Blessing Judith Ogazie (FIRST PLACE)
STORY: HIGH PLACES
It was only thirty minutes into Professor Aikeni’s African Literature class and the same topic reared its ugly head again. I, just like many other second year students of the Department of European Studies, had come to the Professor’s class with high expectations. I had heard a lot from postgraduate students on how he taught with so much grace. As a matter of fact, we the second year students were privileged to have him lecture us. I was enjoying his classes until the second week, when he started raising the topic of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Colonization. “The Europeans came to Africa to enslave and exploit us.” Professor Aikeni declared, sounding like a revolutionary Student Union president. Majority of the students murmured in agreement. The students’ gaze followed him as he paced the front of the class and adjusted his glasses for the umpteenth time. “They brought their arrogant religion and said ours was demonic.” The Professor added. “Jesus is the only way to God.” A boy jokingly said from behind. Majority of the class burst into laughter. “Thank you. Is that not what they always say? Who told them that?” He paused for a moment and continued. “Nevertheless, the greatest tragedy lies in the fact that, after all the atrocities committed, many are still ignorantly following this oppressive religion at the expense of their true identity”. Professor Aikeni blurted out aggressively, shaking his head slowly. The class jeered in agreement. The professor waited till the class was calm again. “The White people misrepresented us in their works. They treated us as animals. And why was this?” He pointed to the brown skin on his left arm. “Just because of our skin color.” He said in a sad tone. The class murmured again in agreement. “If they could lie about us in their novels, why then should we believe in their bible?” Ekundayo, a male student wearing dread locks called out from the far right of the lecture theater. The murmuring started again. I said nothing. All I did was support my jaw with my right palm. I was tired, not only of the non-stop Wednesday lectures, but also of the discouraging effect of this particular course. Ever since this African Literature class started fully this semester, I had been finding it hard to pray like before. I always left the class feeling more disappointed in Christianity. I was starting to have questions in my head and I feared that I could lose my faith before I graduated. I practically came to African Literature class just to watch my faith get slaughtered before my very eyes. I looked around and wondered if I was the only one with this struggle. I saw Deborah quietly watching the professor. By her silence I could tell that what the professor said did not go down well with her. But what could we do? We are but second year students before a Professor of African Literature. “We shall now proceed to Pre-colonial literature textual analysis, starting with The Intelligent Savage, written by Asher Goodhouse. Goodhouse was a …” The Professor was interrupted by David’s show of hands. “Yes? Any question?” Professor asked. David stood up gently. “No question, Sir. I would love to clarify some things.” David calmly replied. “Go ahead.” Professor Aikeni said. “Proper research is what separates us from any layman out there. Though Christianity is widespread in the West and has also been used for selfish, dehumanizing purposes by the slave masters; it is still not a white man religion. It originated from Asia.” David’s words led to an uproar in the classroom but he continued nevertheless. He turned to face the class and continued calmly as usual. “Just as you do not abandon your knife and call it names when it cuts you, Christianity should not be written off because of the misdeeds committed in its name; rather, we should learn that when the purpose of a thing is unknown or forgotten, abuse in evitable. When the leader of the church forgets his flock in search for limitless political power, abuse is inevitable. Christianity is not the only foreign religion adopted by Africans. Need I tell you that Islam was also introduced to the African people?” David asked, obviously expecting no reply. I could tell that like a skilled story teller, David had the class attention. I was simply amazed at his boldness clothed with gentleness. Professor Aikeni stood with hands akimbo and face expressionless. “Christianity has been in North Africa even before the arrival of the European colonizers. Go ahead and browse it. The Bible also spoke of an Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Phillip in the book of Acts of the Apostle…” “Where exactly is it in the book of Acts?” Obinna interrupted. He, as well as a few other students, brought out his phone, wanting to check for the authenticity of David’s claims. “Young man, this is an intellectual gathering and I will not have you turn it into a church gathering.” Professor Aikeni cut in. “You may have your seat!” He ordered. David calmly sat down. “Apostle!” Ayanfe said, throwing a salute in David’s direction. The class in turn erupted into laughter. The Professor looked at his wristwatch and adjusted his glasses. “My period is over. We continue with The Intelligent Savage in the next class.” He stated coldly and looked once more in David’s direction as he walked out. The class dispersed slowly but I had still not gotten over the entire episode. I walked up to David in excitement. “Boy! What was that?!” I asked all smiles. “It is the Lord, James. In time past, Christians were persecuted with physical violence; I am afraid that this time around, persecution lives in our classrooms and other intellectual gatherings; the very places to which we entrust our children. Ignorance is risky here.” David said with a hint of sadness in his voice. I could not agree less.
