You used to be a quiet catholic boy. You used to attend Mass everyday to your father’s disgust. My son, can you remember when you used to be an alter-boy as a kid? Do you remember Father Amos, the priest who had baptised you as a baby and later became your best friend before his return to England? I, your mother, had wanted you to become a priest while your father insisted you became a historian. You finished secondary school and chose your father’s idea. And you decided you were going to study at the University of Jos.
‘You don’t have to go that far. The way the Muslims over there kill Christians has been alarming.’ I still remembered my warnings.
‘A lot of Christians from our city, Benin, have gone all the way there to school and have come back alive as graduates,’ you had defended your decision.
‘Let the boy decide for himself.’ Your father had added in your defence.
I was disappointed and depressed about the decision. I saw no reason why you should go up north when we had the University of Benin not far from where we lived. Throughout the period you waited to gain that admission, you did what I desired for you. You joined the ‘Via Christo’, remember? The group of youths in training by priests..? Most of the friends you made during your period under the ‘Via Christo’ have become priests today.
During the period you waited for the admission, the national news kept warning against a reawakening of religious crises in Jos. You and your father kept insisting it was Jos. My silence became only a painkiller to my fears.
‘Mother, people have died, no doubt, but I have not heard about a single death of a university student.’ You always failed to suppress my fear.
‘The government has massive security within all campuses up north despite their lousy and lazy ways of tackling the conflicts,’ your father had again added.
The time came for you to leave for Jos, and you left. I never prayed for anything bad to happen in Jos during your period there, but my heart wouldn’t stop living in the bondage of fear. You hardly came home during the holidays. One of the few holidays in which we had your presence, I remember you saying, ‘Northern Muslims are not as bad as we paint them over here in the south.’
Your behaviour of not coming home during most of the holidays got me so worried that I had to tell your eldest sister in Lagos. She and her husband were expecting a baby then, and so her concerns were on the low side. Your immediate elder sister in England would not ask after you whenever she called. I took it upon her one day, and she said she believed you were safe. Your younger sister in America was the only one who called frequently demanding to know if you were safe.
Throughout your safe days in Jos, four religious crises occurred. In as much as you used to tell us you were safe, my heart was on massive fire. On television, your father and I saw dead bodies littering the streets of Jos. We also saw burning churches and nightclubs. We never heard from you again after the fourth crisis you had experienced begun. Your phone never rang again. We heard our state government had sent three buses with military escorts to bring back all indigenous Edo students schooling in Jos. When the buses came back, parents began wailing in joy on seeing their children alive while your father and I were speechless. You were not among them.
One of the female students who came back safely had a story about you. She said you were in a taxi that met a roadblock of Muslim youths. You had been the only Christian to have boarded the taxi. She said they pulled you out and rained machetes over your skull. She claimed you survived it though. I would cry all night and most hours of the day, for weeks.
Your eldest sister had to come home to help out. She had already put to bed and had to leave her baby with her husband and a babysitter in Lagos. She had to do all I couldn’t do anymore. She was the one cooking for your father, and doing the washings demanded. I couldn’t eat for days.
When Jos was declared a state of emergency and tailoring soldiers clouded the city like never before, your father had to embark on a search for you. Your father came back to Benin after two months with a story and not you. Your father said he met a young Muslim male who was your friend. Your Muslim friend claimed you provoked a mob of Muslim youths stationed at a road block during that fourth religious crisis that got you drowned. Your Muslim friend claimed you were chased all the way from Gada-Bui to Wada-ta. Your Muslim friend said he intervened by trying to convince your pursuers that you were not a Christian which led to something else. Your Muslim friend claimed he was being accused of being a traitor for lying and so, he had to run for his own life. Your Muslim friend said you never understood what a religious conflict was. He said you had a clean heart. He said you were not like the other Christian students who stayed away from the Muslim students. Your Muslim friend was sure you were alive.
The news your father brought home made me a little stronger. I began eating normally, and began doing some chores along with your eldest sister. My strength hadn’t come back fully when one of our neighbours brought in news that a mass burial would take place in Jos the next day. This neighbour convinced me to make the trip and face the worst if I needed to. Your father was against this but I had to make a night journey to Jos in company of your eldest sister.
