Kano, Northern Nigeria
The sight of the man two tables away unsettled Martha. She pulled her son back to the table where she had dropped her handbag.
“I thought I told you to stay here and not to talk with anyone?” She asked, sternly.
The little boy was silent. He began to fiddle with the hem of his brown shirt, his remorseful eyes pinned to floor. Recently, she had felt unsecure, alone, and in threat of danger whenever she moved out of the Christian community in Kudi. Too much religion and strife between Moslems and Christians, especially in the state had given people much cause for concern. She was no exception. News, gossip—they were playing their part, feeding her with more tension. She tried to still her thoughts with the knowledge of where she was—the liberal town of Utanguru. It was one of the few areas Moslem and Christain families lived side by side.
“Sit.” Martha pulled up a chair for her son. “I just ordered jollof rice with a bottle of Fanta for you.”
The seven-year old looked up and rewarded her with a big smile of appreciation. He began rapping the satin-covered table with his fingers, his legs swinging freely as he relished the meal to come. Against her will, Martha’s eyes traveled again to the man her son had tried to befriend. Something about him just didn’t seem right. The man was now looking at her with empty, soulless eyes. Eyes she had never seen before. He was dark, raw boned with a sharp chin and wore a dirty blue caftan. Visible marks stretched from the sides of his thick dry lips. She was convinced he was an indigene, a Moslem, if questioned about his religious inclination. She tore her eyes away from him to focus on her son, who was now looking at the content on the trays of the busy waitresses. Maybe it was just her and her heightened sense of alert that made every Moslem potentially dangerous. For a split second, she wished that the things of life as she got older hadn’t robbed her of her childhood innocence. That she could be free to mingle with whomsoever she chose, just as her son had done without fear or prejudice. But then, she dismissed the thought almost immediately, cursing herself for it.
At the occupied tables, cutlery came up against the food on ceramics plates while the sweet smell of fried meat and stew filled the room. Inoffensive music playing on low volume competed with the low conversation among the diners. The window before her framed a busy street: young boys and girls hawking orange fruits, passers-by flanking cars and trucks that only managed to crawl one after the other.
A plump, white-aproned waitress with shaggy hair and near bulging eyes arrived with the ordered meal in a tray.
“How much is it, please?” Martha asked, reaching for her handbag.
“Two-fifty,” The woman replied nonchalantly. Her eyes were distant, flirting with a male customer.
Martha, surprised at the cost, queried with a raised eyebrow. “250 Naira?”
“Madam, your pikin food na 250 Naira!” Plump snorted, stabbing a beefy hand with open palm.
Martha paid. She didn’t want the woman’s bad temper to add to the unease she was trying to quell. When she looked again in the direction of the strange-looking man, his table was empty and his chair was unoccupied. From the minaret some blocks away, a voice was calling the Moslems to evening prayer. It would only take a few more minutes before the Islamic faithful head to the mosque. Martha instinctively glanced at her wristwatch. It read 4:34 P.M.
It’s been over thirty minutes. A flat tire shouldn’t be that hard to fix. I just can’t afford to wait any much longer with our little one, dear. Martha’s concerned thought switched to a voiceless request directed at her husband. If only he knows how long we’ve been here…waiting.
“Hurry, Daddy should be here any minute from now.”
“Okay…okay.” The boy mumbled through a mouthful. His hand was willing to stuff in more of the fried meat.
We are one family, one nation regardless of our diverse, native languages. But I am afraid such belief no longer exists. They don’t like us. It’s evident. We cannot continue to live under fear. We’re in a dilemma, Martha. And the government seems to do nothing about it even after the bombing in Mamangi market. My husband and children think it is best we travel down south. Hopefully return when things get back to normal. What about you, Martha? Isn’t it high time you changed your mind?
Martha flung back her rich black hair, smoothed it over her ears. The truth hit her core like a sledgehammer on a flat piece. She could hear the words of her best friend clearly as if she was right there, sitting closely beside her. They both had talked about leaving the north for the less troubled south a night before. But then, how could she leave after all these years? She had grown up here, found love, married and now had a son. Life in Kano felt almost perfect. Home; her state of origin—she traveled to the southeastern state of Enugu with her husband only during the festive periods. Deep down, she, like her husband, still felt like an outcast. Except for their surname, language, and a good sense of their culture and tradition, they both hardly belonged or contributed to the common good of their own people. Although no one had openly confronted them on such ground, they knew it. And with a great deal of shame, too.
Change would someday come, but she wasn’t prepared to accept it. No, not yet.
