Photo-art by Steve Wing
In the cold harmattan morning of 16th February, 2006, a stocky Igbo woman, with cropped hair giving her the look of a boy, embarked on a journey every member of her family had advised her against. It wasn't the first time she went against her family's wishes anyway, so she didn't miss a heartbeat this time around. And with a resolve as strong as she was robust, she stood with other passengers waiting to board their Ekene luxury bus to the North, to the land of Muslims, home of the Nigerian al-Qaeda. It was half past six o'clock, and still fairly dark. The bus would depart at seven o'clock, according to the itinerary which was scribbled with white chalk on a makeshift blackboard at the entrance, underneath which stands: "Punctuality is Our Policy! No African Time!"
Chinelo stood a bit removed from the others, backing a shallow gutter beside the main office, clutching her ticket in her left hand. At about 6:40, the driver turned the engine on, left it to run while he groped with the buttons on the dashboard. As though satisfied they functioned properly, he pressed the gas pedal so hard the engine belched like an elephant trapped in a ditch. He did this a number of times, turned off the engine, and got out of the bus with a smile on his broad, round face: the passengers needed to trust not only the bus but also his ability to husband it. His conductor, a thin, strikingly fair man in his 30s, closed one of the side trunks, having pushed in a Ghana-must-go, made-in-China, plastic utility bag. He walked straight to where Chinelo was standing and, facing the gutter, ignoring the arrow sign directing to the men's bathroom, he unzipped his trouser and without much ado, poured his urine into the gutter, at the same time grunting suggestively. Chinelo didn't flinch. Nor did she look at him. She understood his intention. He wanted to impress her, show her he could pee from a distance like boys in the village did. If she was a man, she thought, he'd have stepped much closer to the gutter to keep private what should be private. What a nice way to demonstrate Igbo manhood, she thought: All Igbo men believed they had big, circumcised, functional ike-mkpi—the might of a he-goat!
In a tiny voice not matching his flaunted manhood, the conductor raised his voice aloud for all to hear. "Abuja! Abuja! If you are going to Abuja, get ready, enter!"
With the help of a bulky, armed security man, who would escort them on the journey, the conductor searched the passengers—frisked them and dipped hands in the bags, expertly fumbling in the places guns could be hidden. The action was necessary, for it was known armed robbers usually boarded such buses and then at an agreed location robbed the passengers. The search, a ritual done before any journey out of Enugu, unleashed a dread in Chinelo. She had never been to the North. While she had been contented Enugu was hundreds of kilometers from the land of Muslims, traveling to their area of the country put her on edge more than she had anticipated. As it would put her mother, Victoria, who, together with her elder brother John, narrowly survived the Igbo pogrom of 1966 in the North. That had been the source of Victoria's concern, the reason she objected to Chinelo's travel. She couldn't afford to lose her daughter to the place where she had lost her parents and younger brother.
But Chinelo had every reason to look forward to the journey; it would be her first conference of the Association of Nigerian Authors. She had published a chapbook of poems, none of which meant anything to her any longer. But on the strength of that publication, she was invited to Krazitivity, an internet discussion forum open to all Nigerians who have ever published anything anywhere and in any form. She looked forward to meeting Ahmed Usman, a Hausa young man, who had taken an adoring liking for her poems and occasional reflections on some current issues in Nigeria. Conversely Chinelo liked Ahmed, especially his brashness. Ahmed wrote Wole Soyinka was a joke, and Chinua Achebe was a dreamer. Chinelo loved Soyinka's writings. She relished Ahmed's brazen effrontery—like a hen challenging a dog to a fight, she always thought.
Ahmed wasn't the first Hausa man Chinelo would know. That honor belonged to Mallam Illia. Unlike Ahmed, Mallam Illia was a mere meat seller and at least 20 years her senior. And an illiterate! But he had taken some flirtatious interest in her. And she got some thrill out of it, some kick from his amour-induced grins, even if she didn't invest any emotional interest. It had all begun when she went to buy meat from his shop at Agbani market. She had gone straight to his stall, which stood in a special row of Hausa meat shops, far removed from those of Igbo, on the opposite side. Somehow Chinelo had fallen into the belief Hausa meat sellers never cheated. Their religion forbade them from doing that. They often took the precepts of Islam more strictly than the Igbo did the Christian ones. They didn't haggle; their "yes" was their "yes," and their "no" was their "no." So, she walked up to the first man she saw in the Muslim section. "I need a kilo of meat," she said.
