Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Deep Inside Sambisa Forest

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Night-time in Nigeria. Photograph by Kate Raynes-Goldie.

The following is a work of fiction based on real life events. On the night of 15 April, armed men suspected to belong to the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted several female students from a Federal Government Secondary School in Borno state.  

Several loud gunshots came from the vicinity of the school gate, followed by piercing cries from my schoolmates. Boko Haram. It was time to say our last prayers. I took what I intended to be one last look at the bed of my best friend and neighbour. Her eyes locked into mine and reminded me of our pact, our agreement of less than a week earlier. Our mates in the dormitory were screaming and running in search of a place to hide from death; under the beds, behind the wardrobe, inside the huge plastic bucket that stored water. I saw the youngest girl among us hide inside a Corn Flakes box and cover herself with clothes, shoes and exercise books. The box was slightly torn at the side and I could see the wooliness of her hair. Two JS-2 girls hit the iron burglary-proof bars of a window with the rickety wooden chair with which we used to play hot seat on people's birthdays. We had always felt protected by the burglary bars, but that day they imprisoned us. About seven brave students hit at the locked door with an iron bed. Our matron usually locked the doors and took the keys away at 9 pm. Only a gunshot would have brought that door down. My best friend and I ran towards each other, to hold one another and await the bullet, the knife, or both.

There were two policemen who manned the entrance gate during our examinations. We covered our fright with the joke that being inadequately armed, they would most likely be the first to flee should Boko Haram attack. Some disagreed, saying the policemen had walkie-talkies and if they sensed danger they would immediately call for reinforcement. Salamatu, whose father is a police officer, said we need not fear, that although we could only see two police men, that hundreds were hiding in bushes behind the school compound and that there were even more plainclothes officers mingling with villagers. She swore that the man who supplied corn to the canteen that morning was her father’s friend in the force. We believed her. We could either believe or drop dead with fear. So we carried on normally. We pretended not to live in the same Borno state where several people had been killed or maimed. We pretended it was not in nearby Yobe state that several boys our age were slain at a similar Federal Government Secondary School. We pretended as if I, Zainab, had not read from the newspaper I borrowed from the government teacher that there were Boko Haram bases in the Sambisa forest not too far from our school. But then, the only thing worse than death, our literature teacher had once quoted, is the fear of death itself.

A week before that tragic night, Magdalene my best friend woke me up in the middle of the night.

“I had a dream last night” she whispered in my half asleep ear. I turned the other way, away from Maggie’s dreams. She had started having nightmares and bedwetting the night after Boko Haram killed several boys from the Federal Government College in Yobe. We had to manage the bedwetting between both of us. On the Saturday morning after the first time, we obtained permission to visit the local market. I escorted her to the used materials section where we bought a cheap macintosh mattress cover and two extra white cotton bedspreads. As the hostel prefect, I made sure all the girls were out on some form of activity when we covered her mattress with the macintosh. We could take care of the bedwetting, but not the dreams.

“Zainab, you have to listen to me. They came here. I saw them.” She was shaking away the weaknesses of the previous day’s evening sports activities from my bones as she spoke.

“Maggie, you have been having that same dream ever since. What do you want me to do?” I stretched away from her and tried to wipe the stubborn sleep away from my tired eyes.

Instead of her usual reply of “Nothing. I was just telling you.” Her voice dropped even more.

“I don’t know which is which.” She responded in a voice that sounded as if she had a rope around her neck and was utilising her final minutes with the priest before the hangman did his job.

“Which is which, about what, Maggie? But I told you that in Islam women and children are safe during a war.” I was now sat up on my bed. I placed a gentle hand on her shoulders and noticed that she had not even bothered to remove her urine soaked nightwear before sitting on my bed. It was definitely not the careful and caring Magdalene that had been my best friend and academic competitor for the five years we had known each other.

“Zainab, I know. I know they are not supposed to attack us. But what if they do?” Her fear and tear-soaked eyes begged me for answers. She continued. “I am no longer afraid of dying just that I don’t know between the heaven of the Bible and the paradise of the Koran which one is real. What happens when one dies. Where -?” Her voice trailed away, replaced by a deep groaning. The tears from her eyes soaked the identical Ankara fabric we both had around our chests. My mother had bought 5 yards of it and split it for both us.

I tried to respond. To remind her that we had had this conversation several times, that we had laughed at the similarities, discussed the differences and said we should talk more to our Imams and priests about the things we did not understand about her religion and mine.

Still shaking and now holding on tightly to the bone of my wrists, Magdalene moaned, “Zainab, promise me, please promise me.” Other girls were stirring. I was afraid that one of them could wake up and flash a torchlight on Maggie’s bed, exposing the map of Nigeria she must have drawn on it with her bedwetting. “Zainab, promise me please, please promise me, Zainab, my friend and sister.” Her voice was rising, almost to a wail. I held her as my panic grew.

“Promise you what, Maggie? Tell me please.” I whispered.

“Promise me that you will pray to your Allah for my soul, when they come. I promise you I will pray to my Jesus for you.” My wrists were tearing apart from her grip. She placed her now agape and wailing mouth on my shoulders to stifle the sound. Out of hurt and confusion I blurted out

“I promise you, Maggie. I promise you I will pray to Allah for you.”

That night they came. I prayed to Allah for Maggie’s soul and Maggie prayed to Jesus for my soul as we held each other and waited to be shot or slaughtered. But instead of loud gunshots we heard voices shouting Allahu Akbar. In the place of feeling the sharp end of the machete on our necks, strong arms dragged us inside the back of a lorry. Now we are here, deep inside Sambisa forest. I am still praying for Maggie and Maggie is still praying for me. We are praying, and waiting.

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