11 Dec Short Story: Samia by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
I died trying, but there was nobody there to applaud me. I am glad, though, that on that final stretch of my journey, I had company, fellow travelers – five men and a woman – who together with me, formed the statistic that was splashed on the evening news. The real shame would have been dying alone, being in that dark hole, not quite four feet in depth, all by myself and not having anyone to share the moment. Our march to the crossover point had been slow, like the ticking of the second hand of a clock. For me, it was out of exhaustion. I had reached the apogee, after many months of journeying and there was no longer any need to hurry. The others had been a little bit more enthusiastic, rushing down the path as though there was a deadline to making the crossing. I remember it all like yesterday. It was the year 2012.
Where I come from, girls are married off even before their chests begin to sprout breasts. So at twenty one, I was very much a woman. But to Momma, I was still a child. Her baby. Her stubborn little Cockroach. It is she I remember today, Momma. Her voice rings in my head like the call of the muezzin at dawn, for prayers. Her voice delivers an appeal, her last ditch effort to stop me. She was not crying but her face was like a cloud heavy with rain. I have tried so many times to wipe that face of hers off my memory. To see something happier. But it is like trying to bleach out a birth mark with water. The civil war that broke out the month I was born did not only claim her husband, my father. It also claimed her smile. Bringing that smile back had been one of my life’s mission, part of the reasons why I decided to leave in the first place. But how could I make her understand? So as she pleaded and scolded that day, I grumbled and shook my head as if to prevent her words from piercing through my resolve.
To tell this story well, I must go back four years in time. 2008. We lived in Mogadishu, the city where I was born. The chaos was on some kind of vacation. Something they described on radio as the Transitional Federal Government was in power and series of meetings were being held in Djibouti by former foes to bring peace and reconciliation to Somalia. What it meant for the people was that they could leave their houses fearing less, a little less, that a bomb will drop on their heads on the streets. But there were still parts of the town no one could venture to. It was a peace held together by saliva. For me, the semblance of peace meant something a lot better. This seventeen year old, me, who had lived almost all of her life in white tents marked ‘UN’, became an Olympian.
The venue of this feat was Beijing in China. You would think my best memory of this epiphany in my life story would be when I stood on the track, the first real track I saw in my life and my name was announced on the loud speaker to much applause. That moment was special, no doubt. But it is not what I recall with the biggest smile. Entering an aeroplane for the first time is what I remember most fondly. It was magical. Surreal. I cried. At the camp where I grew up, we often saw planes fly past, high above in the clouds and the children will run after it, waving. I always imagined flying in one someday, a delusion you will agree. So from the moment I was selected as one of the eight athletes to fly Somalia’s flag in Beijing, all I thought about when I laid down to sleep at night was flying in a plane, being up in the sky, gliding through the clouds., next door to heaven. When I finally boarded one in the makeshift Mogadishu airport, it was as though a pin was put to a nylon bag of water inside my eyes.
I remember that day. The airport terminal building of the Mogadishu airport had lost its roof from shelling and the walls had bullet holes like mosaic designs. Soldiers with the Somali National Army insignia on their arms stood guard, their eyes red like strawberries, their fingers caressing the trigger of dusty guns. The President, full military khaki jacket and all, had come to bid us farewell. Go and make us proud he said beaming, his eyes hidden behind dark shades. Bring home gold medals which we will use to decorate the new presidential mansion he added loudly before handing us miniature versions of the Somali flag with the white star on a blue background and squeezing our hands in handshakes that felt like torture. Now that I think of it, the irony in his words mock my thoughts. How was it possible for us to win gold? We were hardly athletes. We had no real training. But that day, listening to him, the words burnt like petrol in my veins. I was determined to make a statement, and I did.
When I walked onto the track for my Heat in what they call the Birdnest in Beijing, I was not sure if the people back at home could see me. We had no television in the refugee camp and it had been many years since there was power in Mogadishu. They will later tell me, Momma and my brother Abdul when I returned home, that the government had set a giant television on a table in front of the camp mosque and brought a generator. They wanted everyone to share in the moment even though the Imam disapproved. It was haram he protested, for women to participate in sports and haram still for people to gather and watch such haram. But in those days, his voice was in the minority. It wouldn’t be so a year later when Al-Shabab took over half of Mogadishu and began implementing the crudest form of Sharia.
