In a Time of Boko Haram


Beneath the oil-stained, flattened pillow that Mansir sits on lies the fulfilment of a promise; the source of a joy no one can understand but this young bright-eyed man. His veil and black bra and red dress are folded neatly beneath the pillow. Sitting on it helps, since there hasn’t been any electricity all night. He washed and hung the black veil only a day ago, after Zubeida, his mother, tried to dump it in the rubbish heap outside their compound.

He knows exactly how long it takes him to tiptoe from the dark room he shares with his brothers to the gate; how long he will have to listen to her tell him not to leave as he makes a dash for it, out onto the dusty street. It is because he does not want to upset her that he often dresses up in the uncompleted building in the street adjacent to theirs.

Twice he has been lashed in public and once taken to an Islamic exorcist to expel the shameless demons who make his round eyes light up when he looks at his made-up face in the small mirror in his handbag; the demons that won’t let him feel pity for his mother and siblings who are constantly mocked in Mando for having a crazy relative. After her many attempts, Zubeida is past the fury, past the incredulity, past the determination to make him right in the head, make him a good Muslim who knows how men should behave. There is no point dwelling on the pain she feels in her chest, she only stares at the body invaded by cross-dressing spirits which her son used to own, praying to Allah for a miracle.

The spirits, if indeed they are spirits, are interested in the goings-on of this poor, densely populated part of Kaduna. They love the light and forbid him to hide in the dark comfort of this small room. His mother might have preferred to hide her shame under the cloak that darkness provides — rumours can be denied, gossip can be ignored, but not a young man at midday dressed up as a woman.

A few kilometres away General Muhammadu Buhari, arguably the most revered politician in northern Nigeria, is stepping into the back seat of his bulletproof Prado jeep, one of the cars in a convoy, wearing his pristine white caftan and cap. He is headed out of Kaduna city to his country home in Daura, Katsina State. Kaduna is the political capital of the north and the city Buhari calls home. Kaduna is also the first main city outside north-east Nigeria that came under intense, frequent attacks by the militant Salafist group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, also known by the shorter, less nuanced name Boko Haram. Sometimes when everyone calls you a thing, you start to get used to it. Like when everyone tells Mansir he harbours evil spirits in his lanky body. Perhaps Mansir himself believes it — everyone can’t be wrong. His mother Zubeida, his older brother Ibrahim, the men in the mosque down the road who have asked them to seek help, the people in the neighbourhood who have known him since he was born, all believe it.

When bombs go off in Kaduna, everyone is afraid, even in the mostly Muslim neighbourhood of Mando. Bombs from a Salafist jihadi group do not stop and ask Muslims to leave, they do not know who is a Muslim and who is not. Earlier today, less than 30 minutes away, someone tried to blow up Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, a Sufi cleric of the Tijaniyya order, who often speaks out against the insurgency and against militant Islam. People are still huddled in groups on the streets, listening to the radio, receiving phone calls and arguing about the body count. This is after they have called their relatives and friends in the area where the bomb went off to make sure they do not know anyone who died, and if they do to accept it as Allah’s will. This is what frequent bombings cause: tragedy fatigue. You hear the body count given by the government, multiply it by two or three to get the correct figure and move on. You forward photos and videos of body parts strewn across the road. You thank God it wasn’t you.

Mansir has heard the news of the first bomb, but he is really concerned about bursting into the reverie that dressing up brings. He lifts the small black bra and puts his arms through the straps. A few years of secretly wearing bras has given him the proficiency required to put his hands behind his back and pull the two hooks together in one quick motion. He adjusts the strap over his shoulders. He looks at the dress and smiles. It took him an hour to negotiate with the secondhand clothes seller who wondered at first why he wanted a dress. The price only came down when Mansir noticed a little tear in the dress and showed it to the seller. At home, Mansir patched it himself with a needle and thread, so neatly that no one would notice. Not that the people who hated his cross-dressing would bother about a little patch in his dress.

Buhari’s convoy tears through the wind, honking and overtaking cars in the traffic. They need to get to Daura before dark. As they reach the motor park in the last neighbourhood within the city limits, there is a deafening blast. Cars screech and people scamper to safety, screaming. No one knows where the bomb came from or who has been hit. The convoy tries to get away, but a man opens fire on Buhari’s jeep, before disappearing.

Mansir hears the tremor and knows what this is. Everyone who lives in Kaduna knows what a bomb feels like. He rushes out, having quickly dressed up and used an eye pencil to darken his eyebrows. His mother has felt the tremors too. Everyone rushes out to see what is happening. Zubeida sees Mansir heading out towards the area where the sound came from, towards the Kawo motor park.

“Where are you going Mansir?” she screams when she sees him already wearing the red dress.

“I am coming,” he replies without turning, clutching his purse and fixing his headtie.

By the time he reaches the scene 15 minutes later, the gunmen have long gone and people have started counting the losses — the smashed and burnt-out cars, the crater in the road, the dead bodies, some whole, some in pieces. He pushes through the crowd to see the remains of Buhari’s bullet-ridden car and the burnt-out bodies. He pushes too hard and a man turns around to complain. The man thinks it is a girl but realises that this is a boy in a dress. A boy? In a dress?

“See the bomber here hiding!” he shouts to others in the crowd.

From then on everything happens too quickly for Mansir to understand. He is being slapped and punched and called a bomber in disguise. A piece of metal cuts into his back and he falls to the ground. Someone is calling for a knife, another is calling for petrol and an old tyre. They want to do it quickly, kill the man who has caused all this mayhem. Mansir is panting on the ground, too stunned to cry. He can see the boots of soldiers approaching from a nearby post. There are a few more kicks to his feet and stomach before the soldiers fire a few shots into the air to clear the crowd and pick him up from the floor, his red dress ripped apart, his bra snapped in two by an angry man in the mob.

In the back of the military van, he stares at the soldier taking his photo. He does not know why his photo is being taken, why he is being made to turn around and show his injuries, why they are stripping him further.

Mansir does not use Twitter. He will not see the Nigerian Defence Headquarters tweeting his photos, celebrating his capture and calling him a disguised bomber. He will not read the story on their website calling him the man who masterminded the attack against General Buhari. In detention, he will not be able to count how many retweets his deer-in-the-headlights pictures will get. Everyone will read the story of the army and congratulate them for nabbing the bomber; they will curse the bomber, wish him a slow, painful death. And when his mother will speak to the one journalist with the sense to investigate this further, telling them how the evil spirits made him wear dresses and darken his eyebrows with eye pencil, when his brother and people who live in his neighbourhood will confirm that he did indeed have spirits who made him prefer scarfs to fez caps, people will have moved on to another Boko Haram attack. It will not be sexy enough to make the front pages or be retweeted many times. The few people who will bother to read the report will ask, “What the hell was a boy doing in a dress?” That will be enough to make him suffer.


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