“Won’t you compliment my shoes?” he asked.
That was the last time I saw Michael, on a Tuesday morning in May 2014. We were in the first semester of our final year at the university of Jos, standing under the shade of two mango trees that grow on opposite sides of the courtyard in front of our lecture hall in Old JUTH, the carcass the Jos University Teaching Hospital left behind when it moved to a modern site farther away from the city centre. I looked down at his feet, shod in an unremarkable pair of black loafers. Then I saw it—the tiny silver crocodile emblem.
He smiled, beaming with that “good buy” pride.
“Why didn’t you wear socks, though?” I asked.
“You don’t wear socks with this kind of shoes. You’re a bush girl,” he responded curtly.
We both laughed, and I saw my laughter lift his, both traveling together then disappearing around a corner, safe.
Professor N. let us out of Haematology class. We were all kinetic, buzzing with done-with-the-day energy. “See you tomorrow,” he called out as he headed out the gate into the bustling streets of Terminus market.
A tremendous bang rocked the buildings, forcing ceiling boards loose, shattering windows and spraying dust on the floors. Everyone in the room hit the floor. Had a gas cylinder in one of the laboratories exploded? I looked out the window and saw the smoke rising outside the fence, a white spiral darkening at its tail. All our phones had lost signal. We rushed out toward the gate. Sirens blaring. People screaming. People running. Chaos. Chaos. Chaos.
“That was a bomb,”’ someone said. That was a bomb! A wheelbarrow rushed past with a man in it: One leg hanging over the edge, and frayed meat where the other should have been. Another man with a bloody head wheeling him. An NTA news van whizzed past. The world was on fast forward. A crowd pooled at the gate. Some ran into the mass of chaos. Some back into the building. I simply began walking. It felt as if I were walking for the first time in my life—left, right, left, right—all my mind could manage. Stalls had been reduced to debris. Steel bones held up the frame of what had been a restaurant. The street hawkers with their nice line of carts had disappeared. All that was left was a mass of people, moving, screaming, bleeding. I kept walking, I had only one place to go. Far away from here.
Time became non-linear. I could not measure the darkness as night fell or say what happened when I got to my room or say how I got to my room. At some time that night, my phone rang. A classmate, with updates. They had called Michael. A man had answered, repeating in a thick Hausa accent, “E don die.” Some of our colleagues had found their way to him, only to learn that the body had been moved to the Plateau hospital mortuary. They had retrieved his phone, and had also seen another body they suspected was Lydia. Another one of us.
“We’re going to Plateau hospital tomorrow to confirm,” she continued. “Will you come?” I think I said “Yes,” because she responded, “Okay, see you then.”
None of us said good night. None of us slept that night.
The sun rose and the cameras began rolling, the script spooled forward, and we were the actors. The president released the generic statement “strongly condemning the actions …” followed by the familiar promise, “the perpetrators will be brought to book…” No one had yet taken responsibility for the attack. We were all over the news. Reporters hovered like vultures around the survivors:
“Where were you when the Terminus twin bomb blast hit?“
We were dragged through the teeth of the nation. People asked, “How many died?”
Boko-Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization based in north-eastern Nigeria, had for three years been growing across the nation. Their suicide bombings began in 2011. Everyone had adapted by now, this was only one more bead on a growing string of tragedies: “UN headquarters,” “Nyanya,” “Mubi,” “Chibok,” “Jos.” All that counted in news reports for the public were the numbers.
Before that day I myself had asked the same questions, made the same statements. After the UN office Abuja bomb blast in 2011, I had said, “Thank God only ten people were killed.” When the Chibok girls disappeared in April 2014, I too had argued that it was impossible for anyone to have transported two hundred and seventy-six girls unnoticed. Now, every account I read in the reports was an open wound. Some news outlets wrote seventy, some fifty, some over a hundred. In all this I wondered if Michael was amongst the counted or if he was lying outside the margin of consideration. I logged on to Facebook and scrolled past the ‘RIP’s’ and ‘Pray for Jos’ on my timeline. It all meant nothing.
