Whenever I arrived home late in the night I went to a small glassed window belonging to the gatekeeper and knocked. Sometimes once, sometimes twice, most times not more than thrice before I got a response on the other side. The other side was the gatekeeper’s tiny room, whose wall was an extension of the compound’s fence. His bed laid right beneath the window. I used to feel it took the gatekeeper forever between his response and the eventual opening of the gate. This got me a little upset each time. This subtle anger, which I never spoke to him or anyone, went on until I had a personal encounter with the gatekeeper.
The closest I had been to the Boko-Haram insurgency in my country was as an audience of a Virtual Reality (VR) film screening in Lagos earlier this year. The film, titled Bakassi, produced and directed by Kachi Benson, screened at the German Consulate in Lagos to commemorate with the International German Film Day. It was a short documentary film of fewer than ten minutes, a narrative of the internally displaced people (IDP) of the north-eastern state of Borno, Nigeria. The film gave a refreshing and emotive experience to the plight of the victims of Boko-Haram in that endlessly troubled area, 847 Kilometers from Abuja (the country’s capital) and 1,591 Kilometers from
the city of Lagos. With the VR medium, however, these distances were greatly compressed to one’s immediate space. One could touch these people; poke fingers in their wounds and feel the pain in their hearts.
I had come home late in the night after the screening and, as always, went to the window and gave it a hard knock, and then another. I heard the gatekeeper blurted Sir from his sleep. Patiently, I waited for the part that got me annoyed: the time gap between the gatekeeper’s response and the actual opening of the gate. In time the gate got opened and, again, I never expressed any anger. The gatekeeper was a teenage boy. Hausa. Meek and respectful. His life story would later replace the VR film to be my closest experience with a Boko-Haram survivor. His story was as traumatizing as it was illuminating in the way he had experienced it.
His name was Simone — Simone Sunday. From Chibok. Everyone knows Chibok on the map from the way its borders forcefully leaked almost three-hundred girls to nowhere in one hellish night. The girls were like water quickly drained in a drought. They were there one minute and, in the next, were nowhere to be found. That was how we all learnt Chibok, leaking those souls into a vacuum. The country argued: There were girls! No, there were no girls! There couldn’t have been girls! This was how the world knew Chibok: in the way and manner all those girls disappeared.
What we did not quickly learn, however, was the recurring events of how boys, too, were displaced and lost in an even more barbaric manner. Simone was one of those boys. Left for dead from bullet wounds, and whose eventual survival might rightly be termed a miracle.
All the while, no one in the compound knew him or cared about where he came from. Unknown to me, each time I knocked on his window at night for the gate, I sent down into his nerves a dose of grief, a reawakening trauma that brought back dreadful memories in a flash. The sudden late-night knocks
shocked him awake, he shivered, took a little time to recollect himself, before heading to unlock the gate. I can imagine now, on hearing the sudden sounds on his window, him jerking to life from dread like he once jerked to seize back his life from the fangs of death.
His bullet wounds sold him out that evening when he got randomly chosen to be part of a football game. He had pulled his shirt and trouser to remain in yellow silk short for the game. Those who knew bullet wounds, large smoothen and scary scars — one on the left arm and the other on the side of his right leg, extending to his ankle — saw and immediately started asking questions. I had the most command of the Hausa language, which Simone spoke most fluently, having lived my childhood in the Northern state of Kano. And so, naturally, Simone and I had chemistry.
Simone was fourteen years old and in Junior Secondary School Three when he was sent to deliver provisions and a bi-weekly stipend to his sister, Naomi Sunday. It was quite a distance between GG Chibok (his own school) and Askirauba Local Government Area where his sister’s school was located. But
Simone knew the route like the back of his palm having been rendering such errands for his parents at least once in two weeks since he started secondary school.
He remembered managing to hold a bottle of groundnut with one hand on the bicycle handlebar. A polythene bag filled with foodstuff sat tied up on the passenger’s seat, and a neatly folded five hundred naira note (roughly one dollar fifty) laid in his pocket. It was just a normal day, he said, as I rode all through to my sister’s school. Simone went to an all-boys day-school while the sister was in an all-girls boarding. Nothing had prepared him for what was to happen. His sister’s school was already in sight when he encountered them. According to him, they drove in a truck and a pickup van. They came jumping down from the vehicles even before the vehicles came to a halt. He was sighted from a close enough range where he had stopped short from fright. At first, he thought them to be the Nigerian army, and then he thought them not. In a quite casual and offhanded manner, he said, in a manner that didn’t portend threat, one of them, who obviously was the leader of the group, told another to shoot at him.
Simone heard the leader said. The next second found him being sprayed with bullets from an automatic rifle. Simone was caught in one leg and one arm. He fell to the ground and was thought to be dead. But Simone was still alive and could still see in blurs as they roved around, strategizing their main aim for that day. Simone knew better than to cry aloud from his pains. He groaned in the dust, feeling himself dying out alongside the dusking of the day. He eventually lost consciousness.
“I just woke up and found myself in the hospital”, he said.
It was the evening of April 14th 2014; the day at least 276 schoolgirls were abducted from a Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, and ushered into Sambisa forest where Boko-Haram took base at the time. Simone’s sister, Naomi Sunday, was one of the many girls. It was reported that some of the girls escaped their captors before getting to a destination and traced their ways back home. Naomi wasn’t one of them. She arrived the destination in the forest and remained there till 2017 when, in effecting a deal with the Nigerian government, the Boko-Haram militias released her alongside 111 others in exchange for their comrades in the Nigerian army custody. It took Simone roughly the same time to fully recover his arm and leg after a series of treatments in a hospital in Utaku Local Government Area, Borno State.
