Friday, October 17, 2014

LETTER FROM A STUDENT TO HER HISTORY TEACHER*


Dear Sir,
I don’t know if you knew sir, but we called you ‘Amalgamation’. You stumbled over the word many times that first day you came to replace Mr. John-Paul as History teacher. When we laughed, you made us say the word over and over again. We stumbled over it too and you said, ‘You see, you think it is easy to say the word?’ Most people can’t remember your name but we all remember the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorate of Nigeria. It was the first time we paid attention in History class. Mr John-Paul spoke to himself and looked up at the ceiling like he was shy of us. Some days he would just walk in and start writing with chalk on the black board for us to copy and then walk out when he finished. (Many boys used to skip his class.)
You came in without an exercise book or even chalk. I think you wanted to impress us. Believe me sir, after that first class and maybe for the rest of the term, we all wanted to be history teachers when we finished school.
I don’t know if you remember my first question. You told us about the last Sultan of Sokoto who stood up to the British and who was shot dead by I think Lord Lugard’s men. I asked who was there to know all the things the Sultan did in hiding before he died since you said that everyone was killed. That day you beat Mr. Bulus the English teacher to become my best teacher. You told me that you did not know everything and that you would try to find out, but you explained all the sources of history and how history is passed on from generation to generation. No teacher has ever agreed that there is something he doesn’t know.
I always wondered how you memorised those names and dates and stories. It is so hard for me to do at the court where the Judicial Panel of Inquiry is, when they want me to tell them exact names and dates and exactly how everything happened over and over again. Every time, a new lawyer wants to ask me the same questions and I am tired of describing you and calling your name, swearing that it was you, my history teacher who did those things and that I saw you and you saw me. I wish you would just appear so they can ask you the questions by themselves. How should I know who sent you and where you are now? After all it is all about what YOU did. Honestly sir I am tired.
There is an Igbo man at the Panel of Inquiry whose wife and children were killed on the other side of Kaduna, when the fighting began. I don’t know his name. The other day I heard him (there were tears in his eyes) saying to another man that he doesn’t know why north and south are one country, that things would be better if they didn’t force us to live together. I thought of what he said for a long time. But if the north was different from the south, you would still be in the north, because Zonkwa is in Kaduna and Kaduna is in the north and we would still be in the same country. Even if we were not living in Zonkwa, we would even be in the same state because Zaria where my grandfather is from and where my grandmother still lives is also in Kaduna. So I don’t agree with him.
The white woman at the camp where we now live, (she comes from France but she speaks English like someone from America) she told us that we should talk about what happened to us. She said it will help us get better.  She told us not to hate the people who did this to us but to understand them because hate only causes more pain. She made us say, ‘Hate begets more hate’ many times until we all memorised it. Her hair is long and her eyes are blue. She has a black tattoo on her back of her two hands and she told me it means peace in Chinese. (When I asked her, she said she didn’t understand Chinese). The tattoos look like the lalle we use to decorate our hands and legs during weddings. But the tattoo won’t wash off after some weeks. (Sorry I don’t know lalle in English). 

I don’t like talking. Too many people come to interview us at the camp. When the women talk about how their Christian neighbours killed their husbands, some of the people asking the questions have tears in the eyes and some just shake their heads. It is easier for me to write it, that way I think, I don’t have to keep saying it. My mother can’t read, so she doesn’t know what I write. She doesn’t know I am writing you this letter.

