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A family trip back to Nigeria, post-Boko Haram: ‘Look at the state of our country, the bitterness and the violence’

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A family trip back to Nigeria, post-Boko Haram: ‘Look at the state of our country, the bitterness and the violence’

We had passed several military checkpoints on the road leaving the airport and were approaching Garki district in Abuja, Nigeria. My children were looking out of the car window at the hawkers – most of whom were about their age – who were shouting wordlessly and knocking on the glass, proffering their wares. I lowered the window to buy biscuits. Not far behind the hawkers were garbage dumps and mounds of trash decaying in the August humidity.

“It smells bad,” said Adam, aged six.

“Natural,” I corrected quickly, defensively. “That’s how nature smells.”

Sharon, aged four, said, “Daddy, where are all the white people?”

“There are not many white people here,” I said.

This was one of the many reasons I was bringing them home, to show them how diverse this world is, and how being different is all right.

“Why are the children alone, where are their parents?” Edna, the eldest, asked.

“Here children don’t always have to be accompanied by their parents,” I said.

She looked puzzled: children simply had to be accompanied by adults. It was how things worked.

“They live nearby, you see,” I added.

I wanted my kids to see the country I grew up in, to meet their grandparents, their cousins, uncles and aunts. My wife, Susan, hadn’t been home in nine years; we had brought Edna when she was six months old, in 2003; it was 2012 now. Adam and Sharon were visiting for the first time. Now I began to realise how daunting the task before me was. My children were never going to see this country the way I saw it. Their frame of reference would always be what they knew and where they had been: Virginia where Sharon was born and where we now lived; New York, where Adam was born when we lived there for one year; and even Norwich, England, where we had lived for five years, where Edna was born, where she had taken her first steps, where she got her first scar playing out on the pavement.

For me, childhood was this place: this stretch of road, this earthy smell, these people by the roadside, this language they spoke.

I have lived outside my country for almost 15 years now, and often I am asked, “If you love it that much, why did you leave?” Well, I never planned to. It seems one day I was working in Lagos as a journalist and the next day I was being offered a two-year fellowship in a place called East Anglia. Perhaps I sensed I was not returning immediately, for why else did I insist on getting married to my fiancee and taking her with me? I must have wanted to take a part of my home with me so that one day when we had children, regardless of where they were born, no matter how much they may love their new country, they could trace their roots to only one place – Nigeria.

We had come for a big family wedding. All the family would be there. It was the perfect time for a visit.

When we got to my sister’s house, as the huge gate was rolled back by the guard, I sensed my wife tensing. The memory of our last visit in 2003 was still painful. On the day we were to return to England, the immigration officer at Nnamdi Azikiwe airport had said, “Your daughter can’t travel with you, she doesn’t have a British visa.”

We had assumed that as my wife and Edna shared a passport, they would also share a visa – a silly assumption, but not unreasonable. Edna was born in Norwich, after all. My wife had to stay two more weeks to get the visa. That night, as I flew back to England, robbers had broken into my sister’s house, where my wife and daughter were staying, and shot my sister’s husband six times while next door my wife hid in the bathroom shaking and a few feet away my daughter lay under the sheets sleeping through the whole uproar. My sister’s husband was flown to a hospital in Israel the next day, and survived.

As we greeted my sister, I could feel Susan’s anxiety. Somewhere in there, perhaps underneath the carpets or a couch, there might still be smudges of blood from the attack 10 years ago.

That evening, my old friend Sulaiman, a police officer, came over. He had been my best man; he hadn’t changed much, perhaps a little stouter, a little more swagger. I remember once, on my first trip outside the country, the day I returned to Lagos, Sulaiman had sent two police cars filled with policemen with guns, one to drive ahead of my taxi, the other to drive behind. Lagos was a dangerous place, he had told me.

For me, childhood was this place: this stretch of road, this earthy smell, these people by the roadside, this language they spoke.

I have lived outside my country for almost 15 years now, and often I am asked, “If you love it that much, why did you leave?” Well, I never planned to. It seems one day I was working in Lagos as a journalist and the next day I was being offered a two-year fellowship in a place called East Anglia. Perhaps I sensed I was not returning immediately, for why else did I insist on getting married to my fiancee and taking her with me? I must have wanted to take a part of my home with me so that one day when we had children, regardless of where they were born, no matter how much they may love their new country, they could trace their roots to only one place – Nigeria.

We had come for a big family wedding. All the family would be there. It was the perfect time for a visit.

When we got to my sister’s house, as the huge gate was rolled back by the guard, I sensed my wife tensing. The memory of our last visit in 2003 was still painful. On the day we were to return to England, the immigration officer at Nnamdi Azikiwe airport had said, “Your daughter can’t travel with you, she doesn’t have a British visa.”

We had assumed that as my wife and Edna shared a passport, they would also share a visa – a silly assumption, but not unreasonable. Edna was born in Norwich, after all. My wife had to stay two more weeks to get the visa. That night, as I flew back to England, robbers had broken into my sister’s house, where my wife and daughter were staying, and shot my sister’s husband six times while next door my wife hid in the bathroom shaking and a few feet away my daughter lay under the sheets sleeping through the whole uproar. My sister’s husband was flown to a hospital in Israel the next day, and survived.

As we greeted my sister, I could feel Susan’s anxiety. Somewhere in there, perhaps underneath the carpets or a couch, there might still be smudges of blood from the attack 10 years ago.

