Sahara Nightmare: by Ayo Oyeku

Photo credit: Sunday Alamba via Flickr

The first time he had the nightmare was on the evening of a hectic Monday. He had barely laid his measly bones on the verandah’s old bench when he experienced the untold horror.

Whenever Danladi returned home from Kasua Danji – the central market where he earned his living – he would rest on the bench and take a short nap before his wife later returned to wake him up for supper. Maybe it was the cool, evening breeze that made him doze off, or perhaps it was the arduous tasks he engaged in during the sunny time of the day that reduced him to a fine piece of vegetable by evening. Either way, one thing remained – a short nap before supper became his unwinding habit.

When Danladi later stirred on the bench, it wasn’t his wife’s call that woke him up; neither was it Binta’s childish tug at his soiled jallabiya. Binta had attempted to wake her loving father, after her mother had tried and left without success. The little girl was intent on troubling her father for the snacks he brought her whenever he returned from his place of work. But she quickly let go of his cloth, when she saw the way Danladi quivered into wakefulness, with bloodshot eyes. Though she could tell her father looked troubled, she didn’t know that he had just been puked out from a dreary world that consumed him for the past few minutes.

Danladi’s personality could be encapsulated in a few fine sentences. He was a young meat-seller in Kasua Danji, who loved his wife, Daibah, and was always generous in expressing his love towards her. They had married each other in the prime of their youth, and their love spread an alluring fragrance across their community. Everyone in their small but popular neighbourhood admired them, and praised Allah for bringing them together.

Some even idolised the doting couple because their first names both started with the fourth letter of the English alphabet. They also believed their marriage had been assented to in the heavens, only to be consummated on earth. They were a perfect couple, if exaggerations were permitted. Their love became profound and knew no bounds with the arrival of Binta, a year after their marriage. Danladi loved Binta, she was a true copy of her mother; both in beauty and character. The little family floundered in love, as they were nourished by peace beyond human comprehension. Every evening, when Danladi returned to his convivial home from Kasua Danji, he was always delighted to reunite with his family.

But that evening, as Danladi snapped out of the dreadful dream, everything about him and his home was about to change. He shook his head like a wet foul, and rubbed his face with his coarse palms. The sun had now sunk beneath the horizon as hazy figures passed by. It was then that he saw Binta. She stood a safe distance away from her father, with much dismay displayed on her oval face, staring at him. Her presence immediately tore a smile across Danladi’s face, as the dreadful memory that once hung around the tangles of his hair suddenly vanished. Danladi drew his daughter into a warm embrace, soothing away both their fears. Passers-by could hear the giggling between father and child rent the air seconds afterwards.

##

The dream returned within a few days. Danladi had hurried to the abattoir early in the morning; knowing he had to be there early enough to negotiate and haggle for sizeable chunks of meat, otherwise he would be left to buy scraps. He preferred to buy the cow thighs, where large chunks of meat piled in layers like crude oil hidden several feet beneath the earth. With the aid of his cleaver, Danladi sliced these layers of raw meat into smaller dimensions, which he sold to his customers. That way, he made huge profits from his occupation daily.

That morning wasn’t different either. But the experience brought flashes of his untold nightmare. Danladi had watched as butchers slaughtered a recalcitrant cow: The huge, robust and reluctant white cow was forcefully dragged into the abattoir, with thick ropes fastened around its legs. Danladi’s eyebrows flicked as he watched the fear of death eclipse the cow’s eyes, as the quest to wrestle for life ran through its bones and marrows. But the butchers wouldn’t let go. With the thick ropes around its legs, they pulled the cow down until it fell helplessly with the common thudding that marked the beginning of the end of survival. Danladi was sickened with terror as he watched the cow’s head hacked off its body. The bulging eyes on the floor; the thick lumps of blood on the cold concrete; and the smell of death left a sour taste in Danladi’s mouth.

The nightmare had been familiar too: He had seen cows run amok in Kasua Danji. They were not just mere cows, but cows that had been slaughtered over the years in the abattoir – cows who had experienced the harrowing pains of death from the cold hands of heartless butchers. They now returned as immortals and sought vengeance. Danladi trembled as the ghostly creatures came on clouds of dusts, and both market traders and buyers fled for their hapless lives. But, still, the vengeful souls did much harm – Danladi watched as they ripped open human entrails with their vicious horns on that fateful afternoon; human limbs were crushed with their sturdy hooves, and the heavy panic in the central market also led to an unworthy loss of lives and casualties too. There was much blood. So much blood, that Danladi was also drenched in his.