He shrugged, looked at her without his face showing any feeling. "Kilo?" he asked.
She gave him a sign of the size. He brought out his razor-sharp knife, measured what he imagined was a kilo, and looked up questioningly. "Eh?"
Chinelo shook her head, pointed to another spot further.
"Thousand, 500 naira," he said.
"Thousand, 500 naira!" she screamed to dramatize her shock at the perceived exorbitance. It was the best way to call for haggling—make the seller feel guilty. "Mallam!" she called in the same hoarse tone. For the Igbo, all Hausa looking men were Mallams—in Hausa, an honorific term for Muslim men. He obviously liked her calling him this; he grinned.
"Why you wan cheat me?" she went on in broken English, encouraged by his grin.
"I no dey cheat," he said in a calm, reassuring tone of voice. "How much you go pay?"
She shook her head this and that way, weighing the meat with her eyes. "I go give you 500 naira," she said, knowing it was way lower than the meat's value.
He looked away demonstratively, and then smiling, looked back at her. "Make you price well, well," he said.
"You be beautiful woman, up, up," he said, raising his left hand to indicate she should raise her price.
She felt flattered. "Okay, 1,000," she said, her shy grin flourishing more audaciously. "Don Allah," she added—please—intending to woo him with her scanty knowledge of Hausa. It worked; he chuckled. His teeth were yellowed from gworo, a special Hausa kola nut, a potent stimulant that almost all northerners chewed.
"You go be my customer, eh?" he asked.
"Yes, I go be your customer," she assured. "Your real customer."
Mallam pressed his sharp knife on the position Chinelo had indicated, and in a soft, smooth straight-lined slide, cut. He wrapped it. "700 naira," he said. She felt ashamed, for the meat was worth far more than that price. She looked up, her smile frozen in shock. She leafed out ten 100-naira notes and gave the wad to him.
He counted it and gave her back the extra. She informed him she thought the meat was worth far more than the amount he told her to pay. Yet he insisted on selling it at that. Since then, Chinelo never bought meat from elsewhere. She sent people to him, first instructing them not to haggle with her Mallam and then scribbling a note: Mallam, this is my cousin, sell him nice meat. Yours, Chinelo. Then again: Mallam, this is my friend. Be nice to her. Yours, Chinelo. Each time she signed, "Yours, Chinelo," she felt some pleasant tingle in her heart.
Chinelo's occasional thoughts on Mallam Illia during the journey were balsam to her disturbed mind. If he was that good, there would definitely be many other Mallams in Abuja, she assured herself. Perhaps the North wasn't as bad as its reputation.
She checked into Doris Day Hotel, one of the designated hotels to host the conference attendees. It was about 15 minutes' taxi drive from the Sheraton convention center where the conference would take place. In their last email, Ahmed had told her he didn't live too far from Abuja city. About an hour's drive. So, he'd drive in just in time for the keynote speech on Friday.
There were about 100 people in the auditorium listening to Professor Chidi Amuta give the prestigious keynote address: "Poststructuralist Calibrations of African Mythopoeia." Chinelo didn't understand the speech. Perhaps many others did, as evidenced by the resounding applause the professor received after his speech. But then one of the first three persons to ask questions brought the subterranean confusion in people's minds to the fore. "What the heck is this poststructuralist thing? What has it got to do with us? This is a joke!"
The questioner was a tall, gangly young man in his late 20s. Surprisingly though, he too received almost equal applause as did the speaker. Chinelo thought his language was too harsh. She didn't need to second-guess who he could be. Only the person who called Soyinka a joke could pluck the courage to dismiss "poststructuralist mythopoeia" that way. After the talk, she introduced herself to Ahmed. A soft-spoken, quick-witted gentleman. He got her name correct the first time, pronounced it almost as musically as any Igbo would have.
