By James Ogunjimi
My name is Abdullahi, an SSS2 student. At least that was my status until last week. Now I’m just a cattle-rearer, and I’m in charge of my late father’s 70 heads of cattle. I have to take the cows around and sleep wherever night meets me. But first let me tell you how it all started.
I wasn’t always all alone. I had a father, a mother, two elder brothers and two beautiful younger sisters. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. My father was a devout Muslim man who brought us all up to love and appreciate others around us. At a very tender age, my father hired one of the brothers at the mosque who had completed his senior secondary examinations to teach me arithmetic and English language.
I was a bright kid, in no time at all; I was reciting the first 100 numbers and could recite the complete alphabets. My father being a devoted Muslim sent me to the Arabic home with boys of my age group and our Arabic lessons began. At the same time, my father got a big break with his cattle and he used the money to put myself and my two sisters in school. Although I was too old for my class, I went anyway and performed well. I completed my Arabic school and my father killed one of his cows to celebrate my graduation from Arabic school.
I was one of the recipients of the free education programme designed to encourage children to go to school, my father only had to buy my school uniform and notebooks.
It was in my junior secondary school year that I began to sense something was wrong. I was told some people said it was wrong to go to school. I was told they are fellow Muslims, but our Imam said they are not and that they are messengers of Satan who will have no place in paradise. Those people said the Koran forbids school attendance and that Allah has commanded that those who attend school should be destroyed. They also said that if we are to enter paradise, we must kill anybody who is not a Muslim.
That night I was confused. Could they be right? I picked up my Quran in the midnight and turned up the light of our local lantern, I tried to think back to my days at the Arabic class; Alfa Razaq never mentioned anything like that. Could he have forgotten? I thought back to the days when my father would sit us down and tell us about how good it is to co-exist peacefully with others regardless of tribe or religion. Could he be wrong? I remembered that the boy that my father hired to lead his cattle around was a boy from the Catholic Church down the street. If it was wrong to associate with anybody who didn’t practice the same religion as ours, why then did my father do so? I was genuinely confused.
The next day at school, I couldn’t concentrate; I kept on thinking of what to do. For the first time, I looked at Akpan, the Igbo boy who had the seat next to mine with new eyes. He noticed and asked what was wrong; I merely shook my head and told him I was fine. Immediately after school, I didn’t wait for my two friends, Adamu and Sunmonu, I dashed off to my old Arabic teacher’s house. I met Alfa Razaq just concluding his prayers and waited quietly for him to finish. I looked at him; he was now frail and was closer to the grave than he was to us. He smiled at me and simply said, “Abdullahi, you have grown.” I smiled back and told him thank you. He noticed that I was in no mood for small talk and asked me what brought me there.
I thanked him and joined him on the mat. I asked him if during the course of my lessons with him, there was anything he left out. He coughed, gave me a knowing smile and replied, “Abdullahi, you have always been an inquisitive child. It’s one of the reasons why you were my favourite pupil. But don’t talk to me in parables; tell me what’s on your mind.” I told him everything; how I’ve heard that some people said it was wrong to go to school, that it was wrong to associate with people from other religions and how we needed to destroy anybody who wouldn’t accept our religion as our pass into paradise.
When I started my narration, Alfa Razaq merely listened with his face betraying no emotions, but as I neared the end of my narration, I noticed he was clutching tighter at the prayer beads in his hands while his other hand was clenched tightly into a fist; his teeth was grinding together frantically. He was sweating. After I finished talking, we were both silent for some minutes as Alfa sat with his eyes closed. I initially thought he had dozed off, but then his toes twitched, so I sat still waiting for him to talk.
Eventually, he sighed and opened his eyes. He looked at me for a few minutes and asked, “Abdullahi, have I ever lied to you?” I shook my head. “Has your father ever led you astray?” He asked again. I shook my head again. He continued, “See, the world we live in is full of people who act first and then look for justifications for their actions. This Quran you see, if you want to live right, you have your backing. If you also want to do otherwise, you can find your excuse here.” He went on and on telling me that I should not allow myself to be deceived and that there was no honour in killing people because we differ in beliefs. After much talking, I thanked him and left.
Those people who said going to school is forbidden started threatening everybody. They called them Boko Haram. Initially they would meet children coming from school and merely warn them to stop or beat them and tell them not to go again, but they eventually grew tired of just warning and started using some as scapegoats.
