When the first stone strikes below the bleeding wound on her leg, Halima will not scream or curse or bend down to examine how worse it has gotten. Instead, she will follow the sounds of clapping and see the children playing between two makeshift tents of polythene and rice bags held up with sticks and be reminded of Fatima, her daughter. Fatima who snuck out to play on the day her father died. She would wonder how it is possible that children can find a way to be happy momentarily amidst the sorrow and horror raging on all sides and then she would shake her head thinking, Allah knows best.
She will become aware of the sun’s scorching glares and the way sweat streams down her face like tears and she would wipe it with an edge of her sooty hijab, leaving charcoal stripes on her fair face like tribal marks. She will look up to see a rubber cup hurtle towards her and two boys who break out of a circle to retrieve it, but when she picks it and extends her hand, a shout would ring from a woman carrying a bowl of something hot and the boys will move backwards, away from her and their cup. She would look at the woman whose hijab has been torn in the scuffle for what she bears in her bowl and the animosity in the approaching eyes would cause her to throw the cup farther away from her where the boys can reach to reclaim it. She will look down at her bruised knuckles trembling in her laps and think, Hajia Salatu already looks so thin. She would hear the woman hiss and walk past without a greeting and she would know that no one is willing to forgive or forget.
She would sigh, knowing that she cannot even forgive herself or forget. She will sit there in her isolated corner of Kirindada camp – an area which now houses uprooted people but had been plotted to build a maternity hospital so fewer women would lose their unborn babies like she had done, thrice – and wallow in her grief. She will feel it rise like a tide inside her, swelling till it threatens to erupt in a wail but she will clamp her lips tightly, knowing that she has no right to grieve with the others. She would choke on sobs, her grief moulded into balls she swallows like tuwo shinkafa. She will wonder why tears can still flow from her eyes when all she’s done in the last nine months is… cry.
First, Adamu, her husband had died in a traffic accident but then there were two co-wives with whom she shared that loss and they had mourned together, dividing the grief amongst themselves and moving on. Then the second came, her daughter had gone to school and never returned, no one could say what happened to her and seven other children that had disappeared with her. The grieving mothers formed a group and almost everyone grieved with them, offering consolation, forming support groups that accompanied them to the police post daily for report. Slowly, the group disintegrated and everyone forgot to grieve and focused instead on keeping their remaining kids safe. She had no one else, so she sat in the room she shared with her daughter and cried her heart out, praying that Allah would keep her safe. She will sigh loudly and beat her hand against her chest where it hurts the most and ask, Allah, why me?
A scuffle will erupt in the broken queue where people are waiting, with a bowl in hand for food that a man is dishing out from the coolers in front of him. The man would shout and bang his spoon against the table but no one would pay him mind as blows being exchanged between two people – a man and woman – morphs into a free for all fight. Clothes will tear and expose body parts, blows would land and fingers and teeth will scratch and bite and children will shriek in excitement, trading mock blows unlike the adults. Then a boy will approach the man sharing the food – plate extended – demanding his portion because he has not been able to eat since he joined the camp yesterday morning but the food man will look at him and tell him that the food will not be shared till order is restored. He will spread his well-fed mass on top of the closed coolers of food and wait for when hunger returns order to the senseless people he has been sent by an NGO to feed and he would chuckle, thinking, una still get strength to fight.
Crazed with hunger and anger and sorrow, the boy will shove the man off the coolers and open one filled with rice which he will scoop out with his bowl and even into the shirt now held out to form a cottony plate. By now, someone else will see this happening and raise an alarm and everyone will forget what the fight is about as they rush towards the coolers emptying it in a matter of minutes. Most of it will end up on the ground and empty stomachs will disperse and disappear into different crannies of the camp. Halima will look on from her spot and swallow spittle when her stomach grumbles, reminding her that the last meal she ate was boiled yam three days ago.
Three days ago when her world came to a stop with a blast. She will scratch absently at her wound and the pain will cause her to wince and remember how she got it. She was in her shop bargaining with a customer who wanted to purchase a gourd when Bilkisu, a son of her co-wife ran into her shop to tell her that Fatima was dropped off at the market’s centre by a man on a motorcycle. She had run out, screaming her thanksgiving as she raced towards the centre, joined by others who wanted to see firsthand the return of someone feared dead for months. She was still running when the ground crumbled under her feet. She will remember running and running, thoughts in a whirl, fearing that she’s found her daughter and lost her, again. She will remember following the fleeing throng, racing away from the collapsing buildings, the bloodied bodies flung by the impact. She will remember falling beside a decapitated head and screaming as she ran away from the horror. As the thoughts roam in her mind, one will float upwards, seeking importance and she would open her eyes and think, it is better not to close my eyes.
Her lids will droop heavily and her body will be overcome with a tremor that starts on the inside because she has neither slept nor eaten since she ran out to meet her daughter. So she will make up her mind to reach the place where people had queued up earlier, for food. Looking out, she will see a woman lead a girl outside and spread open a small polythene bag for the girl to defecate in. Halima would turn her face away as the first sounds erupt from the frail body and she would fight the temptation to fan her face with her palm. She will stand shakily on her feet, making sure not to drop her weight on the wounded leg and slap her buttocks to get her blood flowing, thinking, I have sat down for too long. She will limp past the woman who would hiss and mutter something loud enough to ensure Halima hears it. She will hear it but pretend not to, as she limps towards the empty cooler each step causing her stomach to rumble and roar in hope. Bending over the overturned coolers, she would swat away flies to pick the grains that were overlooked and place them almost daintily in her parched mouth. Engrossed in her task, she will not hear the murmurs.
The murmurs would grow, enlarge into a whirlwind that rattles the tarpaulin tents and rouses the occupants into action. They would pour out of their crevices like ants and egged on by their losses and grief, they would approach the lone woman on all sides, hurling accusations. Halima will look up then, alarm spreading across her fine face, one that had been the envy of most of the women she had known but she will realize deep down that she knew this moment would come.
A moment when a mother would pay for her daughter’s – crime?
She would lick the oil off her fingers and arrange her torn hijab properly so the men approaching would not see her hair and remember wandering through the stunned crowd of survivors – when they had left the smoky destruction behind – searching for her daughter. She would remember the freshness of loss as she ran around asking friends if they had seen her daughter till someone snapped and asked her to shut up because Fatima was the bomb. She imagined then as she does now, what her daughter must have gone through before the end. She would imagine the worst her mind can conjure because she knows now that for the past four months, Fatima was held by beasts, not men; soulless people who strapped a bomb to a child that would have turned ten yesterday. And it is then the tears will start to flow. They would come rapidly, choking her, shaking her.
The crowd would advance with curses in their mouths and stones in their hands, desperate to vent on the mother. Blinded by their angry grief, they will not know that she suffers too. A stone weighted by loss will hurtle through the air and land on her chest and others would follow. A communal release of pain from people who know now that the stories of their lives have been rewritten.
Halima would crouch beside the empty coolers, hands raised as shield, knowing that there is no escape from a people maddened. Hurting, bleeding, crying… she will sink to her knees and await judgement.
About the Author:
Sibbyl Whyte is a Nigerian writer who is subject to the whims of her headstrong chi. Bits of her imagination have appeared on Gypsiana – her laptop, Facebook, Naijastories, The Clip Magazine, The Kalahari Review, AfricanWriter and in anthologies of fiction and poetry which she can mention if you ask.
She is currently at work on the untold stories in her head.