Aches of Memory
For the chibok girls, Nigeria.
Rhoda sits still on the cold peeling tiles and watch the moon purge its light shyly on the wall like every other nights in her dreams. The dreams are frequent these days, more like a fading vision or a blurred sight. On some nights, all she could recall were faint sobs wriggling through bleak faces in white and black visions, she doesn’t identify colours in her dreams, not anymore, since the thirst of time keeps aching her memory into indefinite and dynamic horrors. She leans softly against the wardrobe, listening to crickets chirping from nowhere, the fan hangs tiredly from the ceiling as it whirls slowly like a wind mill, the night seems like a frail connection to the past, reminding her of the night that birth terror into her dreams.
It was a night like this, around prayer time when bright glittering faces cheered outside. She was in her dormitory reading Chinau Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, then suddenly, she heard vehicles slide into the yard with the screeching sound of burnt brake pads complaining at the pressure. The vehicles were filled with militants putting on ammunitions across their bodies like robes. Before chaos, suspense always flickers in the air. Everyone paused and took breaths of the situation in suspense, but In the twinkle of an eye, chaos broke. Zainab, Rhoda’s roommate whose legs are masculine enough to have sprung her through the window helped Rhoda down without breaking off the pane and sprinted anywhere following the reflexes of their survival instincts. Bullets were fired up the sky, and each corner leading to an escape was gun pointed. In a mean time, everyone was trapped by the heavy men pointing weapons at them. All she could hear was her heart thumping hurriedly in her chest, faint sobs shimmering from mouths covered by shaky hands, and soft prayers cracking loose everywhere.
The militants who attacked the school had come with the intention of stealing an “engine block”, It is not clear what piece of machinery they wanted, but there had been some construction work at the school a few weeks earlier, so it may have been the machine used for moulding cement blocks, which can also be used for constructing crude weapons, or they might have been after an engine block from a vehicle. But when it could not be found, they argued over what to do with the girls they had gathered. Rhoda knelt, head bowed, eyes closed with rosary clenched between her shaky palms, not minding the million sharp-edged stones that poked from the earth and hurt her kneel. “ It’ll be alright ” Zainab whispered. The militants argued loudly that they could be overheard, a short wimpy kid, probably on his early teens, with brown bushy hair said in a very harsh tone, “ let’s burn them all and bury their corpse! “, the thick rare hausa accent bursting from his lips showed he had grew up with the militants with no experience of being educated. Another said the girls should be freed, but after considering a number of gory options, they decided to take the girls with them.
On nights when the moon was missing, her dreams came as whispers. Sometimes when memory fades, they tend to return as nightmares and fill the holes of forgetfulness with curiosity. Time is a thief, memory is a colander, new events pushes out old ones, yet they still exists as crumbs lurking the brain. She haven’t been attending her therapy sessions often, and her past is growing giant claws bluntly. She sits blankly on a wooden chair that squeaks every moment she adjusts herself, it’s over fifteen minutes and her appointed train haven’t arrived yet. “ This so called Nigerian time freaks me out “, an old man around his fifties sits roughly beside her, his teeth are scattered and awfully coloured with patches of brown and crimson dirts as he licks them repeatedly, he reeks of dry gin and he had a bathroom slippers on with the left one held together by a tiny nail at the front. He’s trying to start a conversation and she knows. Rhoda thinks of old filthy men as self centered and wicked. The old man reminds her of someone whose name is too heavy for her tongue to behold. Each time she remembers, her heart darts away like a drunk sparrow. Malam Ahmed. She recall the afternoon when she and Zainab along with some other girls went ahead to knit underwears from the hijabs they were given. It was few weeks after they had been abducted and were forced to become muslims. Sarah, Zainab’s friend who often contributed to Rhoda’s diary sat across them while knitting, as they discussed what life would be outside again. Suddenly, malam Ahmed, one of the religious militants came in and said it is haram to allow ladies uncover their heads, says it’s temptation. He pulled one of the girls up, pushed her against the wall, and started whipping her with his thick large palm. His hands began to ambush her chest, folding lumps of her breasts, before they knew, the act of discipline turned into sexual harassment. The girls wept as they watched in horror how their fellow was being defiled of her pride. Zainab, crazy about it sprung up violently and pushed him across the room. Malam stood again, his eyes red with anger, and fist the size of a new born’s head clenched with pressure and crushed Zainab’s face as she crashed against the wall, hurting her head badly. Zainab, almost lifeless, sprawled over the floor, her body was weak and heavy as her sight dimmed. She wept, breath breaking, and bled with a cracked skull as she heard Rhoda screamed as if trying to save her from drowning, or slipping away, or breaking apart.
While in captivity, the girls were given exercise books for the Koranic classes they were made to attend. But some of the girls used these to keep secret diaries. These diaries recorded their experiences during the period of abduction. Some were caught which led to their diaries being burnt down, but Rhoda often fold the book firmly and tucked it into her underwear each time they were searched. Time passed, days unfolded, yet, Zainab didn’t get proper treatment. All they could help with was place wet clothes on her head and cleaned it each time blood seeps her skull. She couldn’t speak again, or blink, or move a finger, the only proof of life was in her heartbeat and the slow repulsive breath escaping her nostrils. One night, the moon wasn’t crescent enough to smile, the thread holding her soul to the body loosened. Rhoda could feel the coldness latching on the body, the total stillness, the breathlessness, the breaking away of oneself, the final touch, the earth’s hunger, a kick against the bucket, the demise of a loved one.
How long did she keep longing for herself, what remnant of hope exists after loosing all she had? About two years into their captivity, at a time when a military crackdown led to the militants’ supplies being cut off, Rhoda succumbed to pressure and married at the age of seventeen, a decision that entitled her to leave the camp with her terrorist husband, hopefully for a better life elsewhere with access to food. Perhaps, none of those who got married have been released so far. However, her terrorist husband died during a military attack, which led to her freedom from his dictatorship. Years passed, yet she couldn’t unite with her family as a result of ending up accidentally in the southwest, when she was rendered help by a traveling bus during her escape. Life here is something else entirely, after eight years of being here, many things still seems different. She steps carefully inside, sits softly beside the window, the long awaited train has arrived. Staring at the trees outside births reminiscence, the resurrection of old times, the appearance of bleak faces, faces she imagined to be held captive, the slight taste of terror, a swift burden battling her thoughts, the ache of memory.
Wisdom Adediji, NGP XI, is a Nigerian genre bending writer. His works have appeared on Icefloe press, Spillwords, Nantygreens, SprinNG and elsewhere. He won the Ufahamu Africa student essay contest, he studies geography at the University of Ibadan and writes from there. He tweets @wisdomadediji.