Her name is Amina.
She sat for a long while staring at the big round clock which hung off-centre above the thatched opening to the zaure, or entrance-hut. The clock was really old. Its cracked, cloudy face spoke volumes of its age, wear and character. Tacitly though, these defects staked a claim to some form of resilience over the harsh Harmattan conditions which had constantly barraged the mud hut every year. If she looked hard enough, Amina could just about make out the seconds hand ticking away jerkily. Just barely.
Thank goodness, the clock was still working. At least the ticking sound suggested a pulse.
The time was 6.45am. Amina was getting ready to go to school and write an exam at 8.30 am – the Health Science ‘Alternative-to-Practicals’ exam. She also had two other papers to tackle in the afternoon. As a final year science student at the Community Secondary School, Amina should have been relieved- this being the last day of her gruelling WAEC examinations. So far, she had sat for eight papers over the course of one month. On a good day, after today’s papers, she would celebrate with her friends over a successful completion. Mama would spoil her with fura de nunu, her favourite drink, and a divine supper of tuwon shikafa da miyan kuka. Baba would buy her a present from the Friday market to reward her for her efforts. As his only child out of eight with a formal education, it was worthy of his painting the whole town red.
Ah, but today was not a good day, was it? The chance of such things ever happening today was quickly fading with the morning news, was it not? Everywhere was dead silent. Not even a morning cockerel could be heard. There was tension in the air. It was almost palpable. Disturbing news had trickled in from neighbouring villages of the terrorist attacks by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, also known as ‘Boko Haram’, on Gamboru and Ngala towns the night before. Hundreds were feared dead. The grotesque nature of this massacre had left a lot of villagers appalled and petrified. It was said to have started from Gamboru’s night market where gun-men had opened fire on the fleeing crowd. Amina could not understand it at all. Why was this happening? Baba, who was the most intelligent man she knew, did not have a ready answer as usual. Of recent, his answers had become more unconvincing and fatigued. He had also been silent over the Chibok abduction, where over two hundred female students, like her, had been kidnapped. This happened about a month ago while the girls prepared for their WAEC exams. He had also been dumbfounded at the news of twenty-nine schoolboys who were killed in cold-blood at Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, a few weeks prior to that. Why were students and pupils being killed? What did they do to deserve death? These terrorists believed Western education was an abomination- well, couldn’t we just agree to disagree? The recent news brought her study for today’s papers to an abrupt end and so begun fervent prayers to Allah for her family’s protection.
Amina had barely slept a wink the night before and had sprung up at the crack of dawn to get ready for school. What else was there to do? She had little choice in the matter. WAEC was a multi-national educational body and the exams were done on the same dates across West Africa. A fat chance these papers would be postponed at her district’s request! Her breakfast of kosai (bean-cake) and akamu (pap) was left untouched on the floor mat. Hunger was an alien feeling to her at the moment. Anxiety left little room for any other sensation. After a brisk bath, she had dressed up in her checked purple-and-white uniform, draped in purple hijab, and stood there gazing at the clock until it became a blur and her eyes watered.
A tiny hand clutched hers gently and an even tinier voice broke the silence. “Don’t go, iyan uwa na. Don’t go! It’s too risky!”
Her younger sister’s voice was unmistakable. Amina turned and stared down at Hadiza’s round, terrified eyes for a moment then drew her close. “Don’t worry, little sister. I will be fine.” She was surprised at how shaky her own voice was. “We are all in Allah’s hands.”
Baba’s concerned head appeared at the inner door of the zaure- the room leading into the family compound. The fifty-year old man had aged overnight and his eyes were swollen from nights of forfeited sleep.
“My daughter, are you ready to go?”
Amina nodded. She was nervous. “Yes, Baba.”
Baba had been left in a quandary all night. Should he let his favourite daughter go to school on a day like this when ‘Boko Haram’ could storm the village? Ngala had fallen and it was just a few kilometres away. But what could he do? His daughter has gone through a lot to get to this stage of her education. She had endured criticisms and mockery from both friends and family. Initially, he too had been unsupportive of her interest to be literate. But the zeal of his eight-year old daughter, at the time, to read and write against all odds became a source of inspiration to him. Now she helps him take inventory of goods in his shop. He could not find it in him to deny her the opportunity to fulfil her dreams based on the fear of an attack. What if nothing happened? Would she ever forgive him?
