In the summer of 2013, I had free afternoons because I had graduated from Islamiyya and my certificate, a colorful slate with a calligraphy of Surah Fatiha, hung on the wall of the living room. I spent the afternoons doing what I loved best: looking after Mama’s drugstore. Every day, after school, I wore my lab coat, my spectacles, took a book and my plate of food. I felt like a doctor, a real doctor, tending to the customers and selling the drugs to them. Sometimes I wrote prescriptions to imaginary customers in the crazy handwriting I thought all doctors ought to have. Almost 17 then, that was way too childish but I didn’t care. I loved the smell of the pills and the antiseptic atmosphere. Looking at the shelves dense with bottles of medicine took away all my sorrows. It was like living my dream of becoming a doctor, living my future in the present.
The drugstore had an extended verandah above which some of the branches of the giant ancient neem tree rested on the roof. The store was linked to our house with a door leading into our sitting room. It used to be a bookstore run by Abba in the late 90s when he came back from the secondary school where he taught English. There were many photographs of him in the store because he loved the background of books. The villagers rarely bought the foreign, imported novels and poetry collections. They bought only the books recommended in school, and required stationery. Abba had to end the business when he became vice principal. He packed his books and arranged them on the shelves in his study and some in cartons. The store then served as a food store for years before Mama resigned from the medical center and filled its shelves with drugs.
Across was a large field that’s part of the package of a newly built mosque where boys played football after Asr prayers. From within the store, I was a lone spectator of the matches. Falling in and out of love and lust with the boys that played in boxers, raising dust and shouting, their sweaty bodies and hairy legs. Flirting with them in whispers when they came into the shop, panting, to buy cold sachet water.
Well, that summer was a lot of things. I found love and lost it. Everything seemed perfect as Fareed had just come into my life and added poetry to it. He was an upcoming rapper from Maiduguri, so overwhelmingly handsome. We met when he and his friends came to play ball in that field. The drugstore became our love nest.
It was also the summer I first saw Alhaji. I was in the store as usual. A drizzle had just stopped but on the roof of the verandah the leaves of the tree were still dropping the rainwater they had collected with a rap rap sound. I was going through Brighter Grammar because exams neared for the summer vacation. On the bench outside, Mazhun and Farouq sat silently eating roasted maize. Motorcycles and bicycles passed by. A mother hen and her chicks dined in the little gutter outside the house.
A car parked outside the store. It was dusty, perhaps having covered a long journey. A man came out, holding a car key. He had a pot belly that sat poised in his tucked shirt. He had a curvy backside like a woman’s. He was bald. Maybe a friend of Abba’s.
He patted Mazhun on the head. He smiled and asked Mazhun if he knew who he was. He sweated. Receiving no response from Mazhun and Farouq who looked at this stranger with some fear, he advanced and walked into the chemist.
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ I said.
He had a yellowness in his eyes like egg yolk and I decided I didn’t want to look at his face again.
‘Do you recognise your uncle?’ He was smiling like a fool.
I smiled and politely said no.
‘Aha, I knew it,’ he shouted. ‘I know you’ve forgotten the uncle that frequented your house in the early 2000s when you were a toddler. I was studying in Unimaid then and your father, my brother, made this house my home. I always carried you and played with you. But you have forgotten your Uncle.’
I had no memory of him. My parents didn’t talk of a certain man that came to our house as a student when I was young.
Now I smiled and greeted him again.
‘Where is brother?’
I assumed he meant father – who else?
‘Abba is not back yet. But Mama is inside.’
I led him into the house. Mama couldn’t believe her eyes.
‘Is that you, Abdullahi? Have you remembered us?’
I switched on the fan which Mama had turned off because of her cold. It started whirling, slicing the air. Then I left them.
The man was talkative, I observed. He was the kind of man that won’t let another person talk because his words flowed like a tap turned on, falling and falling like leaves in autumn. His voice, loud and brash, reached me from the living room. He talked of a wife and daughter. Mama called me to serve him.
I set the food before him.
‘Fanta or Coke?’ I asked.
