Eight years ago, before Boko-Haram were nothing but tales that echoed out of the distance; before the word Sambisa rang ominous, bearing the mark where the rest of the north would erupt into a convulsing volcano; before the streets became littered with the dead: of ill-equipped soldiers, children, and their hapless, crying mothers, mowed down in their wretched thousands; before the nation’s alarm of the senseless killings and the ensuing apathy because the killings remained senseless; before the North became a raging fire the rest of the nation watched, feeling the heat of the flame caress their faces from a safe distance; before it resembled war, one which the nation’s leaders didn’t know how to fight but somehow knew how to profit from; before I’d have preferred to say “fuck it” to the clarion call and shit on the fatherland in whose house I remain a stranger.
I found myself headed North. To Zamfara State for my National Youth Service. My sister cried on the phone when I told her. The rest of my family, who wouldn’t cry, laughed at the situation. My father said, You’ll be fine, it’s not like they are at war. He would know. He watched as blood forged a strange nation, at the tip of the River Niger. I went North to Zamfara and saw for myself what it looked like to be at war before real wars began.
In 2011, I worked as an agent for the electoral commission in registering citizens for the upcoming elections. My station was a torn-down classroom in a small primary school almost swallowed up in the fine desert sand. The thatched zinc roof which lay thinly over the class absorbed the heat from the sun and transferred the inferno upon us so furiously one could reach in front of his nose to catch heat rays. But before the sun slow roasted you alive, the biometric machines had a hand around your throat first. They hardly worked right. The quality of the machines was hopelessly phony, hopeless like the “better-tomorrow” the regime feigned to promise. Hopeless like the hope for the freer and fairer election it dangerously peddled. Dangerous enough for these insistent men, these desperate men who would kill to be counted, men who quickly considered fingerprinting a do or die affair. Yet, it was strenuous and worthless process; yet, it was a process that could not be skipped.
One “corper” suggested skipping the process in another station. He found himself swarmed by a mob who claimed he deliberately wanted to disenfranchise them. There was a bandage wound about his head when he returned to the main office. I picked the cue from him; biometrics held its fingers to my throat, so I persisted with the machine and begged it to help me keep my head as it were. So, each day, I held each finger to the machine, pressing, cleaning, waiting for the spiral signatures to appear on my computer screen so I could show them I have not cheated them out of their civic right. I liked my head, still, but I soon found something else was at stake. I figured that these fingers, entwined in mine each day, too many of them forged into grotesque contortions by tilling a ground that won’t yield easily, bear at their tips hope.
When the women came in, all the men had to leave. That was the unshifting law in Zamfara. They called it Ba’ shiga: men are not allowed. While we were at the camp, we, the Youth Corp Members sang it like an anthem. A joke for us, until someone said, Oh, if you looked you lose an eye, if you entered you could lose a leg, or an arm. No one knew anyone who’d ever lost an eye, or a leg, but isn’t absence fear’s best strength? Later the camp commandant called a meeting and warned, when you go out, he said, behave yourselves. Ba’ shiga: this is Sharia state, then he was finished. He too didn’t sound like he knew anyone who’d ever lost an eye, or a leg, but absence is fear’s best strength.
It took me only that much to know what to fear. To be reminded that the ground was not wide enough to walk with full stride here. One tip-toed around many things in Zamfara. Ba’ Shiga: yes, the women. Men are not allowed, but neither are women. These houses, these spaces, these fences of fear built around women, cloaked in purdah, and barricaded from the world, away from the prying eyes of men, are still fences; Ba’ shiga! Anyone who knew the world well enough would be wiser than to assume otherwise.
Eyes for Many Days of Freedom
When the women came out to register, a former city girl was assigned to help me hold the women’s hands. Her name was Hauwa. Hauwa looked at you. She did so with her head held high and you could see her eyes bore into yours. She had lived in Port-Harcourt with an aunt and only returned here to be with her widowed mother. I couldn’t tell if she looked at men the way she did because she lived away, or if she lived away because she looked at men the way she did.
But her eyes, they watched intently like they had seen farther than I could ever look. Like they would not be afraid if the men hurled rocks at her or if they reached to rip her hijab—which she still wore—to strip her of the dignity which her eyes betrayed. Like if they grabbed at her gaunt frame which pushed against her casual tee-shirt and flailing skirt, she would raise her chin up and kill them with the glare of her eyes.
I didn’t need more than that to know that she was not like the other women. The other women, who ricocheted off every corner of the sweltering hot class in their full black burqa, chattering joyfully in Hausa, “We’re free today,” she told me. They don’t get to see their friends so much after they marry, Hauwa explained. I nodded and smiled, feeling sorry for the other women who were free for a day. What about tomorrow, I thought?
Bride at Registration Booth
She came in after. After the child brides; the tiny ones whose small bodies dangled like a body lost in orbit in their oversized niqab. Tiny children, who certainly could have been wives but weren’t nearly old enough to vote. No way! I told my translator, Hakeem, a nice soft-spoken man with a striking acumen for African politicking. He argued that I deny their dignity as married women. I thought, make them old enough to vote before you make them brides.
She came in after. The child brides had gathered in a corner refusing to leave. Their Hausa screeched the air, angry at me perhaps, but how can I tell? Their voice was a song to the evening, their faces, shadows at night. There is much to watching lips fold into a knot. And seeing an eye tense into a frown. But with them behind these cloaks, how can I tell, really?
When she came in, I was glad to see her face, to see a young face yet free. Her round fair face was blank, and her eyes seemed to stare past things. She was equally young, probably not old enough to vote but full enough in body to be convincing. When she sat across from my desk, she smiled at me briefly then quickly buried the smile away. Bold. Free. Yet.
After she was done, she got up slowly and with her face angled into her right shoulder, she flashed a smile at me again. I dared to smile back. There is much to watching lips spread thin. And much more in seeing an eye just match the sheer presence of yours. She would marry you, Hauwa, my female finger-print-help said. She is too young to marry, I thought. She asked if you would take her away if she agreed to marry you, Hauwa said again. I had not responded to her first statement. Take her away? I asked. Elope, you mean? She will marry an old alhaji soon. He already has four wives. She does not want that, Hauwa said. Save her, you mean? I didn’t speak. There isn’t a single bone in me that says savior, so I’ll just remember how she smiled, instead. With her eyes. Bold. Free. Yet.