Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I can’t remember her last name or where exactly we met. Just a smile that started from the eyes and spread to the rest of a smooth brown face, and a name, Ngozi. I have always thought it was Ngozi, even though now that I think of it, her name could have been Njideka. But it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter the last time we met, in a hospital ward a few years ago in Kaduna.

I was making my way through the confusing, identical wards, looking for a relative of mine, avoiding the grim stories on the faces outside the wards. Sometimes I couldn’t help looking; the faces said many things, asked many questions: Why aren’t the drugs working. Will we find the money for the operation before it is too late? Where will we find the money? We are in God’s hands. I wish we came a bit earlier. Why me, why her, why now...

It was her face I saw first as I peeped in the dreary sunlit room that reeked with a smell we described growing up simply as hospital smell- a mix of strong disinfectants, antiseptics, the metallic smell of blood, food, and bananas. She had put on weight but her fuller cheeks had done nothing to alter her face. It was still the same lovely brown face without makeup. Her lips were a light shade of pink and her nose, was pointed and had a little mole on it.

She was sitting on the bed and looked at me with a familiar smile. I smiled back and walked toward her to say hello and long-time-no-see and sorry-I-didn’t-know-you-were-in-the-hospital and God-bring-vitality-back-to-your-body and sorry-again, all at once. She didn’t have many visitors like the others. During the awkward silence that followed the shock/awkward reunion/prayer for good health, I wondered whether it was rude to ask why she was in the hospital. Perhaps this lovely Igbo girl with no makeup read my mind, or maybe it was just coincidence that she then decided to adjust her sitting position to show me what brought her there. I noticed the bandages on one side of her chest where a breast used to be. She caught my eyes as it widened, involuntarily at the sight of her chest. She smiled a smile that said, I know, I couldn’t believe I lost the breast too and looked away. Just then I heard my name from across the room. It was my aunt standing by the bed of the relative I came looking for.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, walking away in disbelief. I greeted my aunt who asked in Hausa where I knew her from. I realized then that I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. ‘From school,’ I said, preferring the burden of a lie to the complication of explaining why I stood for so long by the bedside of someone I wasn’t sure where I met. It could have been the external examinations I took when I was trying to switch from the sciences to the arts many years before. Or maybe the friend of a friend. We didn’t ask each other where we knew. Our eyes met, and we just knew. It didn’t matter where we met.

I waved her goodbye as we were leaving but she was busy with the nurses and I decided I would return to see her the following day. On the bus home, I wondered what it meant, to lose a breast. Would she wear a normal bra, stuff the other with some padding? How would she feel? Is she married yet? If not, how will this affect her. These were the questions I slept with; the same questions I woke up with and pondered as I returned to the hospital the following day. Walking to the ward, I thought of how she turned away when she saw that I had seen why she was there. I would sit with her and talk when I got there, I told myself. I would not walk away again if she turned her face, even if my aunt called me. I would not let my eyes go wide with surprise or dim with pity; I would smile, like she did, from my eyes, from my heart.

I reached the hospital the following day and Ngozi’s bed was empty, a dreary green sheet spread over the space she occupied the day before. I asked my aunt and she gave me the details with her arms across her chest and pity on her face. Discharged. Breast Cancer. Very friendly, wallahi.

This October, the month set aside as Breast Cancer month I have been thinking of Ngozi, who might have been Njideka. Ngozi who could have been a friend of a friend or an old classmate. I never saw her again. I do not know if the cancer stopped, if she found a way around the bra or gave up altogether, if she had supportive family and friends, if she found someone to still love her or knew that she was still beautiful. I wish now, that I had sat down a little more with her that day or knew where she was so I could visit. This October I remember the lovely Igbo girl without makeup who had breast cancer.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Women Whose Men Were Taken

