It’s that moment when you hear a piece of news and your heart starts fluttering in your chest like a bird in a cage screaming to be let out. It takes you another moment to calm down and reflect. No, this can’t be true. The news comes on relentless. You face it. It is in fact, true. Through the haze of shock you breathe a silent prayer, ‘Oh God, not again. Please bring them back safe.’ At some point you’re praying that the ‘cavalry’ will pursue, overtake and recover them. You try to cast your mind to similar news in the past. Have any been found and brought back? And the ones who died? Anyway, the number involved now is huge. It just cannot be true. They will be rescued or returned or escape on their own. Throughout the day, the news keeps on coming; relentless and the bitter realisation sets in.
The next morning you wake up, cannot seem to remember anything specific about yesterday. The haze of sub-consciousness muddles your memory until you confront the news again. Now you accept reality. Your eyes mist over, your throat constricts and you taste salt in your mouth. A startling thought scampers through your mind. Somewhere in the wilderness the captives have woken up too. Did they jerk into full reality of their predicament or did it come slowly; drowsy with the sweetness of early morning sleep, did they look forward to the usual romp with their mates until reality strikes from the butt of a gun, the bark of a beast or the pain of wounds endured through the night? Your heart starts its futile macabre flutter again and the torrent of tears flow unheeded.
On and off, on and off, the news flashes through your daily reality. A slice of bread tastes like a piece of wood; you spit it out and choose the torture of a journey into speculation. You were once like them living your life from joyful moment to joyful moment, member of a cheerful company of minstrels. Life is a lark and you’re all princesses of its splendour. The world is nothing without you and you can feel it. Laughter and camaraderie are abundant. A gruelling test of your abilities looms in the near future but you do not allow it to becloud your joy. Whether you fail or you pass this test, life will come to its heady conclusion; love, marriage, a glowing career in one thing or another. Come what may, all your lofty dreams will be fulfilled. Of these nothing could be surer.
You’ve heard rumours of danger in the regions but what do you care? Your elders; the priests and priestesses of the assembly have assured you that nothing will go wrong. No harm will befall you. The test before you is a grave one and you must endure it. So you carry on with your merry existence. Sometimes your joy is dampened by the sounds of war. You spare time to pray. Pray that the dark happenings may not come near you and your friends. Pray that your test comes quickly and you gain your freedom. Pray that you live to fulfil your dreams. Then one day, the danger you dreaded most pierced the silence of your sleep.
One week later you wander back to your imaginations. You stand under the stars and imagine. It’s been one whole week, are those girls, mates from the dream of my past standing under the stars somewhere contemplating their sudden misfortune? Are they even able to gaze up at the stars? Do the stars twinkle as much in the wilderness? When they look at the skies, what do they see? When they close their eyes, does darkness relieve them of their grief?
You wonder how it has been with the kingdom from whence you were taken. Surely, the young men have banded together and roused the cavalry. Soon, very soon they will come to your rescue. They will overrun your captors and appease your pain with their blood. They will take you home in triumph and soon your pain will be forgotten. You watch and wait for them every morning until you weary of craning your neck, searching for them in the distance. But why is it taking them so long?
One month later, you think of mother. In the hell your days have become you remember her the most. Mother, more than anyone else. Mother! Mama! Your arguments, antagonism, resentments mean nothing now. All you yearn for is the assurance of her firm embrace. Just one day of her rough hands weaving beautiful braids in your hair. You would rather endure her chastisement than the life you live now. You are no longer sure if you are alive. Many nights you wonder if she is mourning for you. Some days you wish her peace. On others you want to scream at her to continue mourning; her tears will keep you alive and one day bring you back to her. Any news of mother would soothe your parched soul. But all around you is darkness and hopelessness.
Another month passes by or is it two? You can no longer remember. You contemplate the life forming within you. Child of the dark you will name him, for a boy he must be. When your freedom comes as one day it must, you are sure you will abandon him to this dark wilderness. But sometimes your fickle heart forces you to take pity on him. Dark child, why do I not wake up and find you dead? Why have you chosen me; a blessing I did not ask. Die and take me with you. Put me out of my misery. If you persist in living, the life you find here you will not like. I promise you.
The other girls sit together and remember the carefree days of singing. Days when the only things that mattered were the hairstyles to be woven or the colourful wrappers and trinkets to be bought for your cheerful festivities. Days when your songs would fill the air and hover like a fluffy cloud in the atmosphere. Days when your voice would send thrills of rapture through the hearts of eager companions. Now you cannot sing, even in your minds. Your very minds have been taken over. You’ve been forced to learn a chant that compares to nothing. The vile words they make you chant sound like the croak of a million frogs. You sit apart from them. You no longer look each other in the eyes. You no longer whisper or giggle. Every move is scrutinized. Days and nights run together endlessly. Nothing matters any more than the thought of lying down at night and never waking up the next morning.
Some mad child among you insists on keeping track of time. Today she tells you it is now one year since you were snatched into this wild dream. You raise your head startled. You pluck your dark child from your breast and snap awake. One year? Oh! How you have grown and yet stunted in this one year. A few of the others are suckling darkling babies too. How many years have you lived in all? Fifteen? Eighteen? Twenty? You feel seventy five. Someone is walking with a limp; the prize of her attempt to challenge her condition. A handful has died. You consider them lucky. Some have been moved away, sold like mere cattle you hear. You wonder how their lives in these other places may be. A half dozen escaped. You do not know if it is well with them. You have stopped waiting for the calvary to come to your rescue. You no longer care.
All you can think of now is your mother. You pray her tears continue to flow. Only in her tears are you truly alive.
It is now 365 days since the ‘Chibok girls’ – all in their teenage – were snatched from their school and into captivity by Boko Haram. Their’s was not the first of such incidents. Some children paid the ultimate price as they were gunned or hacked down by the terrorists. In a space of about 6 years, whole villages were terrorized, hundreds of schools attacked, over fifteen thousand people killed and people numbering over a million displaced from their homes.
Boko Haram’s reign of terror in Northern Nigeria is a tragedy the scale of which sometimes defeats the imagination. This piece of writing is an attempt to evoke empathy and remembrance for those who remain alive and in captivity. In spite of government efforts with foreign support, the Chibok girls and anyone else held captive by Boko Haram are still unaccounted for. Could anyone possibly appreciate how much life has changed for these girls in 365 days?
In other parts of the world, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and other terrorists groups continue to perpetuate heinous crimes against defenceless people. A war that hacks down the weakest and the most vulnerable is the height of cowardice.
This write up is also a prayer; a cry to God begging for a reprieve. God have mercy! No more Lord. Please no more.
Written by ~ Victoria Nwogu.
Ms. Nwogu is the Gender Advisor, UNDP Somalia; she is currently serving as Technical Specialist, Gender and Institutional Effectiveness, UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, New York. She is also a Visiting Professor at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.