The writer of this piece is presently serving Nigeria through the NYSC at the Plateau State University, Bokkos, Plateau State (Bokkos is some one hour, thirty minutes away from Jos).
I sense the sudden agitation on the bus and lift my head from my phone. People are standing, looking ahead. I assume it is an accident and I return to my phone. I don’t like gory sights.
But everybody is talking at the same time, and the atmosphere on the bus is suddenly tense. Still, I cannot make out what is happening. Hausa words fly about and I don’t understand much. Three months into my stay in Plateau, and I’ve realized that I cannot guess what is said in Hausa even by the tone. When friends are exchanging warm pleasantries, it often sounds like a disagreement to me.
Then, in a sudden moment of realisation, it hits me that we are now in Barkin Ladi. An alarm goes off in my head. I look out of the window and see people running helter-skelter. Barkin Ladi, the home of fatal communal clashes mostly between Fulani herdsmen and the native Berom people.
Everything comes into perspective when one elderly man comes to the middle of the bus and his voice raised above the hubbub, says “the best thing for us to do now is to start praying”.
As much as I appreciate the fact that at least someone finally has the good heart to speak in English, I become even more agitated. I am not alone.
I look at men (some of whom try to no avail to cloak their fear) and women who possibly kissed their spouses and children goodbye, saying “see you later” as they left their homes. Now, the end flashes in our eyes.
At some point, the driver indicates that noise on the bus is tasking his concentration. I can tell that some are telling him to turn back to Jos, while others are telling him that the only option (having entered the situation) is to go ahead.
I think about my parents; about how innumerable corpers have lost their lives hundreds of miles away from “home”. And I am beside myself with fear.
Yet, something in me still tries to rationalize the situation. Even if they are really fighting, will they see a big Marco Polo bus, branded Plateau State University, and just attack the innocent staff of the university? But again, I wonder what that would matter to people who most likely cannot read. Besides, news of buses being attacked indiscriminately is not new in Nigeria. And I remember how another corper once told us that a car he boarded broke down around Barkin Ladi, and the other passengers were so agitated that he was forced to ask what the fuss was all about. Only for him to be told that where they were was so dangerous, that people got attacked and killed there. For nothing!
I remember Chikaosolu, a member of my platoon at the orientation camp, who had wept bitterly the day we received our posting letters. “How can they take me to Barkin Ladi, with all this fighting going on there,” she had cried. And I remember telling her that the place can’t be as bad as we’d heard it was (even while on camp). Now, I silently pray that somehow, Chikaosolu has relocated.
Our bus moves on; even though a woman asks to be dropped off. A few miles away from the village, we encounter a road block mounted by soldiers. I turn to the woman beside me and say, “but these are soldiers na.” Her response shocks me. “The soldiers don’t interfere in communal clashes.”
We eventually arrive on the campus of the university. And before we get down, a man – who had been at the forefront of the campaign for our bus to turn back – stands up and requests that we offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
And our lives continue.
But all through the rest of that day, those villagers do not stop running in my mind. I wonder what life is for them. A series of long days of farming punctuated with too-often-to-be-occasional violence? Constant consciousness of lurking danger? Do they sleep, ever ready to take flight?
In the short space of time on the bus that fear tugged at my heart, life was practically on its head for me. If I, relatively safer on a bus in transit, could feel so much fear, I wonder what form of fear those people carry in their hearts going about their daily lives. If I, safe from the trauma of having experienced similar deadly occurrences or the weight of mourning a relative that had been lost to a similar clash, could fear that much, what would it have been for them?
I know that feeling is not something anybody should carry in their hearts, to live with. I know nobody, no matter what, deserves to live with such amount of fear. And I know that is not the way to live life.
The night before this article happened, I slept over in Jos. So, I decided to join the university’s staff bus on my way back to Bokkos in the morning. A few days later, I would read on the news that “at least seven persons have been killed in three different attacks in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau State.”