I have always known Hadiza. From the first day she walked into our class in Primary 1 Brown that third term, we remained classmates till we got to primary five. We were never really friends, but I waved to her each time I passed by her house- the mansion that towered above the other beautiful buildings that lined Caulcrick boulevard- the one in which her father was the gateman.
“Hadiza,” she said smiling when she introduced herself in class that first day. Her crisp hausa accent was unmistakable “I am happy to be in this school. I will work hard. I will be your friend. I want you all to be my friends too. I like friends. I will show you many things I can do, and if you like I can teach you too…” If Mrs. Tokunbo, our class teacher hadn’t politely asked the class to give her a round of applause, she might not have spared us the list of things she was capable of doing.
It was very easy for everyone to take to Hadiza. She was hardly a threat. She conveniently led the class from the rear, laughing at herself and her poor grades. She made smiley faces out of her zeroes, and once she even wrote a love letter on one of her zero-scripts to the nerdy guy who always sat under the teacher’s nose, and to whom none of the other girls would talk to. But what she lacked in brains, she made up for in beauty… and skill. She wove beautiful little baskets which she used as her lunch pack, and she had a different one for every day of the week. She spent her breaks with Mr. Al-Hassan, our Social Studies teacher. They spoke rapid Hausa, and many times, we could hear her excited laughter at the far end of the corridor.
At first, no one knew she was a gateman’s daughter. Every morning, a black-coloured SUV drew up to the school’s gate, and Hadiza would alight, walking gracefully to the assembly ground amidst envious stares. Many times, a different car came to pick her up after school.
“Asalaam alaikum,” she always greeted as she hopped in. She looked and behaved every bit an elite child, but preferred to give away her sausages and ate dates instead. Kuli-kuli and dankwa were her staple, and she encouraged us to try them too. Hadiza was about the only pupil who broke school rules, and no one could figure out how she got off without any punishment. On some Mondays, she would let her hair down, instead of weaving it. Her finger nails were usually painted with laali, and once, all the way up to her uniform sleeves, her arms were adorned with henna embroidery.
It was at the beginning of the new term that we saw Hadiza’s parents. In her last report sheet, the headmistress had threatened to withdraw Hadiza if neither of her parents was concerned about her academic performance. So, on the day the school resumed, they accompanied her to the headmistress’ office, her elderly father robed in a faded babanriga, and her mother frequently tossing the end of her scarf over her shoulder. At the end of the two-hour session, Hadiza walked slowly back to class in tears. That term, not much changed about her grades, but she remarkably began to comply to school rules.
Hadiza Garba was the elder of the two children of her parents. She had thick curly hair that reached to her shoulders, and her eyelashes were long. Her nose was pointed, and when she smiled, it was a perfect crescent. Although she was slight of frame, her presence never went without notice. All the boys in class loved her. Her affable nature put to nought the envy of the girls.
On days she did not come to school, I told the boys who asked after her that I lived close by, that I could take a message for them. I hoped they would notice that I was pretty as well, notice my broad smile, clean teeth. I even slightly hoped they would find my cojoined eyebrows fascinating.
After primary school, I scarcely saw Hadiza because I was away at a boarding school. During one holiday, I was taking a stroll to the supermart when I saw her. It had been ten months since we had last seen. She was still beautiful, but her eyes had lost its twinkle. Her carefree attitude was replaced by a calmness that was new and strange. “How is school?” she asked me, the way an adult would ask a child. Hadiza was no longer the chatterbox I knew. When I asked her what secondary school she attended, her lips quivered until she burst into tears. I held her arm, and together we walked towards her home- her mansion.
“I’m married,” she said trying to hold back her tears, “t-t-to Alhaji. I can’t go to school anymore. I want to go to school, but no one is on my side.” I stood shocked, unable to believe my ears. And suddenly, I understood the little bulge in her stomach which her veil attempted to cover. I knew no words to say, so I intermittently said, “sorry”.
For the first time, I followed her through the gate of the mansion that was her home. It’s opulence was second to none that I had ever seen my entire life. I was certain that it was imposing enough to paralyse a poor man. “Barka da yamma, baba,” she greeted her father, who responded with a sleepy grunt. He blinked in quick succession when he sighted me. “My friend,” she explained, and he dismissed us with a wave of his hand.
