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This is a shortlisted story for the 2012 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
—from the preface of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The school compound reeked. The wind, it seemed, was against them. It carried the smell of stale fish, dead rodent, and sewage from the nearby canal closer to them, but no one complained. Sonia rested her head on the wall of a building. In the dark they were all the same, the buildings; she couldn’t differentiate them, and it didn’t even matter. She closed her eyes but she knew sleep would not come. It wasn’t because of the women chatting around her; she could easily drown out the noises in her surroundings. She had lived near a church growing up. It was one of those small churches that had only one parish. The church had installed two large loudspeakers in front of the church—she didn’t know how many were inside, she had never entered—so that the message that it preached could travel as far as possible. Every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and every last Friday of the month, she heard the word of God being shouted out to her by the pastor, a short man whose lungs proved that big things come in small packages. Her mother had said that the man behaved like all short people did: “They are short. They have to scream so that you notice them.” Her father was short and he shouted too but only at his wife Anna. Sonia was convinced that it was because only her mother brought out the worst in him. So when the loudspeakers were turned on and her parents began arguing, Sonia would hear them but she would not listen. But now she couldn’t sleep, and it was because the noise was coming from inside her own head.
She walked quietly, careful not to disturb any of the women who lay on the floor. She could barely make out the legs and arms that were sprawled about and was thankful for the full moon overhead. Sonia was amazed at how many women had turned up; they were everywhere. Some slept on their scarves, others slept sitting down with their heads resting against a wall. She considered going back to her former sitting position but it had been taken by another much older woman. She found an empty spot by the school gates; she spread her wrapper on the floor slowly, sat and rested her head on the wall of the unpainted gatehouse. Sonia didn’t know when she fell asleep. She dreamt about her families, the one she had been born into and the one she had made: her father, her brother, her mother and her sister; and her 14-year-old son Paul, her twin girls Susan and Lisa, and her husband James. She saw them every night in her dreams when she slept on her bed in her two-bedroom apartment; the twins slept on the bed with her, and Paul on the couch in the other room. She would wake and look at her children and it would hit her afresh each morning how she would never see her father’s or her sister’s face again, nor would she ever see her husband’s face again. Tonight, she had sent her children to her brother’s place.
Sonia woke to the sound of someone chanting. It took her a few seconds to figure where she was. It was the gateman. When she listened more closely she realised he was praying. He was begging God to do something quickly, “now,” he said. “God, do something. Lord, you work in mysterious ways, please do something.” Sonia wondered where God was. People had been calling him for a long while now and still, nothing… She looked at the moon overhead and thought that God had done his part: he had created everything and left it all to mankind. Man had taken these good things and turned them to pain and tears, and now it was time for the women to take it back even if it meant losing their lives. Even the Bible said that the “violent taketh it by force”.
Ojoju prayed. He had been praying sporadically for about an hour now. He would start, then stop. The anxiety in his chest made it impossible for him to keep still. He would stand to pray but the words would not come out. He kept thinking about the women in the compound. He paced the six by six feet that was his home. Everything he had was within these four walls. He would look out of his small window and see the multitude of women that were in the school compound and he would feel the tug in his heart and he would try to pray but the urgency of the situation demanded a quick response before the cock crowed. He looked at the wall clock that had been given to him by the principal of the school. It was fifteen minutes past four. He tried to forget that she was out there with the other women and that she was embarking on a suicide mission, so he chanted the words that came to his mind: “God, do something now.”
Ojoju heard the bell at the same time Sonia did. Looking out of his window he saw her stand, shaking the dust off her wrapper and then folding it. “Good morning,” she said, noticing him looking at her.
He wanted to shout at her that the morning wasn’t good, that it was cursed. “Good morning, madam,” he said as she walked away from him towards the school auditorium with the other women. Ojoju came out of his small gateman post and paced, chanting, “God, do something now.”
It was time. It wasn’t something to be proud of, that it had to come to this. It wasn’t something that they were comfortable with, but desperate times did call for desperate measures; it wasn’t meant to be comfortable or easy. The women began taking off their clothes. Sonia watched and she became scared. It felt like betrayal, what she was doing: going to protest in her nakedness. She felt like she was betraying James, yet it was because of him that she had to do what she had to do, before they took her son or her twins too. She wasn’t the only one who wasn’t removing her clothes; several other women were looking around too. Sonia caught the eyes of a young girl who couldn’t be more than twenty. The girl looked away quickly. An older woman beside the young girl was talking to her. The older woman seemed agitated. As she spoke she pointed at the other women taking off their clothes. The young girl looked at Sonia again and then started taking off her clothes. Sonia, too, began taking off her clothes.
The principal of the school, Mrs Victoria, climbed on the stage. She was naked.
“It is time,” she said in her loud raspy voice. “We’ve been here for a long time, sitting in the background while the men took the wheels. Well, look where they’ve driven us to,” she said, spreading her hands to indicate. The women around Sonia nodded and shouted, “Yes!”
“See what we’ve been reduced to.” She paused. “We’ve lost our friends and our sisters. We’ve lost our brothers, our husbands, our daughters, our sons! We can’t keep quiet no more. We have to be heard, to be seen. We will show them what they have refused to see, the inhumanity they have reduced us too. Look around you, look!” She looked around too. The women were getting excited. “We will march to the office and we shall put in their faces what they chose to neglect. We will show them what they have done.” Victoria knelt down and shouted at the top of her voice, “My God, do not leave us now!”
“Amen!” the women shouted.
“My God, do us good!”
“My God, be with us!”
“Jesus, take control!”
“Amen!” Sonia shouted too from the top of her lungs and she felt something break deep within her. She didn’t realise that tears had started dripping down her face as she sang along to the song that Victoria had started. The cock crowed.
Ojoju heard the chants getting louder. He looked towards the auditorium and saw the women marching out. Victoria was in front and she was naked. It struck a chord in him, these women with no weapons—bare, protesting. He couldn’t look; he ran into the small house and locked himself in, not breathing till they passed the gate house.
They chanted all the way. Sonia didn’t know what would come out of this. There were two options: they could bring about change, or… The other was the one she didn’t want to think about, but it was the one that had been inside her head since she had decided to do this. She imagined the story that might be in the papers tomorrow.
Their breasts danced in front of them as they ran, but they neglected them, their hands in the air as the bullets rained on their nakedness. It was inhumane. These men were killing their wives, their mothers, their sisters, and they watched as they fell on the muddy, bloody ground. They screamed, they ran, and they wept. It is official. We are no longer human. We’ve become monsters.
Sonia stopped thinking and began chanting at the top of her lungs with the other women.
Ige Abimbola, in his own words:
"I was born and have lived all my life in Lagos, Nigeria. When I was younger I lived in a fenced compound and there were always power cuts so I turned to books as an alternate source of entertainment. I started writing too; my tales would be inspired by the book I had just read. But I never really finished a story. Instead, I moved on to the next book and a new story. Then reading was no longer enough for me; I believe there are still many untold stories and that was a reason to finish telling my stories. Stories have a tendency of conveying some sort of truth both to the writer and the reader because usually they come, it seems, unassumingly—and the world needs more truths."
"I'm currently studying civil engineering at Covenant university, Nigeria. I have two sisters and I spend my semester breaks with my parents."