Janet Kareem (SECOND PLACE)
Today would be the perfect day to die.
The thick darkness that engulfed the room where Rakiya lay was nothing compared to that which gnawed at her heart. Deep-throated snores reverberated intermittently from the man beside her, each warm breath that touched her making her skin crawl.
Thoughts of death were not foreign to her. Life seemed desirable, but more often than not, death was simply the better option.
‘Rashida died today. When will it be my turn, Lord? When will I be free?’ she thought.
The memories of the day before were as clear as the day had been. It had been unusually bright, the sun shining as if with renewed vigour. Birds greeted her and Rashida, her best friend and Christian sister with soulful singing, as they walked to the well.
‘Isn’t it a beautiful day to die?’ Rashida joked.
Her friend made such trivial comments about death, anyone would think she was crazy and weren’t they? Living with a vibrant hope for deliverance yet unfazed by the thought of death, it was a paradox that would puzzle any sound mind.
Hours later, Rashida disappeared for longer than usual. When they were summoned to the small expanse of land beside the tents, she understood why. There stood her friend, a shadow of her former self. Her left eye was swollen and her face, covered in blood.
‘We found this one singing about her Lord and Saviour,’ Bashir, the group leader began, sarcasm coating each word. ‘Let’s see if He’ll save you now.’
She was hit a few more times, then thrown into a narrow pit that was filled with dirt till only her head stuck out.
Rakiya had felt prepared for this, but her heart betrayed her. A stream of salty liquid effortlessly flowed from her eyes. A pile of large stones stood at a distance and the reason was obvious. Rashida’s bleeding head soon hung limp, her disfigured face a mesh of blood and tissue.
Bashir now laid beside her. Once again, her body had been used to gratify the desires of the ones who had taken everything from her – her family, her home, her Ahmad. Her sweet Ahmad.
Ahmad was the one who got her saved. Their marriage lasted for three short years but they were the best of her life. She remembered the twinkle in his brown eyes as he gently talked to her whenever he visited her mother’s fura da nono stall on the corner of the dusty Kunun Gayya Road.
She soon realized that his Christian faith somehow distinguished him from the other men. Together, they eloped to a village where they became one of the village’s kafir couples – infidels in love.
Like the branded marks on the local cows, memories of his last moments were indelibly etched in her mind – his warm blood, his struggle to live. He had just eaten what turned out to be his last meal when masked men broke in. They hacked him with sharp machetes that glistened in the dimly lit room.
With Joshua, her two-year-old son firmly clinging to her, she was taken with other women into a truck and driven to a settlement in the middle of nowhere. Every attempt at escape was met with severe punishment – beatings, starvation, and serial rape. Their menstrual cycles were monitored and based on this, sex rosters were created for them to please their captors.
‘We’re doing our god’s work, if this is how you contribute to it, you should feel honoured,’ the men would say.
To conserve scarce resources, sickly women were shot. Some were designated as suicide bombers.
‘Submit or you’ll wish you were never born,’ they threatened.
Rakiya felt the impact of the threat two weeks into captivity. The men had discovered that some of them were Christians.
A big black drum, filled with water, was placed at the centre of the field where Rashida was killed. Puzzled, the women huddled together, expecting the worst. Joshua clung to her chador tightly.
‘You!’ Bashir called.
Rakiya froze. For the first time, she was grateful that they were not allowed to look into the eyes of their captors. Surely, it could not be her. Her hopes were dashed when he stood in front of her.
‘Woman, I’m talking to you.’
When she didn’t respond, he looked at Joshua. The boy retreated further behind his mother. He picked him up and walked towards the drum. The child’s cries rent the air. Even he could somehow perceive the vile nature of the man who held him.
‘Infidel, you have one minute to forgo that faith or your son will pay for it.’
‘Please, he’s only a child,’ she pleaded, torrents of tears pouring down her cheeks.
The Lord would forgive her, but did she truly believe in Him she could not stand by her faith? She probably deserved the suffering, Joshua didn’t.
‘Please, don’t do this!’ She lurched forward but was restricted by a strong grip.
Without batting an eyelid, Bashir submerged the boy’s small, fragile body in the drum. A few minutes later, his body floated to the surface. Her son was killed and she was made to watch.
Women were already considered inferior. An infidel woman? She was no different than the village stray dogs. What more could there be to her life than the pleasure found between her thighs?
Months later, she got pregnant for one of the men. The girl was now three years old, her father still unknown.