“Come here,” Hadiza pulled me towards a mini-bungalow that stood at the far right of the compound. Sitting on a stool close to the entrance, her mother combed Aisha’s hair. We greeted her and went into a room. As soon as Hadiza sat on the bed, her tears resumed. The tears landed gently on her chador, and she did not attempt to wipe them off, instead, she gently rubbed her palms against themselves. My silence must have soothed her because she did not ask me any questions, or look at me for approval; she spoke only.
“Baba says if I do not marry Alhaji, we will be homeless, and will return to Borno. I keep on asking him, “can we not work and earn a decent living on our own?” Look at all my mates…” she broke off and her shoulders shook with heavy sobs. “Maybe if I was serious with school, Allah would not have let this happen to me. Allah must be punishing me.”
Mama came in, a stern look on her face, “You are such an ungrateful child, you this Hadiza. After all Alhaji has done for us, you can even think to refuse him this small favour. What work do you expect your aged father to do? Have you no pity at all? Have you no mercy in that blood of yours? Think of all of us, you will be protecting us, securing our lives. Think of your little sister, Aisha, do you want her to suffer? Do you want us to spend our old age in misery? This is the only thing, I ask of you, Hadiza, be a good wife to Alhaji, and do all he expects of you. You are not the first, you shall not be the last. Ya gane?”
“Advise your friend,” she said facing me, and left the room.
There was a knock on the door, and a middle-aged man poked his head in. “Hadiza, Alhaji calls for you. You should meet him in his study now.” He closed the door gently after him.
“Alhaji says that I shall be relocating to Abuja in a month’s time. He says that is where he wants me to have my baby. His daughter will look after me. He says I will be fine.” I nodded, and we both stood to leave. Close to the gate, I held both her hands, facing her, “All will be well,” I said. We both knew it was not true. She nodded. I took my leave.
One day, about six months later during a holiday break, I walked to Hadiza’s mansion. My heart beat a little faster as I knocked on the gate. Her father opened the gate. “I am here to see Aisha, my friend, and I also want to greet mama,” I explained. He pointed towards their bungalow. I thanked him and walked in.
Mama sat at the same spot as I had seen her the last time, only now she was drawing patterns on Aisha’s feet with henna ink. “Good evening, ma,” I greeted with a slight curtsy. Her eyes blinked with recognition, and she patted my back when I came close. I sat down on the mat next to Aisha, and commended her artwork. Mama glowed with pride.
“How is Hadiza?” I asked suddenly, unable to figure out another way to satisfy my curiosity. Mama was silent, and I thought she probably hadn’t heard me. She cleaned her palms on a piece of cloth that lay on her laps, and turned to face me.
“My Hadiza is gone,” she began. “She died at childbirth. She was not strong enough to push. I knew…” tears were beginning to gather in her eyes, “I knew she would fail me. She did not consider her aged father. She did not consider Alhaji who was ready to give her the world. Alhaji was very disappointed, but we have promised him Aisha,” she smiled warmly at Aisha.
Aisha was different from Hadiza in many ways. Although she was beautiful as well, she was chubby and very reserved, hardly ever speaking. She was more prone to abide to rules and regulations, never arguing, always doing what was expected of her. “My Aisha is a very strong girl. She will not disappoint me. No! She will not let me down. Ko za ka?” Aisha shook her head shyly.
“She will bear Alhaji twin sons and many other healthy children. Aisha will be Alhaji’s new bride in a few months.” Mama said beaming.
“I’m sorry about the loss of Hadiza,” I said sadly.
“Ahhhh, my daughter, it is the will of Allah. Mutuwa rigar kowa na.” Death is the cloth of everybody.
I bade them farewell, and began my walk home. I would never return to that mansion again. There would be no need to. I think of Hadiza. Didn’t anybody hear her screams? She was alone.
I have never seen Alhaji, but I know him. He is tall and slightly fair with a strict face, but a ready smile… a smile that suggests he can never hurt a fly. He is gentle with children, and lures them to his bed with gifts, gifts to them and to their parents. When the children are in his bed, he would look, but never see their tears or their fears, he would listen, but never hear their cries. He would never know their pain. He has a heart that never feels. I know Alhaji.
As I walk through the gate of my house, I become aware of the tears that have streamed down my face, and I wipe them with the back of my palm.