As the government negotiated the release of the girls, parents in Chibok, on the other hand, had learnt to negotiate the lives of their children who were boys: they were mostly sent away to other parts of the country down south to escape being victims of casual killings. The Chibok people were predominantly Christians who wouldn’t give up their fate when captured. They were of no use to the Boko-Haram mission; they were irreparable infidels. There was absolutely no use trying to convert them. So their
men and boys were shot at sight while their women and girls could be captured. Parents learnt then to prematurely release their boys to the outside world for safety. But the true safety of these boys was a guess as wild as that of anyone’s imagination, given the general state of the country’s security system.
After recovery, Simone was first sent away in June 2017 through the help of a family friend. The man himself was a menial worker in Lagos. With the man, Simone came alongside two other boys like him. The man got them jobs. Simone a cleaner with a rich man in Ikeja, Lagos. Today, there are thousands of such boys everywhere in hand for some of the most rudimentary menial jobs: riding motor-bikes known here as Okadas; manning gates; hawking the streets; collecting iron scraps; washing cars; selling fruits and nuts on wheelbarrows and so on. When they are not too lucky, they are readymade victims of any kind of crime involving young boys, including armed robbery.
While Naomi and the other released girls were being moved from one facility to the other by the Nigerian government in efforts to rehabilitate them, Simone and his ilk moved in and out of Lagos and other southern states for safety and education. Simone worked till May 2018, before returning to
Adamawa state, 1,329 Kilometer up north from Lagos. His father had safely relocated the family to Adamawa, a safer neighbouring state to Borno. Simone had gone back to sit for his West African Examination Certificate (WAEC).
However, having left his farmland back in Borno and was now made to work a far smaller piece of land leased out to him by his friend, Simone’s father could hardly earn the much to fend for his family. And so after his examination, Simone was sent away again to continue earning a living for himself in Lagos. He came in April 2019, got a job to man the gate of a compound with six flats, a compound where I presently lived in.
“If Shekau got killed today, I’d eat his flesh!” Simone, whose demeanour and outlook betrays the weight of his words, spoke with the maturity of a grown man, with his face always cast ahead of him to pick his words. One could surmise that he might merely be repeating what must have become the mantra among his folks back home in Chibok, where Abubakar Shekau (leader of the Boko-Haram sect) was the only demon they knew outside the biblical Satan himself.
Although Simone was a devoted Christian and had started going to a Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) around the locality, since he came back to Lagos, on his middle finger on the right hand was an African spiritual ring that was given to him by his folks back home for protection. The fact that Christian believers must have suffered irreparable losses during the height of the insurgency in Borno must have dented the faith of many of them to adopt other forms of beliefs, especially African voodoo, for protection. But, somehow, they had managed to weld these other beliefs in ways not to interfere with their Christianity.
“This ring here, look, I can be shot at but will never get hit; never die. No single blood will come out of me”, Simone would boast. “When this ring is on me, I can’t be killed. But I must not be without it for at most three days. Being without it for that long would be dangerous; I will die without a cause”, he told us one afternoon as he rubbed a particular plain silver ring on his middle finger. There were other rings, too, for other purposes.
The neighbours, who were from the Yoruba and Igbo tribes, had built an interest in hearing Simone tell the tale of his tragic experiences. With them, he had suddenly assumed the role of the compound’s darling. Sometimes they cooked him meals, other times he went on errands for them. He had become more than just a gatekeeper. And I had stopped knocking on the window, too; I just called out his name once, twice or three times in a friendly tone before I hear him respond. From his telling, we listened to stories far-flung away from us and yet that had always been ours; our stories to own, our tragedies to be bear. As a people, this singular event had given us a collective identity. A hundred and twelve of the girls are still missing. Boko-Haram is still raging in Borno. And there are still humanitarian groups agitating for the freedom of the girls. Parents and sympathizers gathered in Lagos, Abuja and other places last April to mark the fifth year anniversary of the girls’ disappearance. “Our only prayer is for our girls to be released to us”, a parent had said at a gathering.
One Sunday afternoon, Simone came back from the church without his ring. A neighbour noticed the ring-free finger and was shocked. She raised an alarm to the other neighbours, asking Simone why he threw
away his ring. It had happened that at the church service that day, Simone’s pastor had told him to discard the metal and that he had no need for any protection outside that of the Lord in heaven. No more diabolical rings; he was completely safe now. The neighbours took the news with mixed reactions. They were to wait out the next three days to know if their darling would remain to man their gate. What the neighbours couldn’t tell for certainty, however, was if Simone, who looked quite unconcerned, shared their fears.
(The Islamic group Jama at Ahl-Sunnah hid-Da wah Wal-Jihad, which was later renamed Boko-Haram, was created in 2002. The Islamic organization*s goal was to *purify* Islam in parts of northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group quickly gained influence among the people of these regions and attract the attention of the then government of Borno state. The government, led by Ali Modu Sheriff as the governor, had briefly employed the group to a political end before the fallout between the two parties. The fallout led to the incarceration and the eventual execution of the then leader of the group Mohammed Yusuf. In avenging the death of their leader and enforcing his teachings, the group became what is known today: an extreme terrorist movement once said to be the deadliest in the world. Since it started attacks on the Nigerian government in 2009, Boko-Haram has displaced 2.3million people and killed tens of thousands others.)