You will run 200 meters. Those were the words of the man who picked me in the camp. He was burly man who wore a big brown hat that sat on his head like he was wearing an umbrella. Whenever he took the hat off, his baldness gleamed in the sun. He had tiny eyes with a thick bunch of brows that sat above them like a painting. And because he smelt of spices, word in camp was that he is Indian. I didn’t know the difference between white men and I didn’t care. The man had come with his team of two others in a white van, the type usually marked UN on the doors. They came to conduct a trial for the Olympics. We converged on the camp’s football field, the rough patch of land in the center of the camp which served a dozen other purposes aside the evening football sessions by the camp’s boys. I stepped forward when the man speaking into a megaphone asked for girls who could run. I had always enjoyed running. When Momma sent me on errands around the camp, I never walked. I ran. So when I stood with six others on the starting line for that trial, I was sure I would win. I did. All I had looked forward to as a reward was some extra measure of corn meal for my mother. So when the man said we were going to China for the Olympics, I was initially disappointed. I didn’t know what the Olympics meant or where this China, was.
The feeling standing on the tracks of the Birdnest Olympic stadium in Beijing was different. It was as if I missed my way and stumbled on the moment. I looked like dry corn stalk amongst Baobab trees. My lean frame seemed an insult to the build of the other contestants. There was just so much that the corn meal and rice we ate in the camp could do. I knew I was different. I knew I was nowhere near the level of those other ladies. I knew that very, very well. But I wanted to uphold the dignity of my family and my country. My jersey felt a little oversized like a goalkeepers vest. It was Adidas with the number 2895 stuck to the front. My hair band was Nike. My running boots were Puma. When I saw pictures later, I thought I looked like a clown beside those other ladies. But when my face appeared on the giant stadium screen, there was a deafening cheer like all those people had come just to watch me.
I ran like I never did. In the last stretch, it seemed like I had ran alone. The others had passed the finish line. But I didn’t stop. I ran. For myself. For Momma. For all the children who grew up in the camp. For Somalia. I ran my personal best time of 32.16 seconds. I came in last. Last by far. But in a way I was the winner. The applause that propelled me over the finish line was even louder. As I collapsed on the track, breathing in heaves, the other ladies came one after the other, to shake my hands and nod their greetings. One of them, a Jamaican with lips painted a bright yellow, who had won the Heat and who will go on to win the gold medal, took off her boots and gave them to me. It was the best gift anyone had ever given me.
By the time we were leaving Beijing, my mind was made up about being an athlete. I had watched as winners climbed the podium to receive their medals, their flags raised, their country’s anthem played. I wanted it too. When I slept I saw myself on one of such podiums, the Somalian anthem booming through the stadium. There was going to be another Olympics in four years I heard. In London this time. I had to be there, I resolved. I thought about it all through the flight home, hardly sleeping. Hardly touching the oily food they placed before me in foiled plates. I had finally discovered a meaning for my life. I was not going to let go. I was going to be in London. I was not going to come last again. I was going to win.
Six months after I returned from Beijing, something happened. The militants, Al-Shabab, their dirty turbans, dusty guns, boots and all, landed into our lives and nothing was ever going to be the same again. There was fierce fighting in the capital. The president was ousted. Then killed. The African Union forces quickly morphed from peace keepers into a fighting force. They helped to push the militants back, dividing the city into two halves. Our camp initially moved when it seemed like Al-Shabab was going to overrun it. This was just before the African Union troops showed up. For five months we lived in a makeshift camp near the border with Kenya.
The Mogadishu we returned to after the AU forces assured us of safety was once again, what I had grown up to know. A war zone. A collection of rubbles and pain. One of the biggest casualties was the only stadium in the city which the government had just refurbished with the help of the UN. It was where my dreams for London were supposed to be nurtured. The militants had brought it down with dynamites during the weeks of their occupation. First, they used it as an arena for their public executions, then they blew it apart as if to erase from their consciences, the cries of anguish that rang out from there.
I remember the day I wandered away from the camp to the stadium to have a look. Eager to resume training, to begin morning and evening sessions, I hoped there was something left. I stood in the middle of the rubble petrified, wishing the ground to open and swallow me. But they would do no such thing. There was nothing left. Tears trickled down my face and I tasted the saltiness in my mouth. Through the tears, it became clear to me that I had to leave if I was ever going to make it to London and win a medal in 2012. That was exactly what I did.
