Two heads are better
As we proceeded further north toward Maiduguri, I thought about the things that could happen that would make people say: What were you doing in Maiduguri? You don’t like your life abi? Or do you have two heads?
Thirty-five – the number of check points we counted between Yola and Maiduguri. For each damaged thing that we passed – buildings fallen or with roofs blown out, the skeletons of burned vehicles by the roadside, a telecoms mast with metal fence hanging down like a banana peel – I tried to imagine what it’s like to be caught in the thick of mayhem. It is one thing to read a newspaper headline, ’Boko Haram Strikes Again, Kills 42’, and shake your head in a moment of sadness before your life takes you over again. It is another thing for one of the 42 to be that favourite customer or your nosy neighbour, your father, your friend. Or you.
What is in a name?
Sometimes, to give a name is to take a risk: that the prophecy in the name might never unfold, that the name becomes a painful irony. Perhaps ‘Home of Peace’ is a motto too big for any place to really live up to.
But Borno is not just IEDs and scattered bodies. There are people here. People like Sanni, whose photo studio would become an impromptu overnight refuge for staff and customers when trouble erupted in the city without warning and to step outside would mean certain death; people like the hotel manager who when asked, ‘Is the food good here?’, shrugged and gave an unexpectedly honest yet hilarious (to me at least) answer: ‘Well, they are trying’. There is the soldier we met at the garrison shop who, when he heard we were from Lagos, said, ‘Greet my wife and children in Ikorodu when you go back’; and there is the Sector 6 commander who saw this group of strangers with cameras and sunglasses and had the patience to say to us, ‘This is Maiduguri; we operate differently here’, before sending us in a military convoy to the 7 Division Garrison so we could get approval to do our work. People who daily invest their lives in this place.
The Maiduguri gaze
While things are not yet as they should be, while the Maiduguri gaze is still one of wariness, caution, there is an energy that pulses through the streets. There are those who continue to make their lives here.
There are no quick fixes or simple answers, but this much is sure: Borno is more than just a place for counting dead.