BY IFE WATSON
“The school is a cemetery. The cemetery is a school.” The words ring in my head as I approach the gate. The field where we played football is overgrown with tall elephant grasses. Here, we kicked the rubber ball every afternoon under the hot sun. Adamu used to play forward; he had long, nimble legs and when he started to run with the ball, no one could catch him. When he kicked the ball into the space between the bamboo goal post, he squealed in delight and touched two of his fingers to his lips and raised them to the sky shouting, “I’m the best wallahi tahlai!” On the days when we played on the same team, I jumped on his back and celebrated with him. It was his legs I’d seen first, sprawled on the sand.
That morning I’d woken up with a thousand ants clawing at my stomach. It was the aftermath of our nightly foray – a time when Adamu and I picked the locks of our seniors’ cupboards, mixing a concoction of biscuits, milk and Milo. In the morning, the seniors arranged all the juniors in rows, their heavy knocks on our heads driving the early morning fuzziness away. But the knocks never discouraged us. We loved to see the others suffer with us for an offence they knew nothing about. When the rumbling had rushed towards my anus, I’d grabbed a sheet of paper and hurried into the bushes across from the hostel. The latrine was often littered with shitty puddles amiss of the holes, so I preferred the bushes where fresh air fanned my buttocks. I almost didn’t make it as the faeces gushed forth, hot and loud just as I pulled my shorts down to my knees.
The next volley of shit came with a louder rumble and in its wake, a strange boom. Startled, I rose and peered from behind the bushes. Men in white kaftans and black bandanas tied round their heads and with big big guns in their hands had surrounded the hostel. “Arne, infidels!” Their death cries hung heavy in the air like stale fura-da-nunu. I crouched when some of the men moved towards the housemaster’s lodge. They dragged Mr Gideon out of his lodge and placed him against the wall. Then, the men moved some steps away, forming a perfect straight line and raised their guns to their shoulders. They didn’t stop shooting even when he’d fallen flat on his face. Then, I heard more shots. It was coming from inside the hostel. Many students stumbled out, some falling as they ran. I saw Senior Ibrahim running – he was coming towards the bushes. He was almost there when his head disappeared from his neck, leaving a red stump that looked like suya stuffed on sticks ready to be grilled. I sat in my shit. I stuck my fingers into my ears, willing the gunshots and screams to fade. I must have stayed that way for a long time because when I looked through the bushes again, they were gone.
Like yam tendrils on fresh mounds of soil, the corpses were planted everywhere. Adamu’s legs were hanging out of the doorway, the other half of his body inside the hostel. His legs had failed him this time.
The soldiers had arrived the next day. They shot into the air and searched the bushes. They sent the wild animals scurrying for safety but had no clue where the men with guns had gone. Two months ago, the principal had spoken to us on the assembly ground. “Boys, we’re in dangerous times. These bands of retrogrades, nincompoops and savage men have taken over.” He used big words we didn’t understand, especially when he got angry. “Only yesterday, the people of Danjibga were killed and their houses burnt. You all must be very careful. No more scaling the fences and running wild in the nearby villages at night,” he’d continued, pulling at his ear lobe for emphasis. We’d dispersed into our classes and Isa, the class dunce had held out his hands mimicking a rifle and aimed at us. “Kra ka kra ka, gboom!” He’d shouted and we’d all laughed.
Almost everybody knew someone who had been killed by the Ba Turanci. Ahmadu, the biggest trader in soft drinks and provisions in Karu and the surrounding three villages had met his death when he went to Kano to buy his stock. That was the message brought to Karu by another trader because Ahmadu’s body had never returned home. Ba Turanci says they are fighting against the government but they are killing the poor people. Is it because democracy is a government of the people by the people? That was the definition of democracy that Mr Micah, the social studies teacher, made my class to cram and repeat to him until our throats hurt.
Parents had begun to arrive before afternoon as the news of the attack had spread. Some of the students who lived nearby carried their bags on their heads and walked home. By evening, I was the only one left. Karu, my hometown is several kilometres away from Maraba. Father had sent me to the Government Boys’ Secondary School in Maraba because he wanted the best for me. The secondary school in Karu did not have enough teachers and the students sat on the floor, interlocking their knees as on a prayer mat. The principal had taken me to his house, a compound close to the school. “I will live in this kind of house one day, when I’m older and rich,” Adamu had said, when we had been sent with some other boys to cut the grass in the principal’s compound. I’d nodded, cutlass in hand, wiping the sweat on my neck with my shirt’s collar and turned to look at the house — a house with ceiling fans and water from the borehole running through the taps.
