They scowled at her.
It was then she recognized their faces. Both were local hunters- probably on morning patrol following rumours of a possible ‘Boko Haram’ attack on the village. In her state, Amina was too terrified to greet. Neither party exchanged pleasantries. From their expressions however, it was clear they disapproved of her presence on the road that morning. Her presence was a distraction. They would rather preoccupy their minds with genuine threats and not little girls in school uniform. They would rather she ran back home to her parents and stayed there but did not voice it. As they passed her on either side, they reeked of a foul scent.
Amina breathed a sigh of relief and quickened her pace. She needed to get to Bilkisu’s house quickly. She couldn’t do this alone anymore. She had almost died of fright a few minutes ago.
On reaching her classmate’s house, she noticed that it looked empty. Nobody responded to her ‘salaam aleikums’ or ‘ina kwanas’. There was no sign of life. Time was also not on her side as the exam was scheduled to commence in a few minutes’ time so she peered into their zaure in search of life. The house looked abandoned. The occupants had clearly relocated elsewhere in a hurry as they had left items all over the place. She made out broken earthenware pots and an old pestle in the compound.
“Bilkisu!” she called out in a hushed tone.
Nobody answered. The realization that she would have to continue her journey to school all alone hit Amina like a bolt of lightning. She held the mud wall of the house to steady herself for moment. What had happened to her friend?
This was too much.
“Hello, girl. Can you get help for me?”
Shocked, Amina turned to where the voice had come from within the compound. Lying on the ground with his back against the wall, was a wounded Nigerian soldier. He did not look like he was from these parts. A fair-skinned, handsome young man but bleeding profusely from his left arm. He was clutching the area beneath his left shoulder to exert pressure and stop the bleeding but it didn’t seem to be working.
“Help me abeg! Don’t just stand there.” He winced in pain.
Amina snapped out of her shock immediately and rushed towards the soldier. His brown camouflage was stained with blood and his eyes were a pale white. How can I stop him from losing blood quickly? Amina had learnt some First Aid in school last term and she knew what to do. Only if she could find a piece of cloth! She searched the empty house but found nothing. In desperation, she pulled off her hijab and deftly used it as a tourniquet.
The soldier watched her in gratitude and admiration. He was grateful that his first responder knew what to do under these circumstances.
“Thank you,” he whispered feebly. “My name is Corporal Okafor. My platoon was attacked by Boko Haram…I managed to escape… ran through the night…Don’t know how many who…”
“Please, sir,” Amina said gently. “Conserve your strength.”
She looked at him again for a while then scanned all around him. It was then she noticed his damaged rifle at the far end of the compound. He had probably flung it aside in frustration or something. She stared at him again as he groaned. He was too heavy for her to move alone. She had to go back for help. But her paper would start anytime soon! What was she to do?
She did the first thing that came to her mind. Amina picked a plastic bowl from the ground and filled it with water from one of the clay pots in the yard.
He drank feebly.
“Don’t worry, sir,” she assured him. “I will get help for you.”
“Thank you, my sister.”
Amina dashed out for help. She would have to miss her 8.30am exam. This soldier needed urgent attention. Suddenly, she felt rather conscious of her plaited hair as she ran. School uniform, uncovered hair, helping a Nigerian soldier- her transgressions under ‘Boko Haram’ tenets were growing by the minute. But she spared little thought on the matter. After all, there was nobody about to see her. Or so she hoped.
She ran to the neighbouring house and banged on the door desperately. Nobody answered. She went to several houses along the way but got no response. The families had either moved away or were cowering in fear of the Black Flag. They might even think she was a spy for the terrorists. No way would they open. After some deep contemplation along the road, Amina steeled herself and ran back to Bilkisu’s house.
“Come, sir. Try and stand. I will help you!” she said with urgency. “We have to leave here and go to the school. There is nobody here to assist you and my house is too far.”
