Snail Foot

Not long after you had finished sucking and masticating a few of the oranges Anjikwi, your nephew, bought for you, had you gotten in the mood for number two, for the first time in three days. But, as if on cue, the uncoordinated applause of the distant gunshots erupted as soon as you settled in the toilet seat. Those ominous sounds then cued up an instant commotion – fathers shouting a myriad of instructions, motorcycles revving, several pairs of feet scurrying incessantly, remote screaming and wailing from women and frightened children. You knew it was only a matter of time before the whole village was devoid of villagers, yet you were unmoved.

The water closet your son, Yamta, erected behind the family house last year, was much more comfortable than the pit latrine you were familiar with. But that was not the reason why you remained seated in the midst of the ruckus. It was because Kwajaffa was your home and you didn’t see the sense in abandoning it, besides, an 87 year old woman with a snail foot for legs, would only embarrass herself trying to race with young, agile runners.

Convinced the mischief makers had ruined the moment and you would need more oranges to re-invoke the urge, you gathered yourself and reached for the walking stick. That was when you heard the truck speed to a halt in the courtyard.

“Zo nan!” one of them yelled in Hausa language, on spotting you. The fancy bandana fastened, dramatically, around the traditional hat on his head, caught your eye. He also wore a sleeveless jacket over a waist-long caftan and a jean, with unmatched boots.

You tottered towards him, taking your time. Bored, he ordered two of his associates to search the house. You worried, even though you knew Anjikwi, his wife and two sons were most likely halfway across a yet-to-be-raided town.

“Halima,” you emphasized, when the man with unmatched boots asked what your name was. You went on to inform him that you were Muslim, to eliminate any lingering doubt in his mind, but he seemed indifferent. It was unbelievable. Once upon a time, you assured Anjikwi and his family (beloved co-inhabitants of your home) that Kwajaffa was safe. Once upon a time, you believed your home; your village, which was predominantly Muslim, would almost never be a target for the notorious Islamic sect – this was the square root of almost.

Thankfully, the foot soldiers returned without a captive and confirmed that to unmatched boots, whom they addressed as Nurudeen. Nonchalantly, he gestured to them to raze the house and you just stood and watched with astonishment as the flames grew bigger, and taller and stronger. That was when one of the men lifted you onto the back of the truck. Another two barged into the coop and the remaining two – the driver and the leader – slid into the front seats and repositioned the truck. Moments later, the two in the coop emerged with four chickens and half a bucket of eggs.

When the driver dramatically pulled over, jolting you, you noticed two other trucks parked at what looked like a temporary camp site. There were about a dozen other members of the sect on ground; a couple of them were busy setting up tents, others were unloading several items from the trucks, some of which were food items probably burgled from the Kwajaffa local market which was conveniently a few metres away from the camp.

You recognised your friend, Madika, as well as the other eleven captives who were all somewhere between elderly and feeble. Madika acknowledged you with a smile; you went over, exchanged brief pleasantries and settled on the floor beside her.

Nurudeen approached and reported to another member whose aura was more charismatic. You could tell he was tall and well built even though it was semi dark and he was sitting on an ammunition box. From where you were sitting, he seemed to reek of every social ill you could think of as he dragged in smoke from his cigarette and exhaled them with flamboyant ease. He was dressed in all black, save for the sleeveless Nigerian army jacket – black trousers, black long sleeve shirt and black boots.

The smoking man suddenly stood up and approached the thirteen of you, clutching his rifle. He introduced himself as Abdulazeez (he was also known as El Sharkawi) and then bragged about their objective as a sect, and all the progress they had made doing Allah’s work, which included the abduction and Islamizing of over two hundred teenage girls. When he was finally done, he demanded the names and religion of each of you. Out of the thirteen, eight were women and only three were Christians in the entire group (two men and a woman). To your surprise, nobody was shot. Instead, Abdulazeez belted a few Quran verses off memory and made you all repeat after him. When he was satisfied, he dismissed you and what was left of the population of Kwajaffa, and warned that anyone who did not report back before 9am the following morning would be tracked down and shot.

As you sauntered into the open courtyard, you were brusquely reminded that you no longer had a home. It had skipped your memory. The coop was a safe distance from the main house and so was unaffected by the fire. But you could see that the chickens were visibly shaken when you were about to shut the coop’s door, left open by the idiots who had earlier barged in. You stepped inside instead, shutting the door behind you. Some of the birds were already roosting; some others snuggled up around your feet and clucked sombrely. Perhaps they mistook you for Thlama, Anjikwi’s wife – their caterer and caretaker.

With your blessing and with her husband’s support, Thlama had set up the coop as a side business to supplement the income from Anjikwi’s carpentry stall. Economic activities in Kwajaffa never plummeted; unlike in villages in other local government areas in Borno state, because everyone thought there was no reason for it to be attacked.

It was late and you were exhausted so you decided against ambling back to Madika’s house. Instead, you weaved your way towards the sack of feed laid against the wall, and turned in for the night.

At dawn, an angry bird interrupted your last ditch effort to catch some sleep. It flew, violently, from its roosting position into the partition Anjikwi had constructed for egg-laying activities, and picked a fight with a hen. With wings spread apart from their bodies and neck feathers raised, they pecked and jumped at each other repeatedly. Both birds ignored your orders to break it off. You screamed some more, to no avail. They then flew out of the partition, taking the fight to a more open field and left behind a few cracked eggs. Other birds drifted away from them and that was when you threw your walking stick in their general direction – it worked. The fighting birds scrambled away in flight and retreated cautiously.