In the principal’s house, it was quiet and we talked in whispers. Maraba had closed her mouth since the coming of the Ba Turanci. When an iron plate clattered to the floor in the kitchen where Faith washed the dishes, we’d all started on our seats, exchanging fearful looks. Faith was now called Fatima because the Christians were scared. She wore a full jalamia and veil like the Muslim girls. Her kohl-lined eyes were round in her head as she entered the sitting room. She mumbled to herself.
“Moses…,” the principal called softly. He heaved a deep sigh and then corrected himself. “Musa, please get me my radio inside the room.” Moses moved slowly with his head sunken in his chest. Since the day of the shooting, we avoided each other’s eyes. I wondered if he felt guilty like I did. Why hadn’t we died like the other boys in our class?
“Na gode. Thank you,” the principal had said as he’d taken the radio from Moses and turned the dial.
The principal’s wife sat on the carpeted floor and stared ahead at nothing. Moses stood with his back to the wall, with a fixed gaze on the Ubangiji da kyau poster on the opposite wall, as if he were questioning the truth of God’s goodness. The radio station played a tune and the newscaster started with the announcement of the celebration of independence. “The federal government has produced ankara fabrics engraved with the coat of arms. All citizens are enjoined to visit their local government secretariats to purchase their material for just five thousand naira…”
The principal’s wife dragged her feet on the floor and hissed. “They are buying clothes to celebrate what? The deaths of our children?” The principal cracked his knuckles and sank deeper into the armchair. “A cow uses its tail to ward off only the flies disturbing its backside.” He sighed and increased the radio’s volume. The news ended with reports of the continued curfew in Karu, Kizara and other villages in the northeast. I rested my head in my palms. It was uncertain when I would go home and see my parents again. A week after the massacre, the principal had climbed the mango tree in the compound, with his phone clutched tightly to his ear shouting, “Hallo, hallo! Sannu!” but he’d heard nothing. He’d consoled me that they would come for me as soon as the roads were open again. I’d nodded numbly. The principal and his family treated me well. One morning, after the family prayers, the principal had stood on the veranda talking with Mr Abdulkareem, the English teacher.
“I don’t know why Muslims think God is honoured when they kill others,” the principal had said.
“Sir, that’s not exactly right. Muslims don’t believe in violence and terrorism. No true Muslim does. The Ba Turanci are misguided zealots.”
The principal linked his fingers together and swung his arms over his head. “Hmm, you’re right. They only use Islam as a cover. Is it not ridiculous, that they say they’re against western civilisation and education yet they use all those modern weapons?”
I’d felt a smile tugging at my lips and the corners of my mouth ached. I’d not smiled since the sound of my shit blended with the gunshots. Ba Turanci, no English — that’s what the Mai Ruwa, water-sellers who hawked water in jerry-cans wheeled in a cart during the dry season in Karu, said when I spoke to them in English to show off my knowledge.
Ubaa has come to take me home; he looks thin – thinner than I have ever seen him. The principal’s wife gives him water to drink and he gulps it down all at once. There is something different about his eyes; they are distant, like that of a herdsman squinting in the sun, determining the remaining hours of daytime. I slip out of the door as they talk. I wander into the school compound. I walk to the spot where my feet had been stuck, too stunned to move. It was the growl of the principal’s Peugeot 505 that had snapped me back to life. I’d started to run. I’d wanted to flee the carnage – to run home, to Karu into Uwaa’s arms and hide under her wrapper. But I’d run in circles, going round and round the corpses until the principal caught me and pulled me along to his car. Some of the teachers had arrived. The women clasped their hands on their chests, keening for the dead. Then, the men had begun to move the bodies.
I can hear them. They are calling me, “Ibieya, Ibieya…” Adamu’s mouth is smeared with Milo and milk. He bounces the ball and runs ahead. He stops and beckons to me. He looks sad when I don’t respond. As I take a step towards him, I hear a gruff voice shouting, “Hey! You! Wetin you dey do here! This place na out of bounds.” The soldier grips my shoulder and turns me around to face him. He has a large dark scar running across his nose to his right cheek, like the kalangu, the Fulani tribal mark. I shake his hand off my shoulder and try to move to the field where Adamu is waiting. “I want to play ball with my friend.”
“This boy dey craze?” He looks around, asking the empty classrooms and tall grasses. He grips my shorts at the waist and shoves me out of the compound.
When I return to the principal’s house, no one asks me where I’d been. They avoid my eyes, the way people do when they know something they are not telling you.
The principal and his wife and Faith and Moses stand outside as we prepare to leave. Ubaa revs his motorcycle and thanks the principal again. The principal’s wife prays for journey mercies for us, Faith’s lips trembles as she says goodbye and Moses averts his eyes. The smoke from the bike chokes me and my eyes tear up. I climb behind my father and look around for the last time. Moses’ eyes finally meet mine. He raises his hand and waves.
