Continues from last week
I could hear some urge me to beat a retreat, but I kept meandering through the mass of fleeing people. Dust from the dirt road swirled in the air. I could be gasping for breath but death would stay her appointment for now; I had become inured.
By the time I looked up again a cloud of smoke was billowing ahead. My heart thumped.
The worst has happened.
I took the left turn to the house, virtually oblivious of the hands that tried to pull me back from harm’s way. It was real. My house was on fire. I shut my eyes in anguish. Then I gaped and moved closer to the inferno, screaming, “Amina . . . Amina . . . Amina.”
There was cold silence. I was the only one now in the vicinity. Lost in thought, I could only hear the ominous crackling on the roof as wooden frames splintered into the raging flames.
I ran to the backside of the house. There was still no sign of life. Looking through the burning window, I could see my book shelf melt away. The books I had painstakingly gathered over the years had turned into a heap of ashes. I dashed again to the front of the house, my eyes flashing across the area. I noticed that my brown bungalow was not the only building on fire. Two other houses in the street had been set ablaze. Then it dawned on me that they all belonged to Christians.
“No one is there. Leave now . . . run . . . run . . . run. They’re coming this way again,” a voice roared from behind.
I turned and saw my Muslim neighbour, Lateef Adebambo, bolt out of his house. Further down, gunshots boomed. The sounds were getting closer. Adebambo’s three-room bungalow was intact, but he had gathered the few personal items he could and was running out of the area. I reluctantly began to make my way out of the place, casting backward glances at the ruin that was once my abode.
I took the right turn and moved aimlessly on the adjoining street. My Yoruba neighbour had hinted that no one was in the house. My spirit began to come alive again. But I needed to be sure of what he meant. Was he simply saying I should stop wasting time, risking my life on a futile search for the dead? His voice continued to echo in my head, being a straw of hope to which I clung. Could it be that Amina is still alive? Yes, she is alive. She must be alive. I tried to reassure myself as I gritted my teeth.
Adebambo had disappeared from the scene as fast as he said those words. He had been a very friendly neighbour, but I must say that courage and firmness were not the greater part of his virtues. There was no way I could now locate him to give clarity to his message. If Amina was alive, where could she be?
She could not have sought refuge with her parents, as they had long disowned her for marrying me. Even if I were to assume that the sight of her pitiable condition may possibly temper the fury of her father, I would not delude myself about the reaction of the extremists that may be hovering around the man. They would easily make mincemeat of her.
I had walked some distance before I remembered the police station. It had always been the point of convergence in times of upheavals like this. But I also recalled that it was sacked and razed four years earlier in one of the vicious onslaughts of religious zealots. I could only wish this was not a recurrence of that tragic experience.
I fastened my grip upon the briefcase and paced toward the bus terminal. The streets were still virtually empty, only smouldering wreckages of the rampage littered the way. Every now and then someone would emerge from the corners of the disparate buildings and disappear from sight. I got to the bus terminal only to see that it had been deserted. No vehicles were coming from either side of the road. I would have to walk the long way to the station.
* * * * *
I arrived at the police station in about 30 minutes. Hundreds of displaced persons were gathered in front of the place. They fretted about the available space, carrying the much they could retrieve of their personal effects. It was about the size of a football field. Boxes, mattresses, television sets and domestic appliances of all sorts dotted the place. Aged men and women moved about the arena, while wailing infants clung onto their mothers as they competed for attention with the restless babies strapped to their mothers’ backs. Armed police men had formed a cordon around the burgeoning crowd.
Few meters away from where I stood, a distressed mother squeezed out the last drops of water from a sachet into the mouth of a thirsty toddler who kept crying for more. A little further from her, a teenage boy was struggling with the ropes he had fastened around a goat and fowl. I beamed a quick glare around the area and realized it would take a more meticulous effort to pick out Amina from that multitude.
I hurried toward the office building—a long line of offices whose blue-yellow-green identity had long given way to an ugly patchwork of faded colours. A uniformed officer of burly frame passed through the counter lid, and was heading out of the door.