‘Fanta, my dear. Coke would only make me blacker than I already am.’
He laughed and Mama laughed too, saying that he has not lost his sense of humor. I only smiled and walked away.
‘What class are you now?’
‘SS2, sir,’ I said.
He took a mouthful of the jollof rice. ‘This girl has grown into a fine lady.’
Some of the rice fell on his cloth.
Mama laughed. I blushed.
‘She is her father’s daughter. She doesn’t talk.’
I left them once again.
Abba returned early that day and they met. The man did all the talking. When Abba came out to see him off, he had a new expression on his face. He was angry, refusing to smile, and no longer friendly towards the man. The latter looked regretful over what happened. He shook Abba’s hand and slowly walked away with the gait of a disappointed man.
Abba returned into the house. He banged the door. I slowly followed behind him, driven by curiosity.
‘Can you imagine?’
‘What?’ Mama asked.
‘That shameless man. The stupid man!’
‘Meya faru? What happened?’
‘That man has grown wings. Can now look into my eyes and ask for my daughter’s hand. The audacity!’
‘This young girl. This young girl. The absurdity!’
He hissed. It was rare for Abba to hiss unless when really piqued.
‘Is that why you are sounding this angry? He talked about it with me. I thought he was joking.’
‘He’s just two years or so younger than me. Manara is just seventeen. What pedophile?’
I wondered what pedophile meant.
‘He’s now a rich man o. He has houses in Kano and Maiduguri. Have you seen his car?’
‘And so? What if he’s rich?’
Abba hissed again. He walked out of the house, saying something about human folly, probably quoting Shakespeare.
I went back to the drugstore and laughed. Shameless man indeed. I couldn’t wait for the next day to tell my friends and laugh over it.
Mama followed me into the store a little while later.
‘Oh, Manara, have you heard what happened?’
I feigned ignorance. She told me what happened.
‘If not that times have changed, it’s perfectly okay. Girls were married off as young as 12 back then.’
‘And he’s quite a husband material, rich and kind. If not that you are a bit young.’
‘I can’t believe what you are saying, Mama.’
‘Listen to me, Manara. Don’t be like your father. He is a man and always reads those books of white people. You are a girl and I’m your mother. Let me talk to you as your mother, right?’
She paused and I nodded.
‘There is this sense of belonging you feel in your husband’s house that you won’t feel anywhere. Not even in your father’s house. Times are changing and you are growing. You’ll soon be going to university. It’ll be better if you are married . . . before boys spoil you. And before you finish university, you’ll be past the suitable age for marriage. And before you know it, suitors will disappear. Marry and serve Allah and obey your husband.’
I sighed. I didn’t want this talk of marriage.
To avoid the topic, I asked her, ‘This man, is he really my uncle? How are we related?’
‘Of course, he’s not technically your uncle. His family and your father’s are friends, neighbors back in the village. His older brother is your father’s age mate. So, you see, Alhaji is really like a brother to your Abba.’
‘I see, I said.
I was in the kitchen with Abba making breakfast. Mama was away to help a woman in labour. The husband of the woman came by subhi and knocked loudly and talked loudly and panicky. His wife had been in labour for hours. Mama quickly took her first aid box and drove away with the man in the taxi waiting. She was taking long; it was past nine. Some women took long to give birth.
We worked silently. I cut the yam and Abba made the pap, pouring tamarind juice into it. Outside the kitchen window in the backyard, a couple of birds fed on the grains Abba threw for them. The sun was shrouded by grey clouds. In the living room, Mazhun and Farouq were silent, tired of switching from one game to another. There was a power cut since yesterday night and there was no TV to make them busy.
I stared at Abba, the sleeves of his caftan rolled up, working with the ease of a man used to helping in the kitchen. His face was in a distracted mood. I looked at his head; he was bald and going grey.
‘Hmm,’ he cleared his throat as though to inform me of his awareness of my stares. I looked down and continued slicing the yam.
‘This is the third month and our salaries are yet to be paid.’