There was a day we heard a scream in papa Adamu’s house, we were told Adamu and his little sister went to the farm to pick firewood when they were attacked by members of Boko Haram, Adamu was held by two of them and forced to watch while others took turns raping his little sister. Eventually, her frail body couldn’t take it again and she slumped. The attackers tied Adamu to a tree and after giving him a severe beating, they left him staring at the lifeless body of his sister as she bled out. It was then the reality struck me that it was no longer small talk, it was real and they meant business.
After similar attacks like that, families were reluctant to let their children out alone. The government sent some soldiers to protect everybody, and calm returned. But it was only for a while. One day as we were returning from school, I had just greeted the military men parading and was eating kulikuliwith garri when I heard a very loud bang. The bang shook the whole house and the pictures on the wall all fell down.
The black and white television that my father put in the sitting room as decoration fell to the ground and cracked. I wondered, could this be the earthquake that our teacher talks so much about, that they said happens in the white man’s land and swallows houses? Will our house be swallowed? As I was still wondering, we saw a huge smoke arise into the sky. The smoke was so thick that I hadn’t seen anything like it before in my life. I tried to step outside, but my father pulled me back and gave me a deafening slap. He asked what I was going to do outside. He dragged me inside, and we all hid under my parents’ wooden bed.
After about fifteen minutes, we started hearing voices. The voices were screams. I heard Mama Kafayat screaming that she couldn’t find her daughter. We came out, and my father stepped out first even though my mother was still begging him not to. Eventually, we all went outside. The first smell that hit me was that of roasted meat. I then started seeing strange sights. I looked down and there at my feet was a hand; a human hand. I choked, and nearly vomited.
It was like a scene out of those movies that we occasionally sneaked off to watch at Papa Akpan’s house. I saw the truck belonging to the military men; it was up in flames, while another car was burning beside it. They said it was a bomb and that it was carried in that car to attack the military men. I saw the shoe cobbler that lives in the deserted house behind our mosque; his two legs had been blown off and he was screaming for help. My father herded us back in and locked the door. My two sisters were crying and one was even vomiting.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept on replaying the scene in my head. What if my father was on the road at that time? What if mother was returning from the market then? The next morning, the state governor came, when he got to the scene of the bombing, he shed a few tears; they looked real. He promised to fish out the perpetrators of the act and bring them to book. He also promised that the state would foot the hospital bill of the victims and be responsible for the upkeep of the children who lost their parents.
We all clapped for him and sang his praises. He told us that our security was his primary concern and that he felt our pains. He promised to do his best to make the state habitable. He sang a song saying the state is ours and we must protect it since we have nowhere else to go. We all thanked him again and sang his praises. It was later that night that I learnt that the governor doesn’t even live in the state for fear of these people. That night, I knew we were on our own.
The government sent in new military men, this time, they sent six truckloads of military men. These ones were unlike the previous ones who joked and played with us. If you moved too close to these ones, they would whip you with their koboko. They looked at us as if we were their enemies. If you greet them, they wouldn’t even answer and would keep their guns pointed at us staring at our hands frantically until we passed. They started entering houses and searching them. They said some of us kept the Boko Haram members in our house. I wondered why anyone would do that.
Some of our friends who were Christians started avoiding us. The last time I sneaked to Papa Akapn’s house to watch movies as usual, they refused to open the door and acted like no one was inside, but I knew they were inside because I heard the sound of the television, but they quickly switched it off when they heard me knocking. At school, Akpan moved his chair to another place and doesn’t even talk to me again. I became even more confused.
The next week, we heard that the Catholic boy who was in charge of our cattle had stopped coming. He said his parents didn’t want him working for us again. Father decided that he would henceforth start leading his cows around instead of hiring someone else. The day he started, mama cried and begged him. He refused. He went away and sometimes returned home just once in two weeks. I became used to being alone. My two sisters were by now in boarding school at a girls’ school. I was in senior secondary school one.
It was on a cold Saturday morning, at about 6:30 am when someone was banging our door, she was wailing at the same time. When mama opened the door, the person told me to go inside. I went inside but stayed around the corner trying to eavesdrop. Suddenly mama screamed and was shouting my father’s name. I rushed out, but she just sat on the ground shaking vigorously and screaming. I learnt that while papa was leading his cows around, he was attacked by some Fulani herdsmen and was killed.
They stole some of his cows and left others scattered in different directions. The youths in our area were infuriated and mobilised with machetes and sticks to try and catch the attackers, but they couldn’t find them. They came back and according to Islamic rites, my father was buried that evening. Mother sent the information to my brothers; one lives in outskirts of Abuja, while the other lives in Yobe. She also sent message to my two sisters in school. Although my brothers couldn’t come home, my sisters came and stayed a while before going back to school for their exams.
