The Bitter Road from her Kwauye
They had visitors that day. If you lived there, you would know without being told which days visitors were being expected. Their few hostels were cleaner than usual, the makeshift classrooms too and everyone made sure to look clean. It was not all for the purpose of keeping up appearances, the officials there were doing the best they could with what was being provided or donated, well, except for the few she did not like and for good reasons too.
Many of the officials had taken a liking to her; they thought she was smart and very helpful for her age. She was a quick learner who had started understanding English from the lessons they were taught few weeks after their arrival. She wasn’t adept at it, so for the purpose of this occasion, Mrs Yakubu stood next to her as a translator. She had been chosen to speak to the small group of visitors. Not that she had much to say but she was expected to answer as many questions as she could.
Someone currently pushed a microphone in front of her, close to her mouth, directing a question at her. Mrs Yakubu translated, "They want to know how you came to be here."
How could she ever forget?
How It All Began...
Since arriving here about five months ago, she had not answered this question every time she was asked. Her voice always failed her but not this time. She needed to answer the question more than the person asking it needed the answer. Her mind revisited the events of that day as she began to speak. All eyes were focused on her as Mrs Yakubu translated.
The big tree in front of their hut provided shade for Fatima and her friends -
_ Hauwa_ and Zainab each time they played.
It was a late afternoon but the sun was still high in the sky, one would wonder if it did not know it should be getting ready to set. The girls did not mind at all. It was mango season, so asides playing their favourite game of suwe, they were also hoping a slight wind would bring down ripe mango fruits for them. Soon, it would be time to go help their respective mothers prepare dinner, as such they were making the most of the little time they had to play.
“Iskan zai zo”, The wind will soon come, Hauwa said in their native Hausa language. She seemed more interested in waiting for mangoes than in the game. You could not blame her much: too many failed attempts to win often made some people lose interest in a game. Fatima was the unrivalled champion at suwe as Hauwa was at their race games. Even now, Fatima was well on her way to yet another victory.
Suwe was an easy game. They would begin by drawing a large rectangle in the sand and then divide it into about six to ten smaller boxes ensuring an equal number on both sides. A cashew seed or small stone is used as a dice which each player would take turns in throwing into the boxes, one box at a time, starting from the first to the last.
A player at her turn would hop on one leg from box to box making sure not to step on the demarcating lines as this would mean she had lost that round and would have to wait for her opponent to have a go at it before she could take another turn.
However, if she succeeded in hopping through all boxes, without falling or smudging the lines, she would at the end, turn her back to the big rectangle and throw the dice over her head onto it. Whichever box the dice landed became the player’s house which she was free to decorate as she liked by drawing patterns inside it.
Subsequently, other players will fail if without her permission, they stepped into her house (s) while hopping round the remaining boxes. This is what makes the game slightly challenging.
Fatima had won three houses already and Zainab whose turn it was, looked beseechingly at her.
She knew Zainab needed to step in her house in order to reach for the dice two boxes away standing on one leg. She gave her a wink as she shook her head in refusal. Being champion meant she could not afford to always be nice. Zainab reached for the dice but stepped on a line in the process. She had failed. To show her disappointment, she hissed loudly.
“Hauwa, it is your turn”, she declared coming to sit beside Fatima. They were sitting on not-so-comfortable large stones. Fatima looked to her left. There was their metal tank. That was another place they loved to play. It once must have been used to save water but that must have been long ago. In all of her ten years, Fatima had never seen water in it. Rather, someone had carved a sizeable hole in it; she did not know the purpose it served. They loved to stay inside and watch people pass by through a number of tiny holes in its front.
The sun seemed to have remembered its time plan as it moved slowly to the west. Mama, Fatima’s mother, was in front of their little hut. She was getting ready to prepare dinner. Faisal, her younger brother was strapped to mama’s back.
Fatima often wondered at the age gap between them. Their neighbor, Ummi had once told her that Mama had had some trouble bearing more children after her, so Faisal was a big blessing from Allah. Papa, unlike most of his friends, had not wanted a second wife, so they had waited in good faith.
Ummi was in front of their own hut too as were a few others when Fatima looked around. It was a small closely knit community, so they knew each other by names and reputation. Ummi owned the only saloon in the village, a hut with two benches and a mirror. It served the few who visited it. Most of the women wove their hair themselves or had plaiting partners in their friends or co-wives. Ummi’s marriage to Abdullahi was a few days away. Fatima certainly looked forward to the amount of delicious food she would eat on that day.