Which option makes more sense? I asked Momma the night before my departure to Ethiopia. If I stay, I will die. If I go, I may die. Is it not better that I take my chances? She didn’t respond because it was not the kind of question you responded to. Because she, I suspected, knew there was no use trying to make me change my mind. But I understood her concern. Crossing the border into Ethiopia was a dangerous journey. Tales of the horror Somalis encountered making that crossing was like folklore back home. Many died. But it didn’t deter the next set of Somalis itching to escape the nightmare that was their reality. It certainly did not deter me either. I left, with the look on Momma’s face edged on my memory, and an Olympic gold medal dangling over it.
I reached Addis Ababa late August of 2010. The crossing cost me a little over a thousand dollars. There were greedy throats to be stuffed and eyes to be made to look away. The official at the Sport ministry back home who had gone with us to Beijing and to whom I had shared my dreams of London, had given me the contact of a relative who could house me in Addis Ababa while I searched for a coach. A coach. That was what I needed. Someone to help me prepare. To guide me. To help me become an athlete. I spent nine months in Addis and found none.
Those nine months were spent dodging the police. I had no legal papers. If I got caught, I could be deported. The Ethiopian police were of a special mettle. Their disdain for Somalis was legendary. So I lived in the backwaters of the city, doing the kind of jobs Somalis did in Addis Ababa, cleaning houses, washing dishes and breaking rocks at quarry sites. In the evenings, I went to an open field close to where I lived to run. I would kneel in the on-your-mark position and visualize myself in the Olympic stadium, the white lines on the red surface stretched out in front of me, the spectators cheering. Then I will mentally sound the gun and run a distance I thought was equal to 200 meters. I did this over and over, until it was dark and I had to go home.
The relative of the official I was living with in Addis Ababa knew someone who knew someone else who was involved in helping people get into Libya through Sudan and then into Europe. It was an expensive trip. An expensively dangerous one, I heard. But the prize was worth the try. I was not thinking of the dangers when I signed up. In Addis Ababa I felt trapped and time was running out. I had to continue on my quest for a coach, for a spot at the London games. I had to make it to Europe, I concluded. When I told Momma about it over satellite pay phone, she was silent for all of a minute. When she spoke, all she said was safe journey, may Allah be with you. I broke down and cried after the call. Not so much about her words but the feeling in my stomach when they reached my ear drums.
I left Addis Ababa in June of 2011 with a back pack and dreams of London. I reached Libya in December. What happened in between is a story of its own. We journeyed mostly on foot through the desert, at night and during the day. A few times we had donkeys and camels which we paid to hop on for a distance. There were snakes and scorpions, but those hardly pushed adrenalin into my blood stream. Human predators did. There were frequent raids. A new trade in human organs was emerging and the unarmed travelers crossing the desert were easy sources. My group was never raided. But the threat of it was torture enough.
I met many people on the road to Libya, from places like Senegal and Nigeria. The Nigerians were an interesting lot. Theirs was a country we Somalis saw as a prosperous nation, a people whose lives we wished for ourselves. So it was surprising to see them on those dangerous paths to Europe. I was drawn to them mostly because of their vivaciousness. They were such a lively bunch who made a joke of every situation. Who laughed like they owned the world. One of them, Emeka, became a friend. It was his third attempt. The second had been successful. He reached Greece and from there to Italy. But just when he was beginning to feel he had made it, a police raid of the neighbourhood he lived in which was populated by his countrymen, saw him deported. This was just two months ago. Asked why he was already heading back, he said to me, the smile disappearing from the edges of this lips, that he would prefer to live in an Italian prison that remain in Nigeria. It was hard for me to understand.
Emeka knew people in Libya who arranged trips across the Mediterranean into Europe. He was going to help me. Nothing was free. Nothing was certain. Just hope. On our second night in Libya, his contacts asked us to meet at a night club. They were illegal in Tripoli, night clubs, so they operated underground. It was my first time in one. The sight of girls my age smoking shisha was a little off putting. Otherwise I liked the revolving light that gave out many colours and the loud music that made if feel like there were marching boot soles in the left of my chest. It all ended abruptly though, this strange fun I was having. Libyan police stormed the club and hell broke loose. I would never see Emeka again. I am not sure if he was arrested that night as I was or if he managed to escape. He had just stepped away from where we were sitting to go get some drinks when I heard the first gun shot. It was clear despite the music. Impulsively, I did what we did back home once we heard a gunshot, dive to the floor.
