…must … make it…
Can’t stop … can’t turn back…
… must …
… SIMBI …
With every step, Adamu ibn Gafar’s heart pummeled harder into his chest. His breath had turned to intermittent gasps. His strength was giving way. But he could not stop. Would not stop. His rifle weighed heavy on his neck by the strap.
A dry wind caressed his bearded face as he crested a knoll, leaving a gritty taste in his mouth. The valley before him, dotted with trees and sparse undergrowth, was laid out bare like an unfurled scroll of green and brown. The Sambisa forest. It would have been the perfect landscape were it not for the dark secrets hidden in there.
How many nights had it been now? Seven? Eight? Yes, eight nights since he’d left the village.
Three since he last ate.
Two since he last drank water. Dirty water, at that.
His head was already feeling dizzier with each new hour. He could feel every bone in his body. He knew he should have turned back a long time ago, but he had to keep his attention on something more important. His sole purpose for being here. His only purpose for living now.
Simbi … Simbi … must make it… It had become his mantra.
He did not even know where he was going. Everyone knew that the terrorists sometimes set up camp in this forest, but they were also constantly on the move. Only God knew exactly where they were. Gafar knew that he would most definitely die out here. His next step could plunge him to his grave…
Something about that thought must have been taken seriously, because the next thing he knew was that the horizon was rising unnaturally. The sandy ground was rising to his eye level … and growing darker. His scraggly beard bit into his skin as it touched down on sand.
Am I … falling?
BAM! His world faded to black.
A crackle played at the back of his mind as he slowly regained consciousness. It could’ve been gunfire in the distance. A salty tang filled the air, assaulting his stomach. Oh, that churning curling feeling. How hungry he felt. Slowly, one of his eyes peeled. There was a fire, alright, but it wasn’t gunfire. More like a camp fire. It was in sharp contrast to the dark night around.
Wait a minute. Camp fire meant camp…
…and camp meant…
He hurried to his haunches, scurrying away, but stopped at the sight before him. Only one man was seated in the sand facing the fire, his back to Gafar. He had seen no other human being in days. He noted that his rifle still sat beside him. Desperate not to make a sound, he slowly grabbed it from the grass at his knees.
Could it be? Had he finally reached their camp? Is he one of them?
Struggling to his feet, he sauntered slowly toward the stranger, reminded of the pain in his bones with every step he managed. The man was humming to himself, poking the fire with a stick. He was roasting some fish in the fire, hence the salty tang. Food! But Gafar would not kill a man for food … unless he was a no-good kidnapping insurgent—
But, still… FOOD!
“You’ve been out for hours.”
Gafar stopped. Who said that? He had been certain they were alone. Gafar had not seen another human in over a week. Had this man just spoken? Gafar knew he had been found out. He raised the rifle to the man’s head. He should have said something, but nothing came to mind.
The man turned slightly. “I thought you’d like some food.”
Gafar gulped, his throat dry more from hunger than from fear. “You have five seconds to tell me what you’re doing here.”
The man paused. “Clearly, I’m roasting fish—“
“Are you one of them?” Gafar snapped. “The Haram?”
The man turned and seemed to notice the rifle for the first time, his gaze falling to its barrel. But he didn’t flinch. “Why would I tell you that?”
The screeching of crickets in the distance gave an ambience to the scene. “What if I told you I was and you weren’t one of them? Or if I said I wasn’t, but you were one of them? Either way, one of us is dead already.” Gafar froze. The man smiled. “Consider me a friend, mallam.”
“I have no friends on this path.”
“Then consider this an invitation. In a land such as this, we could all do with a companion.” The stranger patted the ground beside him. “Come. Eat.” A bowl of already roasted fish sat beside the man. “I also got some bread.” He extended his bag towards Gafar.
Gafar was torn. He should be pulling the trigger, but his hunger was too strong. He snatched the bag out of his hand and reached in for a loaf. Sure enough, he felt the soft loaves of bread in his hands. The aroma was too hard to resist. And he took a bite.