He shook his head. I hmmed. I knew it was the opening sentence of a long soliloquy on Nigerian government, unpaid salaries, and the neglect of the education sector to follow it. All in big words I’ll have headache searching their meaning in a dictionary later.
I quickly took the book he had brought to the kitchen. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.
‘Seems like this book would be interesting,’ I said.
‘Yeah. A classic. Have you finished the one I recommended last week?’
‘Which one? Ekwensi’s People of the City? Abeg, Abba, it’s boring. So unlike his other books. I was disappointed. It’s completely without the intrigues and spellbound of An African Night’s Entertainment or The Drummer Boy.’
‘But that book is one of his most masterfully written to date. Literature doesn’t thrive on morals or—’
‘Oh, Abba, not that again.’
He would soon convert this kitchen to a lecture hall, talking with his teacheresque gestures.
He laughed. Having finished cutting the yam, I washed them in a bowl. I put on the kerosene stove.
‘The book I’m currently reading is The Invisible Man. Rereading actually. It’s a remarkable one. I would so much love you to read but I know you won’t.’
‘If it’ll unnecessarily torture my brain, no.’
‘So let me recommend yet another one by Ekwensi. Burning Grass. Trust me, you’ll like it. So fantastic.’
‘Okay, I’ll read after exam.’
‘There are so many literary works I’d love you to read. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Chekhov’s stories, Dante, War and Peace . . .’
He went on and on listing strange names. I nodded all through. I swear Abba can be boring sometimes.
We fell silent again. My thoughts strayed to Fareed. The day before yesterday he had come with a gift for me. A song he had composed in my honour. He played it on his phone and sang along to the lyrics. Later he had asked me on a date to the city. I’d declined, afraid to take the risk.
‘But—’ Abba’s voice cut into my thoughts. I looked up to him. He’d leant on the counter, folded his hands across his chest.
‘You need to spread your wings and expand your horizon, my dear daughter.’
Abba was not one to use terms of endearment; when he said ‘dear daughter’, it really touched me and melted my heart. A strange feeling spread itself within me and ended as a sigh.
‘And I’m not talking only in the reading context. Don’t let anyone put you in cages because you are a woman. Fly. Expand your horizon.’
Like an actor who had delivered epic lines in a movie, Abba left the kitchen in measured steps, leaving an eerie silence in his wake. I assumed he’d let me to ponder on his words, and I did. I reflected on the cages he had alluded to.
Mama returned after we’d had breakfast and I had taken the plates and cups into the kitchen to be washed later. Abba had changed into a jeans and T-shirt, holding some papers and his car keys. He left every Saturday to the university’s writers’ club sessions. That was the moment when Mama sauntered in.
‘Welcome, Mama,’ I said. She answered with a nod.
‘Washhhh, I am so tired, wallahi,’ she said as she sank into the sofa, tossing her bag.
‘But not as tired as the woman whose waters just broke, huh?’ Abba said.
Mama yawned, looked at him and muttered something about him not being sympathetic and all.
‘But the woman really did see hell. Instead of them taking her to the hospital when she started labour, they called this old woman in the name of Ungozoma who made matters worse. I wonder when these people will become civilised, by Allah.’ She yawned. ‘What did you make for breakfast?’ Her question was directed at me.
Mazhun answered her. ‘It’s Abba that made us very sweet kunu.’
‘Awwwn. So you remember kitchen today Kenan?’
Abba smiled. His cologne was strong and sweet. He gave me his papers and returned to the study. He returned holding a copy of Poems of Black Africa, edited by Soyinka.
‘So guys, bye.’
‘Bye daddy,’ my siblings and I said.
He drove the car out of the garage, honked twice – maybe as a wave to someone, then drove away.
I served Mama, then went into the kitchen. I was washing plates when I heard the unmistakable horn of Abba’s car again. Farouq ran to open the gate. I wondered why Abba was back. Perhaps he had forgotten something.
‘What happened?’ I heard Mama ask him from the living room, alarmed, anxious. I dashed to the room.
Abba looked solemn, sitting on the settee, holding his head.
‘I had barely gone out of Bama when I heard in the car’s radio that there was an attack last night somewhere close to the university. So there is a state of emergency on campus.’
