This work is creative non-fiction derived from what is known about the experiences of Leah Sharibu, a 15-year-old girl kidnapped alongside other schoolgirls by a faction of Boko Haram in Dapchi, in northern Nigeria.
I dream of it every night.
By day, it plagues my thoughts and torments my mind. Dreaming of that Moment comes in different versions; in one, I am rescued by my late great-grandfather, in another, it is by the President of Nigeria, and yet in another, I find myself running inside a bush with a gunshot wound to the stomach, holding on to my overflowing intestines.
I spend time trying to understand that Moment, but there might not be much to understand, simply because I was not thinking when it happened. I watched it happen right in front of me, almost as if I was not involved. Yet, it was all about me. What I said. What I did.
What could I have done differently for that Moment not to have been?
Nothing. In life, things happen that one has little control over. It is like asking “what could I have done differently to not be hungry right now?” Not a thing. I am hungry because I am human and when a human being is not fed for three days, she feels hungry. Or what could I have done differently to not shiver in this biting cold? Not one thing. When a human being has only a piece of wrapper tied around her chest in a cold, dark forest, she will shiver.
I shiver. My body shivers, my heart shivers, but my soul stands strong. My mind is fixed on one thing, that nothing could have changed that Moment.
Yet, the pain that Moment brings is real; the crushed hopes of never running into my mother’s outstretched arms, images of my father once rubbing my head with his two hands, patting my back lovingly, and asking if I am alright. Desolate expectations of scooping up my beloved brother, Nathaniel, in my arms and swirling him round and round, until he never wants to be swirled again and begs to be let down.
I would let him down only after his toothy smile almost became fixated, and his eyes began to widen; then would I set him on the floor and sit with him.
Mother would proceed to bend and sit on the bare floor with us, to fully share in our joy, but Father would urge her to get up and bring what food she had prepared.
I am famished, but not for food. I am famished for the feeling of love from my family and friends. Famished from the feeling of security that my life was before the night we were lured inside the back of a fake army truck and driven deep inside the forest. Famished, yes, but nothing that food can satisfy.
My poor mother’s knees will be cracked and sore from kneeling to pray. Her eyes and lips will be swollen from crying and biting. I pray she does not starve to death fasting for my deliverance. Nathaniel, his unending questions about my absence, directed at Mother, will be like pouring kerosene on burning firewood. Papa will hold his head high and worry in a way that tries to be strong for Mother, saying over and over to her that I shall soon be released. His pains will be tinged with pride, for my refusal to renounce my faith. As if that was a conscious decision I had to make. Truth be told, I did not think about what I said or what I did that day. I was just being me, Leah Sharibu.
It began when it got to my turn to climb into the back of the truck taking us back home to Dapchi. I stood before the truck and stretched my right hand towards the man who would help each girl climb on to the back of the truck. My soul uttered, “Thank you, Jesus.” I did not realise it, but my lips did the same, too.
“What did you say?” the man asked, quickly moving the machine gun he held with his left hand over to the right hand.
“Nothing, sir.” I replied, for I did not really say anything, in the sense of his asking.
He transferred his machine gun back to his left hand and stretched out his right arm, I held out my right hand to hold his, to be helped on to the truck, like all the girls before me did. He drew his hand farther back and with a force I have only seen on TV wrestling shows, slapped my face five times. He would go on to kick me out of the way and continue helping other girls climb the truck.
I stood up and reached out my hand to him, begging for help getting on the back of the truck. I was kicked back again. I kept standing up, and kept being kicked back. I vomited, first, water, then a thick yellow-green substance. The last substance I threw up was blood, vomited after he helped the last girl climb the truck, for as he locked the truck, I staggered to him and held out my hand to be helped onto the back of the truck. He raised his leg and kicked. I vomited blood and passed out, not from pain, but from the sight of my fellow captives being driven home. Why? He could have let me go home to hug my family and then shot me right in front of them. I will be mourned, buried and remembered.
It must have been many months since that Moment. In this cold, dark place, I have no knowledge of daylight or darkness. Once in a while, a hand slips in and passes a cold plate of bread and pap. There is a small bucket of water with a cup. I feel my way to it and drink. Besides is a bucket for relieving myself. When I am not sleeping, I sit still on the bed, or I walk around the room singing, praying, reciting scriptures, fully assured that even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for the Lord is with me.
*Doctor Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu is a researcher, teacher, non-fiction and fiction writer, and a public intellectual.