“Hello, Officer. Good evening, sir,” I said.
He threw a stern look at me and continued his movement.
“I am Udoka Ndukwe. Could I speak with you for a moment, please?”
The officer glanced at me again and walked past, going toward the exit. “My friend, can’t you see this is not the time to talk?” he said.
I turned and struggled to keep up with him. “Sorry, sir, I’m searching for my wife. Her name is Amina.”
“Have you looked at all the people gathered outside?”
“No, sir. I’m just coming in. Was thinking you had compiled their names.”
“Look there,” the officer said as he pointed toward the crowd. “My men are doing that now. You can see that more people are still coming in. I suggest you go down there and see if you can find your wife.” He had barely finished speaking before he stepped out of the building to join the large gathering.
I traversed the length and breadth of the crowd. The few familiar faces among them said they had not seen Amina. She was not in their midst. It was pointless to continue roaming around the place. Dejected and exhausted, I lumbered back to the building to register her as a missing person, after which I sat in the corridor of the station, leaning my head on my hand.
When I eventually mustered the strength to stand, I dug a hand in my pocket and realized it was empty. I shuddered. Then I remembered I had safely tucked the envelope away. Yes, in my briefcase. I still had some money with me. After I submitted my application for leave to Mallam Labaran, the postmaster had gotten the office to pay some of my outstanding allowances.
Indeed, it was only Mallam Labaran that could have facilitated such expedited service. He obviously imagined that I would need some money to begin preparing for my relocation and, true to type, he did not hesitate to authorize the payments. He also ensured the funds were immediately released to me. On calmer reflection, it occurred to me how fortuitous that gesture had been.
I thought of what to do next. Should I launch out again in search of my wife? Or still hang around, in case she turned up? People were still coming into the station for cover. The violence in the streets had not abated. But, where to even begin the search again, I did not have the slightest idea. Could she have been abducted? I began to inch my way toward the gate, to take a peep at the main road. Then my eyes caught another small gathering within the premises, further off the left side of the entrance.
I had not noticed it when I came in. It was a temporary shelter: a tarpaulin canopy. Nurses in white and light blue uniforms milled around the tent. The dark of night had begun to shade the glow of day. I dashed toward the place, suspecting it must be a medical unit that was hurriedly assembled for the internally displaced persons. One of the nurses fixed a worried gaze on me as I moved closer.
“Please, ma, I’m searching for my wife,” I said. “How does she look?” she asked.
“She’s dark-skinned . . . 28 years . . . average height . . . she . . . she has braided hair.. .two tribal marks on the forehead. She’s pregnant.”
“What’s her name?”
“Amina . . . Mrs. Amina Ndukwe.”
“Come with me,” she said. That was after she had scanned me from head to toe.
Her stern expression suggested I must have been carrying a terrifying mien. But, at such a moment of distress, who would really care much about his appearance.
We walked into the tent; behold, my wife was lying on the bed! Two doctors were attending to her. One had placed a stethoscope on her chest, while the other held a syringe, apparently trying to locate a vein on her right hand.
“Amina . . . Amina!!” I screamed.
“Shhhhh.” The nurse shut me up. The doctors cast a glance at me and turned toward the nurse. She nudged me, motioning that I be quiet.
The seemingly younger doctor turned to me. “Are you the husband?” he asked. He was dark, short and middle-aged. His large eyeballs beamed a searching stare at me.
“Yes, sir. I’m her husband. Doctor . . . her name is Amina . . .yes, I’m the husband, Doctor. I . . .”
“OK. Calm down. As you can see, she’s unconscious. We’re trying the best we can to resuscitate her. We need to get her to the general hospital. We’ve sent for an ambulance.”
“Ambulance?” I mumbled and stared at my wife as she lay motionless on the narrow bed.
