The crimson red letters on the plastered but unpainted wall were ‘City Limits: Keep Off’. If Adamu had been literate, he would have been able to decipher what they meant and maybe he would not have scaled the wall. But he was not and he did. The moment his feet hit the ground, the butt of a rifle kissed his jet black, angular face. He was out cold before he hit the ground.
Then again, he may not have stopped at the wall even if he had been able to read. He had heard too many stories about what lay on the other side of the wall not to brave even Jahannam to get there. There is danger and but when it is compared to deprivation that has no prospect of ending, it comes a distant second. It always has, it always will.
Before everything went south, he had been a smiling adolescent, with nary a care in the world, following the call of football through the streets of Sokoto. His father, like his progenitors before him, was a herdsman who had grown the hundred heads of cattle he inherited to two hundred and fifty. The time spent herding were Adamu’s next best. All that changed when Boko Haram overran the Sokoto Caliphate.
Before then, there had been talks of Boko Haram, a group that had become so radicalized, its mention evoked fear. Many things—heroics, the unmentionable, but always varying—were heard. It was all flying news though; water that vamoosed from a stone once the sun came out. Borno was, after all, a thousand and a hundred kilometres away.
Then one early morning, before the muezzin called faithfuls to prayer, they came – tanks rolling, fighters marching. The people stood no chance. Those who tried to put up a fight, like Adamu’s father, were torn up by bullets. The sun rose to blood on the streets and corpses littering the ground. Many young girls were taken as spoils of war—in a couple of months, many had distended tummies. A number died giving birth.
Attempts by the federal government to end the occupation failed until the eleventh month. It launched simultaneous air and ground attacks that dislodged the insurgents—and knocked out nine-tenths of the ancient city.
Boko Haram tried to retake the city but failed. The soldiers garrisoned there yielded no ground; they also made no effort to push. After many skirmishes, some kind of equilibrium was reached and territoriality delineated. One family got tired of being in the line of fire and began to put up a wall. Official pledges of rebuilding and rehabilitation had produced nothing. First it was just a couple of blocks, then everyone began to pitch in. Over time, it grew to be 7feet high and 150 miles long.
After a decade of prosecuting the war on many fronts, the government officially declared bankruptcy. Oil prices had refused to bounce back after a twenty-four month slide.
If life had been hard before, it became an amalgam of Kilimanjaro and Sahara in its hardness and fieriness. The major means of survival were the rations that came with the dependable undependability of power supply—and were never enough.
They queued to receive the sealed, little packages. One for each person and the line kept moving. They had learned from Yesuf’s misadventure not to entertain any Oliver Twistian thoughts. Half out of his mind with hunger, Yesuf had tried to grab one more. The Private knocked him down with one blow, and then denied him rations for double the three days of hunger that drove him to blunder. Just before his turn, the man in front of Adamu toed the path of a dry leaf responding to the pull of the ground after detaching from a tree. He was buried by sunset.
Then the Sultans came. A gang of robbers from beyond the wall; they stole rations, money and anything else available.
Adamu had had enough of life on his side of the wall. With the aid of two disused tyres, he scaled it.
He awoke to a rifle-toting crowd of his age-mates. All clad in turbans and white striped blue pyjamas. Someone in khakis squatted beside him. Recognition lit a candle in his eyes. Fatma! She was alive. The thought hit his head the same time as the gun. And he sank bank into the sympathetic embrace of nothingness.
Written by John Chidi