Baby Yemi came into the world at a time when anything was possible. And there’s something about the feeling that if the worst had happened, anything could happen now. Now that Lagos the sacred cow had been struck, this could be the beginning of that heightened sense of national consciousness that toppled dictators in Egypt and sent the British packing fifty or so years ago. Or not.
Everywhere there was an air of impregnated nothing like that void from where a startling “let there be light” spoke and nothing was ever the same again. You all walked around freed of ambition. The fish sellers at the lagoon were now smiling hollow smiles, the type that strangers would flash at you as they walked past you when you lived in Canada. You never understood why they bothered smiling at all. If they were surprised to see a black woman in the engineering building, why did they have to give that passive-aggressive token smile? No one was forcing them to be nice.
The market closed early these days and opened much later. When you passed by Twenty-one Road, all the gates were shut and the watchmen would look at you through a screen in the gate before letting you in. It was only recently that you had noticed the signs on the gates about no cars being let in after 10 pm because it was only now that residents had begun to enforce the rule.
What surprised you about all this was that it took even you by surprise. Weren’t you there before Festac was even created in those early sixties when everyone thought that anything was possible in Nigeria? Didn’t you too leave England, fiancé and all, in that prideful but energizing pan-African glow, that calling to be a part of Nigeria’s future? And shortly after, wasn’t it you that barely escaped the people who had come to your office to rape you first then shoot you, like they raped then shot Ngozi your friend? It was only because your mother was sick and you left the night before that you escaped. And you stayed in that village for fear that were you to come back to the city they would stop you at some checkpoint and ask you to pronounce “heavy” and “rice”, only to notice that you pronounced “heavy” as “hayvey” and that after all these years of living in the West you still couldn’t help rolling out an “l” in place of the “r” in rice. That is how they would know that despite your black (almost blue) skin and how you could say things like “e lo ni jale” at the market you were still Igbo, still marked as the other in that genocide.
So why was it that after knowing how fast things changed, from a progressive Nigeria where the Naira was stronger than the dollar into a country falling apart from a painfully failing attempt at secession, you too were surprised when Boko Haram finally attacked Lagos? Did you not hear the news? And even if you could not believe what they did in Maiduguri and Borno, surely Abuja was close enough for it to start to hit home for you. But everyone always denied the possibility.
“No, it can never happen here”, your favourite taxi driver, Baba Yemi said as you talked politics on the way back from the airport.
“If they bring that their nonsense to Yoruba-land, we go just chase them away.”
“How una go do that?” you asked him.
“Ah madam. I no know but why you dey tink that kain thing sef?”
“Me I no know, I just dey fear o. No be near my office dey go attack for Abuja?” you said while searching for your house keys in your handbag.
“Oh madam, na your office be that? Ah madam, no worry, dem no fit. You no see as them stay for North. Make I tell you, dem no fit pass Abuja, worse come to worst Lokoja but if dem bring that their nonsense come Yorubaland ehn, we go show dem pepper.”
This was what fascinated you – how people were so eager to protect themselves and stand secure in their fantasies and how convincing those fantasies could be. In Abuja, you asked your taxi driver the same thing while you were stuck in the traffic that the mandatory checkpoints had caused. You had always found this idea of creating traffic in the name of a mandatory checkpoint so stupid. Afterall it only created a pool of potential casualties if anyone got the idea to detonate a bomb, thus defeating the aim.
When you voiced your concern to him, your taxi driver told you that it was impossible for Boko Haram to attack that particular checkpoint, although they had struck the nearby market. Boko Haram could only strike the poor parts of town, he insisted. They could not strike some parts of Wuse for sure, or the highways that mostly rich people passed. You asked him why, like you would ask Baba Yemi. This one, who you called oga Victor said it was because Boko Haram was sponsored by politicians. You were already tired from a long day at work and not in the mood to talk, so you let him blab on and take the comfort in releasing his thoughts, while you took comfort in nodding along.
When the first attack happened, you weren’t sure what was going on. The ground quaked and all your china shivered and shivered and you thought they would break. You walked out of the house in your pyjamas and knocked on the Bellos’ gate. Ibrahim quickly let you in, as if he had been waiting for you. That was when you saw Hauwa and Musa, his two little children also outside. Hauwa was crying and Zainab, who was due to have a child that week, was not in the mood for Hauwa that day. She left Hauwa and walked across their interlocking paved stones, from one corner of the high fence to the other.
You picked up baby Hauwa because you too were scared and needed something to hold. That was when you finally asked what was happening. Ibrahim was the type to always know what was happening. When there was a death in the close, you would hear it first from him. When they wanted to elect a new close chairman because they thought the previous one was pilfering funds, Ibrahim told you. And when the women selling groundnuts outside the main gate of the close gossiped that you were always travelling to Abuja because you were sleeping with rich politicians and that was how you built that huge house, it was Ibrahim who told you. You did not understand how he knew all these things. He was an investment banker with a busy schedule after all and yet somehow he found a way for his ears to always be on the ground.
Ibrahim made a few calls and then came back to the white canopy, the place where Zainab would be sitting with her tailor as he mended her dresses when you looked into their yard from your window. Zainab shared a filial relationship with her driver, her tailor, even the aboki that sold suya just a few minutes away from your close. It was a filial relationship that you sometimes admired in women who had become rich only after marrying rich men, who still knew where in the market to get bras cheap, where to buy tomatoes in bulk, and how to manage household workers since they were once in their shoes.