Chinelo could see Ahmed wasn't too excited to see her as a person of the opposite sex; his eyes bore no revealing glitter they were supposed to have. But she didn't hold it against him; she never thought herself an outstandingly pretty woman. An average Igbo woman, a meter 60, rather stoutly built, tending towards manliness, she couldn't have tickled his male instincts. Unlike the typical delicate features of most Northern women she had seen so far—lithe, with soft hips, tender arms and long necks. She couldn't compare with them. But it wasn't her features that got Ahmed interested in her in the first place, she remembered, still excusing the lack of spark in his eyes. It was her mind, her poems, and her reflections on Krazitivity. As though confirming her thought, Ahmed asked her to please attend his poetry reading taking place in the next two hours. He wanted her expert opinion on his poems. "You have to be honest with me," he said. He offered to take her to Abuja city center after the reading for lunch.
The first of Ahmed's five poems talked about the vegetation and weather in Jos, where he had spent his childhood and where his heart still was. Chinelo loved it, loved the sensuous details of people and nature. He told his audience the poem was a kind of introit. "Now listen to my real poems," he announced, scanning the audience as though in search of familiar faces. Chinelo gave him a reassuring smile as their eyes met. But the next poems weren't as triumphant as the announcement preceding them. A basketful of clichés, which was no more than experimentations on rhyme techniques: "Veil and virgin," "Waiting to win," "Oh Queen of my Soul," "Ever beautiful, ever pure," "Paragon of womanhood." Chinelo could hear in-between the lines some echoes of the doggerels she published years ago when she used to project her image of ideal woman on Virgin Mary, when she used to be a nun. It never crossed her mind she'd travel hundreds of kilometers, deep into the Muslim land, only to be reminded of her past life.
The idea of becoming a nun was laid into her heart by her maternal uncle, John, who felt guilty at not having taken his younger brother along with him to his friend's house the afternoon their own house was attacked by a Hausa mob. Had he taken Benjamin, he told people, both of them would have been saved. Chinelo's mother had gone shopping, so only Benjamin and their parents were at home. On seeing their house attacked, Victoria ran to the nearby Yoruba family where John was. Both of them were hidden by the family and later spirited away to safety.
The only way John thought he could appease his conscience was to become a Catholic priest. But not even that could temper his scruples. He talked Victoria into believing she, too, had to sacrifice something to God. But since she had already married, the only thing she could sacrifice to match John was her first daughter. And so, John began to work on Chinelo, who at the time didn't see anything wrong in becoming a nun. After all, it was a highly regarded status symbol in their town to become one.
But then her body began to respond to the thought of men. She read romance novels in secret, admired pictures of naked or half-naked men, embraced them in her fantasies. One day she dreamed she had sex with a man. They couldn't quite do it though; she woke up just as he was about to penetrate. But then what they couldn't consummate, she did alone. Since then she didn't wait for dreams about a man, she induced them. At the same time she tried to sculpt of herself a perfect image of womanhood—one who never yielded to carnal pleasures—invoking the name of Virgin Mary to bring her to normalcy. That normalcy never came. In fact the more she tried to repress her desires, the more her body revolted, roared back with yet another revelation of another form of desire. She left the convent, no longer able to contain the conflict in her body. Since then she had been living alone, teaching at a secondary school at Agbani.
While driving to Abuja city center, Chinelo juggled in her mind how she'd tell Ahmed his poems reminded her of the life she had long abandoned. But since she had already promised to be honest with him, she gritted her teeth in solid determination to be so. "I loved your first poem," she said.
He nodded satisfactorily with smiles.
"I felt like being there," she went on. "To see those people, share in their life."
Then she bent down to her plate of okra soup. She didn't like the mix of fish and goat meat in the gumbo. But that was commonplace in the Igbo kitchen. Ahmed had insisted on taking her to an Igbo restaurant, even though she had faintly indicated an interest in Hausa food.
"But I wanted to arouse people's imagination with the other poems," Ahmed argued. "I wanted to bring people nearer to God."
She said nothing. Having pushed aside a big chunk of fish to dig out a piece of tender meat, she looked up to him and tried again: "I enjoyed seeing the Hausa women you described in that poem. I loved them."
He smiled. "I was just describing my sisters," he said rather shyly. "That was years ago. Before I rejected them."
"Rejected them? Why?"
"They married Muslims and therefore converted to Islam."
