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A Private Experience

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

Chika climbs in through the store window first and then holds the shutter as the woman climbs in after her. The store looks like it was deserted long before the riots started; the empty rows of wooden shelves are covered in yellow dust, as are the metal paint containers stacked in a corner. The store is small, smaller than Chika’s walk-in closet back home. The woman climbs in, and the shutters of the window squeak as Chika lets go of them. Chika wants to thank the woman, for stopping her as she dashed past, for saying, in Pidgin English, “I saw people running from that direction.” But before she can say thank you, the woman says, “I lost my necklace when I was running; I didn’t even know.”

“I dropped everything,” Chika says. “I was buying oranges, and I dropped the oranges and my handbag as well.” She does not add that the handbag was an original Coach, that her mother bought it on a recent trip to New York.

The woman sighs, and Chika imagines that she is thinking of her necklace, probably plastic beads strung on a piece of string. Even without the tribal marks ingrained in deep, curving lines on the woman’s face, Chika can tell she is Hausa, from the narrowness of her face, the rise of her cheekbones. And that she is Muslim, not just because Chika is aware that most Hausa are Muslim, but also because of the scarf. It hangs around the woman’s neck now, but it was probably wound loosely around her face before, covering her ears. Modesty. A long, flimsy, pink and black scarf, with the garish prettiness of cheap things. Chika wonders if the woman is looking at her as well, if the woman can tell from her accent and the crucifix hanging on a gold chain around her neck that she is Igbo and Christian. Later, Chika will learn that Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with huge stones, as she and the woman are speaking. But now she says, “Thank you for calling me. I might have been running to danger. Thank you.”

“We will be fine here,” the woman says, in a voice that is so soft it sounds like a whisper. “They won’t go to small shops like this. They will go to big buildings and the market.”

“Yes,” Chika says, although she has no reason to agree or disagree; she knows nothing about riots; the closest she has come is the pro-democracy rally at the university, where she held a bright green branch and joined in chanting, “The Military Must Go!” and “Democracy Now!” Besides, she would not even have participated in that rally if her sister, Nnedi, had not been one of the organizers.

Her hands are still trembling, her calves still burning after the unsteady run from the market in her high-heeled sandals. She is still incredulous at the thought that, just half an hour ago, she was in the market buying oranges, and then there was shouting. English cries of “They are rioting! Fire! They are rioting!” Igbo cries of “Gbabanu oh! Run for your lives! They’ve killed a woman!” Similarly toned Hausa and Yoruba cries that Chika did not understand. Then people around her were running, pushing against each other, overturning wheelbarrows full of yams, leaving behind bruised vegetables they had just bargained hard for. Stampede. Chika smelled the sweat and fear, and she ran, too, across wide streets, into this narrow one, which she feared—felt—was dangerous, until she saw the woman.

She and the woman stand silently in the store for a while, looking out of the window they have just climbed through, its squeaky wooden shutters swinging in the air. The street is quiet at first, and then they hear the sound of running feet. Soon a man and a young lady appear; the young lady is holding her wrapper up above her knees and has a baby tied to her back. The man is speaking swiftly in Igbo, and all Chika hears is, “Don’t cry; we will find her, inugo. She may have run to Uncle’s house.” Both of them look towards the store and then hurry past.

“We should close the window; it is safer,” the woman says.

Chika shuts the windows; the dust in the room is so thick she can see it, billowing above her, like the clouds outside an airplane window. The smell is heavy, fills her nose, makes breathing difficult. It smells nothing like the streets outside, which smell like the kind of sky-colored smoke that wafts around her neighborhood during Christmas as people throw whole goats into fires to burn the hair off the skin. The streets where she ran blindly, not sure if the man running beside her was a friend or an enemy, not sure if she should stop and pick up one of the bewildered-looking children separated from their mothers in the rush, not even sure who was who or who was killing who.

Later she will see the hulks of burned cars, rectangular holes in place of their windows and windshields, and she will imagine the burning cars dotting the streets like picnic bonfires, silent witnesses to so much. She will find out it all started a few streets away, when a man drove over a copy of the Holy Koran on the roadside, a man who happened to be Igbo and Christian. And the Muslims nearby pulled him out of his pickup truck and cut his head off with one flash of a machete and carried it around the town of Kano, asking others to join in; the Christian Igbo had desecrated the Holy Book. She will imagine the man’s head, his rolled-back eyes, and she will throw up on the floor and spend hours cleaning up the watery vomit. But now, she asks the woman, “Can you still smell the smoke?”

“Yes,” the woman says. She unties her bright yellow wrapper and spreads it on the dusty floor. She has on only a blouse and a shimmery black slip, torn at the seams. “Come and sit.”

