routine with fear and hopelessness.
One day, I am sent to take food to the leader of the sect. It is an honour in the camp to be anywhere near the leader, but I’m still terrified. I’m shaking as I enter his makeshift hut.
‘Put it there,’ he commands roughly while listening to the radio.
I know it’s my father’s voice that is coming through the radio’s speakers. ‘It has been several months. Please, bring back my girls,’ he pleads in Hausa.
The leader laughs as he drops the radio. I drop the plate quickly and run out of the room.
I’m just glad I can remember his voice. That’s all that really settles on my consciousness. I’m walking down the path to the kitchen uncaringly and unusually uplifted because of this when a strong arm seizes me from behind. He drags me into the bush, shoves me roughly to the ground, and takes away my innocence as I watch his brown, rotten teeth.
The grass is bleeding, and I hate it.
I hate the grass.
Routine love is still on…