“An Encounter” by Mujahid Ameen Lilo

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IN THE RAINY SEASON OF 2013, when Kano was tangled like a spider’s web with all the checkpoints and roadblocks because Boko Haram had turned its eye on the state when I was in SS1 and fourteen, I saw death eyeball to eyeball.

It was a Friday.

Every day, a little before dawn Dad would flick his wet hands on my face, a trick to wake me up faster. He believes that the time of the day before the muezzins fierce the tranquility of the night awaiting dawn, is the best time to open our day with Qur’anic recitation and work on our memorisation. I have never gotten used to that — being jarred from sleep out of my lush blanket.

 I would grumble as I performed my ablution but stop as soon as Dad’s charisma filled me as I sat before him with our large text of Qur’an open and the light switch on. We would read, Dad correcting my pronunciation, telling me the right place to slur or pause, to raise or lower my voice. Then he would translate some verses to me and recounting his stay in Makkah which I avoided by pretending to yawn or saying I was hearing the adhan, the call to prayer.

We would walk down the street to the mosque, enjoying the smell of incoming dawn. Later, fijr light would crack open the sky and the sun rays would dry the dew and soon the house would be filled with the smell of breakfast as the road rose with the traffic.  After breakfast on the Turkish rug in the parlor(we hardly use our dining room), I would dress in my sky-blue shirt and blue shorts uniform and take my bicycle and cycle down Sardauna Crescent to our school, Sunshine College.

That Friday, like any normal day, began like that.

That Friday had all the elements a Friday normally has and the ones I imagine would have. The holiness in the air; the Qur’an played in many radio stations. The closing of places of business as early as noon. The groups and groups of people walking to the mosque. The closing of roads leading to the mosques for vigil. The scorching sun even in Harmattan. There was nothing inauspicious in the August air that still smelt of rain.

As usual, schools closed at 12. I headed home and changed into my Friday attire and began walking to the mosque, Al-Furqan at Alu Avenue.

That was when I had the encounter with death.

From the beginning of the street where the great mosque sat, tray- carrying hawkers and bowl- holding beggars littered. As you walk the beggers stretch out their bowl singing praises for you, the flies around them rising; the hawkers start hawking in a sing-song voice. I walked slowly, uncomfortable in my newly starched shadda that ached under my arms with that crispness of newness, the hurried lunch sitting balmy in my stomach and burning my intestine. The sun, struggling through feathers of cloud, was brilliant, burning my pimples, collecting sweat on my body.  But I was more uncomfortable with imagining how these beggars were able to manage that kind of life, crippled or blind or simply poor. I imagined my life twisting into theirs. And that thought alone made me shed tears. I began to appreciate what I had all ignored or failed to appreciate, the luxury, the privileges. My father is a banker, my mother a nurse. They take me to an expensive school. They gave me all I want. I wish I could change the beggars’ and hawkers’ lives.

That must have been what made me not notice the lady prior to her tapping me on the shoulder where my prayer rug was slung over like a hoe on a farmer’s shoulder… I was a bit terrified. I turned sharply and in a minute sized her up. She had an IDP’s face, a Maiduguri face. A long hungry-looking face with a long neck, defeated eyes, dark lips, a faded ring in the nose and pimples that look near disappearing, giving a slight blackness over her yellow face. Her skinny frame was in a long rust-coloured hijab that touched her ankle. She looked about sixteen.

“Young boy please help me with money to buy water.” She said amidst the sermon, that stood clearly in flourishing Arabic, amidst the traffic, the hawking, the begging.

She had a voice with an obvious fragility in it that called for pity. Her Hausa was broken. She seemed to talk with saliva in her mouth. First, I was stunned. It seemed so strange. Of all the thousands, why did she choose me to ask for money to buy water? Why hadn’t she ask the hawkers? Then my heart began to pound, fear enveloping it.  But then I imagined she was emotionally distressed and excused her for that. I even felt taller despite my increasing heart rate…

I had a crisp 50 Naira note. I gave it it out to her trying to collect myself as I was shaking.

“Buy it for me,” she requested. I recoiled. I held my breath.

“Nagode,”  she thanked as I reluctantly walked to the hawker I had beckoned who was shouting in a strong Hausa accent. “fure water.”

“Here you are,” I talked for the first time in a stammer as I handed the sachet of water to her with the change and scratched my head.

“Thanks! Thanks” I took a deep breath and stepped forward. But she stopped me again. My heart broke the wall of my chest. I began to feel the urge to cry. Was is it again?

She requested I took her to our home so she could urinate and make ablutions.

“You see the place is crowded,” she said. I told her our house is too far. I didn’t walk and join the men in line waiting to be screened before entering the mosque. I started walking back home, glancing back to watch her walk slowly. BOOM!

I fell down and wet my trousers.

The sermon stopped. Everything became blurred. Dust swirled. There was a stampede. And I was home.

I was sure it was her. I should have known she was one of those suicide bombers. I had conversed with a lady who was carrying a bomb. I would have taken her to our house. I wonder why she had talked to me, why she had wanted me to take her to our home and when I couldn’t encode I began to wail and everyone thought it was my experience. Sometimes, I would find it hard to believe myself, thinking I’d somehow imagined it. And that was why I never told anybody.

Mujahid Ameen Lilo is a secondary school student in Kano. He is the winner of the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange essay competition from the north west zone. His works have been published in Daily Trust, Daily Focus, Praxis Magazine Online, Tuck, Insightful Observer and WSICE anthology. (An earlier version of this short story first appeared in The Triumph newspaper.)

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