Chika climbs in through the store window first and then holds the shutter as the woman climbs in after her. The store looks as if it was deserted long before the riots started; the empty rows of wooden shelves are covered in yellow dust, as are the metal containers stacked in a corner. The store is small, smaller than Chika’s walk-in closet back home. The woman climbs in and the window shutters squeak as Chika lets go of them. Chika’s hands are trembling, her calves burning after the unsteady run from the market in her high-heeled sandals. She wants to thank the woman, for stopping her as she dashed past, for saying “No run that way!” and for leading her, instead, to this empty store where they could hide. But before she can say thank you, the woman says, reaching out to touch her bare neck, “My necklace lost when I’m running.”
“I dropped everything,” Chika says. “I was buying oranges and I dropped the oranges and my handbag.” She does not add that the handbag was a Burberry, an original one that her mother had bought on a recent trip to London.
The woman sighs and Chika imagines that she is thinking of her necklace, probably plastic beads threaded on a piece of string. Even without the woman’s strong Hausa accent, Chika can tell she is a Northerner, from the narrowness of her face, the unfamiliar rise of her cheekbones; and that she is Muslim, because of the scarf. It hangs around the woman’s neck now, but it was probably wound loosely round her face before, covering her ears. A long, flimsy pink and black scarf, with the garish prettiness of cheap things. Chika wonders if the woman is looking at her as well, if the woman can tell, from her light complexion and the silver finger rosary her mother insists she wear, that she is Igbo and Christian. Later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones. But now she says, “Thank you for calling me. Everything happened so fast and everybody ran and I was suddenly alone and I didn’t know what I was doing. Thank you.”
“This place safe,” the woman says, in a voice that is so soft it sounds like a whisper. “Them not going to small-small shop, only big-big shop and market.”
“Yes,” Chika says. But she has no reason to agree or disagree, she knows nothing about riots: the closest she has come is the prodemocracy rally at the university a few weeks ago, where she had held a bright-green branch and joined in chanting “The military must go! Abacha must go! Democracy now!” Besides, she would not even have participated in that rally if her sister Nnedi had not been one of the organisers who had gone from hostel to hostel to hand out fliers and talk to students about the importance of “having our voices heard.”
Chika’s hands are still trembling. Just half an hour ago, she was in the market with Nnedi. She was buying oranges and Nnedi had walked farther down to buy groundnuts and then there was shouting in English, in pidgin, in Hausa, in Igbo. “Riot! Trouble is coming, oh! They have killed a man!” Then people around her were running, pushing against one another, overturning wheelbarrows full of yams, leaving behind bruised vegetables they had just bargained hard for. Chika smelled the sweat and fear and she ran, too, across wide streets, into this narrow one, which she feared – felt – was dangerous, until she saw the woman.
She and the woman stand silently in the store for a while, looking out of the window they have just climbed through, its squeaky wooden shutters swinging in the air. The street is quiet at first, and then they hear the sound of running feet. They both move away from the window, instinctively, although Chika can still see a man and a woman walking past, the woman holding her wrapper up above her knees, a baby tied to her back. The man is speaking swiftly in Igbo and all Chika hears is “She may have run to Uncle’s house.”
“Close window,” the woman says.
Chika shuts the windows and without the air from the street flowing in, the dust in the room is suddenly so thick she can see it, billowing above her. The room is stuffy and smells nothing like the streets outside, which smell like the kind of sky-coloured smoke that wafts around during Christmas when people throw goat carcasses into fires to burn the hair off the skin. The streets where she ran blindly, not sure in which direction Nnedi had run, not sure if the man running beside her was a friend or an enemy, not sure if she should stop and pick up one of the bewildered-looking children separated from their mothers in the rush, not even sure who was who or who was killing whom.
Later she will see the hulks of burned cars, jagged holes in place of their windows and windshields, and she will imagine the burning cars dotting the city like picnic bonfires, silent witnesses to so much. She will find out it had all started at the motor park, when a man drove over a copy of the Holy Koran that had been dropped on the roadside, a man who happened to be Igbo and Christian. The men nearby, men who sat around all day playing draughts, men who happened to be Muslim, pulled him out of his pickup truck, cut his head off with one flash of a machete, and carried it to the market, asking others to join in; the infidel had desecrated the Holy Book. Chika will imagine the man’s head, his skin ashen in death, and she will throw up and retch until her stomach is sore. But now, she asks the woman, “Can you still smell the smoke?”
“Yes,” the woman says. She unties her green wrapper and spreads it on the dusty floor. She has on only a blouse and a shimmery black slip torn at the seams. “Come and sit.”