Chinelo said nothing; she looked on. Their area of Hausaland had never been Muslims, Ahmed explained. But it was rapidly changing. More people were converting to Islam, and he was determined to stop it. Indeed the more Islamic his people became, the more he was bent on spreading Christian virtues.
Chinelo didn't hide her feelings about his zealousness.
"But you are a Christian, aren't you?" he asked.
She was a Christian, she agreed, but she no longer believed in those virtues designed to subject women's bodies to men's moral whims.
"That is not men's whims," he insisted. "That is society. There must be order in society."
"And the best way to start is to make women's bodies pure."
"I didn't know you were a feminist."
She shrugged. "Do I look like one?" she asked him, and smiled to ease the growing tension.
"You just sounded like one," he said, and as though seizing the opportunity her smile offered him, he reminded her she had been an inspiration in his career, and then he began to preach about things he thought would save Nigeria from Islamic invasion.
The wind whistled through some cracks of the window. The room was cold. Chinelo pulled the light blanket over her head. It smelt of Omo detergent. Not unwholesome altogether. She couldn't sleep any more. Having adapted her eyes to the grey of the morning, she dug out her wrist watch from under her pillow. 6:15 AM. She lay supine, staring at the blurred whitewashed ceiling.
The day's event would be the crown of the conference. She'd read her poems, one of which talked about how to cook goat-meat Jollof Rice with spices from different parts of Nigeria. A faint smile touched her lips at the thought of how funny the poem would sound. To reassure herself about the day's schedule of events, she reached out for the conference brochure on the side table, skimmed through the program. 4:00 PM. Conference Plenary Speech: Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate. "The Anguish of Ogun and the Ethical Clarion Call."
She knew practically nothing about the Yoruba gods, much less about the ethical principles to be derived from them. Nevertheless, she looked forward to this first opportunity of meeting Soyinka. She'd ask him a question, she assured herself. She'd ask the question bothering her ever since she read Soyinka's war prison notes, The Man Died. So, she practiced the question: Sir, I've been trying to understand the meaning of the saying: the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. Could you please help me? The question sluiced cleanly from her mind and she imagined herself standing up, attracting the gazes of hundreds of people. She'd stammer, she was sure, perhaps miss some words, confuse past with present tenses. And people would giggle at her nervousness. Ahmed would dismiss her as a joke. Well, she'd dare it, come what may. After all she was a true Igbo woman, she steeled herself—rugged, confident and fearless.
Chinelo sat over a plate of scrambled egg and two slices of white bread, waiting for a fork and a knife. The attendant, a thin young man in his late teens, his skin color more like a half ripe palm nut than black, had placed a spoon by the right hand side of the plate. Having apologized with the excuse no customer had ever requested fork and knife before, he dashed off in an impressive manner that left Chinelo smiling. By the other side of the plate was a small tin of Nescafe, a flask of hot water, and a thick, earthenware cup. Beaming apologetically the young man brought the instruments she requested and, placing them where the spoon had been, apologized again. She was happy for his politeness, a rare commodity among most waiters.
In the dining hall were many people, half of them evidently Igbo from snippets of their conversations—patches of English and Igbo phrases, most of which were boastful in nature. "I did it!" "I made it!" "I showed them!" It was usual with many Igbo traders They loved to boast about where they had been and the profit they made in their daring business ventures. About two tables to her left were also some of the conference attendees. She had exchanged greetings with some of them the day before. They spoke Igbo with Owerri dialect. She put two teaspoonful of coffee in the cup, poured hot water, and as she was stirring, readying her taste buds for the first sip, a middle aged, plump woman with cornrow hair braids sped into the dining hall, crying in Igbo, her gaze directed to one of the tables on the left. "Ha emekwa ya ozo"—they've done it again. "Ndi Awusa!—the Hausa people. My broda! My broda. Killed."
Lightning lashed through Chinelo's heart. Three words that should never be mentioned in a breath Moslems! Awusa! Killed—conspired to paralyze her. Hadn't she been warned by her mother? She did her best to shrug it off as there was no panic yet in the dining hall. People weren't yet running to safety. Chinelo was able to gather from the few exchanges between the woman and the people that her sister in-law was living somewhere in the North and had called her by phone to relay the information.