Danladi could not bear the heaviness much longer. It had choked him up to his throat, and seemed to empty all the air in his lungs too. The nightmare snapped back every time he dug the skinning knife into the large chunk of meat on his table; every time he skillfully hacked bones out of the meat; every time he sliced the meat into sizeable pieces with such artistic showmanship much admired by his customers; and likewise, every time he washed dried bloodstains off the once brown, sturdy, wooden table that was now dark, creaky, and jagged. The dream kept flashing back, and he had to let it out.

Daibah listened with rapt attention as her husband divulged his nightmare. Her thin, but slightly wide ears seemed to contract and expand under her hijab as she listened. The young, dutiful wife did not say a word. Instead, she brought her husband some cold water to drink, after he had concluded. Danladi drank some water and his mind became calm. Whilst the cool water did much to assuage his feelings, it was Daibah’s silence that suffocated the nightmare. The young couple never talked about the matter again. Danladi could always tell that a problem shared with his wife was not half-solved, but fully resolved. That night, Danladi slept soundly. And the nightmare drowned in his snores.

##

The rumours came running with the speed of a gasping messenger. A violent Islamic sect threatened to disrupt the peace of the nation. Their demands were flimsy and it bloated against the walls of religious ignorance. This was several weeks after the nightmare. Danladi had forgotten about it, as his mind was now preoccupied by the threats. The secret Islamic sect threatened to make the nation burn, until their ridiculous demands were met by the government.

People began to panic when they heard that the violent sect had burned down some houses overnight in small towns across some northern parts of the country. Danladi, like every other native, also became worried when he read about the dastardly effect of the violence carried out by these unknown, terror-mounting, and almost invincible guerilla soldiers, within the following weeks. People feared to go about their daily living. There was no assurance that a life that sets forth at dawn would find solace within the shades of walls later in the evening. People walked with their hearts in their mouths. They spoke with one another in hushed tones. Fear became their most companionable companion. No one felt safe.

Every woman became concerned about the safety of their husband and children. Daibah was not an exception. At first, she held her faith and believed Allah’s protection was binding on her husband through her fervent prayers. But she became much more concerned when a fresh rumour broke out that the violent sect were planning to blow up Kasua Danji. She was quick to admit his life was in danger.

Danladi was not ready to capitulate to his wife’s demands. He was a man, and his ego would not let him succumb to her emotional pleas. He believed the town was a rumour-mill where weaklings churned out different versions of gossip without batting an eyelid – either in order to choke their own fears or assure others of the unexpected. He was no part of this, and neither was he ready to invest his time in such fish-market gossip. It was just a mere rumour – a rumour, with facts like specs of dusts, which could barely hold anything together.

And so, for every blessed day the almighty Allah spared her husband’s life, Daibah persuaded Danladi to stay away from the market, until the religious extremists were brought to rest. To Danladi, that indirectly meant quitting his job and he decided to shut his ears to such reasoning. How could he, in the midst of many meat-sellers and hundreds of traders in Kasua Danji be the first to stay away from the central market, when others didn’t? But the gentle soul kept on pleading with her husband. She even suggested hawking the pieces of meat he sold at his stall around the neighbourhood, but Danladi found that demeaning and unfair in his responsibilities towards his wife.

Ka fita harka na fa!” Danladi snapped at his wife, telling her to stay out of his business, as he walked out of the room on another sleeping hour when his wife broached the subject again.

But it was not only Danladi that was having disagreements with his wife. People from different religions now disagreed with one another. Every pious and kind-hearted Muslim within the town condemned the act of these violent Islamists. But their sharp and sincere opinions fell on deaf ears, as people from other religious circles believed Muslims to be generally violent and intolerable. Friendships began to break. Inter-religious marriages began to crack. Every man began to suspect the other. Or better said; every human clothed in jallabiyas and hijabs became a suspect.