His gastric juices and salivary glands went to work. Goodness, he had not realized how hungry he really was until now. Whoever this stranger was, he had brought some good food. This was like a miracle … if you believed in such.
“You’re welcome,” the stranger muttered, returning to his roasting. “There’s a creek over there. The water’s cleaner than most.”
Gafar sat, taking more of the bread and fish. Out of habit he muttered his thanks. The man looked nothing like anyone else he had seen before in these parts. He knelt at the creek and gulped down a good helping of water. Sure enough it was clean water.
“God must be looking out for you,” the man said. “Few survive days in this forest on their own.”
Gafar did not respond. He preferred not to give much thought to God. He needed not to. For one thing, those perverted terrorists claimed to be fighting in His name. Why would God allow those men to take his daughter away? Either someone or something was wrong in that equation, or there really was no God. It just didn’t make sense. Without answers he chose to remain neutral on the subject.
“There’s a nomadic clan about a day away where we can trade that gun of yours for supplies,” he said. “But they’re always on the move.” Gafar arched a brow at the man, who shrugged. “I’ve lived in the Sambisa for a good while now. I know my way around here.”
Gafar studied the man as he returned to the fire. He wore a woolen jacket over his brown caftan. The white goatee framing his chin gave him a patriarchal look. Had he really lived here for long? He was in no mood for a conversation, but clearly this man was. “I thank you for the sustenance, sir. But one must wonder what would make a man like you to stay in this godforsaken forest.”
The man stared pointedly at him.“I could ask you the same question.”
“My path is no business of yours.”
“I see all kinds of men making their way through this forest every now and then,” he said. “Most with ill-intentions. You don’t strike me as their type.” He cocked his head, ostensibly studying Gafar. “But I can tell you that the enemies you seek will not be taken down with just one rifle.”
Gafar turned to him. So this man had deduced his vendetta. “You’ve … seen them?”
“Everyone knows when they camp, the Haram. Most families left the forest as soon as they started … ‘camping’ here.”
“Yet you remain.”
The man shrugged. “I’ve got greater concerns than my own safety,” he said. “As do you, I presume.”
“I’m grateful for the food, sir, but like I said, my path is of no concern to you.”
“One rifle cannot take down an entire camp of—“
“Sir, I would rather not talk about this.”
“Some would call that denial. “
“Sir, I really don’t like—“
“But you want to talk about it—“
Gafar shot to his feet. “Look! Your attempts to drive me out of my mind can’t go beyond how out of control I already am. I … ha … I … I don’t even know why I’m even trying to talk to you. I should have killed you and made off with your food when I had the chance.”
The man was smiling and it was annoying. “But you won’t, my friend.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
“You may be mad, but you’re not ax-crazy.”
“Yes! Yes! You got me there, old man! I am mad! I’m absolutely crazy! What was I thinking, coming in here with a borrowed gun? And you know something else, old man? I’m dead already. I’m a dead man! This is a dead man talking to you, right here! What have I got to lose?”
“A mad man and a dead man. That’s a very lethal combination…”
Gafar clenched his fists. “Tell that to those perverts.”
“…for you,” the man finished, his eyes glistening in the fire’s hue. “It’s lethal for you. And you know why? I can tell because I know who you are.”
“You don’t know the first thing about me.” The man just stared at him, with what looked like sympathy in his eyes. As far as Gafar was concerned, he was mocking his resolve.
“I know … that you’re a dangerous weapon to anyone that crosses your path now. And that’s because of who you are.” Gafar waited for the punch line. But when it did come it took the wind out of his sails. “You’re a father.”
Gafar froze, at a loss for words.
“They must have taken something most precious to you to bring you in here,” the man continued, his eyes on Gafar. “However insane this is. And I can think of nothing as precious as … as a child. A daughter.” He paused. “Your daughter.”