We avoid the main roads and take shortcuts until we can no longer follow the entangled paths. Ubaa says there are many soldiers on the roads. They are checking the vehicles and searching the passengers. We are close to Shemori, when we see some soldiers and a roadblock. There is a truck carrying cattle and the soldiers command the driver and his men to offload the truck. The men are reluctant and they argue with the soldiers. The soldiers pull the driver down and hit him with the butt of their guns. The driver’s mouth is bloodied and one of his eyes swollen when he rises to heed their command.
Suddenly, a man from a bus behind the truck takes off, flailing his hands above his head as he runs. The soldiers give chase, shouting, “Stop! Stop!” but the man does not listen. They raise their guns and shoot him. “Bismillah!” the man screams and falls in the undergrowth. The soldiers turn the body over and release the man’s fingers which still grip a wrapped package. We all wait, not breathing as they unwrap it. It’s a roasted cow leg. The people raise their voices in protest at the life wasted but a hush descends on the crowd when the soldiers walk back to the queue of vehicles and motorcycles. Ubaa spits and wipes his mouth with the back of his palm. He looks away from me. I feel dizzy and I steady myself against the bike.
“Wetin you carry?” The soldier asks, prodding the black cellophane tied to the bike’s tail. “It’s my farming cutlass,” Ubaa answers in a small voice.
“See this man, how I go know farm cutlass from killer cutlass?” The soldier examines the cutlass, turning the shining blade over and over. It catches the sunrays and glitters. He throws the cutlass into a pile of seized items by the roadside and waves us away. “You fit go now.” Ubaa looks at the cutlass and back at the soldier, he swallows saliva along with his unsaid words.
When we enter Karu, I inhale the scent of the flora and taste the dust on my lips. I look at the praying ground – a stretch of acacia trees in front of the village’s primary school. It was the perfect shade where I’d played with other children on the hot afternoons when our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths and we drank water until our bellies threatened to burst. As we pass through the village, the hairs on my arms stand at attention. I feel very strange. The people we meet on the road do not wave at us. Instead they stare and shake their heads. I feel Ubaa’s body stiffen in front of me and his shoulders are hunched.
Our house comes into view. The mud plastered walls and the corrugated iron roofing sheets stand out and shine in the midst of the abundant raffia huts. Turai is pounding millet in the mortar and humming a song to herself. She stops and wipes the sweat running down her face with the corner of her wrapper. When she sees me, she drops the pestle and runs toward me. But she halts before she reaches me. She keeps her arms to her sides and the laughter in her eyes dies like the flame of the fitilaa blown by the wind. She stares at her feet.
I turn to Ubaa who has parked the bike and leaned it against the wall. He understands the question in my eyes.
“Go and wash your feet and eat some tuwo,” he says in a tired voice.
“I’m not hungry. Where is Uwaa?”
Turai begins to wail. Ubaa tells her to be quiet. She takes my hand and leads me to the back of the house. She points at a mound of soil. I glance back at her again before I understand.
“Your mother went to the market to sell her millet. Some people escaped but many died.” Ubaa is standing behind us. “We were lucky. They didn’t burn our houses and only raided the market. In Kizara, they killed men and women and children. They even went into the farms.”
My mouth becomes bitter.
I sit in the shade of the acacia trees drinking cup after cup of kunu zafi. It’s a special day in Karu. The president is coming to visit all the villages that have been attacked by the Ba Turanci. Everyone has made an effort to look good — even the Almajiri children do not look so brown with dust. He arrives in a helicopter and the noise scares the people. They scatter in different directions in panic. I’m not scared because I have seen a helicopter before; in one of the films shown on social nights in school. The president sits on the big chair that was brought from the village head’s house and the men in dark suits surround him. After the scared villagers have been convinced that there is no danger, they return beneath the trees but are still wary. The president stands and speaks into a gramophone. “People of Karu, I have come here today to offer my sincere condolences for the killings and destruction that have been going on. I can feel your sorrow…” He pauses and wipes tears from his eyes. “I promise that the government will do all we can until we stop the Ba Turanci. For the families who have lost someone, you will all receive compensation.” When the translator interprets the promise of money and the people are quiet, he repeats himself to make sure we understand. Yet, except for the continuous buzz of the flies, there is no joyous response from the crowd. After his speech, the people are arranged into lines by the men in suits and the president passes through the ranks, shaking hands. I stand behind a tree and watch. I don’t want to shake the president’s hand – a hand that has not felt the damp soil on the grave of a loved one slaughtered by the Ba Turanci.
We look into the sky and watch the helicopter leave with the president. One by one, we all leave the shade. We walk side by side to our houses but everyone is silent.
In the night when the cool winds have replaced the still hot air of the afternoon, Ubaa’s radio, with its red indicator blinking, tells us the news. The president has created twenty-five new committees to look into the problem of the Ba Turanci.