The week after that, my brother in Yobe sent a message to us to deliver to Alfa Razaq saying he craved our prayers. He said over there, the military men were feared more than the Boko Haram people themselves. He said they had made themselves judge and jury and that they killed at will. Two weeks after that, I was about leaving for school on a Thursday morning when a military truck stopped in front of our house and about 6 fierce looking military men barged into our house.
I greeted them but they merely brushed me aside and asked mother if she was shettima’s mother. Shettima is my brother’s name. Mother answered in the affirmative. The next thing I heard was a thunderous slap. They slapped her around and said her son was a terrorist. After beating her to their heart’s content, they told her to be in the barracks by 5pm to collect her son’s body. She simply lay there; speechless. The pain that was coursing through her was more than the physical pain; it was a pain that defied words.
I dropped my school pack and sat on the floor with her, not saying a word; I wouldn’t know what to say anyway. Later that morning, my father’s elder brother and two of our relatives came and simply sat without saying a word. They went with my mother in the evening to collect shettima’s body. They didn’t allow mother to see his body; they simply took him to the bush and buried him there.
After that, mother rarely smiled again. I got used to staying a whole day without talking. I began to think. I also began to read everything I could lay my hands on. Books became my companions. I wondered why anyone would say it’s wrong to read. I tried so hard to understand how they reasoned, but each time I came short.
My sisters were sleeping in their hostel rooms when they were attacked by the Boko Haram people. They took some of the girls with them and set fire on their hostel. Suliat died in the fire while Rashidat was kidnapped along with other girls. They said girls like that became wives of the Boko Haram people. Mother couldn’t take it; she wept every day. Me? I withdrew more into myself; I hardly went out again. I read more and more.
I learnt that these people killing everybody are all over the world. Somewhere, some of them are called Al-Quada, in another country, some are called Al Shabbab. They all claim to be Muslims, they all claim to be doing God’s will, and they all claim they are going to paradise. But why should they kill to achieve all these? I devoted myself to reading more books, hoping to find the answers to my questions.
Mother aged very quickly. She had seen too many evils and she could bear no more. She didn’t go out again. She always sat inside singing softly of her little girls. My father’s relatives told me that I had to start taking care of my father’s cows or find someone who would. I told them I was still in school, they told me I must not let my father’s labour just perish like that. I told them I would think about it.
The next morning, I heard there was another bombing in Abuja. Abuja? How did that happen? Our capital? I was told it happened in Nyanya. Ok, that was outskirt of Abuja. Wait!…My brother lives in the outskirt of Abuja. I dashed inside and asked mother for the piece of paper where she writes telephone numbers. I read through and saw my brother’s phone number. I rushed across the street to the call centre where a girl makes phone calls.
I gave her the number and she dialled it and gave me when it started ringing. The voice I heard was strange, so I asked, “Boda Ibrahim, Is that you?” But the voice simply said, “I’m sorry sir. My name is Mr Frank. Are you related to the owner of the phone?” I replied impatiently, “Yes, what are you doing with my brother’s phone?” “I’m sorry,” he said, “Your brother was killed in this morning’s bombing.”
I was shocked. I clenched the phone tightly. The man on the phone kept on saying some things but I wasn’t listening again. I gave the phone to the girl and just stood rooted to the ground. The girl told me my money is sixty naira, but I gave her the last two hundred naira with me and didn’t wait for my change. I walked home like a ghost, just quiet, unfeeling. When I got home, a look at my face was all mother needed to know; she broke out laughing.
She laughed hysterically and rolled on the ground. She laughed until tears started coming from my eyes. Those outside heard her and rushed inside. I didn’t think anything was wrong until she started plucking at her hair and loosening her wrapper. The neighbours tried to hold her, but she overpowered them. She went into the streets singing and laughing. By the time my father’s relatives came, she couldn’t be found. She had gone far. The next day, after combing the nooks and cranny of our town, we found her. She was there by a river; naked, sleeping peacefully; forever.
She was dead.
As my father’s relatives took her body to be buried. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going back to school. I had had enough of the town, the state and its ills. I would take the remaining 70 cows that my father had and lead them around. If I successfully make it out of this area alive, praise be to the creator. If I don’t, well, I have told my story. So, my books are packed, my radio is packed with my extra batteries. And now, my story is told.
NB: In honour of those who have had it all bad in this country of ours, who have had their homes destroyed and their happiness shattered. To those whose dreams have been turned into nightmares, words cannot convey my sympathy. We will continue to hope that our leaders will awake to their responsibilities and realize the urgency of now. But in the meantime, we will not relent, our voice will not stop talking, our pen will not stop moving, and we will not stop acting and preparing for a system change.