Chika looks at the threadbare wrapper on the floor; it is probably one of the two the woman owns. She looks down at her own denim skirt and red T-shirt embossed with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, both of which she bought when she and Nnedi spent a few summer weeks with relatives in New York. “No, your wrapper will get dirty,” she says.
“Sit,” the woman says. “We are waiting here long time.”
“Do you have an idea how long …?”
“This night or tomorrow morning.”
Chika raises her hand to her forehead, as though checking for a malaria fever. The touch of her cool palm usually calms her, but this time her palm is moist and sweaty. “I left my sister buying groundnuts. I don’t know where she is.”
“She is going safe place.”
“My sister. Her name is Nnedi.”
“Nnedi,” the woman repeats, and her Hausa accent sheaths the Igbo name in a feathery gentleness.
Later, Chika will comb the hospital mortuaries looking for Nnedi; she will go to newspaper offices clutching the photo of herself and Nnedi taken at a wedding just the week before, the one where she has a stupid smile-yelp on her face because Nnedi pinched her just before the photo was taken, the two of them wearing matching off-the-shoulder Ankara gowns. She will tape photocopies of the photo on the walls of the market and the nearby stores. She will not find Nnedi. She will never find Nnedi. But now she says to the woman, “Nnedi and I came up here last week to visit our auntie. We are on vacation from school.”
“Where you go school?” the woman asks.
“We are at the University of Lagos. I am reading medicine. Nnedi is in political science.” Chika wonders if the woman even knows what going to university means. And she wonders, too, if she mentioned school only to feed herself the reality she needs now-that Nnedi is not lost in a riot, that Nnedi is safe somewhere, probably laughing in her easy, mouth-all-open way, probably making one of her political arguments. Like how the government of General Abacha was using its foreign policy to legitimise itself in the eyes of other African countries. Or how the huge popularity in blond hair attachments was a direct result of British colonialism.
“We have only spent a week here with our auntie, we have never even been to Kano before,” Chika says, and she realises that what she feels is this: she and her sister should not be affected by the riot. Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people.
“Your auntie is in market?” the woman asks.
“No, she’s at work. She is the director at the secretariat.” Chika raises her hand to her forehead again. She lowers herself and sits, much closer to the woman than she ordinarily would have, so as to rest her body entirely on the wrapper. She smells something on the woman, something harsh and clean like the bar soap their housegirl uses to wash the bed linen.
“Your auntie is going safe place.”
“Yes,” Chika says. The conversation seems surreal; she feels as if she is watching herself. “I still can’t believe this is happening, this riot.”
The woman is staring straight ahead. Everything about her is long and slender, her legs stretched out in front of her, her fingers with henna-stained nails, her feet. “It is work of evil,” she says finally.
Chika wonders if that is all the woman thinks of the riots, if that is all she sees them as – evil. She wishes Nnedi were here. She imagines the cocoa brown of Nnedi’s eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that riots do not happen in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicised because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another. Then Chika feels a prick of guilt for wondering if this woman’s mind is large enough to grasp any of that.
“In school you are seeing sick people now?” the woman asks.
Chika averts her gaze quickly so that the woman will not see the surprise. “My clinicals? Yes, we started last year. We see patients at the Teaching Hospital.” She does not add that she often feels attacks of uncertainty, that she slouches at the back of the group of six or seven students, avoiding the senior registrar’s eyes, hoping she will not be asked to examine a patient and give her differential diagnosis.
“I am trader,” the woman says. “I’m selling onions.”
Chika listens for sarcasm or reproach in the tone, but there is none. The voice is as steady and as low, a woman simply telling what she does.
“I hope they will not destroy market stalls,” Chika replies; she does not know what else to say.
“Every time when they are rioting, they break market,” the woman says.
Chika wants to ask the woman how many riots she has witnessed but she does not. She has read about the others in the past: Hausa Muslim zealots attacking Igbo Christians, and sometimes Igbo Christians going on murderous missions of revenge. She does not want a conversation of naming names.
“My nipple is burning like pepper,” the woman says.
“My nipple is burning like pepper.”
Before Chika can swallow the bubble of surprise in her throat and say anything, the woman pulls up her blouse and unhooks the front clasp of a threadbare black bra. She brings out the money, ten- and twenty-naira notes, folded inside her bra, before freeing her full breasts.
“Burning-burning like pepper,” she says, cupping her breasts and leaning toward Chika, as though in an offering. Chika shifts. She remembers the pediatrics rotation only a week ago: the senior registrar, Dr Olunloyo, wanted all the students to feel the stage 4 heart murmur of a little boy, who was watching them with curious eyes. The doctor asked her to go first and she became sweaty, her mind blank, no longer sure where the heart was. She had finally placed a shaky hand on the left side of the boy’s nipple, and the brrr-brrr-brrr vibration of swishing blood going the wrong way, pulsing against her fingers, made her stutter and say “Sorry, sorry” to the boy, even though he was smiling at her.