The lady was calmly led out of the dining hall by her Owerri townspeople. People were swearing curses at the Muslims. Murmuring her sympathy for the woman, and hoping it was just a spontaneous incident and not an organized mass attack, Chinelo got back to her breakfast. She nervously ate the egg and bread, washing it down with gulps of coffee, undiluted, black as her skin. She made herself another cup and began to sip it ritually as she was used to. The first cup of coffee was to wake her up from sleep; the second was poetry.
The usual lightness of the mind, the kick accompanying the caffeine, was late in coming. Perhaps it would never come. Not while she sat as though glued to the table, imagining where the attack had taken place, its magnitude. Was it there in Abuja? Or in another state? An endless series of light tremors marched through her chest. She didn't want to confirm her fear. Yet her hands were shaking and her legs were fighting off prickles. She was afraid she'd wobble back to her seat if she stood. But she had to stand. She had to go back to her hotel room to decide what next to do.
About to walk out of the dining hall, she turned to look at one of the waiters at a remote corner of the hall, near a bar tuning a big screen TV for a channel. She approached him. "Does it work?" she asked.
The young man turned to her, shot a reproachful glance at her audacity to think the television at Doris Day Hotel didn't work. He went on turning the channels. But it wasn't an altogether uncalled for question. Her room had a TV set that didn't work. A South African channel played a song by Lucky Dube, which the waiter began to listen to.
"Do you get CNN here?" she asked.
"Yes, CNN, there is a riot going on," said a voice behind her. "Yes, protests in Kaduna," a man in his 50s said, meeting her eyes with his.
He looked Yoruba to her. She could no longer stand to know whether the hotel's cable network transmitted CNN programs. Her nervousness had taken a better hold of her. Riot in Kaduna, echoed in her mind. Only in Kaduna? She left, and nearly walking on her toes, found her way to her room, eager to look out of her window to get a fair assessment of the world. Unfortunately her window emptied into what looked like the hotel's backyard, or garage, or whatever. Feeling lost, she listened carefully as though to actually eavesdrop on the neighbors in the adjoining room. A shrill laugh by a young woman and a baritone, reassuring male voice poured into her ears. They were blissfully oblivious to whatever went on in the rest of the world.
She was certain she wouldn't live longer than that day. People would surely know she was Igbo, she thought; everyone could see that from afar. She imagined it was exactly how her mother must have felt 40 years ago. Ah, she warned me, she said to herself, imagining her mother crouching in hiding like a frightened cat.
After a long while Chinelo summoned enough courage and energy to go outside to see for herself. She stole out of her room, ready at any time to sprint back there should a Hausa or Muslim-looking person make his way towards her. There were clusters of people in front of the hotel, talking, swearing. She recognized some of them from the conference. She approached one of the groups, her heart beating wildly. She read shock in their faces. "I can't die without killing at least one of them," a young man roared.
Chinelo's nervousness rose to a fever pitch.
"It is dis idiot Denmak man who started everytin," said a young woman in an unmistakable Igbo-English. "Why did he provoke dem?"
"But would you give up your freedom of speech because of what Muslims in the world think?" asked a thin, young man, to whom Chinelo took an instant liking. She drew closer to him, intent on asking him what was going on.
"Freedom of speech, eh?" shot the Igbo-English woman in a ram-charging posture, quickly standardizing her English to reveal, or fake, middle class superiority.
"Freedom of speech, eh? Every time Europeans want to attack other people they claim freedom of speech, eh! Can he draw the naked picture of the Danish queen? Can he draw the picture of Jesus Christ kissing a woman?"
Others broke into a soft laughter—a welcome comic relief. Chinelo smiled. She never imagined Jesus kissing a woman. The laugher encouraged the Igbo-English who, having showed off her mastery of high English, calmly slipped back to her Igbotic one. "What nonsense is dis tin dey call freedom of speech when it comes to talking about oda people?"
The young man whom Chinelo approached explained to her in a calm tone of voice and an Efik inflected English what he had heard over the BBC. The Danish cartoonist who drew the picture of Prophet Mohammed refused to apologize for offending the Muslims. That sparked demonstrations in Kaduna and Kano. Many people are reported killed. Mostly Igbo. Several churches had been torched.