Gafar just stared at him. Exposed and vulnerable in that moment. Now, when he needed a smart comeback, nothing came. He just stood there and stared. “Well … well, it’s better than just sitting down and doing nothing.” He tried to avoid his gaze. “Like everyone else is doing.”
“How old was she?” the man’s voice was gentle.
Gafar stared into the fire. The thought that had been playing in the depths of his heart boiled to the surface. Simbi’s lost, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
For the first time in days, he let the teardrop trickle down his face. His resistance fell away. The heave in his chest was back. He could feel his pulse thumping in his forehead. He slowly sank to his seat.
The man just stared at him.
“Nineteen,” he whispered. “She was … only … nineteen.”
The crackle of the fire and the distant caw of hawks filled the silence that followed. His heart was breaking again. And, again, he was helpless.
“We hoped this would be the last WAEC that would get her into university. I didn’t think it was necessary. I only wanted her to get married and start a life as soon as possible. Her mother wanted our daughter to have a dream. A future. She made me promise —right there, as her life slipped away— to get our daughter through school. She would become a great woman. A princess that royalty would die for. But you know what? I never really realized how beautiful my daughter was already. A treasure…” he gulped. Now she was gone. Kidnapped. And who knew what else had become of her.
“What I would give for one more moment to hold her … to tell my daughter that I love her. I never told her that. I never … thought I needed to. I thought she always knew. But I would give anything! Even to the last of my cattle and my land, I would give it all. I just want my daughter to be safe…”
He was breaking down in front of a stranger, he realized. He had spent a week away from humans and he had already lost all his pride. “It’s been so long now. I saw that video, you know. They showed the girls, all in black. But I didn’t see my Simbi. They say they’ve been sold as slaves. Others say they’re dead. But I can’t believe that. I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.”
The man had just been listening, now there was nothing but sobbing and the crackle of the fire between them.
“You want to negotiate with them?” the man asked at last. “You mentioned giving your cattle.”
“What choice do I have?”
For a moment they simply stared into the fire. “You really do love your daughter,” the man said. Gafar wiped his eyes. “I know how you feel … friend.”
Don’t say that. You can’t possibly know how I feel.
He placed a hand on Gafar’s shoulder “You will see your daughter again. It’s the hope we fathers have to hold on to.” Gafar turned to him. “The enemy may take our daughters, but we’ll do everything to bring them back. Even to lay down our very lives. Because it’s everything we have to give.
“After all … that’s why I’m here as well,” the man said, turning back to the fire.
Gafar sniffed and turned to him. “They took your daughter too?”
The man stared into the fire for a moment. When he did reply his voice was nothing but a whisper. “Daughters.”
That stopped him. Gafar was shaken. Really?
This gave a whole new perspective to this man. His daughters had been taken as well, and he was here to rescue them. There were things he wanted to ask, but he couldn’t. It was just … surreal. And sad. Very sad. So he does know how I feel. “I’m … I’m sorry.”
How, if there is any justice in the universe, these things could go unpunished troubled Gafar. How could these people continue their evil crusade – and no one else wonders why?! God, are you even there?
“You asked me why I’m here, in this …as you called it, ‘godforsaken’ forest,” the man said, a slight quiver playing at the edge of his lips. “Now you know. I have to be close to my children, somehow. I’ve been here for ages, searching, ready to bring my daughters home.” He smiled, in spite of himself. “I couldn’t live with myself any other way, knowing they’re in the hands of such evil men. I couldn’t afford to.” He shook his head, staring into the distance, lost in thought. “This ‘fatherhood’ thing, it’s … it’s an occupational hazard.”
Gafar sighed deeply, looking up at the stars. “You know, sometimes I think that if I ever brought her back safe, I would take her out of this place. Out of this country. I’d sell everything I have to take us to somewhere safe. I would throw the biggest party ever for her and her friends. I would … I would let the whole world know that she’s the most beautiful girl of all. The most precious jewel to me. I would never yell at her again … ever…”
The man nodded silently. “The Father’s heart.”