Every night, Rakiya gazed at the sky, hoping to see the Lord coming in his glory and power as the Bible said He would. She wanted deliverance; more than ever, she craved death. Yet, in living, she sought to strengthen the other women, to help them find the Lord.
As sunrise appeared, she felt her strength return. Whatever happened today, she was not the loser. She had won in what mattered – Jesus.
Isaac Yinka Aina (THIRD PLACE)
STORY: Just like every other time, it had started with a loud cry. A warning cry I had gotten accustomed to. I began to understand the meaning of the warning cry when I was seven years old. I’m fifteen now and it still meant the same thing; run or die!
The last time such alarm was raised, my father had taken us to his large farm and we hid ourselves amongst the crop. It had started around 12am, the usual time the invasion occurs. The sounds, the chants, the screams, the cries I heard from the village all spelt horror. It was almost dawn when my father decided that we leave for our house in Danku community since everywhere appeared to be calm.
As we entered Danku community, we were greeted by the stench of roasted bodies. Young and old, male and female bodies littered the whole village. My mother had carried my younger brother in her hands and shielded his face from the horror scattered all over the ground. The church my father pastored had been burnt down, only recognisable because it was directly opposite our house. I wondered why my missionary parents chose to live in this haunted village located in Southern Kaduna, Nigeria.
At the gate of our house lay a young man with a pocket bible on the floor, a few metres away from him. I froze as I stared at his cold body. He looked like he was in his early twenties. His eyes had been gouged, his head detached from the rest of his body and splattered around him were large chunks of flesh from his body which appeared to have been butchered by a cutlass. I heard myself shriek when I realised the body before me was that of our Youth Pastor; Paul Nnamdi. My father had carried me away from the sight immediately my loud cry made him aware of the dismembered body before me.
My mother had rushed into my room to wake me and my brother from our sleep. The words of the voice screaming into the night had immediately taken sleep away from my eyes as the words reverberated through my whole being and informed me of what was about to happen. The warning cry had been sounded.
“They are almost here! Run! Hide!” the voice screamed once more.
My mother had hardly finished dressing us up when we started hearing loud bangs on our door.
“Open the door!” the voices chorused in Hausa language.
My father ran into the room, drenched by perspiration. I watched him hug my brother tightly and then came over to me with teary eyes and said.
“Deborah Samuel, I want you to know I love you. Take care of your brother and your mother. Always remember this; Jesus is the only true God.”
Tears dripped down my cheeks. My father only addressed me by my full name whenever he wanted to say something very important which he wanted me to take seriously. I hung tightly to him, not wanting to let go but was pulled off him when the door to our house was axed down.
“Take them to the farm,” my father instructed my mother and left the room to face the invaders.
My mother pushed us towards the backyard and as we stepped out, the sounds of multiple gunshot rocked the house. Pausing, she told me. “Take your brother to the farm and hide there. Don’t come back till the Sun is out.”
“Just obey me. If I go with you, we will all be hunted and killed.” She knelt in front of us and hugged us tightly. “I love you my children. Take care of your brother. Now run and don’t look back till you are deep inside the farm.”
As my mother turned and walked into the house, I held my brother’s hand firmly and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I kept wondering what would become of my parents. As we ran under the full moon, the noises of torment from the village kept fading away gradually. The farm had been our only hiding place due to the height of the crops. My father had shown me a vantage point on the farm where I could see our house; at least the backyard alone.
As I stood, I saw my mother run out naked. Four young men ran after her and pinned her down. The distance was too far for me to hear their voice but the brightness of the full moon made the sight visible enough for my eyes. I watched as they each took turns on my mother who appeared to be struggling to break lose but was helplessly pinned to the ground. The voice of my younger brother startled me.
“Aunty Deborah, when is mummy and daddy coming?”
I couldn’t fight the tears in my eyes. How will I tell him? Will he ever understand? I drew him close, the only words I could say was. “We will be fine.”
I turned back to look at the scene unfolding at the backyard of my house and saw the body of my mother laying motionless on the ground. One of the four men picked a cutlass he had dropped and swung it at my mother’s neck several times. Unable to bear the sight anymore, I turned to my six year old brother who was clearly clueless about what was going on and muttered. “Don’t cry Timi, I’m your mother now.”
“What about mummy?” he asked, his innocent wet face looking up to mine.
“We will meet her someday,” I said and took his hands as we ran further into the farm.
Angela Edhere (FOURTH PLACE)
“You still dare believe in a God who would sit back and watch as these people are stripped of their lives and tossed here to suffer until death finally comes?”