We arrived at the hospital on Bama Road and Amina was rushed to the emergency ward. The hall was overflowing with patients. Many stood about, while others lay on the floor. Even the window sills bore the weight of those struggling with the last breath of life. A boy of about six was bleeding from his bandaged eye. Another was calling, “Mama… Mama… Mama.” A deep gash was on his right arm, and the left side of his head was swollen. I pulled out my handkerchief to wipe the tears off my eyes.
Cries and lamentations enveloped the crowded hall. They had managed to wheel my wife into the theatre while I fretted about the place, praying. Thirty minutes later, one of the doctors came to brief me about her condition. He said they may have to evacuate the unborn child to save the life of my wife, and he needed me to sign the consent form.
I reluctantly reached for the paper. “Doctor, please, you mean nothing can be done to save my child? This is our first child sir…her first pregnancy…please help us,” I stuttered and scribbled my signature on the form, my eyes flashing between the paper and the doctor.
“Sorry, sir, we can’t guarantee anything now. But I can assure you we’ll do our best,” he said.
I did not hear from the medical team again until two hours later, after my wife had been stabilized. She had regained consciousness and was taken to the Intensive Care Unit; the doctors were still battling to save her pregnancy. Some prescriptions were given to me, upon which I hastened to the pharmacy to purchase the drugs. Then I thanked God and immediately offered a quiet prayer for my boss, Mallam Sirajo Labaran.
I began to wonder if members of the different Islamist groups professed the same Muslim faith as my godsend supervisor; the payments Mallam Labaran authorized for me that morning had come in quite handy. I procured the drugs and hurried back to the ICU. After I handed them to the nurse, I stamped to the bedside of Amina.
She managed a grin as I took her hand. “It is well with you, my love,” I muttered and sat on the edge of the bed.
She did not respond. She was weak. She looked at me and began to sob. Her face had taken on a different mien as the glow of the preceding days had paled into a sorrowful visage. She was on the brink of losing her first pregnancy in our ten years of marriage. Her resolve to come along with me and live in any village had been strengthened by the thought of having the child. It would erase the series of mockery and bring an end to the humiliating insinuations that had intensified with the years of barrenness. Now, all that expectation was collapsing around her. The hopes of a promising future were fading away.
I sensed her thoughts. I must re-kindle her faith. “The doctors said you’ll be fine,” I uttered with forced optimism.
“What of the baby…our baby?” she said in a barely audible voice.
I looked away and bit my lips, then I turned with a grimace and faced my wife. “Our baby will be OK…our baby is OK. The grace of God is sufficient for us,” I said and blinked as the tears rolled off my face.
The door creaked. Two doctors walked into the room. “You may have to excuse us for now, please, Mr. Ndukwe,” one of the doctors said. I rose to leave and gave her a reassuring smile, but she had switched her attention upon the doctors. I patted her shoulder and headed for the door.
It was eight thirty. I was beginning to feel dizzy as I had not eaten again since my breakfast of pap and bread. I asked a nurse who was passing by for the hospital canteen. She turned and pointed toward the backside of the hospital. Promptly, I expressed my gratitude and, with the light glowing from surrounding windows, I traced my way. In a short while, I had walked with feeble steps into the canteen and located a seat at the far corner. The place was virtually filled up. The aroma and sizzling of fried onions and tomatoes from the kitchen permeated the hall.
I asked for a plate of white rice, stew and fish.
“Oga, we no get fish sir,” the stubby waiter said.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“Assorted, cow and goat meat,” she said.
Because I was too shattered to make a simple choice, I gazed emptily away. “Just give me whatever you have,” I said.
As she left, I glanced across the place. The canteen would normally take about 20 people, but it was obvious that additional provision had been made to accommodate the unusual number of people that thronged the hospital. As they ate and chatted away, sitting around the white plastic tables, one topic dominated the discussions. Many were expressing worries at the rumours of an imminent attack on the hospital.
The radicals who had caused the mayhem in town were said to be mobilizing for an attack on the hospital to finish off the hapless victims of their violence. I remembered that I had sighted two armed policemen at the gate. They were expected to keep guard at the premises, but it was clear they would easily be swept away by the rampaging hoodlums. The tension within the canteen was palpable. I started to get uneasy as the tables began to empty. People were gradually exiting the hall. Without looking up further, I gobbled my food and hurried out of the place.