‘Oh, Allah,’ Mama said as she slapped her forehead.
‘What do these people want, eh?’ she asked.
‘What is President Goodluck doing?’ Abba asked. ‘How many towns now under these terrorists?’ he went on. ‘Is it until they have the whole of northeast under them that they’ll act?’
‘The politicians must be behind this,’ Mama said.
‘Are they really letting them establish the so-called Islamic republic?’ Abba asked again. ‘We are not safe.’
‘We are, in Allah’s ninety-nine names,’ Mama countered. ‘We are.’
After a considerable silence, Abba finally said, ‘Amin.’
It came out like a sigh.
On the verandah outside the store, Abba sat with his friends on plastic chairs. They did that on some evenings, arguing politics, the weather, and Boko Haram. Abba held a daily passed to him by the bespectacled Mallam Yunus, who worked at the local government secretariat. The other man was Sheikh Sani, the muezzin whose trousers stopped a little below his knee like the Salaf he was.
Across, the football field was empty. A few almajirai sat outside the mosque. In the empty field, Fareed hovered. He winked at me from time to time. He couldn’t possibly come over, past Abba and his friends, and perch in our love nest. I winked at him, waved even. I felt something fall in my heart like a leaf. He came all the way for me. And Abba and his friends would certainly not leave until the magrib was called.
Eventually, he waved me bye. I waved bye too. And because I wasn’t close to him and not surrounded by that suffocating shyness, I blew him a kiss. But he didn’t see it. He had walked away into the gathering dusk.
June passed. July came and passed too. By August, Bama had already turned greener, and we began holidaying. Flowers blossomed, and with them, our love. I reminisced the rest of the summer as romantic rendezvous in afternoons stretched to evenings, with myself in the drugstore and Muhammad Fareed at the other end, whispering like the lovers we were.
One afternoon, he arrived early, by the time I was about to take Mazhun and Farouq to Islamiyya. They were dressed in their blue uniform and clutching their water bottles.
Sighting him, I smiled back. With one hand, he swooped Mazhun up, his muscles rippling. Mazhun gasped, then giggled, teetering between pleasure and panic. Fareed used his other hand and held Mazhun higher and higher up so that his T-shift went up and revealed his stomach with curly hair. I looked away.
He dropped him down.
‘Iron man,’ I said.
He laughed. ‘The weight I lift is thrice heavier than him.’
‘Uhmhum,’ I said, making an expression to show I was not impressed or convinced.
‘I’m coming. Let me drop them in school.’
‘I thought they go by themselves every day?’
‘Yes, but I’m meeting their Mallam.’
‘Okay, let me go with you.’
He held Mazhun’s hand and we started walking. We walked through the alleys just after the Small Market and turned by the corner of the school. The voice of a hundred children reciting the Qur’an reached us. The school was outside a mosque. The students sat on mats spread on the grass and the bearded teachers hovered around them holding long whips. It was the Islamiyya I had attended. It was here I memorised the Qur’an. My graduation was earlier that year. I remembered the graduation which was held on the premises of the mosque with canopies set up. The graduating students had dressed in long, white hijabs and the boys in white jellabias. The day before the ceremony, Mama and I had been kneading dough, frying chin chin and meat pies. Abba had slaughtered a ram for me and the fried meat had been added to takeaways together with the chin chin and meat pies and the juice he bought and shared to neighbours.
The imam of the mosque, who was the founder of the school, had presented each of us with the colorful slates as testament to our graduation.
Now, as we walked back home with Fareed, I narrated it to him. He told me of his own graduation two years back, which was attended by the Shehu of Borno himself.
When we reached Small Market, he paused and said:
‘Let’s take a walk, please.’
I hesitated before I nodded and we took the path that brought us to Emir’s Palace Road. We had to stop, leaning our backs on the walls of the palace as some horses rode by into the building. I held my breath, scared of being so close to the horses.
‘I used to love horses,’ Fareed said after we began walking, ‘until one threw me off and broke my leg.’
