Damilola Koka (Dami K) is a cheerful, free spirited girl raised in Ibadan. When in 2011 she went to offer her NYSC service in the crusty village of Gumao, Bauchi State, she expects to catch all the fun she could. Things are going fine until the post election crises in the North. She and her friends find themselves lost in the vast Sahara. She begins to lose her friends to deadly beasts and monstrous humans by the day. If she must go home to her widowed mother in one piece, she must find the shortest route to the nearest civilization before whatever is after her finds her.
Umaru was about twenty yards behind me trying to close the pace. I kept running as the bush was growing thicker and the path clearer. Then eventually I started hearing voices, Umaru was calling my name, calling for me to stop. It turned out that they’d decided to stop running a long time ago and the only reason they kept running was to catch up with me and make me stop.
We gathered around a shrub-sized Tsamiya tree and then I learnt from Umaru we were not followed. Not even an inch away from the office. I did not know how best to react to that news. I couldn’t even tell if it was good news or not. I did not feel any disappointment for having run that hard and far to expend so much energy perhaps because I did not feel tired at that point. In fact, I felt I could do a nonstop sprint to Ibadan where the maniacs can't touch me.
We took a while to talk in the middle of the vast bush land, none of us appeared bushed except for NK who was panting and leaning on Idris.
We agreed on what next to do. It was to find our way back home, pack our belongings as light as possible then try to get to the state capital by the safest means. This safe means we couldn’t decide yet.
We would also call Mallam Yelwa to know if he has any plan for us. We would have done that right away but only Umaru had his phone number and it was written down on a paper back home.
Idris made a suggestion we considered a little extreme, he suggested we lay low in that bush till dark then we sneak to the compound to pack and leave town. We disagreed with him hastily without much thought. Looking back now after all that have happened in the course of the day, I think we should have given that a second thought.
Our problem at that point became how to find our way to the compound from that forest. Bassey said his sense of geography and spatial positioning can help us find our way while Bimpe gawked at everyone else as if she had no sense left at all.
We decided to keep our course on the path, we’re not really relying on Bassey’s sense of geography and spatial positioning.
Soon a little luck came our way in the form of a young nomad with just four cows and a calf. We asked him for a direction to Mallam Yelwa's compound after some misgivings were roughly expressed by NK and Bimpe about who we can trust. This nomad was generous enough to prove them wrong. From the direction he gave us we’d have to turn left each time the road divides as we moved on and there were two such points before we enter the inhabited part of the village.
In the centre of our troubles was something that was so obvious it couldn’t go unnoticed. Tare and Bimpe were removed from the bunch. They were following a short distance from behind us. It was not clear to me why they did so, it wasn’t even clear to me at first that it was intentional.
Even when we talked about Obinna they did not join.
NK was seemingly more worried about Obinna, “How come he couldn’t make it?” she asked Umaru. We all thought Umaru was in the best position to answer that, aside from the fact he was the last to be lifted out of the room, that unspoken concession to his leadership grew even stronger now that we find ourselves in the same sinking boat.
He gazed thoughtfully into the gathering cloud above us with set eyes like he was earnestly requesting for a divine explanation from the all-knowing Allah. What he came up with was the briefest explanation possible.
Still looking away from us he said gravely, “Before he could make it out of there, they got him.”
We replaced got him with killed him in our minds and the silence that followed was regretfully mournful. Umaru’s tone itself was most unusual that I couldn’t figure it out then.
It was only later that I was told the gruesome details of that tragedy that I think I can call it remorseful. I think he took an excessively undue blame on himself for that incident and he carried it on him till perhaps it proved terminal.
When we eventually reached the village settlements, it was like we just missed rapture. Calmness reigned in the air and not even a single soul was on sight. Not even the goats that roamed the streets regularly were found. The mangy, tail-wagging, stray, jolly-good-fellow dogs of the community were also conspicuously out of sight. We kept on walking in a close unit safe Tare and Bimpe.