I walked into the camp not expecting to feel anything new. I was born in this once peaceful, cosmopolitan town, and seen it quickly turn up dead bodies, some burnt, some cut to pieces because they belonged to the wrong religion or tribe; I saw it ultimately become a town of religiously exclusive, non-interacting communities- wholly Christian or Muslim. Seeing displaced persons would not make me lose any sleep, after all I had once been displaced by violence myself and in a sense, most people had been displaced, having to move to communities whose religion they belonged to, at least nominally. So I went in with some researcher friends of mine when they asked me to come along.
The smell from thousands of bodies crammed into a small space greeted me as we drove in. One of the leaders of the camp welcomed us and started showing us around. Hundreds of children ran around, unattended. Old men sat on tattered mats, staring at us. Women in hijabs sat in groups, some staring at us, others minding their children. Cooking was done not far away from open sewers and the flies buzzed all around, not minding the heat from the cooking.
The first hostel, an open hall without beds or even mattresses housed 130 widows and their little children. All of them victims of the April post electoral killings in the South of Kaduna State, mostly from my village Zonkwa, Kafanchan and a few other surrounding villages.
They took us to the store to see what they had left of their food supplies. Rotting tomatoes on the concrete floor, about five bags of rice some oil and a few other items. It was here that we heard the stories. The stories that made me finally feel something.
The killings in Zonkwa, they maintained, were planned, premeditated and not a spontaneous reaction to the violence elsewhere. The killings were systematic. Women and children were spared and in fact hauled off to the police station by the very men who were doing the slaughtering. For the boys, most under the age of 10 were spared. The man who was our guide said, his son, who was 12, was killed. A woman, whose quick thinking saved her son, lied to her attackers that her son was 9.
Many of the victims knew their attackers, some even by name. One of the girls whose father was decapitated and had his stomach torn open said she saw who did it. She knew him well. He was her history teacher. She said to the teacher as he attacked her father, ‘please sir, spare this man, he is my father’. The teacher ignored her, and went about the business of cutting her father open. We were told, that he apologised to the girl after he had finished.
The women were very nice to us, even after we told them we only came to ask questions and not to render any form of assistance. The women leader in the camp said, ‘We are very happy, it doesn’t matter. Whoever takes interest in our plight enough to come here and see how we are faring is welcome.’ She said it with a broad smile on her face and wished us Allah’s blessings.
The men explained that it would be difficult to return to a place where the men who slaughtered their children and men still walked around confidently, without any punishment. The State government he said, tried to force them to leave the camp, even though what was offered to those who had lost homes , businesses and loved ones, was 15,000 naira. ‘What can we do with 15,000,’ one of the men asked.
As they spoke of how they suffered in the crises, how they were killed and how the charred bodies received a less than dignified mass burial, I wondered how they would feel if they knew I was in fact from Zonkwa, from the same village and tribe as the men who took the lives of their loved ones and literally, shattered their lives.
‘We the common people have no problem with each other, it is the politicians and tribal elders who instigate the violence,’ one of the camp heads spoke in impeccable English. He added that they wanted justice and did not get it at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry. One of the lawyers who was on the opposing side during the commission’s hearings, was now the Attorney General, in charge of implementing the report, he complained. He was bitter about the violence and contrasted it with the violence in Jos: ‘This is not like the case of Jos. We the Hausa Muslims in the South do not get involved in the politics of the indigenes. We do not seek elective positions. We do not drag power with them. We are farmers and traders. In fact, when there is dispute between the tribes, we are sometimes called upon as neutral arbiters. Why the killings?’
I heard the names of people I knew as they spoke of their frustration in finding justice. I felt so close to the issue, so ashamed that all this was carried out by my kinsmen, perhaps even, by some of my relatives.
As we were about to leave, the phone of one of the camp leaders rang. To our amusement, his ringtone was the popular Dolly Parton song, ‘Jolene’. He was slightly embarrassed. We smiled shyly as Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man and I, standing there, lost in thought wished that somehow I could have done something, begged my kinsmen to save their men. Nothing, not even a need for reprisal, justifies slaughtering your neighbours.
We have gone on for too long, ignoring the need for justice after riots and killings. Consequently, we breed a whole generation of bitter people among both Christians and Muslims, who hearts know only, a desire for revenge, for some form of justice. By sweeping it all under the carpet, we set the stage for further killings and broaden the base for potential killers and arsonists. People don’t forget when they watch their parents decapitated in front of them. People don’t forget when they watch their sisters and mothers gang raped. They don’t forget, especially when they know that the men who did it, walk and breath, even more freely than they do.