“They said it was a bomb blast o,”Ibrahim said, with that air of one in charge that he always had.
“Bomb blast ke?” Zainab screamed, rubbing her belly and sighing while Musa held her knees even tighter. Hauwa started crying again, so you took off your wrapper and wrapped her around your back, rocking gently. She started sucking on her thumb and soon fell asleep.
“Zainab, you need to sit down. Please come and sit down. You should not be stressed in this condition,” you stressed.
Pensive, Zainab dragged her petite body and slumped into the white plastic chairs again, muttering something underneath her voice. Sensing that his mother was restless, Musa left her and came to hold you instead. You held his little arm tight and squeezed it as if to say that everything would be fine. This was the first time you had seen Zainab without her hijab. She looked a little different with all that hair in her face. It was dense and went all the way to her neck, stringy and wooly, as against your coarse hair. What you would do to have hair like hers, you thought. You thought it unfortunate that she never flaunted it, like you would if it was yours. Then you imagined her taking off her expensive silk and lace hijabs and changing into night clothes and she and Ibrahim having sex and how she may be in bed — gentle and receptive, or maybe kinky and demanding. Zainab slapped a mosquito off her arm and you remembered that there was a bomb blast and you were busy fantasizing about your neighbours fucking.
It started to irritate you, the way Ibrahim was prancing about and speaking on the phone in Hausa, yet saying nothing to you.
“Ibrahim, abeg what is going on? Another cantonment explosion?” you asked.
The last time your house had shaken like this, there had been an explosion in the Ojo military cantonment. The impact was felt all the way even in Ikeja where there was a scramble in Eko Hospital as staff tried to decide if to evacuate their patients or to wait it out. Your friend’s husband’s shop in Ikeja was reduced to a pile of bricks and he was decapitated in the process. The fear caused a stampede, with people, unsure of what to do, running into the lagoon to their deaths.
“No, not cantonment,” Ibrahim finally answered. “They said it is Boko Haram. Boko Haram has come to Lagos.”
“Ye! God forbid,” Zainab said, standing again and trembling.
You felt the need to wrap your arms around her and so you did. Her hair felt like downy and smelled like the incense she always bought from Saudi Arabia. You all finally went to the tiny boys’ quarters at the back of the Bello’s house and fell asleep wherever you saw fit, Ibrahim on the long couch, you and Zainab on the mat and the children on the other grey couch. Ibrahim suggested that sleeping in the boys’ quarters would be safer than turning on the lights in the main house. You all held hands and took turns praying — you, in the mighty name of Jesus and they in the name of Allah the beneficent and the merciful and then you fell asleep.
Musa woke you up, tapping your feet lightly.
“Aunty Nkechi, Aunty Nkechi please wake up.”
As you opened your eye lids a little he continued.
“Will we die?” he asked.
He was wearing his white jalabia, the one he loved to wear to visit you because he knew it was your favourite.
“No Musa,” you said unconvincingly.
“Where are your parents?”
He pointed outside. You soon found out that while Festac was not affected, Boko Haram had bombed the nearby Mile Two. All those blocks-of-flats you saw on entering Festac were burnt, a charcoal black dyeing them the colour of death. You knew you must know some people who lived there. Not friends since the block of flats were a bit cheaper than the tastes of your colleagues, but surely some junior staff, some former house helps, some former drivers. You scrolled through the phone book of your phone and tried to decide who to call first. Ibrahim turned up the volume of the radio. BBC world news was carrying the news. The politics of it. The number of casualties. The number of homes razed. A Youtube video from Boko Haram. A white Boko Haram expert speaking academic jargon.
All that seemed meaningless to you now. All you could think of was the smell of burnt buildings, flesh, trees you would encounter as you drove to work in a few days. If you could drive to work, that is. And what if this continued? Where would you all go? You already knew that the Bellos could not go to Maiduguri, their hometown, as it was politically unstable. Would you go to the East, to Anambra? But there was a lot of kidnapping there now. Lagos was the only half-sane place in Nigeria. You went outside the gate, to the driveway you and the Bellos shared, to try to breathe, to try to think.
Just then a robust and stocky woman was running in the direction of your house. Her wrapper loosened to reveal white panties with a slacking elastic waist band. She didn’t bother to pick up her wrapper to cover herself. Instead, she looked at it, and then she fell down, too, crying. You asked her what it was and she told you that she was Baba Yemi’s wife. You never met her after all these years but she knew you. Every time you gave Baba Yemi your old wrappers to give her, she called you to thank you and to pray for you. Her name was Sikira.
Sikira had come back home from the market that night to see her house burnt black. Baba Yemi was sleeping with Yemi and their other five children when the men detonated the bomb in the middle of their block of flats. They did not get out. It was then that Zainab wrapped the little wrapper on her shoulders around Sikira. It was then that Zainab’s water broke and baby Yemi was ready to come. But of course you did not know the baby’s name would be Yemi, yet. You also did not know what it would feel like to facilitate a birthing process until Sikira put her wrapper back on, took you two to the boy’s quarters, and asked Zainab to push while you held her hand and pretended not to be frightened.
Ebele is a public health scientist, writer and entrepreneur. Follow her on twitter and instagram @ebyral.