by Eromo Egbejule
You hear a lot of stories about North-East Nigeria, a slice of the country that has been at war since 2009, at the hands of Boko Haram. But we have largely only heard a single story. Sending a reporter across 7 cities, we tell a more complete story – personal tales of survival and recovery – that speak to hope, to strength and to faith. Stories that speak to life. Across 20 narratives over the next 3 weeks, you will hear the most inspired and touching stories about Nigerians – at their best, even when they have only just recovered from their worst.
28-year old Okechukwu Agu runs a small bookshop in Hong, a sleepy town of 196,000 people two hours away from Yola and surrounded by rocks. Originally from the southeastern state of Enugu, he moved down to join his elder brother there almost ten years ago, in speech of greener pastures.
His business, ‘Okey Plc International Bookshop’ provides textbooks for most of the schoolchildren in the tow and bibles for the adults, among other books. Since relocating to the town, he has learnt to speak Hausa and is keen on improving his knowledge of Kilba, also widely spoken in Hong.
Once every week, his supplies come along with a public transport service from the commercial city of Onitsha to the town of Mubi, about 40 kilometres away from his base and it is from here that he picks them up. One day in February, he got a call to pick them up from Gombi, a smaller town between Hong and Song, a 40-minute drive from Yola.
“I was told that the bus was not going to Mubi again so I have to come and pick up my goods at Gombi or else they would turn back and carry them to Onitsha”, he says.
“The reason was everyone had heard Boko Haram was coming soon.” A few days after, he and his brother, owner of a local medicine store fled to family in Jalingo, eight hours away and waited till it was safe to return.
Unlike Agu, not everyone has a place to run to in the face of oncoming danger. Across the street from his shop, a fellow Igbo man had nowhere to run to when Boko Haram foot soldiers attacked the town, so he locked himself up in the same shop where he sells plastic bowls and buckets on every day of the week – and waited for a seemingly inevitable death.
It never came.
Instead, the visitors shook hands with him and then forced him to fold his trousers, then pray at a nearby mosque, before letting him go. Still traumatized, he has refused to speak to strangers about the experience till this day.
Boko Haram went on to burn churches, schools and the local government council headquarters, symbols of westernization and government that the sect considers “haram” – forbidden.
But in December 2014, the army recaptured Hong and word of the town being back in the hands of friendly forces soon reached Jalingo. Okechukwu and his brother knew it was time to go back home. “I packed my bags and returned to start selling my market. This place is like home, regardless of the Boko Haram trouble and that has even come and gone. Hong is very peaceful and the people are hospitable.”
*The next installment will be published at 10am WAT tomorrow.