Chika looks at the threadbare wrapper on the floor; she can tell that it is clean, that it is probably one of two the woman owns, but that it is always clean. She looks down at her own blue denim skirt and red T-shirt embossed with a picture of the statue of liberty, both of which she bought when she and Nnedi spent a few summer weeks with relatives in New York. “No, your wrapper …” she says.

“Sit,” the woman says. “We will be here a while.”

“Do you have an idea how long … ?”

“We should stay at least until tonight, or tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, God,” Chika says. She raises her hand to her forehead, as though checking for a malaria fever. The touch of her cool palm usually calms her, but this time her palm is moist and sweaty. “My sister. I left my sister buying pineapples. I don’t know where she is.”

“She will run to a safe place.”



“My sister. Her name is Nnedi.”

“Nnedi,” the woman repeats, and her Hausa accent sheaths the Igbo name in a feathery gentleness.

Later, Chika will comb the hospital mortuaries looking for Nnedi; she will go to newspaper houses clutching the photo she and Nnedi took at a studio just two weeks ago, the one where she has a stupid smile-yelp on her face because Nnedi pinched her just before the take. She will tape photocopies of the photo on the walls of the market and the stadium. She will not find Nnedi. She will never find Nnedi. But now she says to the woman, “Nnedi and I came up here last week to visit our Aunty. We are on vacation from school.”

“You go to school?” the woman asks. “You and your sister?”

“Yes. We go to university, the University of Lagos.” Chika wonders if the woman even knows what going to university means. And she wonders, too, if she mentioned school only to feed herself the reality she needs now—that Nnedi is not lost in an insane riot, that Nnedi is safe somewhere, probably laughing in her easy, mouth-all-open way, probably making one of her political arguments. Like how Africa’s problems would be solved if all the nations adopted the detribalized, pan-African socialism of Julius Nyerere. Or how the huge popularity of blond hair attachments was a direct, traceable result of British colonialism.

“What are you doing in the university?” the woman asks.

Chika lowers herself and sits on the wrapper-covered floor. She sits much closer to the woman than she ordinarily would have, so as to rest her body entirely on the wrapper. She smells something on the woman, something harsh and clean like the bar soap their maid back home uses to wash the bed linen. “Doing?” she asks. “I am studying medicine. Nnedi is studying political science.”

“Oh,” the woman says, nodding. A vacant nod. Chika is certain she has no clue what it means to study medicine or political science.

“We have only spent a week here with our Aunty; we have never even been to Kano before,” Chika says, and she wonders if she is unconsciously explaining why she and her sister should not be affected by the riot.

“Was your Aunty in the market with you?” the woman asks.

“No, she’s at work. She is the director at the secretariat.” Chika raises her hand to her forehead again. The conversation seems surreal; she feels as though she has been hastily penciled into a cartoon show. “I still can’t believe this is happening, this riot.”

“Evil comes in many forms,” the woman says, her voice even lower.

Chika says nothing, wondering if that is all the woman thinks of the riots, if that is all she sees it as—evil. She wishes Nnedi were here; she imagines the cocoa brown of Nnedi’s eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that things like this riot do not happen in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicized, that British colonialism created a country that was never meant to be. Then Chika feels a prick of guilt for wondering if this woman’s mind is large enough to grasp any of that.

“How far have you gone in medicine? Have you started to see sick people in the hospital?” the woman asks.

Chika turns to stare and then averts her gaze quickly so that the woman will not see the surprise. “My Clinicals? Yes, we started this semester. We see patients at the Teaching Hospital.”

“I am a trader. I sell groundnuts and melons and onions,” the woman says.

Chika listens carefully for sarcasm or reproach in the tone, but there is none. The voice is gentle and low, a woman simply telling what she does. “I hope they will not destroy market stalls,” Chika says finally, because she does not know what to say, because she wants to say something that will match the dignity she feels swirling around her, in the dust.

“There are always people who loot when there is a riot,” the woman says.

Chika wants to ask the woman how many riots she has witnessed, but she does not. She has read about the other riots in the past, and they are mostly the same: Hausa Muslim zealots attacking Igbo Christians, and sometimes Igbo Christians going on murderous missions of revenge. She does not want a conversation of naming names.

“My nipples have been burning,” the woman says.


“My nipples have been burning, like pepper. Will you look at them?”

Before Chika can swallow the bubble of surprise in her throat and say anything, the woman pulls her blouse up and unhooks the front clasp of a blue, threadbare bra. She brings out the naira notes folded inside her bra before freeing her full breasts. Chika stares at her, at the oval-shaped face of a Hausa Muslim woman, a lower-class woman who puts money in her bra, a trader whose mind is not occupied with questioning abstract ideologies or case studies, but with the price of groundnuts, the length of the rainy season, the harvest of crops.