The woman’s nipples are nothing like that boy’s. They are cracked, taut and dark brown, the areolas lighter-toned. Chika looks carefully at them, reaches out and feels them. “Do you have a baby?” she asks.
“Yes. One year.”
“Your nipples are dry, but they don’t look infected. After you feed the baby, you have to use some lotion. And while you are feeding, you have to make sure the nipple and also this other part, the areola, fit inside the baby’s mouth.”
The woman gives Chika a long look. “First time of this. I’m having five children.”
“It was the same with my mother. Her nipples cracked when the sixth child came, and she didn’t know what caused it, until a friend told her that she had to moisturise,” Chika says. She hardly ever lies, but the few times she does, there is always a purpose behind the lie. She wonders what purpose this lie serves, this need to draw on a fictional past similar to the woman’s; she and Nnedi are her mother’s only children. Besides, her mother always had Dr Igbokwe, with his British training and affectation, a phone call away.
“What is your mother rubbing on her nipple?” the woman asks.
“Cocoa butter. The cracks healed fast.”
“Eh?” The woman watches Chika for a while, as if this disclosure has created a bond. “All right, I get it and use.” She plays with her scarf for a moment and then says, “I am looking for my daughter. We go market together this morning. She is selling groundnut near bus stop, because there are many customers. Then riot begin and I am looking up and down market for her.”
“The baby?” Chika asks, knowing how stupid she sounds even as she asks.
The woman shakes her head and there is a flash of impatience, even anger, in her eyes. “You have ear problem? You don’t hear what I am saying?”
“Sorry,” Chika says.
“Baby is at home! This one is first daughter. Halima.” The woman starts to cry. She cries quietly, her shoulders heaving up and down, not the kind of loud sobbing that the women Chika knows do, the kind that screams Hold me and comfort me because I cannot deal with this alone. The woman’s crying is private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else.
Later, when Chika will wish that she and Nnedi had not decided to take a taxi to the market just to see a little of the ancient city of Kano outside their aunt’s neighborhood, she will wish also that the woman’s daughter, Halima, had been sick or tired or lazy that morning, so that she would not have sold groundnuts that day.
The woman wipes her eyes with one end of her blouse. “Allah keep your sister and Halima in safe place,” she says. And because Chika is not sure what Muslims say to show agreement – it cannot be “amen” – she simply nods.
The woman has discovered a rusted tap in a corner of the store, near the metal containers. Perhaps where the trader washed his or her hands, she says, telling Chika that the stores on this street were abandoned months ago, after the government declared them illegal structures to be demolished. The woman turns on the tap and they both watch – surprised – as water trickles out. Brownish, and so metallic Chika can smell it already. Still, it runs.
“I wash and pray,” the woman says, her voice louder now, and she smiles for the first time to show even-sized teeth, the front ones stained brown. Her dimples sink into her cheeks, deep enough to swallow half a finger, and unusual in a face so lean. The woman clumsily washes her hands and face at the tap, then removes her scarf from her neck and places it down on the floor. Chika looks away. She knows the woman is on her knees, facing Mecca, but she does not look. It is like the woman’s tears, a private experience, and she wishes that she could leave the store. Or that she, too, could pray, could believe in a god, see an omniscient presence in the stale air of the store. She cannot remember when her idea of God has not been cloudy, like the reflection from a steamy bathroom mirror, and she cannot remember ever trying to clean the mirror.
She touches the finger rosary that she still wears, sometimes on her pinky or her forefinger, to please her mother. Nnedi no longer wears hers, once saying with that throaty laugh, “Rosaries are really magical potions, and I don’t need those, thank you.”
Later, the family will offer Masses over and over for Nnedi to be found safe, though never for the repose of Nnedi’s soul. And Chika will think about this woman, praying with her head to the dustfloor, and she will change her mind about telling her mother that offering Masses is a waste of money, that it is just fundraising for the church.
When the woman rises, Chika feels strangely energised. More than three hours have passed and she imagines that the riot is quieted, the rioters drifted away. She has to leave, she has to make her way home and make sure Nnedi and her auntie are fine.
“I must go,” Chika says.
Again the look of impatience on the woman’s face. “Outside is danger.”
“I think they have gone. I can’t even smell any more smoke.”
The woman says nothing, seats herself back down on the wrapper. Chika watches her for a while, disappointed without knowing why. Maybe she wants a blessing from the woman, something. “How far away is your house?” she asks.