She had barely scratched her forehead when the wave from a loud blast sent everyone in the restaurant in different directions.
Martha’s eyelids fluttered as she tried to open her eyes, but the lids were heavy. So heavy. Her head throbbed of something awful. Where was she? What had happened to her? She heard an odd rumbling in her ears and realized it was her own groans. Blurry at first, then slowly the pictures began to form. Nothing before her looked normal again. Fire licked the curtains of the restaurant, a zipper of it, running to the ceiling and down to the floor littered with broken pieces of glass. Bloodstains were soon covered in smoke. The odor: metallic, acrid, the chemical bitterness of a flash of storm ripping open a polluted sky.
Martha managed to turn her head. Very few diners could possible make it out alive if help arrived on time. She tried to stand, but her legs were numb, bloodied, and splayed. Her burnt hands throbbed. Everything throbbed. The smoke from within the kitchen door fattened from wisp to wormy coil to clouds, relentless and oily, white to gray to black. Within seconds, she could barely make out the forms of other people.
The dining hall grew furnace-hot.
Another blast came from the direction of the first. A small gas cylinder ricocheted. The front door of the restaurant collapsed and the flames shot forward. Smoke billowed out of the building, a smothering curtain of it. Martha rebelled against her weakened body, groping the air for her son, screaming with clogged lungs: “Dubem! Dubem where are you? Someone, please help! Please.”
Adrenaline shot through her veins again. On bent hands, she dragged herself forward, eyes burning, heart beating wildly. Her mind swung into play again. It brought her son in focus. She wished could see his face, or at least hear his voice. But it was the deadly combination of smoke and heat that stood in the way. The unidentified groans, and sparks from naked electric wires.
Dubem! Oh God, please help me find my son.
BANG. A long network of metallic pipes missed her by a few inches. She thought herself seconds lucky to have moved. With the back of her hands, she cleared the rubbles in her way, made it past smoky black shapes she didn’t bother contemplating what they really were.
Ewo oo, nwa m. I won’t leave you. Mummy is here. All you have to do is…is raise your hand…or maybe just…just say “Mummy.” Martha tried to be brave. Letting her words cheer her up. But it was soon short-lived. A face shot out of the smoke. Fire burns all over made it look sexless. Voice, when it came was low, almost to a whisper.
“Help me…heeeelp.” Martha cringed at the sight of its hand with dismembered fingers coming to rest on top of hers.
Oh God… Oh God! Martha puffed out air.
Sheer panic encompassed her. Dubem where are you? Mummy is here to—
Another thought, fierce and quick, countered: Fire; can’t you see it’s gathering more momentum?
It actually spoke louder, sapping some fresh energy from her.
Martha found the base of what felt like a smashed piece of wood. It made an angle with the side of an elevated surface. From her position on the floor, it was her best chance of passing what she made out to be one of the VIP eating booths. With shaky hands, she held on to it, pulled her weight up, counted two more, but the third turned into an ordeal. The wood was molten hot. It sent her to the ground again. Martha knew she had fallen awkwardly and a bone—probably a set of bones—had dislocated in her body. But she didn’t want to contemplate which one it could be. All that mattered was finding her son.
Still lying on the floor, she forced herself to see past the smoke. The blast had made a big hole in one of the walls. It gave her a fresh idea. It would take a series of maneuver through rubbles and broken pieces of furniture to get to it. Martha forced air into her lungs. Getting to the hole was her last alternative. Stretching out a hand, she tried to drag herself towards the hole, but failed.
Something was terribly wrong.
Her torn skirt had hooked a curved piece of iron. She made an effort to free herself, but her body would not respond. More effort met a still, insensitive lower body. She couldn’t stand the sight of blood seeping out of her. This brought tears to her eyes. There was little time now left. Dubem could probably be suffocating by now. Martha couldn’t help but blame herself. Then she tried to speak again, but her words were chocked off by a convulsive cough. The end loomed. It screamed around the corners of her head.
Martha wanted to believe her son would make it out alive. She prayed silently for help. But the sight of dead bodies with burnt skins were enough to stamp out whatever little faith she had left.
God, why did you let this happen? Please! Martha screamed inside her mind.
This had to be a horrible dream. She and her son were too young to die.
O God, please, she pleaded silently. This can’t be happening.
Martha could barely breathe now.
God help her, she couldn’t fight the poisonous smoke any longer. The ground was fading now as if it was moving away from her. The fire was closer now. It bellowed like an unchained beast about to ravage her. And it came up anyway.