There was no reason for the rooster to attack the hen, really. This unnecessary cruelty reminded you of Mugambo, a popular Indian movie character your first grandson, Mwada, liked to imitate, the last time you visited. You eventually spanked him to order. That was a long time ago.

All the women were accounted for but there were only two men by the time you got to the camp site. Mangili, who now preferred to be called Mary, was serving wheat balls and kuka soup from two large food flasks. You wondered how she had been able to carry them to the camp site and where she got the time and resources to prepare such a large meal. She looked to be in her late fifties or maybe early sixties and was by far the youngest in the group. You always thought she was feebleminded. She proved you right when her husband died and her children returned from the city, months later, with Christianity which she accepted without much protest. As if that was not enough, she had to also change her name.

Notwithstanding, you ate her meal because you were hungry and had no food at home.

For some reason, Mangili or Mary or whatever, decided to offer a bowl of the meal to Abdulazeez, who was sitting on his ammunition box throne, chewing on a stick. He peered at her for a minute, smiling. Out of the blue, he, acrobatically, kicked the bowl out of her hands, spilling the contents on her body. He got up and hit her across the face with the back of his left hand, then ordered her to join the rest of the group.

“Infidel,” he muttered and spat as she retreated.

Unfortunately, Abdulazeez reminded you of Mugambo as well, but the chicken version. This kind of people was not needed in Islam, you concluded.

When the group was complete, Abdulazeez worked on everyone’s Quran recitation ability for hours, with keen interest on Mangili’s. It was exhausting. You could tell the exhaustion was also getting to your instructor, because he was no longer screaming. Sure enough, you were all released for the day soon after, and earlier than the previous day.

On your way home, Madika sympathised with your runny nose and invited you to come camp with her and her husband if you were not comfortable staying alone. It was a tempting offer but you declined and said you were fine. You couldn’t abandon the chickens, even though there wasn’t really much you were doing for them at the moment.

When you arrived, a few of them were having dust baths and appeared to be in a good mood. You found a bowl and used it to replenish their feeders with feed. While you were doing this, you noticed a rooster strutting around a hen in a tip-toe like manner. You couldn’t tell if it was Mugambo but before you could react, the hen stooped and moved her tail to one side. The rooster then jumped on her back, held her scruff with his beak and rapidly prodded his cloaca against hers a few times and then dismounted.

As the rooster fluffed his feathers and walked away, shameless instances of when you and your late husband were sexually active flooded your memory. It made you smile. He would often make his approach, when you were cooking at the fire place with your daughters or cracking egusi seeds with friends and compliment your hair or your attire, giving you the eye. You would then, clandestinely, rendezvous in his private hut.

The dim yellow sun was now, slowly, getting dimmer and duller and began to duck behind the mountains – dusk was upon Kwajaffa. You contemplated drawing water from the well for the chickens and for yourself but eventually thought against it, as you had not done that in a long time and probably no longer had the strength to. There was, however, a little water in the metal bucket beside the well. Perhaps Thlama had intended to wash some dishes with it but abandoned it in a hurry when the commotion started. The water was just enough for you to boil some eggs at the fire place in a black, burnt pot you found, and also wash your face, hands and feet before your evening prayer.

The next morning, preceded by another night of inadequate sleep, was more despondent than the last. There was a chicken crouched on its belly, inactive, with dreary eyes while others were going about their normal businesses. You, on the other hand, now had – besides your nasal irritation – nausea, a notorious headache, phlegm and a cough for good measure.

You did not hear when the truck pulled over but you certainly heard the door squeak, loudly, when it was kicked open. Two of the sect members grabbed some chickens and eggs; another one grabbed you, and you all galloped through charred houses to the camp site.

Mangili was, characteristically, serving her special and every stomach was evidently thankful for her resilience.

Surprisingly, she offered, again, a bowl to Abdulazeez.

What are you doing? You wanted to scream, but the resonating, distant gunshots that followed, did that for you.

Later when the sect members had long disappeared and you were all up from your crouching positions, members of the Nigerian army, some of which were indigenes, offered first aid to those who needed it and asked a few questions. One of them, fluent in Babur, informed you all that they were obligated to transport you to an IDP camp. As good and safe as he made it sound, you were not interested, but you knew they would leave no one behind, so you cornered the Babur speaking fellow and pleaded with him to take you to Kwaya Kusar, where your daughter Kuceli lived. It was a town bordering Gombe state and it was relatively safe, so he reluctantly agreed.

The next day, Kuceli’s husband and his friends, escorted by two army trucks, courtesy of his army contact, left for Kwajaffa. They returned with the birds and eggs that had survived and sold them. You were offered some of the money but you declined and insisted it be kept for Anjikwi and his wife – the rightful owners. Although no one had heard from them, you were confident that would soon change.

Every morning, your son-in-law would lead his family through prayers, choruses and Bible readings, and you would sneer at them from the outside but deep inside you wondered why everyone, just couldn’t be happy and why an Abdulazeez could not, peacefully, co-exist with a Mangili or a Mary, for that matter.


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