Zainab shook Fatima to notify her it was her turn. As she stood to go play, the long awaited wind showed up. Focused, they watched ardently to see in which direction a fruit would drop. The fastest racer would no doubt get the fruit. Just then, Mama called for Fatima.
Then It Started...
"Fatima," she shouted from a short distance.
It was time to prepare dinner. Mama hated to serve dinner late. She had just started towards mama when a strange noise stopped her in her tracks. The noise came from two pickup trucks pulling into the village square. Each one had about six men on it. She disliked them at first sight.
They all wore black outfits and had masks covering their faces. They stopped before they reached Fatima’s hut and three men came down from each truck. She thought they must have covered their faces to prevent the dust that rose while their trucks sped but looking around from where she stood, it became clear to her they had brought fear with them.
The loud revving of their engines had brought a few others out who now stood in from of their respective huts. They all managed to look frightened and mute at the same time. No one moved. They must be waiting to see what the men had come for; she thought. Fatima looked towards her mother. Mama was standing just like the others, her cooking task forgotten, with the only difference being that she was subtly waving her hand at Fatima. It looked like she wanted her to go back.
Fatima chose to follow her instinct and moved slowly back to the tree shade. Hauwa and Zainab must have left when mama called for her or within the time she had stood watching. Obeying her instinct again, she moved behind the tree such that she was hidden from view but could see the six men on foot speaking to people. One obstructed her view of Mama as he stood talking to her. As though on cue, the men went back to the trucks. They must be leaving, she thought coming out from behind the tree.
The End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End
Suddenly, an explosive noise stopped her. All hell broke loose as people ran in every direction for cover. Some ran into their huts but many were caught by the bullets from the sporadic shooting that ensued. Mama no longer stood where she had a moment ago.
Recovering from the shock and coming to her senses, Fatima too ran for cover. This time, she did not go behind the tree but into their play tank. She lay flat on her back inside it and sent a prayer up to Allah. He must have heard her because the shooting stopped.
Fatima knelt to peep through the holes in the tank. Only the drivers of each truck remained in it. The other men were going into the huts. They dragged out whoever they found there. Screams and wails rent the air. She saw one of the men drag Ummi out by her hair. Jubril, the basket weaver was also brought out of his hut. Her heart beat fast with fear for Mama. Where had she gone? One of the men currently went into their hut and as she feared, dragged out a screaming Mama with Faisal still strapped to her back.
Fatima saw mama look towards the tree as she landed harshly on the ground. Mama must be searching for her. She wanted to go to her, to kneel by her side and cry with her but something seemed to hold her back. She realized then tears were running down her face. They felt hot and poisonous.
The man who had brought mama out pulled Faisal from her back forcefully. He dropped him to the hard floor. It must have hurt because Faisal let out a yelp. He was crying too. Her heart wrung tight in her flat chest. She massaged it with her fingers to ease the pain.
Papa! Fatima had forgotten all about him until now. What had become of him? He had gone to see Mallam Shehu after returning from the market in the next village. He went there every Wednesday to sell beans he bought each time he went to the big town. She prayed for his safety.
The men gathered everyone they had brought out together. Fatima could not see everyone from her hideout. Those she saw were crying loudly in their kneeling positions. Some had their hands together as though in prayer. Perhaps they were begging the men to spare their lives. She couldn’t tell which the case was.
The men stood in their midst, backing each other such that they faced the villagers in every direction. They spoke to the people but she could not hear what was being said. She had a bad feeling. Fatima did not want to watch what she knew was to come but could not seem to take her eyes off them. Another round of sporadic shooting signalled the inevitable. They never got to see the bullets, only heard the shots. When it ceased, there was no more cries, only silence.
All who had been kneeling now lay on their backs, their prayers unanswered, their begging disregarded and their fears ended. She could not see mama anymore as the men obstructed her view but the pain in her heart told Fatima a truth she did not want to hear. She collapsed to the cool floor of the tank as her silent tears shook her small body.
Fatima lay that way for a while. She had seen enough. She could not take anymore. Someone was shouting in a commanding tone. Fatima knew whatever orders he was issuing could not be good. Her tired legs rose of their own volition. Again she knelt and peeped.
There were some bags and other items where the men had stood. They must have gathered the few valuables they could find, it couldn’t be much for theirs was a poor village. Only one man stood there now. In the midst of dead bodies, he stood unfazed. Where had the others gone? She wondered.