The hatred between people grew, as each week hardly passed without the violent extremists shedding innocent blood. From inter-religious differences to inter-tribal altercation, most people now believed the notorious sect were intent on wiping out other tribes from their land. Scabs of old wounds were peeled off and people retold the tales of the old war with bitter feelings. The number of dead souls kept increasing. No tribe or religion was spared. Churches, mosques, schools and houses were burnt with reckless abandon. People who had families and friends in the affected parts of the country had their ears aching and their hearts thumping with the horror news they heard on the radio and the gory pictures they saw in the daily newspapers.

Daibah did not relent in seeking a safe haven for her husband. The wise woman later suggested her husband should move his stall far away from the central market to a subway in the neighbourhood. But Danladi also found this idea rather rash, insensitive and cowardly. At that moment, something that lost all forms of visible descriptions snapped in Danladi’s home; even Danladi did not hear it snap, and neither did Daibah notice that the once colourful bouquet of their marital vows had fallen from their cagy hearts and smashed on the cold floor – shattered. But it was now glaring for both to see that their once happy home was becoming cold; so cold that each occupant now preferred to clutch at their own skins, instead of cuddling together. The violent sect didn’t just abort lives; they also robbed homes of their happiness.

Days afterward, fear – about the size of a garden egg, now found a choking space in Danladi’s mind. It was close to his heart – hurting. A careful look into the radius of Danladi’s newly found fear did not give indications that he was worried or scared of the violent extremist group, or about the raging rumours everywhere. Rather, later symptoms showed that it was the fear of shattering his once happy home that seemed to drain life away from Danladi. He found this hard to explain. But he would tell no one about it.

The symptoms grew quickly and this fear soon reflected on Danladi’s face. Every time he gave a quick glance at his wife whenever she served his meals or placed his bath-water in the bathroom, he seemed to notice the same symptoms on her face, even if she was not ready to admit it either. The same fear recoiled into a single line of argument: “Who will apologise first?” This argument stared the young couple in the face, and both were not ready to succumb to each other. Daibah’s portentous silence made Danladi’s shoulders shift from side to side with discomfort. Danladi was becoming uncomfortable in his own house. He now returned home every evening dispassionately to meet his wife. They hardly talked to each other. Every discussion was formal and banter was suffocated in the corners of their mouths.

Four-year-old Binta could also feel the melancholic atmosphere blanketing their home. Even though her father still brought her snacks every evening, she discerned that her father wasn’t cheerful, and his laughter was feigned. Danladi did not notice that his daughter now missed the happy moments they had always shared together every evening. Rather, he wished he could tell his wife how much he missed her, and wanted them to return back to their happy ways. The pain was eating into his heart like a cankerworm. But his pride would not let him rescind his decision. Danladi could smell imminent trouble – he just didn’t know how far or near it was.

Danladi knew his fears were beginning to take shape, when every morning, as he was about to leave for the market, Daibah would turn her back to him, pretending to still be asleep in order to avoid his eyes or show her anger and displeasure. And so, Danladi left the house every morning without experiencing the sparkling joy in his wife’s eyes, nor the prayers from her tender lips. That was a bad omen – Danladi could tell.

Truly, Daibah was not happy with her husband. But every morning, once her husband left for Kasua Danji she would offer prayers to Allah, for His infinite mercy and protection over her husband. She offered alms to the beggars on the street. But she did not find any tangible reason to end her grudge with her husband. From the finicky grace with which she prepared his meal to the tumultuous increase in her heartbeat as she anticipated her husband’s return home later in the evening, Daibah could tell how greatly she missed her husband. Another bundle of joy was already forming in her womb again – she was with a child – their second child. But she refused to tell her husband about this too, until everything became chaotic on that black afternoon.

##

Daibah dashed out of the house. Her beautiful face was clogged with tears. The rumours had reached the neighbourhoods that the violent sect had struck again. This time, they struck Kasua Danji! People within and around the central market had suddenly heard a deafening sound of explosives. People fleeing for their dear lives choked and coughed under the thickening black smoke that engulfed the whole market. A few people who had escaped death by whiskers wailed as they narrated how several lives lay wasted in hacked bits and burnt pieces across the market.

Daibah did not notice that her hijab had been blown away by the hot, afternoon breeze. Her freshly braided hair gleamed under the afternoon sun as she ran all the way to the market. No one noticed the other, as those fleeing from the market area, and those rushing to see if their loved ones had survived, collided on the streets. Not only was Daibah unaware that her hijab had fallen off, she was also unaware of the fact that she had hurriedly left Binta behind, in the large compound, under the care of no one.