The raised voice was coming from the middle of the camp. I looked to my patrol partner who shrugged indifferently. I understood. We were all tired. I didn’t blame him for not wanting to be involved in what would be a potentially fruitless effort. After all, tensions always ran high in a refugee camp.
A large crowd was building and the tension and discomfort were palpable in the thick, dusty air. I noticed no other officer bothered to make an effort to resolve the situation.
Towards the back of the camp, I observed those who stared stoically into the distance. Tired people who had seen, heard and experienced too much to care at all. Years of hardship marked their dark faces. Silent cries of desperation escaped their weary lips.
I was drawn out of my reverie by an eruption of shouts. The small circus had grown into a sizable mob and it was hard to pick out the voices amidst the cacophony of embittered cries. As I picked my way through the crowd to get to the center, I observed the faces around me. These were worn but passionately emoted. Pain, rage, and sadness were etched into every crease on their faces.
“You are the worst kind of person! You religious monster! Your god should have let you die in those fires!”
“Those who did this to us did so in the name of their god! Who do we believe?! How do you expect us to continue believing in a God who claims to hear us and see us when we’ve lost our families and lives to madmen in the name of worship?!”
“Stop preaching to us! We have heard it before and refuse to hear anymore. If Christianity took away our lives, what foolishness will cause us to continue to follow after it in this desert place?!”
“My husband’s head was severed because he refused to denounce Christ and live.”
I had made it to the center of the commotion and was able to pick several voices directed towards the crouched form of a woman. Hauwa. She was a camp veteran who should have, by all means, been amongst the lot at the back.
I held back one shouting woman who seemed to be the instigator of this whole thing. She wrestled violently against me and pushed me to the ground before proceeding to kick Hauwa repeatedly. I quickly drew my assigned gun and fired two warning shots. There was an eruption of screams, many fled the area and then, silence.
The back lot gazed our way briefly before resuming their pitiful wondering. Those who cleared from the circle of commotion gaped at me, wondering what I would do next. My fellow squad members, freshly emerged from the platoon tent, watched the scene with little interest. The woman I’d held was crouched low and shaking violently while she covered her ears and screamed. Hauwa just sat there motionless.
I held onto Hauwa and walked towards the entrance of the camp. I quickly found a bench for us to sit. She sat and directed her gaze towards the gates of the camp.
I was removing my canteen from the holster to offer her water to clean her wounds when I heard her speak. “That woman was right. God should have let me die in those fires.”
She spoke without looking at me. I tried to look at her face. She was badly burned on her right side. The scars told the story of the fires that Islamic terrorists set to her village four years ago. She continued. “I should have died that night. All I remember was running. I ran into a man with a mask. He had one of those big guns. I should have died”. She looked like she would burst in tears.
“But you didn’t,” I pointed out.
She took a deep breath. “There was a flash of light and what sounded like a loud explosion of thunder. It was a voice. It said ‘run’ and I did. I didn’t see the man. I just kept running. I was found at the edge of the path leading to my village. I had fractured bones and sustained fatal injuries. There was no logical circumstance for me to be there.” She looked up and smiled wistfully. “I lost my husband in that raid. We were at the church when they came. I watched them set him on fire while I fled with my children.”
“Did your children make it to camp?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea where they might be. They were snatched from me while I fled. I couldn’t turn to save them.”
“You lost everything… Yet, you still believe and preach faith in God. Why?”
She finally looked at me. I saw something in her eyes that I had never seen in my two years here. “Hope.” She held my hands and said, “I have spoken these things to you, that in me you might have peace. In the world, you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” She unclasped my hands. “That is my hope and I will continue to share it with my brothers and sisters until the Lord comes for us.”
“Even if you get beaten to a pulp for it.” She met my gaze and we shared a smile.
“Do you believe?”
I turned to the gates and pondered. Even within the camp, persecution reared its ugly head. We are all victims – Hauwa, those refugees, the officers. We are victims of a wicked world. A world where a few think they have a say on who people can worship, and how people can express faith. A world plunged in darkness. A world that Jesus overcame. A world in which we have hope.
“Yes, I believe.”
Uzoamaka Uchechi Uchenyi (FIFTH PLACE)
STORY: The Preacher’s Joy
With a set chin and a determined gaze, Anuli clutched her handbag tightly as she set out for evangelism — her custom since the lock down was relaxed. Marching down with long strides, eyes darting to and fro, her well-combed long black tresses shimmered in the sun contrasting her straight loose-fitting yellow patterned dress. Smiling, she walked up to a group of young men sitting around, greeted them enthusiastically and told them that she wanted to share the gospel with them. They declined politely.
