Brenda staggered through the streets, her eyes smarting from the smoke of the vehicles and tyres burning around her. The sounds were so loud and piercing, after a while, she did not hear them anymore.
“Maybe this is what the end of the world feels like,” she thought as she was shoved by a screaming child who ran past her.
The day before, she had been in her stall in the market where she sold provisions, when she heard the shouts and chants of a crowd. It was a group of angry youth protesting the decision of government to end one of the youth programmes in Kwareji State. As the young protesters marched down the main road next to the market, they were intercepted by policemen who wanted to stop them from proceeding to their final destination, the Governor’s Office. The police started using tear gas and people fled in all directions. Then there were gunshots and people got even more desperate to get away, so there was a stampede.
Some witnesses said it was the police who fired first, some said it was one of the protesting young people. When it was all over, there were two dead youth, many injured, and one of the policemen was missing. Traders in the market hurriedly packed their goods and went home for the day. Brenda hurried home to make sure her two children were okay.
Ngozi was eight and Bernard was six, they were being looked after by her niece, Martha. Her husband Michael was a driver who worked for a bank manager, he was away with his boss on a trip to Abuja.
The following morning, everything seemed calm. The disturbance and loss of lives was widely reported in the news, and the Police Commissioner stated that some unscrupulous elements had infiltrated the protest and made it violent. He said all the culprits would be brought to justice. The missing policeman had still not been found.
Brenda went back to her stall in the market. The market was busy, it was as if the trouble the day before had never happened. For some reason, Brenda was uneasy. There was always one form of trouble or the other in the city, but these days, it seemed to be different. For the first time since she and Michael had moved to Kwareji State in Northern Nigeria 10 years ago, she felt afraid. There seemed to be something sinister in the air these days.
Ethnic and religious tensions were nothing new in Nigeria, but it seemed as if now there was something happening or about to happen that would cause a major crisis in the country. As Brenda said a silent prayer for peace and the safety of her family, she was almost deafened by a loud explosion. Then everything turned dark.
When Brenda regained consciousness, she willed herself to get up and move. She still had no idea what had happened but whatever it was had left scores of bodies around her, some obviously dead, many screaming in pain, and from the corner of her eye, she could see an arm lying on the street. She kept moving in the direction of her house, which was at least four miles away, but, without the option of transport, she would have to walk. Then she saw the gangs of young men moving around, and from what they were shouting in Hausa, it seemed they were looking for ‘strangers’. Later she found out that they were the ones who had infiltrated the group of young people and turned a peaceful protest violent. They were responsible for kidnapping the policeman who was later found beheaded. They were the ones who set off the bomb in a part of the market where mostly traders from other parts of the country were selling their wares. It did not matter to them that Hausa traders where there too, they would be considered as collateral damage.
Brenda kept moving as if she was being propelled by some kind of force. The acrid smell of burning things was overwhelming. The screams of terrified people followed her all the way to her home. Or what was left of it. Brenda held her hands to her head and knelt down. She heard a woman screaming in the distance. It took Brenda a while to realise that she was the one screaming. She ran through the charred remains of what used to be the small, two bedroom bungalow she lived in with her family. She found her niece lying face down on the floor. She turned her over to see that her throat had been cut. Brenda looked around for signs of her children, they were not there.
She ran through the streets, still screaming and holding her head. She was not alone. Other families who were considered ‘unwelcome strangers’ had been attacked, their homes burnt, the inhabitants slaughtered, with the lucky ones on the run. The perpetrators had finished with Brenda’s neighborhood and had moved on to another.
Unwelcome strangers. Brenda wondered how long a visitor needed to stay to become welcome or how long one needed to live in a place to no longer be considered a stranger. Ten years? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? Perhaps the number did not matter. A stranger is always a stranger. But is that right? Brenda kept asking herself these questions so that she could assure herself she was still alive and had not run mad. She could hear the murderous group in the distance, and she knew they were not very far away, but she did not stop shouting for her children.
“They can kill me. If they have killed my children they might as well kill me,” she thought to herself. She passed Alhaji Bashir’s compound. He was a kind man who sold vegetables in the market. She wondered where he was. Would he be in support of these people? She wondered. She thought it would be very unlikely, but then you can never tell.
People do strange things when they are with other people. She remembered what her Uncle Joseph had told her about what happened in a place called “Wanda” many years ago. People turned on family and neighbours just because they were from the other ethnic group. Almost a million people were killed in less than three months. Some were even massacred in places of worship where they had gone to seek refuge.
“It was as if the Devil himself arrived to supervise the destruction,” her Uncle told her.
“Well, the devil is here today in Kwareji, and I hope he has not taken my children,” Brenda said to herself.
Then she heard someone call her name. She looked around and saw one of her neighbours, Binta. They were not friends. They had a mutual dislike and suspicion of one another. As soon as Brenda saw Binta, her heart filled with dread. Surely, Binta would definitely have participated in anything that would rid her community of the ‘infidels’ as she had heard Binta mutter one day when they had argued over something.
Suddenly, Brenda felt a feeling of rage come over her. She ran to Binta and started to slap her. “What have you done to my children you evil woman! You killed my niece! Ewoooooo! Where are my children, where are their bodies?”
Binta grabbed her hands and shook her, telling her to lower her voice. She then looked furtively around her and pulled her into the house. The first room they walked through was very dark, Brenda could not see anything. Binta opened another door, which was dark at first, but as Brenda’s eyes settled on her surroundings, she saw a group of women and a lot of children.
Then she heard a very familiar voice, “Mama!” Brenda almost fainted with joy and relief. She ran towards her daughter and held her tight, and before she could ask where her son was, Binta gently pushed her son towards her. Brenda looked up at Binta and tried to say something, but nothing came out of her mouth.
Binta said, “The people who are attacking strangers wanted to kill all the children along with their parents. We convinced them to come back for them later and sell them to the Boko Haram people. As soon as they left, together with my co-wives, we rounded up all the children we could find and hid them here. Our husband does not support what is happening. They will not come here. All of them will be dealt with. You are safe here.”
Brenda could not stop crying. When she could eventually say something, she asked, “Why help us? We are strangers and you hate us!”
The women in the room looked at each other.
Binta took her hand, squeezed it, and said, “No we don’t hate you. We have to help. We are one. There are no strangers here.”
• Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]