It has been six months and my mother still cries when she talks about it. I used to cry too, but now I am just tired of living with so many people in one small space and all the flies and mosquitoes. I am tired of the open toilets where somebody can easily see you. I want a bed and I want to know WHY it happened because I do not understand it. Sir, you used to say a good historian is not just concerned with the what, the where or the when but also with the WHY.
I know the WHAT. I know that my father’s head was broken. I know his neck was cut and that he only shouted twice. The WHAT is that he is dead or should I say, he was killed.
I know the WHERE. It was at the back of our mud house in the village where the grass was cleared and our two rams were tied. It started from the maize farm where he ran from but it happened when he reached the house, on the dusty ground. I was in the house trying to get a little kerosene from the lamp because the firewood fire that I was using to cook had died out and my arms were hurting from trying to fan the smoke into flames. My mother hates it when I do that. It is wasteful she says and shows that I am lazy. But why inhale all that smoke when I can just use a little kerosene to start the flame? So I waited for her to go to collect some spinach from our cousins’ mother in the next house.  I dropped the lantern when I heard the footsteps and shouting and ran out to see what was happening.
I know the WHEN. It was past six, not yet seven in the evening on Sunday after the Presidential elections. It was not too long before the time for the evening prayer. I remember what I was thinking before I dropped the lantern. I didn’t like the long break from school and I missed chatting behind the class with all my friends during break time. There are two reasons I love school. English and History. I like English because of comprehension exercises and because Mr Bulus speaks the best English I have ever heard from a black person. I like history because of the stories. Sometimes I think that you add some things to it to make it interesting and lively. It is like you were there when everything happened so you are able to tell us why everything happened and what everyone was thinking.
This is the part that I don’t know. The WHY? I stood right there. I saw you hold him to the ground with your friends. You used the machete on his head and I ran to you and held your hand. You looked at me and I told you that it was me, Hajara from your SS1 history class. Hajara who got 70 in the last history exam. I told you that this man was my father, but you continued and you used the knife on his neck. I was there but I don’t know why. Why you didn’t stop even though you knew he was my father, what did he do to you?

It is not easy writing this letter. I am writing just in case one day I see you again. My mother says we will never go back to that village again, but I will carry this letter around just in case. Maybe you will change your mind and come to the Panel of Inquiry one day. I will like to know, like the men in the wars that you taught us, what was going through your mind when you decided to kill a man you did not know. Why you didn’t stop when I begged you and why you said sorry to me after you had killed him. What will sorry do for me?
This is all I want to know. Maybe if I know, I will be able to sleep without my father’s face waking me up and coming to me whenever I am in the dark.
Mr. Bulus will hate this letter because there is no introduction, body and conclusion, only a salutation and body and since you are not a friend or close family member he will say it should have been a formal letter. But I am sure Mr Bulus will understand. Sorry if my letter is too long. I hope you will reply.

Yours faithfully,

Hajara Musa (your former SS1 student, whose father you killed)

*based loosely on true events

17 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Of course sir. But this is a story. And the character does not know what lalle means. But thank you.

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  2. Oh Hajara! Dear, dear Hajara! even if you find out WHY. Do you think you can ever UNDERSTAND? I don't think so...

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  3. I went to school in Kaduna.
    This could have been me.

    What a beautiful but haunting letter/story.

    Wow! Wow!! Wow!!!

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  4. Only elnathan does this to stories....he gives them life so real you look back to be sure it's not happening right behind you.

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    1. Thought I was the only one. Elnathan is one heck of a writer

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    2. Thanks a lot for these kind words. I am flattered!

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  5. Very sad letter. Am yet to understand what goes on in the minds of people who kill for religious, tribal & political points

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  6. Hajara, if you get to know why, remember to share with me.

    Elnathan, well done.

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  7. Fantastic, well crafted and the message was well delivered. Kudos!!!

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  8. I almost cried! She'll hate him more if she gets to know why. Smart girl knew that 'Sorry' wouldn't bring her father back or erase the image of him killing her father.

    I hope I'll get to bring life to stories like you one day. I really do hope so.

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  9. Initially, I thought the History teacher was ME. Until I read a little bit further and realised there was an atrocious act by same character. I was called Amalgamation by Students in Katsina. I almost wondered if I committed those acts without knowing it. Thanks to your skills Elnathan. Like leaders, some people are born writers.
    Regards.

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You fit vex, bet abeg no curse me. You hear?