Binta, who was being spoon-fed by her mother, watched as some women suddenly hurried into the neighbourhood raising an alarm. The little girl could not understand what the noise was all about. But she could sense there was trouble, by the way people gasped, panted and wailed in reaction to the terror that just struck. And more shocking for the little girl was the speed with which her mother dropped the spoon, fled out of the house, and vanished from sight. Fear gripped her, and she burst into loud cries. The helpless girl scampered out of the house, and ran after her mother’s blurry traces as fast as her tiny, but firm legs, could carry her.

Binta’s presence into the street was met by a cloud of dusts. From her sparkling-yet-teary eyes, Binta could see people running and hurrying around the streets without precision or care. The whole town was in total disorder. Tearfully, Binta tried to find her way through the thick, long legs that dashed around her like thick poles upon which acrobats danced and displayed at the annual fish festival. After minutes of helpless efforts round and about, she missed a step and fell on the ground, crying loudly.

A gory sight spread before Daibah. Her eyes could not bear watching. Human skin had been burnt beyond recognition, just as human blood had been reduced to blackened tar. People, whose families were affected by the dastardly act, wailed and cursed themselves, refusing to be comforted. The law enforcement agents, who were now present and in control of the market kept people from getting near the scene. Daibah clutched at her bowels as she watched mangled limbs and mutilated legs of once able-bodied humans dangling and dripping with blood and a colourless fluid, as they were all hurried on stretchers into the waiting ambulances. As they groaned in pain and muttered words lost of all meanings, Daibah could tell that some of them would not make it to the hospital, and those who did would be disabled forever.

In the midst of the casualties, death and wanton destruction, Daibah trembled all over. She stood on her toes, looking far into the market for any sight of her husband – alive. Though she could hardly notice her husband’s body amongst the ruins, one thing was certain, his stall had been wrecked and his body was missing! Daibah’s heart began to palpitate. Her eyes had seen too much in the past few minutes, and she could not cry again. The young wife slowly eased the weight of her body from her trembling legs, as she squatted on the floor and clasped her hands at the back of her head – just as a feeling of guilt darted at her in variegated versions.

“You have killed him.” A voice repetitiously stabbed her mind.

There was nothing left for her to say. All the atoms of air in her lungs seemed to evaporate as she succumbed to the bitter truth about how she killed her husband. She killed him on the day the disagreement began. She validated his murder, the moment she refused to budge. She knew she shared the subsequent days after the disagreement with the ghost she made of him. A tinge of regret ran through her emotions. And she wished she could rewind back the time, fall on her knees, hold his legs and beg for forgiveness and understanding. Fresh tears brewed in her eyes, just as a certain level of heat began to stoke in her belly. Daibah now fell on her buttocks and sat helplessly on the floor – she wasn’t going to leave the market place until she got an assurance her husband was still alive. She wailed, but no one took notice of her.

Over an hour passed, and the beaming afternoon sun was now beginning to lose its prickly brightness. Daibah had no one to tell her of her husband’s whereabouts, and she dreaded the thought of visiting the State hospital where most of the bodies had been taken to. The law enforcement agents urged all the affected persons and sympathizers to return back to their homes. It wasn’t an easy task, but people left; one at a time. Daibah was not excluded – the bereaved woman hung her head as she dragged her feet back home, slowly. With every step she took, she wept, and as she wept she muttered words of prayer. She prayed the almighty Allah should give her a second chance.

As she approached her neighbourhood, Daibah’s eyes suddenly lit up. She caught sight of someone familiar, someone more like her – but only a smaller version of herself, and that of her husband too. After endless attempts, Binta now sat dejectedly by the wayside, crying. The manner with which Binta lay shiftless on the floor, wrapped in dirt and tears, made Daibah’s emotion surge with fresh tears of her own. Even if she had failed as a wife, she wasn’t supposed to fail as a mother too. Daibah hurried towards her daughter, who had also seen her. Binta leapt into her mother’s arms, and Daibah caught her safely. Right in the middle of the street, Daibah shut her eyes and held her only child close to her bosom with such tenderness and boundless appreciation.

