The first I heard of it was from the BBC website. Twenty-nine, they said. Twenty nine school children had been killed in a dawn raid in Mamudo village somewhere in Yobe State. Twenty-nine and one school teacher. I had just returned to my hotel room from a long day of engagements at the British Library and a very late dinner and was eager for some news from home. And that was what I found. I sat before my laptop and fought back the tinge of tears in my eyes as an invisible desperate hand yanked my heart homewards.
I shut down the laptop and spent the night drifting, in my thoughts, in my aimless motions, held in place only by the weight of my heart. It occurred to me then that there are challenges to mourning home away from home. It is worse when you are in a place where things work and are mourning a country where nothing does. It is occasioned by the helplessness you feel because you are faraway from it all and this helplessness takes an even deeper shade when you realise there is nothing you could have done even if you had been at home. Absolutely nothing.
The next time I checked the news, the casualty figure had escalated to 42. The students were roused from their beds by gunmen who stormed their boarding school. The gunmen rounded them up and threw grenades into their midst, blowing them and their dreams to bits and shooting down anything else that moved. School children. All young. Their crime? They dreamed, they coveted knowledge, they went to school because they wanted to improve their chances in life, they wanted to improve lives in their own small ways. They wanted perhaps to improve their country somehow by being better educated citizens. But where, I am tempted to ask, was their country when they needed her the most?
I was shocked and numbed. And that has to be news in a clime were being shocked and numbed by such quotidian atrocities has become the norm. Perhaps because I was away from it all when it happened, I did not see the habitual social media angst that had characterised our recent agitations against injustices, against bumbling idiots who torment us with bad governance and make away, quite brazenly, with public funds, against laws that are socially retrogressive such as our overpaid lawmakers are fond of making.
When I got back, the tragedy in Mamudo had escaped, by and large, from our social reality into the convenient place of forgetting; that alcove were we tuck away the sad realities of our existence, were we put away those things that we tire of talking about without any change coming out if it. That was helped, I suppose, by the fact that half-away across the world, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Now Trayvon Martin: that is a name with a face to it, that boy in a hoodie who certainly did not deserve what Mr. Zimmerman did to him. We raved and ranted, as usual on social media, we shook our fists at the Americans and the system that allowed a murderer escape with a heinous crime—we still do in fact. But of the 42 children of Mamudo, we only sighed and shrugged and moved on to the next trending news. We don’t have their faces staring back at us from newspaper pages demanding justice, not one single image to make our DP or Profile Picture. We don’t know their names. Not many of us even remember the name Mamudo, where this terrible thing happened. Some just remember the figure, 42. That is all those ornate dreams and gilded ambitions nurtured for years by those children and their parents have been reduced to. A number that will soon blur in the midst of other numbers.
The usual inane rhetoric followed. President Goodluck Jonathan, tired of making the same statement over and over again, sent his mouthpiece Rueben Abati to “condemn” the crime. But there is no talk of justice for the massacred. No arrest has been made of the perpetrators, those people who deserve to be hounded relentlessly by the apparatus of the law and made to face the severest punishment the law provides for such unspeakable crimes.
There are no flowers for the 42, no memorial, no monument to tell future generations that once there were children who dared to dream and died for it, to remind us that something like this happened, gruesome as it is, there is no record of their names, in the papers, online, no record of their parents who are grieving, no record of what their dreams were, what they wanted to do with their lives.
Is it even valid to ask if being overexposed to such violence on TV and social media, and in our realities hasn’t caught up with us? For how else can we explain this apathy for the atrocities that we are being forced to endure daily, these series of unspeakable murders and barbarity, one coming too quickly on the heels of another? Are we growing numb to our own pains and turning instead to share in those of people elsewhere, to places where when you talk, someone listens, where attempts are made, even if unsuccessful, to bring the Zimmermans of this world to justice while the Shekaus of this other world gloat at such atrocious massacres and dare to vindicate it in the name of God?
The media here seem to have tired of such news. Or are they just too lazy, too sloppy to put names to this numbers, to put faces to these names, to humanise these students blown to bits by animals in human form? Are we, the journalists, too preoccupied with the pursuit of the little demeaning brown envelopes, running after politicians for meaningless interviews and feed off the crumbs they throw at us to make them look good in the public eye? Or is it too disturbing to put names to this figures or are we just comfortable with random numbers. “40 killed in Kano Bombings!” “32 Killed in Borno”, “FG Condemns killings of 42 students!” Numbers. Just numbers.
It hasn’t been a pleasant few months for children in the world. You read about men like Spaniard Daniel Galvan who was convicted of raping 11 Moroccan children, all between the age of four and 15 and the King of Morocco thinks that crime is pardonable and sends off Galvan to his native Spain to lounge by the poolside and sip his martinis while those little girls nurse their physical and emotional scars and their parents wave angry fists in the air. I will not pretend to be civil about such things. If I were the King of Morocco, I know who my first eunuch will be. Male animals like Galvan don’t deserve the balls they carry, wallahi.
And you think of those poor children of India, 23 of them wasted because they were hungry, because they wanted to eat up and go back to classes, because they wanted to improve their lot and you ask yourself: what if one of them had been your child? What if one of them had been you when you were their age?
I grieve for the children of the world; those who wander the streets scrounging for a living, those who are fed poisons because some people want to cut corners, those who are cut down in violent orgies because they dream. I grieve for those children whose names we do not know, and may never know. Whose killers may never face justice for stealing the innumerable scented dreams these children nursed.
Rest in peace, children of the absent country.