As I said in the bit about me, I am a realist with a healthy dose of optimism. Apologies that I am again going to write about death. It may seem morbid to my blog followers but I do not always find talking about death negative. I dwell so much on it because it is my way of not forgetting those who have left footprints in my heart. Also because unfortunately, for someone who has been fortunate not to be from areas where death is a daily occurrence, I have seen more than my fair share. In the old and in the young. If you are squeamish, this may not be the blog for you.
I write this in the living room of my sister’s flat in Abuja and this was prompted by another blog I just read and also by a conversation I had with my sister. It was a long conversation but it ultimately lead us to discuss our mortality and how death can strike unexpectedly, about being a parent and planning for that eventuality to ensure your children are taken of and about writing wills etcetera. Despite the gravity of the conversation, it was quite an uplifting one. The words to follow are snippets of memories centred mainly around 3 deaths that have literally changed my life. These are young people who no one expected to die and their manner of death changed the way I think about death.
The first was of a classmate from Queen’s College, Lagos. It happened in 1999. She (I will call her Eve here) was not a girl I was particularly close to or even fond of. But I had known her for nearly 3 years when tragedy befell her. Eve was the daughter of a quiet unassuming teacher who I will call Mr Brown here. Mr Brown was the complete opposite of his daughter. Where he was quiet, she was loud. Where he was always serious, she was always laughing, finding the humour in things even when it wasn’t appropriate. She was tall for a 12-13 year old and he was a short man. She was fair where he was dark skinned. The comparisons were striking being that they were father and child. Anyway, Eve was the class joker. She was always loudly laughing or telling a joke. She was always planning the next prank or calling out funny witticisms from the back of the class. Sometimes, it was distracting so I wasn’t always laughing with her but I never thought her to be malicious.
We came back for the 3rd trimester of JSS3 and Eve didn’t. Soon rumours began to circulate about her being unwell. Then we heard that she was in fact really quite sick and was admitted in hospital. Then we heard that she had been victim of an acid burn. The extent was unclear but we did not expect how grave it was. Why we asked? And we kept asking. She was only a young girl. Why would anyone do this to her? I was pretty sheltered so I had never heard of acid attacks nor did I know the usual motives behind them. My more streetwise classmates told me that normally jilted or scorned (adult) men were the perpetrators were and the victims the poor unfortunate girls/women of their affections. It was mainly a Southern thing back then so I had never come across this despite my mother’s job.
This was the perplexing issue to us, her classmates. Why would a girl so young attract such affection? Soon, we again heard that the attack was aimed at her older sister (also in our school but nearer 16 or maybe 17 year old). We were told that Eve opened the door to their home unsuspectingly and she had acid thrown in her face. We were told that she was badly burnt and had been admitted to the hospital weeks before we were hearing of it and was in a serious condition. We talked about her non-stop for a week. There was a sombre mood in the class. It was as if no one felt right to take over her role. So there was no joking or pranking in those days. We all feared the worst as the news we heard was comprised solely of rumours. Like Chinese whispers, we were unsure who to believe.
One morning, the Day students (as opposed to us Boarders) came in talking about the 9 o’clock news on NTA (Nigerian Television Authority channel, national news broadcast). Eve had been mentioned as there was an appeal for funds. The attack on her and the resulting serious injuries were so serious that the doctors in Lagos could do no more and I think the thrust of the news was that her family was appealing for donations to take her abroad. This was when we realised just how bad things were. We sat around in silence, praying for some news. Mr Brown turned up in our class that morning. For once, no one needed to ask for silence. We all sat in our seats and looked at him expectantly. He spoke to us in his quiet voice. His eyes were red…from exhaustion or from tears – it was hard to tell which. He confirmed the rumours. Eve had been the unintended victim of an acid attack. She had been home alone when the men called and as she was so sick, she could not identify her attackers. She was in hospital in a stable but critical condition. He left. For the next few weeks, we continued to whisper about Eve. What did critical mean exactly? More rumours about who the intended victim was and the suspected attackers. About the extent of her injuries. Some adults had been to visit and they all agreed it didn’t look good. Despite all our fears, she remained alive but in a ‘stable condition’.
End of term for us JSS3 students came early and on our last day, some kind soul had organised a bus for those of us who felt up to visiting to go and see Eve. Most of the Northern girls declined to come. I was the only Northerner to get on the bus. In total, out of 90+ classmates, the bus held less than a dozen of us plus a couple of adults. The bus ride was made in total silence. You could smell our fear and the tension was palpable. I mouthed prayers, praying that I could handle whatever condition she was in. I don’t remember much of the usual Friday traffic and the heat. I remember walking off the bus in a single file and how much I was dreading what I was about to see. The smell hit me first and I felt my gut roll. My nostrils curled inwards, as if to block off my nose and the smell with it. I thought I would faint. It was the smell of decaying human flesh reaching the corridor outside her room. I could hear someone whimper and start to sob within our group. We all marched on following the adult leading us in. We stopped by the door as she announced our entrance. When she opened the door, the smell hit us harder followed closely by the sound of Eve taking breath after painful breath. My knees locked and a part of me wanted to bolt. I remember telling myself sternly that I could face anything. If she had to be here, I could visit her. Even if only for a minute.