He limped towards the entrance with Mama’s assistance. The wound he had sustained from a motorcycle accident had not yet healed but it would not deter him from seeing his daughter off.
“Take the major road and get to Bilkisu’s house as we discussed,” he said. “Together you both can set out for school. It is much safer.”
“We are all proud of you,” her mother said, trying to be strong. Her voice wavered slightly but her eyes were resolute. Amina tapped from her mother’s strength and managed a weak smile. “Allah ya ke mu.”
“Ameen, Mama. Ameen. I will be back in the afternoon after our final paper, insha Allah. Greetings to all when they wake up.”
Amina walked out the door and down the deserted road nervously. She didn’t look back so that they wouldn’t see the fear in her eyes and beg her to stay home. She had to do this. Her future and her family’s depended on it. She looked around for support but there was none. So far, she had only seen two goats and a dog. There was not a single soul outside. Not even signs of life like pots and cooking fires. No voices. As she walked past the third house, Amina began to doubt whether leaving home had been a good idea. It now looked more obvious to her that the exams would not hold today. Who would come out at this time? Her schoolmates would laugh at her when they heard her story. That is if she could make it back alive. Should she turn back and go home? At least, she had made an effort.
Amina kept on going. She could not explain why.
Hundred yards from her house, she finally met someone. It was Mallam Yinusa on his way home- which was a few houses away. Amina had never been so happy to see someone in her entire life!
“Ina kwana! Good morning, Mallam!”
He whirled round to see Amina walking right behind him. His mouth fell open.
“Amina! Kai, kai, kai! Where are you going this morning? Don’t you know what is going on? Boko Haram attacked Ngala last night! We may be next!”
Amina squirmed, “I know, Mallam. But I need to be in school this morning for my exams.”
Mallam Yinusa frowned. “You children and this reading madness! The village is not safe. Stay indoors! Go home! School can wait!” Seeing that he was not having any luck dissuading her, he added with a sigh, “If you still insist on going, I wouldn’t advise that you follow this road. It is a major road and you are far too exposed. Anything can happen. I advise you to follow the dusty footpath through Mallam Yakubu’s farm. You would be shielded from sight until you get close to the school.”
Amina thanked him for his advice and watched him disappear behind the mud houses. She contemplated using the foothpath for a while but opted to stick to her dad’s advice to use the main un-tarred road. Anything could happen along the path. It was far from everything else.
She trudged on warily down the long, straight road. Her school was only thirty minutes away now. Thirty minutes looked like an eternity right now. From what she had heard, it only took a second for something to happen. A stray arrow or bullet… Amina shuddered. The road was silent and windy. She held on to her hijab tightly.
Allah protect me.
Suddenly, she made out two figures ahead of her. Her heart lurched. They were about sixty metres away and heading in her direction. As they approached, she realized that they were wielding machetes menacingly. One man was shorter and stockier than the other. She heard their angry voices despite the distance between her and them. Sound travelled better and faster due to the graveyard ambience. When they realized that they were not alone the two stopped talking but maintained their pace albeit more cautiously.
Amina’s heart pounded loudly. There was no detour possible. She could not turn and run. That would be foolhardy as it would raise suspicion and they would catch her easily. She would have to pray that they were not ‘Boko Haram’ fighters and would just walk on by. The alternative was almost certain death. Her school uniform would most likely draw ire. She thought of the Chibok girls for a minute and almost passed out from fear.
The two looked more menacing as they approached. One carried a dane gun and the other a bow and a quiver of arrows strapped around his chest. Both wore charms and amulets on their arms and around their waists. Both had on dirty, brown clothes with sprinkles of dark red. As they drew closer, she realized that they were both glaring at her with deep-set eyes.
Her throat went dry, lips parched. Her mind went blank and her heart thumped maddeningly against her rib cage. Amina clutched her writing materials tightly till her palms turned red. Death was just a few metres away. Was it too late to run? Without a doubt. Her legs were almost giving way but she found them still ambling on. They were now just a few metres away from her now. Their eyes were more discernible now and they were blood-shot. Amina was certain that someone had died by their hands much earlier that morning. Perhaps, it was her turn to suffer the same fate?
They scowled at her.