We walked farther and farther until we were near the bridge that led out of Bama. The bridge was over the river that stretched until it disappeared into the forest. We stood on the bridge, looking down on the river. It shimmered. It was so grey. The soundless waves licked the shore and the thicket of cornstalks that surrounded the forest. Far away, at one side of the bush, cattle grazed. The sun journeyed beneath the sky.
It was breezy on the bridge. A dusty breeze. It blew my hijab until it slapped Fareed’s body. I looked down at my feet, our feet, all covered in dust. We both held the railings of the bridge. A motorcycle came and passed. As it disappeared into the town, silence resumed. A grasshopper perched near Fareed’s hand. He made to catch it, but it flew away.
‘Why are we so silent?’ he broke the silence.
I sighed. ‘I’m enjoying the silence.’
We walked down the bridge, closer to the river bank. Butterflies flitted. Some birds sang. Doves swooped in and out. Leaves were crushed under our shoes. We sat on some rocks as though they were kept there for us. I was excited to be alone with him, yet anxious and slightly scared. The forest behind us, smelling of sunflowers, had an abundance of baobab trees. Mama warned me against approaching the trees, for they sheltered jinns. It made me tense.
‘Can I kiss you?’ he asked, as he held my chin, and added, ‘Please.’
I nodded, too stunned to talk. But because he hesitated, because I was afraid he might mistake my silent gesture as rejection, I quickly added: ‘Yes.’
He tilted my face up. I lowered my gaze. His breath was on my face, hot and smelling of Splash. I held my own breath, my lips quivering. When I couldn’t bear his piercing stare any longer, I closed my eyes. His lips touched mine, and mine his, and I held onto him tightly.
In late August, Mobi fell under the terrorists.
‘Innalillahi.’ It was Abba shouting.
Mama and I were out in the rain filling buckets with rainwater to fill our drums. We dashed to the living room, drenched in rain. Abba stood, his face many shades of sadness. And fear. The radio he must have flung continued babbling BBC news.
‘Abban Manara, what is it?’
He didn’t answer right away, making us more anxious. Then he answered. Mama’s hands instantly flew up to her head and she also recited the from-Him-we-are-and-to-Him-we-shall-return salat. ‘Innalilahi wa innalilahi raji’un.’
After she completed her salat, she sat defeated on the sofa. The water dripping from us had wetted the carpeted floor and now the sofa.
‘You see what I’m telling you Abbakar ko?’
‘You see why I have been warning you, right? You see how it’s getting closer and closer and out of hand?’
I had wondered why they were overreacting. Other towns had fallen and they had merely shaken their heads and prayed. But now I connected the dots. Mobi was close to our town.
‘We really have to sit and have this discussion,’ Mama said. ‘Our people say that when the beard of your friend catches fire you need to rub water on yours. We need to leave this town because it’s necessary. It is said that living in peace is better than living as a prince.’
‘Then, about time. About time,’ he repeated. ‘Beloved Bama. Oh, beloved town. I don’t want to leave but the merchants of death are moving closer.’
‘See, Abban Manara, I don’t even care if we leave Borno and not just Bama sef. We need to be safe. I know you’ve been dragging but this time around let’s really reach a decision.’
Abba sat down. He gulped a glass of water. He switched off his radio.
‘You know why I’ve been delaying?’
He answered himself, ‘I want Manara to successfully complete her secondary education. Then we can actually consider leaving.’
‘Hmmmm. But . . .’ Mama seemed to have a second thought about what she wanted to say, so she stood up. ‘May Allah keep us safe.’
Later, in the night news, we watched the leader of the insurgents announcing his victory. He sat on the booth of a car in the middle of a forest, dressed in khaki. There was a siwak in his mouth and he was guarded by armed, masked men also dressed in khaki. They were flanked by their black flags. The leader wore his signature scarf on his neck. He talked in his Kanuri-accented English. Then he spoke Hausa and Arabic. He promised more attacks, placing his hand on the Qur’an in an oath. Then he raised his gun and shot in the air, three times, sending the birds flying away in fright before the video was cut off.
