Toma, 27, was born and raised in Lagos alongside three siblings, where she attended local primary and secondary schools before getting married off at 16 and then going off to live in North Eastern Nigeria with her husband. They are both Arab Nigerians from a Borno State village (name withheld) where Toma’s husband Adamu, was a thriving grains farmer and trader who was well equipped to take care of his growing family.
In Adamu’s village, the Boko Haram phenomenon was just a kind of rumour when she first went to settle there with her husband as a new bride around 2012, Toma recalls as she settles down to speak to WW in impeccable English, wearing a grey tired robe and light cotton hijab, interjected now and then by one or the other of her children. Before this she had lived in Lagos all her life, but she was not very worried. Her eldest brother lived just a few villages away with her grandfather, where her great grandmother also lived. “We are suffering, we are suffering a lot here. It seems as though the whole of Nigeria has forgotten us”, she repeats over and over again.
According to Toma, there were market days in the beginning, every 3-4 day whereby sellers would assemble at a nearby market to sell and buy various grains, oils and other items. Asked about meat she responds that this could be bought at the cattle market. “We had goats and rams in the village but these too became a thing of the past”. It had become increasingly difficult to go to the market to buy food, or anywhere else. Thanks to stories of people who went and never returned to tell the stories, market days thinned out and eventually became a thing of the past. Food had to be rationed painfully, with no idea where to get the next supplies from. “You would go to the market”, she recounts, “and you would come back and they have raided the village, taking all our grains”.
Toma’s father passed away many years ago, but her mother had remained in Lagos, struggling to raise her other children on her own; so why did she not phone someone? Telecommunications was one of the first things to go in the village . One day, the mobile phones worked, the next they did not. There was no transportation either, not even motorcycles that had once been popular before this time. People would walk for miles before finding a motorcycle. If they were lucky, it would not be a Boko Haram member. Often, it was. But if Boko Haram was killing ‘their own people’, is that not pretty odd, given that these were strong Muslim communities? Toma’s grandfather was even the chief Imam at his own village, and he was grooming her brother to take his place. She shakes her head vigorously.
“ This is another misconception people have. The Boko Haram people target us in particular (the Arabs)”. So who are these people? Can she recognize a Boko Haram member if she saw one? “They are those very dark people with very tiny facial marks like xxxxx (she mentions the name of a very prominent politician). But these days it is difficult to tell. One day they lynched one boy hanging about the market, that he was a Boko Haram informant, but he may or may not have been. People started warning their boys not to hang around anyhow so they would not be mistaken for Boko Haram. We have even heard of Ibo (Igbo) Boko Haram members. We heard that they offer them money and they join”.
When Boko Haram started sending threat messages to Toma’s village, residents had only one of a few choices. Some escaped into Cameroun, but that was getting more and more difficult by the day.
Toma knows this because on the rare occasion when she could reach her family in the other village, her uncle and grandfather would talk about going there but her great grandmother would have none of it. Eventually, she was killed by Boko Haram. Her brother found his way to Maiduguri, which was still a functional city despite remote incidences and threats of them. From there, he found his way to his mother in Lagos.
“It is much easier to get anywhere from Maiduguri”, she explains. But the family of her husband decided to stay. They did not really have any other home, though he also had some family in Lagos. As the threats escalated, Toma began to intervene, begging her husband to let them leave with their two children. She was pregnant with the third. “Sometimes they would surround our village every night and warn us. It was very frightening”.
So, if it was so difficult to get food and other supplies, how did Boko Haram get theirs? “We saw aircraft in the air dropping supplies for them”, she reveals. “They would drop it in a way that they would get it but we would not. It was very expertly done”. Eventually, Toma was able to persuade her husband and some members of their family to leave.
It was a lifesaving move as their village was sacked only a few days afterwards They left in the dead of night, and at this point she was eight months gone on the pregnancy.
With two young children to care for in addition, it was an arduous journey. Before long, she was exhausted and they had to hide in the bush. “You don’t know how cold it gets during the harmattan”, she tells WW.
“It is extremely cold. I was almost sure I would not survive that cold in my state, even if my children survived. That is how one Fulani woman sneaked to meet me in the night.
She took me to one of their low grass huts and put me there with my children. She had lit a fire for her cows- she did not have many so we were able to stay warm through the harsh weather.
I owe my life to her and that of my child”. They made it to Maiduguri, and eventually Lagos, where she reunited with her mother and siblings, eventually settling down wit
h her husband and his people in the Ikorodu area.
She has even given birth to another child since they returned in December 2016. The question remains unanswered. If Boko Haram are a Northern group, why are they killing Northerners? “This is like what we were thinking”, she responds. “When Buhari became president, we were happy; we thought this thing would soon be over because our own person is there (in government) now.
Many people who had gone away to Lagos or refugee camps came back home. Many of them came to die or suffer.” Toma might be settled with her immediate family, far from the immediate danger of Boko Haram, but she has not forgotten her people. Soon after she returned, she heard the news of her great grandmother’s death with mixed feelings.
She and her brother were happy their beloved grandfather could leave without the guilt of leaving his mother behind but this, too, was not to be. Their grandfather died also in the hands of insurgents, leaving behind their uncle, for whom they raised money to escape to Cameroun. It cost almost N40,000. “It is not easy in Cameroun”, she wails at WW.
“It is not like here where anyone can just come and get a job or a trade. There, you have to always have papers. I want to use this medium to ask Nigerians not to forget my people. They are really suffering. They are Nigerians too!”