On wobbly legs, I followed. I inhaled and held my breath. The bedside cabinet was groaning under the weight of medication. Mostly topical and oral stuff with cotton wool and forceps in a metal tray. She was barely visible. Her head was uncovered and there was a lady (her mother?) whispering in her ear. Asking her to be brave, not to scream in pain as she had begun to do. ‘Your classmates have come to visit’ the lady whispered into the hole where her outer air should have been. She seemed to hear her and she lapsed into her painful breathing again. The rest of her body was covered. It was beneath a metal cage over which a sheet was draped. I could not see underneath but I was certain she had burns all over her body, which was why she was lying so. To prevent clothing coming in contact with her skin. We all took turns to step up next to her and tell her who we were. Her eyes were covered, she clearly could not see. The hair on her head was badly singed and what was left of it was in a clump, stuck to her skull. All of her skin was badly damaged. You could see bits of colour imbedded in the skin of her face and neck, clothes melted into her skin. Her nose was gone…there were holes for breathing but no nostrils. Her ears like I already mentioned were missing too. All that was left were holes leading to her middle ears. Her lips were also damaged and her mouth was hanging upon as she struggled to get air in. Through her open mouth, you could see her blackened shrivelled tongue.
She grunted when each girl said her name. We retreated to the back of the room and stood silently for some time. Her carer took a bottle from the cabinet and dropped it onto some part of her face when she started to complain of pain again. Soon, her bravery was unable to contain her pain any longer and she began to whimper. This very quickly turned into screams of anguish. She was clearly in unbearable pain. We all had tears in our eyes as we were ushered out. Her carer came to us and said ‘thank you so much for coming. I know Eve appreciates it’. None of us replied, we were too busy crying. We got back on the bus and gave way to emotion. I remember staring unseeingly out of my window as tears coursed down my cheeks. I wept for nearly an hour, until we got back to school. When I got off the bus, my face was dry. It was obvious I had been crying but the tears stopped. I had to be brave. I got my things and I went home. I did not speak much of it over the next few days except my family would ask how I was doing whenever the appeal for help with medical costs was broadcast. Her death was announced on the Tuesday after we visited. Although I didn’t say it out, I sent a word of thanks to God for answering my prayer. My prayers on the bus after we left was that He put her out of her misery. I was sad but life went on.
About a month later, 2 of my older male cousins, my foster sister, my sister and I had one of our late nights of playing cards by the light of a lantern on the veranda whilst most of Yola slept. It was around midnight and Yola was definitely in bed by then. We were suddenly famished and we rooted around in the kitchen to no avail. We decided to go out and buy some food. We walked in the quiet to the night market (‘kasuwan dare’), fearless in those days of anything untoward happening. Yola was that kind of town. Despite the fact that 3 of us were young girls, we felt safe enough in the company of 2 older boys. We bought food and came home, had a merry little feast and were in the middle of telling jokes and laughing when it suddenly dawned on me that Eve was dead. Just like that. She would have no more holidays, no more jokes, no more laughs. She was gone. Forever. The enormity of it hit me. The pain she was in, the senselessness of her death (her murder come to think of it) and the grief her family must be going through. How had she felt just before the attack happened and when she had the acid thrown at her? How had she borne the pain for so long? Could she smell her own flesh decaying? Did she realise how badly she had been hurt? Did she know she was dying?
From laughter, I dissolved into tears and I could not stop. The more I thought about her, the more I wept. The others were concerned. I told them through my tears not to worry. I was just remembering Eve. They were worried I could see but also understanding. This carried on for maybe half an hour. Eventually, my sister suggested that the boys go home. My sisters would look after me. I smiled through my hysteria and tried desperately to compose myself. I remember rocking as I sat on the ground, hugging my knees and trying not to hyperventilate. I was sobbing out loud, my eyes closed as I got flashbacks of Eve in her eventual death bed.
My sisters asked what the matter was when I did not show signs of stopping. I said ‘I will be fine. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying.’ Actually I did know. I could not stop imagining myself as her. Going through that ordeal, surviving for over 3 months with all the pain. Unable to talk, unable to move, unable to ask why. I thought mostly of her mother, who had to watch her daughter go through this. I thought about the inadequacy of treatment, how she was clearly in pain but there were no painkillers strong enough to control her pain. I thought of her sister, who was rumoured to be the intended victim. How did she feel? Did she feel bad her little sister had taken her place? Did she feel guilty by association? I thought of Mr Brown and his wife. I knew they would be devastated. I had seen it in their eyes. How were they carrying on? How could they bear the pain? If the pain I was feeling was so deep and I wasn’t even that close to her, how must they feel? How could they bear to be alive?
It took over an hour for me to calm down and stop the sobbing. I still cried. Until dawn that day but silently as my sisters lay next to me and went to sleep. I got it all out then and not once since have I shed a tear over Eve but I remember her whenever I think about life and death. The details are unclear to me now but I think her attackers were caught. Her sister was a witness in the case. I don’t know if they were convicted and what happened to them afterwards. We never got to go to the funeral because it happened over the summer holidays.
Life moved on when we returned to SS1. Without Eve. She had never made it out of her pinafore and into the skirt we were now wearing as senior students. Whenever someone said someone funny, we would refer back to what Eve would say. Mr Brown, bless him, looked devastated whenever we saw him, which wasn’t often. He did come to say thank you to all of us for our prayers and our parents’ donations. He especially wanted to say thank you to those of us who visited. He said we helped Eve. I hoped so. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, we gradually moved onto other topics. Other girls soon took up the mantle of class clown and the laughter returned. Still, I never forgot and I know at least within my circle of friends at least, none of us will forget her. She lives on in our hearts. What a senseless loss!