By the next day, refugees were sighted in Lilo village and in the market square. They had fled from the captured town, ran through the thick forest for a full day, then arrived in a little village that was close to Lilo. They continued into Bama. They made the primary school, now deserted because of holidays, a refugee camp. They came into Small Market and Big Market begging for food. Some, though, didn’t take refuge here; they continued and left Bama for the capital, Maiduguri.
Some of them stopped in our drugstore and Mama gave them free painkillers and Panadol. They uttered thanks, their voices suffused with sorrow.
‘We need to donate,’ Abba said over lunch, three days later.
‘Yes,’ Mama agreed.
I sat with my legs folded on the sofa, my plate on my lap. I picked the plantain and ate, hardly touching the jollof rice. The TV showed an action movie with gunshots and bombings. Explosions had always been on TV in those strange lands. But it was here finally in our country.
Later, I helped Mama load our old clothes into a Ghana Must Go. The clothes included Abba’s and Mama’s. I took the bag, heavy and all, to take it to the refugee camp.
It was Abba. I turned to look at him.
‘Isn’t the bag too heavy for you? Wait, let me drop you off in the car.’
I waited as he drove the car out of the garage. The backseat was filled with books and papers. Abba dusted the car mirrors and wheel. Then he zoomed off. It was a silent drive; no radio nor chatter. In my mind I thought of Fareed. We were already growing apart. The frequent curfews and the bloody attacks made it hard for us to meet.
Outside, on the streets, children ran around singing songs asking the rainclouds to shower. The walls of some houses had fallen on account of the heavy downpour last week.
The refugee camp was busy with activity. Some women made fire and cooked, some sat talking, children ran about. When Abba packed the car, a woman who seemed to be the leader of the camp approached us, flanked by some young women. They bowed as they greeted Abba.
‘May Allah bless your family. May He do for you what you have done for us.’
They showered prayers on us. Abba shook his head, then said, ‘So pathetic.’
We drove back in silence, then the heavens broke into tears once again.
We lost Abba on another rainy day. He didn’t return home after going out in his car. Two days later, his body was found dumped in a ditch, with a gunshot wound in his forehead, and his car nowhere to be found. It was said that the terrorists had killed him and robbed his car. When the news reached us, Mama shouted like one possessed by a jinn but I didn’t shed a single tear. It was too unbelievable to me. Abba would return and honk as usual.
It was two weeks after Abba’s death, when Alhaji came again. His kohled eyes squinted with tears as he prayed for Abba.
‘We need to talk, Saude,’ he said to Mama.
From where she sat on her legs, she waved me off. I stood up feeling dizzy and walked outside. I threw a date into my mouth. I couldn’t chew it so I licked it gingerly. The day was bright. Villagers passed wheeling farm goods in carts.
Alhaji came out. Mama was behind him.
‘Alhaji, thank you so much. See you tomorrow.’
‘Insha Allah,’ he said.
He glanced at me, so I said, ‘Bye, Alhaji.’
After we heard him drive away, Mama turned to me. ‘Follow me,’ she said.
I met her standing in her dark bedroom, her back to me. She didn’t answer my salam and she stood still.
‘Mom!’ I called.
Instantly, she turned and grabbed me in an embrace and broke into tears. Our bodies shook and, in that moment, I wished we could explode into pieces.
Then she started spontaneously, speaking without pause, ‘Leila, this place is not right for us. Death has damaged us. We need a new environment to sit and chart the course of our lives that’ll never be the same again. Allah gives and Allah takes. He plans everything and we must take it in good faith. Your younger brothers need the best we can give them. A good life in a place that is not as uncertain as here. And that is why we should follow Alhaji to Kano. A new life awaits your brothers. And you, of course.’
Few days after we moved to Kano, Mama called me for another talk.
‘Alhaji has actually told me of his interest in you. And I accepted it because we’ve no option, Manara. Without your father now . . .’
I couldn’t hear anymore. I was so overwhelmed and just wondered why the wheels of fate rode me deeper into the landscape of loss.
Image: Ronny Overhate (Pixabay remixed)