* * * * *
I had gone a few meters away from the canteen before I noticed that the hospital had become quiet. I walked toward the crowded general ward I had passed on my way to the canteen and peered through the window. It was empty. The three people left inside were heading for the exit. Two of them held an elderly man with a bandaged leg, helping him to the door. I turned and began to hasten toward the ICU. The few people I saw on the way were hurrying out of the hospital, lamenting the imminent invasion by the hoodlums.
I got to the Intensive Care Unit. It appeared deserted, so I quickly made for the door. Amina was sleeping, with the drip still connected to her right hand. The younger doctor was pacing frantically across the room.
“Where have you been, Mr. Ndukwe? I’ve been looking for you all over the place,” he said. His clean-shaven head shone in the fluorescent light.
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I rushed to the canteen.”
“Now, we have to leave here fast. The security signals we’re getting are not looking too good. I’m Dr. AbdulFattahu Usman.”
“Thank you, sir. I heard about the threat at the canteen.”
“Yes. As you can see, people are fleeing the hospital.”
“But where do we go from here, Doctor?”
He stopped and looked at me. “It’s OK. I can understand. Your wife was crying. She said you had nowhere to go. In fact, I had to put her to sleep so she doesn’t worsen her condition with her agonies. Come, come. We have no time to waste.”
I watched as those words issued from his thick lips, then hastened to join him by the bedside. We lifted Amina out of the bed. He took out the sachet of drip from the iron stand and held it up as we rested her on the mobile stretcher. When we got to the car lot, he briskly opened the doors of his Datsun Bluebird car and helped me to gently lift her into the backseat of the vehicle.
I hopped in to join her at the back while he gestured that I hold up the drip properly. As we sped out of the hospital gate, a crowd of youths was heading for the hospital from the opposite side, chanting war songs. They wielded guns, machetes, sticks and broken bottles. It was then the magnitude of the crisis began to get to me. I wondered where the doctor was taking us.
He had introduced himself by a name that clearly sounded Muslim. I took another look at him—this time more searchingly. I began to imagine that he could very well be one of those fanatics, who camouflaged their extremism in a garb of harmless officialdom. I was torn between a sense of gratitude and a morbid fear of ambush. But it also baffled me why the doctor would go all this length if the plan was to still get me and my wife killed. He could very well have left us at the mercy of those rampaging youths we saw as we were driving out of the hospital. But these are truly unusual times. Anything is possible. After all, there are psychopathic killers who derived special satisfaction in personally decapitating their victims.
The doctor drove into the newly-constructed housing estate on Kashim Ibrahim Road, on the way from Maiduguru to Potiskum. I had heard about the place but had never been there. As the gatemen at the entrance walked toward the Datsun car, I fixed a stare on the one dressed in jalabiya, his Koran in his right hand. They recognized the doctor, greeted and swung the gate open. My eyes darted about the place. Street lights illuminated the lawns and road curbs. All the houses were of uniform shape and colour. He drove further in and turned toward one of the white bungalows.
I noticed a window blind slide aside. In no time, the front door of the house was opened.Dr. Usman had stepped out of the car and was moving to the left side of the back door. I looked up and saw a young man in dark shorts and white singlet come out of the house; his stocky frame and light skin were conspicuous in the fairly illuminated premises. He appeared to be in his early 30s.
He walked to the car, greeted the doctor and joined in lifting my wife into the house. We put her on the brown-cushioned seat in the living room, and I stood beside her holding up the drip.
I raised my head and caught a glimpse of the Arabic inscriptions on an Islamic poster that was hanging on the wall. Quickly, I pulled my suspicious eyes away as the doctor approached again. He held Amina by the wrist to feel her pulse and instructed the young man to prepare the visitors room.
In no time, we settled into the room. A mattress was placed on the floor for me while she lay on the bed. The drip had been properly positioned on an iron stand by her side.