We chose to go through the longer route because it runs past the village’s children play ground and the souk. On this afternoon it was more desolate than the shorter route use to be but not for long as we soon started walking past some other living souls on the road along the market. They were mainly elderly men and women going or returning from groundnut harvesting.
When they cared to stare at us, what my mind read from their faces was, “Tonight you die.” And I often returned a cheeky grin of, “Duh, tonight I flee.”
Whoever says a sorely terrible day can’t get even worse? Well, we hadn’t seen anything yet. A humongous shocker was waiting for us at the compound...or where used to be the compound.
A hellish inferno was dying and isolated tongues of flames were licking the brick walls and other materials on the floor. The only place I’d seen anything close to this devastation was on a newspaper and they said it was the scene of a US drone attack. The buildings had been flamed out to varying degrees.
Mallam Yelwa’s main family compound wasn’t as burnt down as ours but it was still on fire and would be all ashes if not put out soon. Up till that moment there’d been no attempt by anyone to put out the fire and that did not surprise me at all despite my awareness of Mallam’s popularity among the villagers. There was a common but unspoken consciousness of how detrimental it would be to spite whoever did this. Whoever did this could do much more to whoever stands on their way or make their attack of less impact to us.
There were children and few women who stood in different corners around the burning compound watching us pitifully. We were in the center of this calamity and no one was brave enough to say a miserable sorry. Umaru led the way as we walked around to look into what used to be our rooms one after the other. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to salvage from the destruction of the fire.
In some way I thought this might not be all bad news for us. Now that there’s nothing to pack, a portion of our task was taken away. It remains for us to flee by any means possible. We were not doing much talking except some exclamations of bewilderment from the ladies, me inclusive.
No one, at least no one I heard made any reference to what we’ve lost in the fire and I also think we all sensed it was only the beginning. At the same time none of us wondered aloud who must have done this, the culprits were clear to us. What wasn’t exactly clear to us was why they’d go this far to get us.
Standing right next to me Idris was asking these questions rhetorically, “How have we wronged these people to go to this extent? What have we done to deserve this?”
Two or three persons including Bassey mumbled something that didn’t seem a befitting answer. It was hard to see how we can rise from these ashes to get our regular lives back again.
With Umaru still in front we kept walking around the compound, not quite sure what we were inspecting for. The compound’s general latrine was however left untouched. It was about fifty yards away from the main building. A lady was sitting languidly by the door side of the latrine, beckoning on us to come.
Some of us took a long stare to see who it was. Some of us did not bother.
It was Hamzat, Mallam’s second wife. We gathered around her in similar fashion we did Lucky two and half hours ago. We need not look closely to see her left leg was bleeding and wrapped in a man’s shirt which I can’t determine its color for the blood that had drenched it.
Thick gore was gathering on the ground under her bad leg. Her head bent forward limply.
It first skipped our minds that she spoke no English and we started to ask questions directed at her. Chief among them were, “What happened to you?” that came from me.
Bassey, NK and Bimpe asked, “Where is everyone else?”
The most selfish and silly was, “How can we leave here?” that was from Idris. Wouldn't you have guessed right?
Umaru bent over her and patted her shoulder; he then began to ask questions tenderly as if his words were tiny invisible missiles that must not be allowed to hit her hard.
Hamzat did her best to respond clearly but she would never stop wincing and whimpering softly in pain. Idris once in a while would throw in a question which Hamzat would totally ignore or give a brief response to. I guess it was because they were as silly as his first.
While the mostly two-way conversation went on, the rest of us would tell or remind Umaru of a question we would like to ask her. Something we thought was vital like, if Mallam Yelwa has been informed and what his response was.
The message was clear when she stopped talking. We were doomed, she had no idea how and if we can leave town unscathed. Her details of the attack at the compound were sketchy, but from the pictures my mind can build, it must have been something like a rowdy and small-scale re-enactment of the fall of Jericho.
As if it was of any help, she finally added that our belongings were not burnt in the fire. She told us they were looted by the gang that invaded. I resisted the urge to ask her if that meant any good news for us. If she thinks they’d offer us their priceless friendship the moment they start enjoying the booty.