The Plateau State Teaching Hospital swelled as more people filed in. The mortuary was a white single unit bungalow behind the line of wards; mortuaries are situated this way, I imagine, to distinguish clearly life from death, and hope from certain despair. There was a crowd in front of the yard, the air was thick with an unnerving mix of anxiety and solemnity. We absorbed this mood as we got in line, in time reaching the front.
“You go fit?” The impatient mortuary assistant asked.
I nodded “yes.” He shoved a facemask into my hand and made room for us to enter. The thin facemask did nothing to protect us from the brown stench of rotting flesh and formalin that filtered from the small square rooms on either side of the corridor. In the rooms, there were more bodies than floor visible. There were more than sixty corpses here, and this was only one room in one of four morgues. I found bits of floor to put my foot. One in front of the other. I locked my eyes ahead. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the body of a child. Perhaps ten, perhaps eight, his skull broken open and emptied. I looked away.
‘Is this her?’
The remains of the face turned towards us was a mix of white, pink, and black patches. The body was burnt to the dermis and bloated. I looked long and hard at the earring, a metal rose now a blackish silver, with an empty hole in the middle where I imagine a plastic gem once rested. In the strange game of “guess who” we were playing, perhaps this was Lydia’s “tell.” After twenty-four hours of searching, I wanted to say yes; I wanted to provide closure not just for myself, but for her family, for sixty-nine other classmates; but worse than having no corpse to bury, would be to bury just anyone. I confessed that I was not sure. Disappointed, we turned to leave the way we came in. This is when I saw him.
He was lying close to the wall on the far left, his face undamaged, eyes glazed over with a white film. He was staring at me, but also through me. His belt held what was left of his pullover, the V-neck still in place. His feet were bare—Michael. There was no room to pause. The mortuary attendant ushered us out as another woman in a black hijab walked past, going in to perform the same ritual. At the door to the morgue the doorman asked again, “Una see your person? because today them dey go do mass burial.” I don’t know if we responded. I was irked by how casually he offered this information but I also knew was only doing his job, for him this was just an unusually busy work day.
Then it was 22.5.2014. We stood in a straight line as the ambulance siren blared; the only sound on a sunny morning. It was in there. What Michael left behind. Twenty-two-year-old Michael with the table bell laugh. For him there was something left to bury. Others weren’t so lucky. Even in death fate plays its hand, and some come out worse.
The ambulance rolled out of the hospital premises slowly, taking what was left of him back home to Makurdi. Escorted by his aged father. I had not been able to cry or scream. I wanted to wail and fall into someone’s arms, but my grief turned inward, as if it had lost its way. My other classmates and Michael’s friends stood in line and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ into the morning breeze. Occasionally someone would send a piercing wail through, a needle tearing the thin fabric of the song. There would be a little shuffle as others pulled them out of the line and the song would again be made whole, lifting our brother, our friend, my Michael.
“The future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past.” I found this scribbled in an old journal, ascribed to Joan Didion. In the last few years I have read and read about 2014 as though trying to replace my past with other people’s stories, but there is always a “tell.” Every now and then, that past is so alive the present feels like a lie.
I disappeared. I changed phone numbers; I shut down social media accounts. I walked. There was always only one place to go. Far away from there.
Now the world is being attacked by a different form of terror, the virus we all call Covid. I read the news and I see the plurality of communal grief, and how the speed of “healing” is directly proportional to the speed of forgetting. We are all scarred by that lonely word “survivor” and every time I read it in a news story I roll it over my tongue to taste the summary of the tragedy—someone left, someone was left behind, nothing stayed the same.
Terminus market has forgotten May 20, meaning it has “healed.” The stalls are back, new traders have appeared; when I walk through the market I am reminded that the post-Covid world will likewise fall into the treachery of forgetting.
I too have forgotten May 20. On the rare occasion when I remember, I step out of the blur that is seeing and begin looking at everything around me more intently. I stare at friends, taking in their shoes, earrings, belts, necklaces. Sometimes I stare so long, they ask if something is wrong. I look away and refocus on everyday life, though I want to say “I hope you get a good look at me too. I hope you see everything I am today, now, just in case.”