Looking straight ahead, she saw a woman sitting alone in a stall a stone throw away. For some reason, she felt drawn to her. Quickening her pace, she made her way there.
“Good afternoon ma,” she said, smiling at her, “I’ve come to share the gospel with you.”
Looking up, the beautiful small middle-aged light-skinned woman nodded her approval. Tightening her hold on the baby cradled close to her chest, she sat straight and listened keenly. Excited, Anuli told her of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin and His resurrection. Convinced, she believed. Then, Anuli prayed for the baby — he had a fever. He was healed instantly.
Anuli skipped joyfully all the way home. However, her happiness was cut short because at the gate, Mama was waiting. Her face mirrored intense rage and disappointment.
“Anulika, where are you coming from?” she fumed. “I went for evangelism,” she replied quietly.
Stretching her right arm, Mama struck her face with a resounding slap. Anuli staggered backwards, her vision blurring as the sound of the slap echoed all over their neighbourhood. Instinctively, her hands flew to her burning cheeks.
“You dare answer back?” Mama thundered, raising her hand as though to slap her again.
Anuli flinched, shocked.
“How many times have I told you that I’m tired of your church thing? Anuli! Is this how you will get married? Your mates are married o. Go and marry!” Mama scolded.
Satisfied with the hurt in Anuli’s glistening eyes, Mama turned away and stomped into the house. Broken, Anuli walked in slowly with what little strength she had left and sat at the dinner table with her parents. She ate quickly and retired to bed early.
By midnight, she woke up to pray as she usually did every night. As she got out of bed, she heard muffled sounds. She glanced at her sister’s bed. Ngozi was watching a movie on a laptop. Sighing, Anuli knelt beside her bed, clasped her hands and started whispering words of prayer. Suddenly, she heard the door knob turning. Her eyes flew open as the room door opened to reveal Mama standing in the doorway. She had brought the rod of correction with her. Sensing her presence, Ngozi slapped her system shut and quickly slid under the covers. Mama approached Anuli’s bed and stopped.
“Did you wash the clothes I soaked?” Mama asked, clutching a bundle tightly under her arm and looking menacingly at Anuli.
“Yes mummy,” Anuli replied, looking up at her through sheen of tears.
Anuli’s mind wandered to earlier that day. She had seen the clothes soaked in a black bucket some minutes before she went for evangelism. It was Ngozi’s duty to wash them today but she had done it anyway. Ngozi had teased her gratefully. Later, when she checked them, they were all bright and stain-free just the way Mama liked them.
Imagine her horror when Mama asked: “So, why does this one have red stain?”
Mama had spread out the bundle. It was an off-white bedspread but it had a huge bright red patch in the middle.
Anuli’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“This table cloth that nearly made me late for evangelism!” she wanted to scream, remembering how she had scrubbed and scrubbed till it nearly peeled off her skin.
In the end, she had conquered. It was almost as good as new by the time she was done. So, she was surprised to see red paint splattered across it like that.
“Mama, I washed it,” Anuli said, matter-of-factly.
“So, you’re saying I’m lying?” Mama countered.
Angry, she started flogging Anuli all over her body till the cane broke into three. Still, she didn’t stop. She kept flogging her till she was exhausted. Then, she spat on her and left. Exhausted, Anuli fell to the ground. Ngozi went over and wrapped her arms around her.
“Why is Mama doing this?” Ngozi thought.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…,” Anuli said, as though reading her thoughts, “The enemy isn’t mama. It’s the devil. He doesn’t like it when believers are doing the works of Jesus. So, he sets even the people they love against them.”
Ngozi nodded, understanding.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“Pray, rejoice and keep doing what I’m supposed to,” Anuli replied, “Jesus said, ‘In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.’ He told his disciples that they were blessed when people hated them and accused them wrongly for his name sake. Then, he also said that they should rejoice and be exceeding glad for that was how they persecuted the prophets which were before them.”
With that, she burst into a melody. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she expressed the joy that bubbled from her heart. Her mind flew to the stories she’d read about apostles like Paul and Silas in prison. She thought of Stephen who was stoned after his sermon. She thought about James who was killed and others who were mocked. Smiling, she felt proud that she had also been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.
After a few minutes, she felt a soft tap on her shoulder. Opening her eyes, she looked into Ngozi’s pleading eyes. They were tear-laden and sincere.
“I want what you have,” Ngozi said, earnestly, “I want to serve Jesus like you do.”
Jesus had won.