“They burn,” the woman says, cupping her breasts.

Chika moves closer and examines the dark brown nipples, touches them, feels the breasts. “Do you have a baby?” she asks.

“Yes. Almost a year now.”

“Your nipples are cracked because they are too dry. When you nurse, you have to moisturize them afterwards.”

“But the baby’s saliva makes them wet.”

“Yes, but afterwards it makes them dry. Saliva is like kai-kai; it is liquid, it makes your tongue wet, but you are thirsty after you drink it.”

The woman gives Chika a long look. “This is my fifth child. Nothing like this happened with the others.”

“It was the same with my mother. Her nipples cracked when the sixth child came, and she didn’t know what caused it, until a friend told her,” Chika says. She hardly lies, but the few times she does, there is always a purpose behind the lie. Now, she wonders what purpose this lie serves. She and Nnedi are her mother’s only children. Besides, her mother always had a British-trained GP a phone call away. Later, she will wonder why she lied to the woman, why she felt the need to draw on a fictional past similar to the woman’s.

“What did your mother use on her nipples?” the woman asks.

“Cocoa butter. The cracks healed fast.”

“Eh?” The woman watches Chika for a while, as if this disclosure has created a bond. “I will use it too.” She plays with her scarf for a moment, then says, “I don’t know where my daughter is. We went to the market together this morning. I gave her groundnuts to hawk near the bus stop, because there are many customers there. Then this whole thing started. I looked all over the market for her.”

“The baby?” Chika asks, knowing how stupid she sounds even as she asks.

The woman shakes her head. “The baby is at home with my second daughter. It is Halima I am talking about. She is fourteen. My first daughter.” The woman starts to cry; she cries quietly, her shoulders heaving up and down, not the kind of loud sobbing that the women Chika knows do, the kind that screams, Hold me and comfort me because I cannot deal with this alone. The woman’s crying is private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else. Chika wants to reach out and take her hand, press strength into the long, ring-free fingers. But she knows she has no strength to offer, that the woman has more than she does, more than she ever will.

Later, when Chika will wish that she and Nnedi had not decided to take a taxi to the market just to see a little of the ancient city of Kano outside their aunt’s neighborhood, she will wish also that the woman’s daughter Halima had been sick or something, so she would not have sold groundnuts that day.

The woman stops crying and wipes her eyes carefully with one end of her blouse. “May Allah keep your sister and Halima safe,” she says. And because Chika is not sure what Muslims say to show agreement—it cannot be “amen”—she simply nods.

The woman has discovered a rusted tap at a corner of the store, near the paint containers. Perhaps where the traders washed their hands, she says, asking Chika what she thinks must have been sold here. Chika doesn’t know. The woman turns the tap on, and they both watch—surprised—as the water trickles out. Brownish, and so metallic Chika can smell it already. Still, it runs.

“I can wash before I pray,” the woman says, her voice louder now, and she smiles for the first time to show tiny, even-sized teeth. Her dimples sink into her cheeks, deep enough to swallow half a finger, and Chika does not remember the last time she saw such radiance. The woman clumsily washes her hands and face at the tap, letting the water run into an empty paint container, then unfolds her scarf from her neck and places it down on the floor. Chika looks away. She knows the woman is on her knees, facing Mecca, but she does not look. It is like the woman’s tears, a private experience, and she wishes she could leave the store. Or that she too could pray, that she too could believe in the idea of a God, could see an omniscient presence in the still air of the store. She fingers the crucifix around her neck, a gift from an aunt which she wears for its emotional value rather than religious significance, and remembers Nnedi saying once, with that throaty laugh, “You know, Christianity is our most colonized identity.” Chika cannot remember when her idea of God has not been cloudy, like the reflection from a steamy bathroom mirror, and she cannot remember ever wanting to try to clean the mirror.

Later her family will offer Masses over and over for Nnedi to be found safe, never for the repose of Nnedi’s soul. And Chika will think about this woman, praying with her head to the dust floor, and she will change her mind about telling her mother that offering Masses is a waste of money, that it is unofficial fund-raising for the church.

When the woman rises, Chika feels strangely energized. She has to leave; she has to make her way home and make sure Nnedi and her aunt are fine. The riot probably isn’t that serious; they might both be at home worrying about her.

“I have to go,” Chika says.

The woman shakes her head, stretching. “Look at you: you are wearing Western dress, your hair is uncovered. They may be looking for people like you.”

“If they are still rioting, I think they moved on. I can’t even smell any more smoke.”

“The streets are dangerous now. Your friend can mistake you for an enemy. And you, you cannot tell who is your enemy and who is your friend.”

“I don’t think anything is still going on. We’ve been here for hours.”