Using his rifle and Amina for support, the soldier struggled to his feet. He would have been about six-foot tall if he could stand erect. Slowly, they made their way out of the house and down the dusty road towards the school. At their laboured pace, it would take them at least an hour to get there but Amina no longer cared about the exam- at least not right now. She would think about it later.
The journey was tedious, with brief stops along the way for both of them to catch their breath. On one of those occasions, the exhausted soldier asked, “Were you going to school?”
“Yes, sir. I am writing my WAEC.”
Chukwudi winced an apology which Amina quickly acknowledged. “You’re a brave girl,” he said as he lay on the grass. “May you pass with flying colours.”
There was silence for a while as Amina realised that she had missed her paper. It must have started about half an hour ago. A paper she was almost certain she would have gotten a straight A in. Health Science was one of her favourite subjects. But somehow Amina felt she had made the right choice here and that her father would have been proud- if not more afraid for her safety. Everything happens for a reason, she had been taught. Most important thing now was to get assistance for Mr. Okafor and get out of harm’s way.
Suddenly, they heard the noise of a vehicle coming in their direction. It sounded like a truck.
“Quick!” the corporal gasped. “Let’s hide! It’s them! They are coming!”
Chukwudi put his strong arm over Amina’s shoulder and staggered to his feet with a groan. She almost stumbled from his weight but steadied herself. If she fell now that would be the death of them. Amina clenched her teeth with determination and pushed forward towards the bushes. They barely made it to the nearest thicket before the truck came into view, jostling over the pot-holes. The soldier fell to the ground and gripped his damaged rifle tightly. He raised a finger to his lips for Amina to remain still.
It was a white pick-up truck with an inscription on the sides. Amina could not make out the words in the distance so she waited for the truck to draw closer. There were only two men in the truck and a mobile police officer at the back with his gun at the ready.
Amina tried reading the truck’s inscriptions again.
“West… African… Examinations… Council”
Without sparing another thought, Amina dashed out in front of the truck, ignoring the soldier’s protest, and waved her hands frantically in the air. Corporal Okafor shouted at her to get back but it was too late. The truck had screeched to a halt. The police officer pointed his gun at Amina through an open window and barked at her to get off the road. It was all happening too fast.
“Amina!” the soldier shouted. “What are you doing?”
“It’s WAEC, sir! A WAEC truck!” she replied.
The truck’s passenger door flew open and the examination officer stepped out. He directed the officer to lower his weapon. “Hey, school girl! What is the meaning of this?”
“I have a wounded soldier in the bush, sir, who needs to get to a hospital quickly,” she blurted out. “His platoon was attacked!”
The exam officer’s brow was furrowed with concern and suspicion. “Musa, go and check if the young lady is telling the truth.”
The police officer jumped down cautiously and approached the area Amina was pointing to. Within seconds, he disappeared behind the shrub and re-emerged carrying the wounded soldier by the waist. Corporal Okafor had passed out from stress and exhaustion.
“Sah, na true o. The man don wound well well,” he said in pidgin. “Make we go quick before he quench for here.”
“Come with us, young lady,” the exam officer directed.
So they all entered the truck hurriedly. The driver started the engine after two futile attempts then turned towards the community clinic which was some kilometres away.
“You’re a brave young lady,” the exam officer said with a smile on his face. “Where were you headed initially? School?”
“Yes, sir. For the Health Science exam.”
“Ah, but we just concluded it. I’m taking the papers and answer sheets back to town.”
Amina’s face fell. She already knew that she had missed it but the stark reality was only just dawning on her. Well, she had done the right thing. She had to remember that. Baba would have been proud of her.
A gentle hand tapped her shoulder as she fought back tears while staring out the window. She turned round and saw the exam officer handing her a booklet and some papers with a stern look on his face.
“The journey to town is long and the road rough. You have exactly one hour to write this paper, young lady. Can you do it under these conditions?”
Amina brushed away her tears and smiled gratefully. “I…I’ll do my best, sir. Yes.”
“Good girl. Your exam starts…now.”