Even the birds sometimes sweat in the heat of northern Nigeria. The soft hum of the air conditioner blends with the sounds of early morning classes. I sit in the third row to the left in classroom JS3A. I am thirteen and in the highest junior high grade. The black cardboard covered bulletin boards have red squiggly boarders and cartoon character faces beside every subject. Papers with A+ grades hang stapled to the bulletin boards and high glass windows on both sides of the classroom brighten our choice of red and black colours.
I sit at my desk, twirling a pen during a History period. My friend Zinaria sits behind me, writing out Backstreet Boys lyrics and occasionally poking me with her pen to confirm a lyric. Mr. Ike, a young balding man on his tippy toes, writes away on the board under an underlined
Historical Studies. He writes with his left arm outstretched as far as he can. I stare out the high glass windows, and watch teachers conversing and small birds fluttering.
A woman dressed in a long flowing gown runs into the school barefoot, with tears streaming down her face. She runs past the window and I lose sight of her. Her voice trails down the hallway and we hear her next door.
I just want my daughter! I just want my daughter! the woman screams.
Madam, please! Mr. Jeffery, the Physical Education teacher, begins to plead.
I just want my daughter. I want to leave this place, the woman screams louder.
Madam, whatever it is, you have to calm down! Mr. Jeffery screams over the womans wails.
Teachers from other JS classes walk towards JS3B and plead with Mr. Jeffery to the woman. Muffled voices trail to my class as tables screech and feet shuffle. Mr. Ike closes his notebook and peeks out into the open hallway.
Ill be right back, he mutters while wiping his chalky hands on a handkerchief. I glance back at Zinaria as her pen rolls back and forth on thesheet of messy lyrics.
What is that all about? she asks.
Didnt you see the barefoot lady? I ask her.
No, she responds, shaking her head. Wait—what barefoot lady?
Maybe shes gone mental, Ify jokes from the second row
Could it be the rally? Josephine asks with her eyes wide open. It couldnt be right?
I shake my head. Maybe something is wrong at her home.
Several students walk towards JS3B after being left unattended for several minutes. The mother and daughter walk away hand in hand. The girlfollows her mother with her head down. Teachers start to gather in the open hallway, muttering in low voices, and the Vice Principal Mr. Seth arrives to join them.
Theyre killing people in town! Aisha from JS3B yells from the classroom doorway. She runs down the hallway with her backpack bouncing on her back.
My stomach drops. The classroom drowns in silence as heads turn to look at others to confirm if we had all heard the same. Some students walk out to get the gist of what is really happening.
Mr. Ike walks in and opens his briefcase. Several books fall from the teachers desk as he gathers them. His dark brown dress pants and cream coloured dress shirt crease as he stoops to pick them up. It seems classes are over today. You may leave if you wish.
I touch the empty pocket of my blue skirt and sigh. Cell phones are prohibited in school and today I obeyed the rule, as usual. Turning to
Josephine, I consider borrowing hers just to call my mom.
Do you have your cell phone? Josephine asks me as if she is a mind reader.
No I respond.
Do you have your cell phone? she asks Zinaria, who tosses things into her backpack.
Zinaria shakes her head. No.
Well who has their cell phone?! Josephine yells over the noise and half empty classroom. No one responds.
Shade from JS3B comes over to our class. We are in different classes but we always hang out, eat lunch and leave together. So where do we go now? Shade asks, pushing her bangs to cover her face as she walks into the classroom.
What happened in there? Ify and several classmates ask Shade.
Well, Henriettas mother came in yelling and Mr. Jeffery was trying to calm her down, but she kept saying people at the rally were beingslaughtered and that on her way here fights had broken out and people are being stabbed and killed right on the side of the road.
I feel a pain in my chest. Something is terribly wrong.
What do you mean people are being killed? Josephine asks.
People are being killed? A wide-eyed Collins asks.
Shade lifts a brow and nods. Thats what Ive been saying or are you deaf?
Collins swings his backpack over his right shoulder and runs out into the crowded hallway.
I think its a Muslim and Christian thing. Shade tells us once we are alone in the classroom.
So Christians are killing Muslims and Muslim killing Christians? Thats so stupid, Josephine yells.
I know. Shade folds her arms. So what do we do now?
We should head to the parking lot. I suggest, heading out into the open hallway with friends. I bet they will come for us soon.
At the parking lot, the entire student population yet to go home all gather in groups. The military graveyard is blocked off by low old brick fences and the red sand of the unpaved parking lot heats up the soles of our shoes. Josephine tosses her backpack on the stone carved bench shielded by the monument.
Even I think Sharia law is stupid. And Im Muslim! Josephine exclaims. She goes on to argue about how even Muslims dont want the Sharia law and how impractical it is to have one where the religious population is almost equal.
Josephine talks a lot.
I choose to keep silent. My father left for Abuja, the Nigerian capital, after I was dropped off at school hours ago. Chances were that he had arrived at the capital and it would take him two hours to return. I worry about getting home and if my mom will turn on the TV. Eventually I start to hope an aunt will call and inform her of the chaos so she can rush over to get me.
Im going to ask the guys if they have a cell phone, Josephine decides.
I watch Josephine as she laughs with the boys and punches them on the arm. I bet asking for a cell phone is far from the conversation she is having with them.
Im sure my mom will come get me, Shade whispers. I just hope she doesnt have any trouble getting here.
Shade lives two streets away from my house but, like my mother, I dislike asking for favours.
Im not sure who will get me. I sigh. Maybe I should ask Hadiza.
I wouldnt suggest getting a ride from a Muslim. I mean what if you get a lift and on the way something goes wrong and youre the only Christian in the car?
Hadiza is my best friend, I smile. Ive known her since kindergarten. I doubt anything will go wrong.
Just dont, Zinaria chips in.
I dont argue and continue to worry.
Minutes later, a convoy of black cars with sirens speed down and Zinaria gets up to leave. She asks us to keep in touch and to stay safe as security guards jump out and help Zinaria into a black car.
Least she doesnt have to worry, Shade sighs. Being the Deputy Governors daughter and all.
An hour later, only a handful of students remain along with Shade and me. A cream coloured Mercedes races down the street and turns into the unpaved parking lot. Mrs. Balogun pulls up in front of Shade and I, with a trail of dust starting from the turn into the lot to the bench Shade and I are seated. Shades younger brother peeks up from the back seat, clutching his seat belt tightly.
Nicole, what are you still doing here? Havent they come for you yet? Mrs. Balogun asks, rolling down a window and breathing heavily.
No. My dad left for Abuja this morning. Im still waiting for my mom to come get me.
You know your mother never watches TV until its time for 9 oclock news, Mrs. Balogun sighs. Get in the car. Ill take you home.
Shade jumps in the front seat and I get in the back. The cool leather seats soothe our heated skin.
Put on your seat belt. Mrs. Balogun demands. She watches from the rear view mirror as I drag the seat belt. Once she hears the click the Mercedes takes off leaving dust behind.
Three months later, I saw my friends at school again. We never spoke about the riot. Not once.