Whilst she closed her eyes, vistas of recent events sailed across her inner eyes. She saw raging fire giving off thick smokes over market stalls and goods – a saddening trajectory to traders’ daily living. Daibah embraced Binta more intimately as she remembered how a burnt and stiffened figure of a child – barely six months old – was crawling towards her mother, who lay across the floor, lifeless too. A hot tear rolled down her left eye, as she thought of how the bomb blast had created an indelible mark in many lives that afternoon.

Daibah couldn’t tell how long she had held this position, but when she opened her eyes, she noticed a familiar figure standing in front of her. At first she thought she was day-dreaming, or probably her wishful thoughts were playing some form of antics on her; but her aforementioned observations were false.

Danladi beamed with happiness and gratitude, as he watched his wife and child in the middle of such disheartening confusion. Daibah could see that her husband’s cloth had been stained with blood, and his face was weary. She hurriedly put Binta down, ran towards her husband and fell before his feet, wailing.

Danladi was surprised and quite embarrassed by his wife’s gesture in public. He understood her perfectly. But he also had equal apologies to offer her. Just three days earlier, he had secretly decided to employ his wife’s wisdom by securing a new stall outside the market, at a strategic position. Since his rent at Kasua Danji had not expired, he left the old stall on his spot in the market. Meat sales at his new sales point had been quite slow and discouraging in the past three days, but Danladi understood that his little sacrifice would eventually pay off sometime soon. Some of his co-traders had secretly mocked him for acting like a weakling, while others buttressed their distaste for his cowardly behaviour by saying he had been tied to his wife’s apron strings – this all fell on deaf ears. The only thing that bothered him was how to tell his wife that he had complied with her suggestion.

Danladi pulled his wife up, gently, and carried Binta in an arm. He looked into her eyes, and said “Nagode.” Daibah’s face lost all forms of expression; she just stared at her husband, wondering what he was thanking her for. Danladi gently motioned his wife away from the busy spot where they had remained for quite some time, and now started walking slowly towards home, and she walked side by side with him. As they moved slowly, he narrated how he had opened a new stall outside the market, and how he had escaped death that afternoon because he heeded his wife’s warning – Daibah shuddered all over when she heard this; she could not believe her husband eventually bided her suggestion, and how it had also saved his life. But he was quick to also add that, after he heard the deafening sound of explosives he also fled for safety, but later hurried back to Kasua Danji with some other courageous men to rescue some of his co-traders trapped in the market. He paused a little and said most of them were dead by the time he got there. Daibah whispered; “Innalillahi wa’inna illaihi raji’un,” sorrowfully.

Danladi slowly edged away from a woman who was walking aimlessly towards him, drowned in loud cries and pulling at the strands of hair on her head – he and his wife could tell she had suffered a loss too in the market bomb blast. After the woman passed, he continued by telling his wife that he and the other courageous men never hesitated to rescue some traders and buyers, whom they found alive – though terribly injured. Some were men, others were women, and even some children were rescued too. And they were all rushed to the State hospital. From the way his voice etched with pain, Daibah could tell that the number of lives saved could not be compared with those lost.

The fervent muezzin was already calling for the evening prayers at the mosque when the young couple approached the street leading to their house. Danladi led the way, and his wife followed meekly. They would talk about everything left unsaid when they got home. They would reconcile their differences, quietly whilst they ate supper. They would rekindle their love, and light the fire of happiness in their home once again. But they would not go home straight away – rather, they would first go to the mosque and offer prayers to Allah for the departed souls, for sparing their lives, and also, for peace in the country.

 


Ayo Oyeku (@eight_sense) reconciles our world through prose and poetry. With over a decade contribution in the world of prose and poetry, his works have appeared in a number of anthologies across the globe, including, Illuminations (Celestial Arts, 2006); Fingernails across the Chalkboard (Third World Press, 2007); Waiting for the Morning (Miracle e-zinr, 2012); Stand Our Ground (Freedomseed Press, 2013); The Sky is Our Earth (Sankofa, 2015). He appeared as a Guest Contributor in According to Sources (Writers Project of Ghana, 2015). Kalahari Review and VINYL are the places to visit for his latest works in January, 2016. His award-winning debut novel – Tears of the Lonely – still enjoys a fine acceptance, just as he is finishing up on his second novel.

Related country: Nigeria

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