In Jos, before your eldest sister and I traced the location of the burial ground, we met a young lady who claimed to be a student of the University of Jos. She also claimed knowing you. She was convinced you had died. She said she saw your body among the dead. She wasn’t blunt about it. She was an expert in delivering ill news in a way that the heart wasn’t at once blown to pieces. This female student followed us to the burial ground and pointed out the body she thought was yours. The corpse had nothing in resemblance to your looks. We went ahead searching through decomposing bodies, some clouded by flies. Our noses had developed thick resistance by the time our search was over. There was none among the dead that had your features.
Your eldest sister said I was taken back to Benin unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I was alarmed there was a full house. Your immediate elder sister was back home from England. Your younger sister and her husband were back home from America. I initially thought the search for you would thicken. But the call was to embrace your loss. The words of your father during the family meeting had echoed in my head for a long time.
‘We just have to accept loss and stop living in lies. Countless mass burials have occurred up north. My son’s body might have been so unfortunate not to have been identified.’
I had looked into your eldest sister’s eyes expecting her rejection against your father’s words. Instead she had said, ‘Mother, father is saying the truth. Let us bear the loss. Let us allow the Virgin Mary to console us.’
I learnt I had collapsed again. This time I had regained consciousness in the hospital. After months, your sisters left one after the other. Your younger sister was the last to leave. Her husband had left long before any of your sisters began leaving. I struggled to look healthier and forced my lips not to talk about you again. It was barely six months after your younger sister left that your father started complaining of waist pains. It grew worse day after day until I had to take him to the hospital. Your father’s days in the hospital were made up of tragic and complicated short tales. His medical reports confirmed a heart complication. Scans showed the edges of his heart melting due to an acrid presence of an unidentified substance. He would complain of pains in his scapulars at times. At other times, he would complain of pains in his groin. During the second week of your father’s infirmary cuddling, his joints weakened and death called.
My depression was deep but obscure. Your loss had groomed me. All my sons-in-law took responsibilities over the burial of your father. My daughters were strong bearing the loss. On your father’s funeral, his body was dressed in his favourite caftan before being laid in a coffin. It was then my tears rained over his body. I held his fingers and cried, ‘my dear husband, I know the disappearance of our son was a deep pain you had inside you. I had let my pains pour out through tears. And you had let yours soak deep into your heart. My husband, you are capable of telling me now, whether our son is still alive or not. Please give me a sign if he is still alive.’
Your father was buried behind the house we lived. After the first month of his death, I visited his grave, cried, and reminded him of my request. No sign yielded until after three months. An early morning bang against the door by one of the neighbours prompted my early morning travel to Jos. The neighbour had said a food seller in Jos claimed she knew where you were.
In Jos, the food seller I met said you used to be her customer before your disappearance. She directed me to another food seller, not in Jos, but here in Maiduguri. I had to learn how to wear a hijab before embarking on the journey as I was advised by the food seller in Jos.
Maiduguri was dustier than I ever anticipated. The loud call for Islamic prayers was the loudest I had ever heard. It shook the park where the bus I boarded had stopped. It wasn’t hard finding Mama Ya’s place. She was closing when I reached her restaurant.
‘Ba tuwo… ba chinkapa…’ She wasn’t friendly.
I couldn’t understand Hausa, but my instincts told me she was saying there was no more food. My reply in English calmed her a little. I had told her I was directed to her by a food seller in Jos. She made me seat on the mat in her restaurant. I was surprised to see a restaurant that had no tables and no chairs. Just mats spread in different corners inside the building. Mama Ya told me it was the culture, here. She also told me she was an Igbo, which shocked me. Her hijab was like the one I saw Afghan Muslim women wear on television. She said her disguise was for business purpose. She said she had to do it for security purpose too.
She said she had a son back in the South-East whose name was Yagazie. That was how the name ‘Mama Ya’ originated, but down here, people were led to believe she had a son somewhere called Yakubu.
‘So you are the boy’s mother?’ That was how she started her story about you. ‘He is alive, but dead to your world.’
She said you now wore caftans all the time like one of ‘them’. She said you also kept long beards like the really devoted Muslims. She said you were not just an ordinary Muslim now, but one who was a leader of a sect responsible for the burning of churches here in Maiduguri. She told me how you came to her restaurant always, in company of other long bearded men in caftans.
Ordinary Muslims in Maiduguri used to accuse your sect of reading the Koran upside down, Mama Ya had said. She told me to flee for my life and not think of approaching you. She told me you would kill me if I dare. As I talk to you, she has fled away from Maiduguri for fear. My son, I am ready to face whatever you are capable of doing to me. If you would kill me for bringing you into this world, do it. If you would kill me for being a Christian, do it. If you would kill me for finding you, do it. At least I know you are alive.