One day in the harmattan of 2015, we took refuge in an expensive house in Maiduguri where my sister, Zaliha, worked as a maid and our life changed forever.
Earlier that day, there was an attack at the refugee camp. Mother was inside the tent, as always. She had been sick since we came to this camp, her temperature was always hot. Zaliha said it was high blood pressure. She never comes out to join the other refugees. As for me, I was always beside her, writing. Sometimes though, I do go out when the sun was falling. I sat outside our tent, savouring the smell of dusk and new anthills. I always have a pen and paper. I write poems about the children at the refugee camps with skeletal bodies, and of the smell of grief hovering around the camp. I imagine what their lives had been before, imagine their stories.
We didn’t have to go out and hustle for the relief food because Zaliha always comes in the afternoons after she had finished her chores to bring us food. The food would last till another afternoon when she comes again. She always comes wearing one of her two long hijabs. She would scrutinise our tent after answering my greetings and ask if there was any problem to which I always answer no. She would place a palm on Mother’s forehead to feel her temperature, and then asked me if I had given her medicines. She would shake her head, clear her teary eyes, and say: ‘Allah ya jikan Baba. May Baba’s soul rest in peace, ameen’.
‘It’s just a matter of time, Bakomai,’ she would say. She would add that her savings would soon be enough to get us out of Borno to a peaceful place like Kano to rent us a room, to find herself another job. And also help me continue with my education. And she would be gone.
She’s like a man. After our town was captured and Father killed, she led us to this refugee camp, made sure we got a good tent, and then leave and come back with some food. She left the next day, and came back after dusk, dusty and weary, holding some nylon bags with garri inside. She said she had found a job as a live-in maid. She would be paid quarter of what she’s supposed to be paid, she said. But that’s a golden opportunity, she said, as job is now very scarce.
It has been four months now.
The attack was brief, but very bloody. Booms of exploded bombs. Taus of guns. Wailing. Chants of Allahu Akbar. Stampede. I don’t know how we escaped. I always lost consciousness whenever I was in danger and running. I almost caught fire with the burning in my chest and heels. When I regain consciousness, I was holding Mother’s hand. We were far, very far from the refugee camp. We stopped running, panting. We sat on the ground for some minutes. Mother, luckily, was not coughing as hysterically as she does whenever she had to run so fast.
I tucked my hand into my bra and brought out a folded paper. On it was Zaliha’s handwriting; it’s her two numbers which she said I should call whenever there was any problem. And the number of the gateman of the house she works in. I folded the paper carefully tucked it back; I always carry it on my body like a talisman. Perhaps it is what will connect us with our savior, Zaliha.
Mother looked at me and we stood up at once at the same time. We need to get a phone from someone.
‘I have your books with me,’ Mother said. She hardly talked these days except when she had really significant things to say.
She had tucked my two exercise books, dense with writings and the only book I survived with: The English Patient into her wrapper.
‘Thank you Mother. Thank you. ‘Mother and Zaliha have always been supportive of my writings. Zaliha always made sure I never lacked a pen.
We turned a silent and empty corner. Fortunately, a young man emerged from a house.
‘Dan samari,’ Mother called. He looked at us with pitiful eyes, respectful eyes. But he looked afraid thinking we might ask a big favor. When we told him our request, he quickly brought out his phone, relieved.
Zaliha answered the call from her end.
‘It’s me, Yahya.’
‘Yes, Ummi. I heard what happened. I have been expecting your call. Are you safe?’
‘Alhamdulilah! Where are you now?’
I asked the young man the address. After I told her, she said: ‘Will be there in a minute. Take care.’
I handed the man his phone, and our thank you stopped only after he had shut the door to his house.
I spread my scarf on the floor for us to sit on. We waited. I flipped the pages of The English Patient. I love this book. It was a gift from my English teacher back in our village. He was the one who first saw the writer in me. Mr Kamal. He began teaching in our school when I was in my third term in JSS3. The first day he entered our class, he asked us to write narrative essays. After he marked them, he called me aside. He said my essay was the best, that he liked my descriptive power and poetic language, and that I would become a great writer, the next Zaynab Alkali. He said he also writes. He said for me to become better I need to read, read, and read. He brought me books and was surprised when he found out that I read almost all of them. The Dickens. The Achebes. The Ekwensis. He brought me more. Every day, I wrote short stories and take them to him to critique. When I was in SS1 one, I had a collection of short stories which he was editing. On the day I finished my novel, and was meaning to show it to him, merchants of death stormed our village.
He; alongside most of the men in the village, including my father; were killed that day.
I read The English Patient every day, marveling at how richer it became every day I read it. I loved it because it made me feel like I was reading poetry and prose.
I was flipping the pages when I spotted Zaliha’s hijab fluttering in the wind. Something must be amiss because she walked like a hen with a dead egg within her. My heart skipped a beat.
Her salam was inaudible. She shrunk onto the floor. Mother and I looked at her with concern. I quickly averted my gaze. Zaliha’s resemblance of Father always shocked me as it brought me memories of him. The way she sat now, chin in palms, reminded me of when he returns from farm and lay down on mat outside Mother’s mat, under the bedi tree, listening to the news of attacks on his transistor radio. His eyes would look like they would disappear into their sockets in sadness; just like Zaliha’s look show just now.