I spent five months in a Libyan jail. Never charged to court. By the time I was released, the reason for my resolve to get to Europe had changed. I was pregnant. The abuse had started the very night of my arrest in the club. The beast stank of a mixture of alcohol and cigarette. He had a younger officer hold a gun to my head while he tore my underwear away. It was my first time and it hurt so bad I was numb. I must have passed out. When I woke up, I was in a filthy cell which I shared with three other prisoners. But that was not the end. The prison warders had us whenever they liked, sometimes taking turns. They will rap on the cell’s steel gates with a baton after the night roll call. The sound travelled through your body, settling as a burning sensation in the lower part of your stomach. Then they will unlock the dates and step in, the smell of weed walking in with them. You, follow me, will come the order, the baton pointed at the chosen one. The couch in the warders’ office was usually the destination. I stopped counting the number of times I made the trip from our cell, across the yard, to the warders’ office when I got to twenty three. By the third month, I knew something was growing inside me. When the enlargement of my stomach started getting obvious by the fifth month, they set me free, driving me out and abandoning me in the middle of nowhere, at night.
The innocent baby was not going to be born into my reality I resolved. By this time, the Olympic medal was now like a distant dream. I needed to get to Italy and have the baby there. I needed help. So I turned to Momma. We spoke on satellite pay phone. It wasn’t much of a conversation. We were both sobbing over the phone for much of the time. Things were better in Mogadishu again she said. Al-shabab had been pushed out of the city and a new transitional government was in place. She was back to selling tea at the market and things seemed to be looking up. Come back my daughter, she begged. Come .back home. I didn’t give it a thought before responding. The journey home was going to be as dangerous and what future did life hold for me and my baby in Somalia? I had come this far and I was not going back now I told her. I just needed money. The following day I went to a Western Union office and collected $3000 sent to me from Momma. Even though she didn’t say it, I knew that was perhaps everything she had.
The boat crossing cost $1100 per passenger. It was a small boat with over two hundred passengers, mostly women and their children. Our bodies touched as we sat on the floor of the boat, grateful we had made it on board. They said the tides were calm, that we would have a smooth sail. I was not sure if the passengers were just being overly optimistic. I prayed silently that they were right, touching my stomach. After three hours out on the ocean, the boat developed a fault. It seemed to cough and fart out thick black smoke. Then it went quiet. We have to go back, the Captain announced to the disapproval of the passengers. There could have been a riot but the captain and his three mates were armed. Their warning shots quickly calmed nerves. It was the worst day of my life. Worse than the first day I was raped. Worse than the day I died.
I waited for another twenty three days before I could get on another boat. I paid again, handing out all of the money that was left on me. The boat this time was even more packed. They had collected money from more people than they had spaces for and there had been serious commotion as those initially left out insisted they could not stay in Libya a day longer. The merchants had to let more passengers on board. By now you already know I did not make it to Italy that night. You must be thinking the boat sank, overwhelmed by the weight of the passengers. It didn’t actually. It was something else. We were already in Italian waters, so close to our goal when we ran out of fuel. We spent a day out there, drifting, at the mercy of the tides, then the Italian Coast guard came to rescue us. It was a miracle. Their appearance caused hysteria on the boat. They threw ropes. There was a scramble. I couldn’t hold onto the rope. I couldn’t swim. I drowned. It was early in the morning on 2nd April 2012; just south of a place they call Lampedusa.
So began the march to the crossover point. There were seven of us. It was the figure that made the news headlines. Not our names. They recovered our bodies the next day and buried us together in an unmarked grave in Lampedusa. The world moved on. It would take five whole months for my story to break. The Olympics in London had just ended and a newspaper in Mogadishu wrote something about the performance of a Somali born British athlete, Mo Farrah who had done Somalia proud at the games even though he ran for the Great Britain. Then in the concluding paragraph, the writer said something in passing, about another Somali athlete, Samia Yusuf Omar, who will never be forgotten.
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