As though following the Igbo woman's cue, the group's chat shifted to finding fault with Europeans. Europeans should know their words and actions had huge consequences in the rest of the world. Europeans claimed to be civilized, yet they didn't realize what they did to other people. Did they really care?
None of these made sense to Chinelo any more. Why should Europeans care if Africans killed one another, she asked herself, quickly losing interest in everything. In her mind echoed the only words seeming to matter to her. Kano! Kaduna! Many people killed. Mostly Igbo! She didn't know how far these cities were from Abuja. They could well just be in Abuja's backyard. Securing the door of her room, she calmly laid herself to bed, sighing in a final note of surrender, staring hopelessly in empty space. Was she being paranoid? She couldn't care. You could never be too sure. And therefore she couldn't collect enough courage to make it to the conference center. No, she wouldn't dare. How could she be sure the Muslims wouldn't unleash their jihad just at the time she was midway between her hotel and the conference center? She'd be dragged out of the taxi and lynched. She could already see the scene in her mind. She lay sideways on her bed, coiled like a fetus, her gaze fixed at the wall. She saw them. Hausa men, Muslim men! Their bloodshot eyes, their bloodthirsty teeth! Beating at their chests. Reciting the Koran: Allahu Akbar, all_hu akbar. Their razor-sharp knives. Good Lord!
Though it had been long since she prayed, she found herself murmuring some promises to God: If ever she made it back home safe, she'd offer holy Mass for the souls in purgatory. She'd dedicate herself to serving humanity in any form.
The journey back to Enugu couldn't happen quickly and fast enough. Chinelo literally held her breadth until the bus left Hausa territory. Only then did she borrow the Sunday edition of ThisDay from her seat neighbor. Her fears were unfounded, she learned. Kaduna and Kano were very far from Abuja. She had been truly paranoid. But she didn't regret barricading herself for the whole day. You could never be too sure. The newspaper gave a detailed version of what she already knew and revealed there had been some reprisals in some unnamed cities in the East.
By Wednesday, Chinelo had nearly put the experience of her journey behind her. Coming weekend she'd travel to her village to see her mother. She knew what her mother would tell her: I told you, she'd say. I warned you. You could have been killed. But she'd reply, Well, I'm back. But that was still a few days away. Before then she had first to meet her Mallam. She also imagined their meeting. Pardon me for being paranoid, she'd think. Pardon me for thinking Hausa men had bloodthirsty teeth!
It was a warm early afternoon. Returning from school, Chinelo decided not to go home before heading to the market to buy meat. On her way to the market, she considered the best way to greet Mallam. With an apologetic smile, or to just pretend as if she never thought ill about his people.
At first Chinelo couldn't believe her eyes. There were no more Hausa meat shops. Not any more. It was as if a tornado had razed through just that row, tumbling every thing smelling of Hausa. She stood wondering whether she hadn't made a mistake. But she couldn't have made a mistake, for she could even trace Mallam's shop blindfolded. The Agbani market wasn't that big. And thus, realizing she stood exactly three paces away from what used to be Mallam Illia's shop, she looked around again, observing for the first time the spattered bloodstains everywhere. Beads of dark blood. At some obscure corner, at the right hand side of the row, was a hurriedly scribbled placard: Jesus is the King!
Her heart was beating loudly and wildly. Behind her on the other side, some men were laughing. Igbo men! Meat sellers, whose shops she had always skipped. She imagined all of them having their sharpened knives in their hands. Her eyes misted.
"My meat is better, woman." A voice said to her.
"I have better meat!" another said.
She turned around, her tears running. Truly they all had sharp knives. And in her tears they appeared magnified, like giant praying mantis, eyes trained on her. She knew she had to get out of there as quickly as possible. This time around her fears were real, as real as her mother's 40 years ago.
She was relieved to have the market behind her, yet she didn't wipe her tears. She wasn't ashamed of them. No, she was ashamed for another reason. One of her friends she had told about a mallam who sold her cheap meat had jokingly said, "Mallam Illia," referring to the protagonist of Cyprian Ekwensi's children's storybook, Passport of Mallam Illia. Since her friend's joke, her meat seller had no other name. But now she wished she knew the real name of her friend, a man for whom she was a "Yours."