‘Yahya,’ I said in a quivering voice.
‘Innalillahi wa inna ilaihiraji’un,’ she said, making us more worried.
She wiped her eyes.
‘The money slipped away. There was disturbance on the way. I don’t know how as we were running. All my saving just slipped away.’
‘Innali lahi wa inna ilaihi raji’una,’ we gasped.
How can dreams be so slippery? I asked myself.
We were silent for an hour or so. Then an idea pinched Zaliha and she shot up. She’s always full of ideas. We looked at her.
‘I know what to do,’ she announced.
‘Stand up and follow me,’ she commanded us.
‘What’s it?’ Mother asked.
‘I will ask my employer to allow you stay in my room till I sought things out,’
‘Do you think they will agree, Yahya?’
We waited outside the house. It was twilight. Butterfly danced about the plants outside the house. I was staring at them, my muse stirred, when we heard the gate open. It was Zaliha, all smiles. They have agreed.
As we walked into the house, Zaliha told us about the family. This large house is for only a family of two. She said the owner of the house is a big journalist who works with BBC. Zaliha’s room was almost empty. A mat was spread on the floor and there was a nylon bag where things were kept. I thought it’s the tiles that made the room cool. We would always be in this room. Zaliha would refuse when I offer to help her with the chores. ‘Just sit with Mother,’ she would say.
One day, I was bored and wanted a breath of fresh air. Mother was asleep. I took my copy of The English Patient, my writing materials and off I went. I sat on an old block in the garden looking at the flowers withering in the harmattan. I opened Ondaatje and began reading.
I always lost myself in the book, so I hadn’t noticed he was there till he salammed loudly. When I raised my head from the book, there he was standing before me; a young man in milk caftan with a young beard. He was tall and fair. He must be the son of this house.
I greeted him.
‘I’m Adamu Lilo, the Arts Editor of Daily Echo, lover of your works.’
I was taken aback. He noticed and offered an explanation: passing by our room, he saw me threw a paper through the window. He picked it up and saw it was a poem I had scribbled. He brought out the paper.
‘I really enjoyed this piece.’
I was happy. ‘Thank you.’
‘You are really talented. You have a unique poetic voice. ‘
Now, he reminded me of Mr Kamal. He always told me those words.
I smiled at him, thanked him.
‘In our magazine, we are concerned about discovering those voices that needs to be heard but have not been heard. You need to be shown to the world. If you permit me, I will publish this piece of yours in our newspaper.’
‘Permissions granted, gladly so. Thank you.’
He smiled. ‘It’s our pleasure.’
Then he added, ‘We pay our contributors 5k,’ he said, bringing out some notes.
I collected them with shaky hands. My jaw dropped. Half of what Zaliha had been saving for four months. Now I have just gotten it for just a scribble on a paper I had thrown away.
‘Please stop throwing out your works. You are very talented. You have the talent to save your family from penury. There are lots of opportunities for writers of your kind.’
We talked a lot. He told me about rich awards. We talked about Ondaatje, about Okigbo, Soyinka. I felt so comfortable that I told him about my novel. And about my life.
He looked at me after hearing my story.
‘Ummi,’ I looked at him. ‘You need to use your talent to change the life of your family; to support yourself and your family. Save your education. I am concerned about helping you find your voice in the Nigeria literary sphere. It will be easy since your voice is already matured. I suppose you have a lot of poems, don’t you?’
‘I have a collection.’
‘Perfect. I can submit your works to literary magazines for thousands of people to read. To competitions. Conduct interviews with you.’
‘Oh, thank you! May Allah reward you abundantly.’
We would spend a lot of time together, reading poems. He would tell me of my progress, show me the good comments on my published works. One comment from Zaynab Alkali would make me cry. I would read it over and over again. A rare talent. She has a good future in writing. He would give me books. And I would feel alive again. He would one day bring me twenty thousand naira awards for coming first in a competition. He would kneel and beg me not to leave their house yet, he knew that we now had enough money to leave. I would agree, and hide the money. He would bring me a phone and a laptop. I would refuse them, and he would say it’s not a gift; it’s my prize and he would show me the evidence on his phone. He would go to my mother and explain it all to her. And one day, Zaliha and Mother and I would kneel beside him, shedding tears of joy as he told us my manuscript had won a two million naira award plus a publishing contract.
Mujahyd Ameen Lilo is presently in SS2 of Sunshine Int’l College, Kano. His works had appeared in Daily Chronicle, Daily Focus, Triumph ,Praxis ,Arts Musfair,Tuck magazine,Leavestory, Insightful Observer and was once a Poet of the Week of Daily Trust newspaper. His poem I Remember a Borno [I] came third in BUK Creative Writers Competition while ‘Borno’ was the overall winner of the month of May. His story ‘Election Season’ got an honorable mention in the PeacePanel ANA/Kano short story Contest. He is a finalist for the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange Project Essay Competition 2019.