That evening, my old friend Sulaiman, a police officer, came over. He had been my best man; he hadn’t changed much, perhaps a little stouter, a little more swagger. I remember once, on my first trip outside the country, the day I returned to Lagos, Sulaiman had sent two police cars filled with policemen with guns, one to drive ahead of my taxi, the other to drive behind. Lagos was a dangerous place, he had told me.

Abuja nightlife used to centre on the many beer gardens where people went after work, but after attacks by Boko Haram they were deserted; the white plastic chairs and tables empty under the mango trees.

Sulaiman dropped me at home, assuring me that it was still safe to travel by road to Kaltungo. There were roadblocks on the highways and in every major city and town all the way to Gombe. He gave me a few phone numbers to call if I needed help.

We set out early, strapping the sleeping kids into car seats. Our journey would ordinarily take about seven hours, but with the kids and the checkpoints we would be making several stops before Kaltungo.

The going was slow, but we were soon out among the open fields. Most had huge signboards on them, announcing the place as a future site for a church. Redeemed Christian Mission, Winners Chapel, Christ Embassy, the signboards went on and on. The Pentecostal army, which had long since conquered Lagos and most of the southern cities, had started its march into Abuja. This is the “middle belt”, where the mainly Christian south meets the mainly Muslim north.

helonmom

(Helon Habila’s mom)

When we entered Gombe it was getting on for 6pm. I grew up here when it was a sleepy, erosion-prone town. The single street of my childhood had now broadened out into a network of roads. One, a dual carriageway with streetlights, led all the way to my father-in-law’s home.

The children perked up as we drove into the huge gated compound, curious to see their grandfather, a retired reverend, for the first time. Susan hadn’t seen her father in 10 years and was trying hard to keep the tears back.

The reverend was waiting for us by the door. He had just turned 70, but had the bearing of a man 20 years younger, his full head of hair more black than grey. He picked up the children one by one, asking their names. Next he turned to me and we shook hands before he turned to embrace his daughter. We took off our shoes and entered the living room. Plates of rice with chicken stew were already laid out. Susan and I ate; the children seemed to have no appetite. They drank Coke.

“Well, how is studies?” my father-in-law asked. I always had to remind him I was not studying in America, I was teaching. “What are your plans, what will you do after your studies?” he asked.

“Come back, most likely,” I said, too tired to keep correcting him. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“If you want my advice, don’t be in a hurry to come back. Wherever we happen to be at the moment, that is our home. Besides, look at the state of our country – the bitterness and the violence.”

Gombe state bordered areas that had been at the centre of the Islamist violence. You could sense the tension and the anxiety in the air, people knew it was only a matter of time before attacks would spread into the state. And they did. Two years after our visit, on 5 June 2014, a bomb would go off two houses away from the reverend’s house, at the state governor’s family residence. My father-in-law said the explosion was so powerful the sound broke the windows of his house. For weeks afterwards people stayed in their homes, too scared to go out.

The trauma never goes away. In America, a call from Nigeria at the dead of night is a cause for panic; it could only be bad news. My wife sometimes wakes up at night, struggling from dreams of the violence at my sister’s house. I often have nightmares of being chased by faceless people chanting hate-filled slogans. We have all, at one time or another, narrowly escaped death, seen neighbours slaughtered, their houses set ablaze.

It was dark when we finally got to Kaltungo. Inside the compound someone turned on the generator and the lights flickered on. There were so many people gathered at the gate that it felt like the whole neighbourhood had turned out to welcome us. There were children constantly getting in the way, there were dogs barking and licking people’s hands.

The children got out of the car, groggy from sleep and jetlag. Edna, the eldest, stood to one side, looking into the faces that were looking back at her. The speeches, in a mixture of Hausa and the local Tangale, must have sounded like gibberish to her. My mother reached down and ruffled her hair. Adam kept turning from my brother, Bitrus, to me. Finally, he said, “Dad, he looks so much like you.”

People were opening the car boot and taking down our bags, most of which held presents that Susan and I had spent months picking out. You never come home empty handed; it is the custom. Finally, the bustle quieted, the kids and my wife went off to bed and I was left alone with my mother. We sat on the verandah. She hadn’t changed much, her movement was a bit slower, her hair whiter, sparser, but everything else about her looked the same. She asked me about life in America, if I was happy.

“Yes, everything is fine,” I said.

Boko Haram in 2014.
Boko Haram in 2014. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

I wanted to tell her that sometimes I felt guilty living so far away, from her, from home. To explain that writers often had to distance themselves from home in order to be able to create a more perfect home in their books, and that for me there could never be a return, only visits like this. In that sense, my father-in-law was right when he said we must make our home wherever we happened to be. Perhaps it was because he was a preacher that he saw it clearly. In most religions this body, this home, is always temporary, a mere preparation for another more permanent home.

As I sat with my mother in the family compound where I had lived most of my life, I thought of my plans for the rest of the visit: the next day I’d take the children from house to house, to greet uncles and aunties and cousins. I’d show them the cemetery behind the church where my father and my kid brother were buried side by side; they had died in a car accident – my brother had been 12 or 13, only a few years older than Edna was now. What more proof could I show my children of their belonging, their rootedness here than their family name on a gravestone?

I raised my eyes and looked up. I never failed to be amazed by the beauty of the Nigerian night sky. It is like nowhere else in the world. The stars thickly inlaid in the night sky, like pulsating diamonds in an ink-black carpet. For the moment, we were home.

@helonhabila

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