We sat our tired selves on the dusty floor, forming a semi circle of reasonable diameter around the battered Hamzat as Umaru took his time to repeat more elaborately the details of their conversation for the benefit of those of us with little or no understanding of Hausa.
He spoke clearly and calmly as is typical of him, “She said Mallam Yelwa has been informed of all this by Mukhtar,” Mukhtar is the Mallam’s nephew who lived in the compound with us and works in a cotton processing fabric factory outskirt of the village.
Bassey lightened up a bit, “Mukhtar is around? Where is he?”
“She said he led the rest of the family to Alhaji Bashir’s resident, they are staying there for now.”
“We should join them there,” NK suggested.
At the thought of that bright possibility my heart leaped. I wasn’t being too hopeful about our predicament or making a mistake about anything. I did not take Alhaji Bashir’s residence to be a fortress. Perhaps the thought and hope that someone in this entire village can be on our side and might be willing to raise a finger in our help was a tremendous thing to be hopeful about.
Also, I never thought Mukhtar to ever be of help to us. He never socialized with us and stayed far away from us like it was a life goal. I thought he just couldn’t stand us and he probably took us to be a bunch of lazy and poignantly westernized narcissistic brats. The girls are sinful body-exposing whores and the boys are pitiful morons.
I need no one to tell that to me, the icy stare he leaves us with those evenings he would find us lounging in the corridor wearing bum shorts tells the whole story. Now not even seemingly possessing a common enemy would make him think differently about us. The indecent and rotten fruits of western sinfulness.
In all these, my new confidence was in Alhaji, not that I was certain of what I expected from him but that I can trust whatever he chose to do. Whatever he chose to do with us. There was no doubting it, we were confused, everyone of us. All we needed was someone to tell us what to do to stay alive. All we wanted was someone or something to believe in.
“How can we know the way to his house?” Bassey asked and Bimpe did a big nod which I couldn’t tell what it meant.
“Mukhtar is coming back for her,” Idris responded.
NK at all times seem to be worried about the least thing imaginable. In this respect she’s like my aunt Bose who bothers more about who’d be responsible for cleaning her house when she eventually dies of cancer rather than who’d take care of her kids.
“My grandmother’s pendant is in that bag they took,” NK said gravely and she meant no joke.
“Are you kidding me?” Bassey chuckled forcibly.
“Your grandmother’s granddaughter is the life they plan to take,” Idris said.
At this point I sought to divert the talking point instantly, “Why would Mukhtar leave the weak behind instead?”
“I also think she should have been taken there first to attend to her broken leg,” Bimpe said to agree with me.
“Keeping her safe here while they moved the able bodied ones first might be wise,” Bassey said, “if they happen to be chassed on the way she’d be a big weight for them.”
“Did she say how she broke her leg?” NK asked Idris.
“One of the boys found her in her room when he was pouring diesel all over, then he hurled her through the window,” Idris answered hastily as if he feared someone might ask him to shut the hell up before he's done, “she probably landed badly.”
NK shook her head, “What a pity.”
The fire had self extinguished but it was mid day, so the sun was at its hottest and kept us sweltering constantly. The village was still quiet and the on-looking neighbors who hung around in swiftly receding hut shades had disappeared, perhaps to watch from the comfort of their huts.
We sat pensively waiting with Hamzat for Mukhtar to take us to Alhaji’s home. We’d finally agreed that all we needed from Bashir was not shelter but an assistance to get out of town safely.
Since the horror started this morning, some of us have been making and receiving phone calls from family members and loving friends, especially NK and Bimpe. These phone calls –the ones I cared to listen to- were simply a sorrowful back and forth pedaling of apprehension and fear, none of which resulted in any idea or assistance to help us get out of this hell.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have called someone if I had any air time on my phone. I would have called my Kay and most importantly my pastor. I needed to feel that pastor Rachel was praying for me. I needed to hear her tell me all will be well with all confidence. As a matter of fact, Bassey’s there’s God in all situation declaration sounded like her.
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