It was dusk now. Darkness was falling fast. Someone had lit a fire. Not one fire, there was fire everywhere. They were burning their houses! Had they not done enough? Had they not wrecked enough havoc?
Fatima saw a small figure in flames run out screaming from Hauwa’s hut. The voice screaming sounded like her friend’s. She prayed fervently to be wrong. A new bout of tears made her eyes blurry. She wiped them with the back of her palm. It came off with some mucus. Her nose was runny. The figure threw itself to the ground, rolling back and forth as it screamed. Soon, the voice went silent and the figure went still. Fatima heard laughter.
The truck engines started up. The men were leaving. From the light of the fire, she could see most of them had removed their masks. Still, she could not make out their faces. They loaded their trucks with their loot and climbed in. They drove away into the night and were soon swallowed by darkness. Dead silence was all they left behind. The fire gave the dead night some sort of glowing beauty.
She crept out of the tank and her feet led her to the bodies. Mama lay askew, so did Faisal. It seemed to Fatima that her tear well had dried up. Faisal’s head lay on Mama’s chest. Thinking of mama’s comfort, she bent to lift Faisal from her. Mama’s wrapper was soaked. Her hands were wet, sticky and red with blood. She did not know if the blood belonged to Mama or Faisal. Papa came to mind.
She started to run in the direction of Mallam Shehu’s hut but stopped when she remembered there was no hut anymore. Where could Papa be? Was there a chance he had survived? She turned in the direction of the burnt figure. She needed to know if that had been Hauwa. On reaching it, she was disappointed. It was blackened beyond recognition. Just ashes.
Her lips felt parched. She was thirsty but she could not drink. Her body hurt. She felt helpless. What could she do now?
The fire that had kept the area lit was dying, sending smoke up towards the sky. Wata, the moon had come out to play. Usually, at this time, papa and mama including the neighbours would sit in front of their huts to take fresh air while the kids played around. There would be no more haske wata(moonlight) plays.
Fatima walked back to the tank but did not go inside. She sat on the bare floor leaning against it, hunched into a ball. A part of her felt sad that she had not been inside the hut when the men came. Another part felt guilty that she had hidden herself away from the same fate as her family, friends and neighbours. She wanted to be where they were. She felt lonely. The quiet scared her. The bodies lying around her gave her shivers or was it the night breeze? She hugged herself more tightly. Perhaps the men would come back, if they did, she did not want to be in hiding this time.
Fatima awoke lying in a fetal position. She must have fallen asleep at some point because she opened her eyes to the bright light of a new day. She hoped that it had all been a dream but a cautious glance sideways quickly erased her doubts. It had all been real. Someone had laid the bodies side by side in a straight line and covered them. She sat up briskly.
Had the men come back? How had they missed her? She heard voices to her left. She was not alone. Without a second thought, she stood up and began walking towards the voices. What was the worst that could happen?
The voices belonged to a group of about ten people. They stopped talking as Fatima approached them. They did not have masks on neither were they dressed in all black ensemble. An elderly woman broke away from the group and came towards her. Fatima did not run away. She felt ready. She was ready. The woman threw her hands around Fatima on reaching her. She was dirty and stunk really bad but the woman did not seem to mind.
Fatima did not return her embrace. She felt numb. The others now surrounded them. They seemed to all be speaking at once. She could hear their voices but made no sense of their words. She did not speak, not even when she was spoken to directly. Neither did she cry. She did not protest when she was gently put in a car and driven away from her kwauye (village), the only home she had ever known. She was the only survivor they could find.
The faces focused on Fatima were rapt with attention. She looked in their eyes and saw the pity they felt towards her. She did not want their pity. She did not need it. She survived. What she needed was the continual survival of them who lived there, survivors of similar circumstances.
Only One Thing to be Done...
Mrs. Yakubu asked if Fatima had anything else to say. She nodded in affirmation. This time, she spoke in English. She had learnt these words particularly in preparation for this moment. Looking them squarely in their faces, her voice rang clearly across the room as she spoke.
“Food is never enough. We get sick too often. We need more. We need help. Thank you.”
Fatima stepped down from the small stage and as she walked out of the room, she felt eyes boring a hole into her back. She did not stop or look back until she got to the dingy space that was her room. It was a hall she shared with other residents. Fatima lay down and for the first time since leaving her kwauye, she wept bitterly.
A fiction written by @royalrose