Legacies How People Live and Pray Between Massacres
“I never knew my not looking like or having the accent of my father’s people would save my life.”
We are going to a nameless village, a small settlement that lost its name after the Fulani herdsmen burnt the only signpost holding it up for people driving by in trucks or motorcycles. No motorcycle takes a single passenger, so I am forced to share with two other people: a teacher behind me and his wife in the rider’s arms. The teacher’s name is Timothy and her name is Happy. When we get into our first bump, the rider persuades her in Tiv to stop grinding his pelvis or he’ll get an erection. She bursts into laughter and the teacher strains his neck from behind to gauge their hilarity and, finding nothing suspicious, joins their laughter. The road is mud snaking through a dense forest occasionally breaking into bridges made of wood to cross over small streams. The sun peeps every now and then through the ceiling of leaves arching over the road.
We yell responses back to the people who greet us along the way, old women carrying belongings that tower in basins. They are leaving their hamlets for the city, for any town that would have them; they are tired of being slain and raped for the sin of planting crops by the Fulani herdsmen. These men climb their orange and mango trees and hack them down before burning them and filling up the wells with sticks and stones. When I came here for the first time, I saw extinct villages and was surprised when I was told even the demolishing of homes was done by these herdsmen. Taraba State, which is responsible for a good portion of yam cultivation in Nigeria, especially the Tiv speaking regions, is edging slowly towards famine. Tiv fishermen had already abandoned the rivers after the massacre that followed the 2015 elections. When Tiv men go to complain to the Jukun elders and leaders, they are challenged: “Why didn’t you fight back?”
They did, once. When a Tiv man in another now nameless town refused to allow some Fulani to graze their cows on his rice plantation, and was shot, his relatives went to kill the Fulani head in the area, and the Fulani retaliated by exterminating the Tivs and, still unsatiated, went to block a major road that rolls past mountains wearing flowers and palm groves from Jos in Plateau State to the Biu River which bore boats carrying cars and passengers. Donning uniforms, they asked passengers traveling the route for their names, and God help you if you had a Tiv name or had a Tiv accent. I had been returning from a poetry event led by the award-winning poet Amu Nnadi in Jos through this route because I wanted the boat-crossing experience. Our car was dragged to a halt behind scores of others, and after overhearing the several consultations with other passengers in Jukun-flavored Hausa and Tiv, I got anxious and asked what the problem was. The person next to me asked me for my name. I told him. Everyone in the car stopped talking and turned to me in surprise.
“But you don’t have accent.”
“And you don’t look like them.”
“I am mixed,” I explained. “My father is part Tiv and Cross River and my mother is part Idoma and Igbo, plus I didn’t grow up in my state.”
“At least our car will not stop.”
“Shebi, you have English name, use it.”
I couldn’t join their excitement; I never knew my not looking like or having the accent of my father’s people would save my life. This was the basis of the favor I had found in the teacher’s wife on the motorcycle. I was Tiv like her. She had wanted me to borrow some of her land to plant beans before I completed my mandatory National Youth Service year, but when I went to the village to meet her mother, the woman had offered to give me another portion to build a house and live forever if I wanted, just because I was Tiv. Several clans away from them in Benue State, but Tiv nonetheless—that was the most important thing to her. Of course I had prayed about finding a land to plant something and harvest before my one year in Donga ran out, but free land to live on? For a moment I entertained the fantasy, forgetting my life in the busy capital city of Abuja, concentrating on farming in the morning in this middle-of-nowhere instead, and writing on paper in the evening, drinking and cooking and bathing with well water so clear, so rich on the tongue, so cool in the throat with the ghost of a taste that waned before becoming in the mouth.
Now, getting down from the bike, the low whistle of the leaves and cicadas and birds lull me once more into that dream but I shake it off. Happy’s mother told me the land used to belong to her husband who died in the last full-blown herdsmen attack. A little girl with thick red-black hair sticking out like chewed mango rushes out of a hut to greet us. She is wearing a skirt and when she smiles, I am charmed. The girl rapidly answers Happy’s questions so that she can ask her own. Yes, she has eaten. Yes, she slept early last night. No, Mama came back from the hospital yesterday. Is there light in Donga town? Is Uncle walking now? Who is this Fulani man?
“He is not a Fulani man,” Happy replies and I laugh, realizing she made the reference because of the red scarf wrapped around my head. “He is Tiv. He even has a Tiv name. His name is Tarfa.”
The little girl looks up to my eyes and tests the name in her mouth. I cringe each time I have to introduce myself to Tiv people because I can’t hide behind TJ Benson; the meaning is not hidden from them. The world knows. Only the most ambitious parents would give their child such a name. Happy picks her up even though her limbs make her too big for it and her face melts into mild amusement. “Tarfa nyi kwagh?”
I had asked my paternal grandmother the same question ever since I found out she had been part of the congress who had given me the name. “ The world knows what?” I asked, because back then, the name seemed to be a curse; I couldn’t be in a new environment without people noticing me, no matter how timid or quiet I was, and often this didn’t end well. One day when I was sixteen and back to the village from school, she was exasperated by my badgering and blurted out “Tarfa Bem! Tarfa Aondu! The World Knows Peace or God, pick anyone you want and leave me alone.”’
“Tarfa-what?” the child asks again as we walk into the open compound.
“Mfa ga,” I reply. “I don’t know.”
She laughs out loud and deep and crazy, little explosions from her tiny body. “This is my daughter,” Happy says, setting her down in front of the kitchen hut, “the one I showed you in the picture,” she turns back to add.