I heard a knock on the door. Dr. Usman stepped in. He walked to the bed and injected some drugs into the drip. As he turned toward me, the lights went out. The room was pitch-dark.
“Sorry, Mr. Ndukwe. I didn’t tell you the lights here usually go off by twelve,” he said.
“It’s OK, sir. Dark nights are something we’re all used to,” I managed to utter in the dark; my heart had begun to pound.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
He walked out of the room and shut the door.
* * * * *
For three days, Dr. Usman sheltered us. He bought some new clothes for me and my wife. He treated her for free and was able to save the pregnancy. We all ate at the same table and virtually lived as a family.
There were two things Dr. Usman took passionate interest in: his fura de nunu drink, a formula of millet and cow milk. He never missed it a day; the other was the music of Alhaji Dr. Mamman Shata, especially the track, ‘Salabi Liman Kaura.’
But I noticed that Bala, the steward who helped bring Amina out of the vehicle on the first day, was not particularly friendly. He would react grudgingly to the slightest request from me or my wife, although he tried to conceal his feelings whenever the doctor was around. Dr. Usman still went to work in the mornings and returned in the evening, so we were stuck the whole day with Bala. But his cold attitude and hostile stares began to worry us. We had heard stories of how several Christians who were hidden by generous neighbors were betrayed by unknown informants in such previous riots.
We considered reporting his inhospitable behaviour to the doctor but realized we would be over-stretching our luck, for we did not wish to put asunder a family we met just few days ago, particularly when they owed us no obligations.
Although we still had some money to sustain us in a hotel for about a week, the tension in town had not subsided. Pockets of skirmishes and sporadic attacks were still being reported. I conferred with my wife, and we concluded that the best thing to do in the circumstance was to thank Dr. Usman for his kindness and begin our journey to Ubo.
He returned home late that day. His vehicle taxied into the compound at nine fifteen. I was seated in the living room listening to the NTA Network News when Bala came into the sitting room and moved toward the front door to welcome his master. He shot a scornful look at me as he walked past.
I recoiled, bit my lips and mumbled, “I don’t blame you. Na condition make crayfish bend.”
I had resolved, with Amina, not to respond to the humiliating acts of Bala, no matter the provocation. It was not our intention to do anything that would make Dr. Usman regret his uncommon compassion.
“How’re you today, Udoka?” Dr. Usman asked as he stepped into the house.
I stood to welcome him. “I’m doing fine, Doctor.”
“You’re not looking good to me. How is Amina?”
“No, no. We’re OK, sir. Amina is fine, sir.”
“I hope you’ve all had dinner?”
I looked away, coughed to clear my throat. “Ehmm, we’re OK, sir. I think the gas in the house is finished. But we’re fine sir,” I said. I cannot say now if it was an instinctive response or a deliberate one.
The doctor stopped and stared at me with indignation in his eyes. Suddenly I wished I had remained silent or, at least, had not disclosed the true situation of things.
“Impossible. You mean you’ve not eaten since I left in the morning? What about Amina? She’s not had anything, too?” Dr. Usman fumed.
“We’re OK, Doctor. We’re fine, sir,” I said and feigned a smile.
“Bala!” Dr. Usman bellowed.
“Sir,” Bala answered and walked back lazily into the sitting room.
“What happened to the money I gave you in the morning for gas?”
Bala lowered his face and glared at the floor. “I look am for efery where. Gas e no dey for the ehztate,” he said.
“How can you say there’s no gas in the entire estate? And you did not bother to look for an alternative? What of the kerosene stove?” Dr. Usman said.
“E bad, sir. I call am for the tekniza. Long before e pinis am . . . e good now. Food ready now, sir,” Bala said.
“At this time? Look at the time.” Dr. Usman said, pointing to the wall clock. He turned toward me, his big eyeballs blazing in the fury of the moment. “I’m sorry, Udoka. I can assure you that this will not repeat itself.” He had barely finished the words before he turned and stormed out of the sitting room. Bala hurled a monstrous glance at me, hissed and brushed past.