For a moment they did not talk. Gafar absentmindedly took some more helpings of the bread with fish. These short silent moments that punctuated their conversation seemed, to Gafar, to bond them somehow. A sort of camaraderie between fathers desperate to bring their loved ones home. Through long and dark nights in the cold, the bites of parasites and the certainty of death, the thought of their daughters home and safe again could be the only thing keeping them going.
The man turned and stared into his eyes again. “You can be sure that I’ll let your daughter know how much you love her so.”
Gafar smiled, as the chilling realization that he would die overtook him. But he nodded. “I’d do the same if I saw yours.”
“Listen to me—“
“—But frankly I just might outlive you, old man—“
“No, wait, you’re not listening to me. I will let your daughter know you love her because I am with her.” Gafar squinted at him. “Right now.”
Gafar tried to make sense of the man’s sudden cryptic shift in gears. “What’re you saying?”
“You know full well what it is I am saying.”
“Who … who are you?”
That enigmatic smile was playing at his lips again. “Don’t you remember me? Adam?”
Gafar was taken aback. He didn’t recall telling this man his name, let alone his first name. “Are you … no … it can’t be…”
He nodded. “I am.”
And he smiled one more time.
Incessant chirping played at the back of his mind as he slowly regained consciousness. It could’ve been the sound of angels greeting each other. Perhaps he was dead already. For real, this time. He felt full on the inside. Oh, the blessing of good food. Especially bread and fish … talk about a meal! Slowly, one of his eyes peeled open. There was chirping, alright, but there were no angels. More like birds—
Wait a minute!
As he hurried to his haunches, he was engulfed by the daylight around him. He was still in the forest, birds chirping in the trees. It was another day searching for his daughter. One thing that piqued his attention was that there was no evidence of a camp fire around him. No ashes. He turned and confirmed his last expectation – no creek either. Had it been a dream?
But if it had all been a dream, why did he feel as if he had eaten?
He inhaled deeply, staring up into the bright sky. It was a new day, with new dangers ahead. But never before had he felt so much resolve.
Miracles do happen, he mused.
Picking his rifle again, refreshed and filled on the inside he hurried on into a forest that, perhaps, wasn’t so godforsaken after all. To death. To life.
To his daughter.
“I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—
nothing living or dead,
angelic or demonic,
today or tomorrow,
high or low,
thinkable or unthinkable—
can get between us and God’s love
because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
Romans 8:38 and 39 (The Message)
FATHER OF CHIBOK
Father of Chibok; Father of all.
I know You hear us when we call.
Thank You because You’re always near.
And, as You’re here, You’re also there.
You’re with our sisters and daughters in captivity.
Keep them, protect them … set them free.
I know You can
‘Cause You’re more than a man.
You loved them even before this all began.
Heal their hearts; heal their minds
Keep them from the fear that binds.
Our hearts go out to them too.
If anyone can bring them home, it’s You.
This part is so hard that it barely even rhymes.
Help us … somehow … to pray for and love the men
Possessed by the spirit of terror.
For they terrorize and wish our nation ill
But unbeknownst to them, they are the captives, still.
Heal their hearts, heal their minds.
Free them from the bondage that binds.
Let them know that even in the darkest of forest
There’s a Father that loves them, and in seeking them, You don’t rest.
If anyone loves them, it’s definitely You.
Help us to love them like You do.
O Father of All; Father of Chibok
Thank You ‘cause You answer when we knock.
In the end, we know that Evil’s time is done.
In the End, evil is overcome.
Let Your Kingdom come and make this all right.
The world will be so much better with Your Light.
If anyone can do this, it’s going to be You.
What can we do?
Can You use us too?
Help us to lighten up this world
With your light as we do as we are called.
Reflecting your love to every fellow
That they may know that You love them so.
If You can use anyone, dear Jesus…
…thank You because it can be us.