I remember her. I had gone to Happy and Timothy’s house a month earlier to find out about the progress of the farm. I found Happy sitting on the ground of her veranda, eyes red, hands limp with clenched fists at her sides before dawn. When I asked her what was wrong, she unclenched one of her fists, not saying a word from her slacked jaw. The faded portrait of a girl with hair in cornrows staring into the camera uncrumpled from it like origami.
“Who is this?” I asked.
In a level voice, she went on to explain that this was her daughter, that the girl had stopped eating for months, spoke only to invisible friends, survived on invisible meals, and travelled far away from her mother, beneath the ground, to a land where she could just be a beautiful flower and enjoy a mysterious sun.
She had received donations and visited specialists and all kinds of doctors from Benue to Taraba, both doctors for the mind and the body. None of them knew what was wrong with her or what the cause was. They could not solve the mystery of her nourishment without eating food and after monitoring her for days, weeks, they advised Happy to take the matter to Jesus.
Now I have experienced mysterious things, miraculous things, but when at nine I begged God that I would be a good boy and pass my entrance exams into high school with high scores if my parents would be spared from dying, and my prayers were not answered, I grew a sort of skepticism when it came to dropping ultimatums or demanding answers to prayers. At twenty-five, I have not entirely recovered from the shock of the unanswered prayer at nine, especially as I came top in Kubwa, suburban town of Abuja, that year with 591 points. How could I ever forget those points? Points God had turned away from. Yet there have been miracles, unexplainable miracles that have altered my life, so I don’t have it exactly figured out. I don’t ask for big things, like my baldness reversing or securing a publishing deal; I just try to do my part: go skin, remain good enough for my living relatives in character, and write my heart out. I do not ask life for anything.
This doesn’t not mean I do not believe in prayer. I prayed steadily for an entire term in Jss 2 to not wake up the following morning since I was too cowardly to take my own life. Drowning is so fucking hard. I had hoped if God truly existed, he would look upon this twelve-year-old body that had carried the loss of parents and the trauma of abuse and have mercy. I still pray for my little sister; I pray that life would spare her as much as it can. I had said a little prayer in that car on my way back from Jos that my life would be spared because I had not finished writing a novel in progress at the time, and the thought of leaving a half-finished manuscript behind still frightens me as I write this. Soldiers came to escort us to the river that day, at the rate of five hundred naira, and I had my own private thanksgiving once I got to my place of primary assignment.
So I got heavy with compassion that morning when Happy shared her misery with me. I succumbed to the weight of it all and fell on my knees. My fists punched into the soft earth once more, the picture of the strange child on the ground before me. I faced the rising sun and cried out because she didn’t deserve whatever madness it was that possessed her, and the mother didn’t deserve such anguish. I cried out because the doctors in Taraba and Benue and Abuja didn’t know what to do with her. I cried for a while because it is easier to face the grief of others. When I was spent, Happy walked to me and touched me on the shoulder and said: “thank you.”
Now she says “this is my daughter” with the restrained pride of a new mother, this mother of this crazy, beautiful, laughing girl with full cheeks on her small face now free from all etches of sorrow or malevolence, this girl that can yell “Yes, I have eaten!” immediately after her mother asks, and I wonder if this is the same girl I had cried for.
Happy’s mother comes out of her hut and I rush to embrace her and she embraces back with her scent of smoke and dried meat and time, this woman with so much zest for life, you wouldn’t think her husband had been shot before her, her land burnt down, and her well filled with stones by the Fulani Herdsmen just five months ago “You have come,” she says, adjusting her wrapper above her breasts by way of greeting. “So you can spray the portion of your farm with medicine. I have weeded it already.”
“I would have done everything it’s just my waist . . . I am growing old . . . and my son, remember him? When you came to visit us at the hospital yesterday.”
“Yes, Mama, I remember him,” I said smiling. “May he receive healing. I am grateful, you have done too much.”
“Go, go and see your farm. It is doing so well but go and see it for yourself. Our lands are very rich ehn. Just marry wife and come and build house here.”
We all laugh.
Happy wants to go and borrow spraying tanks from another family, so she asks her daughter to escort me to my farm and check the well if there is still water. Timothy has to go back to work in the town. The little girl’s eyes pop with wonder. “So that farm is for Tarfa!” The statement or question is for me since her mother has already turned her back on us. I shrug and she says “You must pay o! You must pay for the work I did and the work mama did.”
Laughing, I tell her I will pay, so she leads the way into a narrow bush path with tiny purple flowers on either side and I realize if I had come alone, I would have missed my way to the place, my fulfilled prayer, this farm that was coming true. I trust this little stranger; I follow her, asking how much I should pay, but she graciously changes the topic, says it is wonderful that I look like a Fulani, and I even have their scarf and a full beard, because if they come with their cows to cause problem, they will see me and run away.
Happy would tell me in January how it must have been on Christmas day that the herdsmen came and thank God it was on Christmas—everybody had to go to church—else there would have been blood. She would tell me how they burnt my ripe beans along with someone else’s maize farm and someone else’s yams and several other farms to the ground. She would ask if I want to come and see for myself, but I would say no. I want to remember my farm the way I met it that day, my answered prayer, the green leaves opening up like receiving palms, and the music of the birds and insects surrounding me, and the fantasy of living there lingering above my head as I followed her daughter deep into the farm lands to find well water for the pesticides, this little girl who wanted to go under the ground to become a flower.