The woman says nothing, lowers herself onto the wrapper on the floor. Chika watches her for a while, disappointed without knowing why. Maybe she wants a blessing from the woman, something. “How far away is your house?” she asks.

“It is far, near Maitama. I take two buses.”

“Then I will come back with my Aunty’s driver and take you home,” Chika says.

The woman looks away. Chika walks to the window slowly and opens it. She expects to hear the woman ask her to stop, to come back, to not be rash. But the woman says nothing, and Chika feels the quiet eyes on her back as she climbs out of the window.

The streets are silent. Empty. Chika looks around, unsure which way to go. She prays that a taxi will appear, by magic, by luck, by God’s hand. Then she prays that Nnedi will be inside the taxi, asking her where the hell she has been; they have been so worried about her. Chika has not gotten up to the end of the second street, towards the market, when she sees the body. She almost doesn’t see it, walks so close to it that she feels the heat. It has been very recently burned. The smell is sickening, of roasted flesh, unlike that of any she has ever smelled.

Later, Chika will see other bodies on the street, often burned, each lying vertically on the sides of the street, as though someone carefully pushed them to the street sides, straightening them. She will look at only one of the corpses, naked, stiff, face down, and it will strike her that she cannot tell if the partially burned man is Igbo or Hausa or Christian or Muslim, from looking at that charred flesh. She will listen to BBC radio and hear the detached accounts of the deaths and the riots—”religious with undertones of ethnic tension,” the clipped voice will say. And she will fling the radio to the wall, and a fierce, red rage will run through her at how it has all been packaged and sanitized and made to fit into so few words, all those bodies. But now, she turns and dashes back towards the store, feels a sharp pain on her lower leg as she runs. She gets to the store and raps on the window; she keeps rapping until the woman opens it.

“Your leg is bleeding,” the woman says.

Chika sits on the floor and stares at the line of blood crawling down her leg. Her eyes seem to swim restlessly in her head. She struggles to focus. It looks alien, the blood, as though someone squirted red paint on her, or tomato paste, or palm oil. The woman wets one flimsy end of the scarf at the tap and cleans the cut on Chika’s leg, then ties the wet scarf around it. Chika smells the nauseating metallic water and then sees the burned corpse in front of her, swinging in the air, its blackened face grimacing.

“Those empty paint containers, we can use one as a toilet,” the woman says. She takes one of the containers to the back of the store, and soon the smell fills Chika’s nose, mixes with the smells of dust and brown water, makes her feel light-headed and queasy. She closes her eyes.

“My stomach is upset because of all that has happened. I am sorry,” the woman says from behind her. Afterwards, the woman opens the window and places the container outside, then washes her hands at the tap.

Later, Chika will read the Guardian, where “Hausa” and “Muslim,” like detached viruses, are named as the reasons for the riot. And in the middle of her grief, she will feel an unreasonable pride that she knew the woman, that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim.

Chika hardly sleeps all night. The dust crawls up her nose, thick and gritty. In her dream, the blackened corpse stands up and growls at her. Finally, she hears the woman get up and open the window, letting in the dull blue of early dawn. The woman stands there for a while before climbing out. Chika can hear footsteps, people walking past perhaps. She hears the woman call out, voice raised in recognition, followed by rapid Hausa that Chika does not understand.

The woman climbs back into the store. “I saw a fellow trader. He says the rioters are gone. He wants to see if he can save anything from his stall. There are policemen with tear gas. We should go now; soon the soldiers will come and start to harass everyone they see.”

“Are you going home?” Chika asks.

“I will go to the market first, to see if there is anything left in my stall. Get up.”

Chika stands slowly and stretches. She will walk all the way back to her Aunty’s home in the gated estate because there are no taxis on the street; there are only army Jeeps and battered police station wagons. She will find her Aunty, bruised after running from the Federal Secretariat building, muttering over and over in a blind daze, “Why did I ask you and Nnedi to visit? Why did I ask you to come to Kano?” And Chika will close her eyes and slap her Aunty hard across the face, to stop her.

Now, Chika unties the scarf from her leg, shakes it as though to shake the bloodstains out, and hands it to the woman. “The bleeding has stopped. Thank you.”

“Wash your leg well when you get home. Greet your sister, greet your people,” the woman says, tightening her wrapper around her waist.

“Greet your people also. Greet your baby and Halima,” Chika says. Later, as she walks home, she will pick up a stone stained the copper of dried blood and hold the ghoulish souvenir to her chest. And she will realize then, in a strange flash while clutching the stone, that she will never find Nnedi. But now, she turns to the woman and adds, “May I keep your scarf? The bleeding may start again.”

The woman nods. There is fear and perhaps future grief in her almond-colored face, but she smiles a slight, distracted smile before she hands Chika the scarf and turns to climb out of the window.


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