“Far. I’m taking two buses.”
“Then I will come back with my auntie’s driver and take you home,” Chika says.
The woman looks away. Chika walks slowly to the window and opens it. She expects to hear the woman ask her to stop, to come back, not to be rash. But the woman says nothing and Chika feels the quiet eyes on her back as she climbs out of the window.
The streets are silent. The sun is falling, and in the evening dimness, Chika looks around, unsure which way to go. She prays that a taxi will appear, by magic, by luck, by God’s hand. Then she prays that Nnedi will be inside the taxi, asking her where the hell she has been, they have been so worried about her. Chika has not reached the end of the second street, toward the market, when she sees the body. She almost doesn’t see it, walks so close to it that she feels its heat. The body must have been very recently burned. The smell is sickening, of roasted flesh, unlike that of any she has ever smelled.
Later, when Chika and her aunt go searching throughout Kano, a policeman in the front seat of her aunt’s air-conditioned car, she will see other bodies, many burned, lying lengthwise along the sides of the street, as though someone carefully pushed them there, straightening them. She will look at only one of the corpses, naked, stiff, facedown, and it will strike her that she cannot tell if the partially burned man is Igbo or Hausa, Christian or Muslim, from looking at that charred flesh. She will listen to BBC radio and hear the accounts of the deaths and the riots-“religious with undertones of ethnic tension” the voice will say. And she will fling the radio to the wall and a fierce red rage will run through her at how it has all been packaged and sanitised and made to fit into so few words, all those bodies. But now, the heat from the burned body is so close to her, so present and warm that she turns and dashes back toward the store. She feels a sharp pain along her lower leg as she runs. She gets to the store and raps on the window, and she keeps rapping until the woman opens it.
Chika sits on the floor and looks closely, in the failing light, at the line of blood crawling down her leg. Her eyes swim restlessly in her head. It looks alien, the blood, as though someone had squirted tomato paste on her.
“Your leg. There is blood,” the woman says, a little wearily. She wets one end of her scarf at the tap and cleans the cut on Chika’s leg, then ties the wet scarf around it, knotting it at the calf.
“Thank you,” Chika says.
“You want toilet?”
“The containers there, we are using for toilet,” the woman says. She takes one of the containers to the back of the store, and soon the smell fills Chika’s nose, mixes with the smells of dust and metallic water, makes her feel light-headed and queasy. She closes her eyes.
“Sorry, oh! My stomach is bad. Everything happening today,” the woman says from behind her. Afterwards, the woman opens the window and places the container outside, then washes her hands at the tap. She comes back and she and Chika sit side by side in silence; after a while they hear raucous chanting in the distance, words Chika cannot make out. The store is almost completely dark when the woman stretches out on the floor, her upper body on the wrapper and the rest of her not.
Later, Chika will read in the Guardian that “the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims”, and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim.
Chika hardly sleeps all night. The window is shut tight; the air is stuffy, and the dust, thick and gritty, crawls up her nose. She keeps seeing the blackened corpse floating in a halo by the window, pointing accusingly at her. Finally she hears the woman get up and open the window, letting in the dull blue of early dawn. The woman stands there for a while before climbing out. Chika can hear footsteps, people walking past. She hears the woman call out, voice raised in recognition, followed by rapid Hausa that Chika does not understand.
The woman climbs back into the store. “Danger is finished. It is Abu. He is selling provisions. He is going to see his store. Everywhere policeman with tear gas. Soldier-man is coming. I go now before soldier-man will begin to harass somebody.”
Chika stands slowly and stretches; her joints ache. She will walk all the way back to her auntie’s home in the gated estate, because there are no taxis on the street, there are only army Jeeps and battered police station wagons. She will find her auntie, wandering from one room to the next with a glass of water in her hand, muttering in Igbo, over and over, “Why did I ask you and Nnedi to visit? Why did my chi deceive me like this?” And Chika will grasp her auntie’s shoulders tightly and lead her to a sofa.
Now, Chika unties the scarf from her leg, shakes it as though to shake the bloodstains out, and hands it to the woman.
“Wash your leg well-well. Greet your sister, greet your people,” the woman says, tightening her wrapper around her waist.
“Greet your people also. Greet your baby and Halima,” Chika says. Later, as she walks home, she will pick up a stone stained the copper of dried blood and hold the ghoulish souvenir to her chest. And she will suspect right then, in a strange flash while clutching the stone, that she will never find Nnedi, that her sister is gone. But now, she turns to the woman and adds, “May I keep your scarf? The bleeding might start again.” The woman looks for a moment as if she does not understand; then she nods. There is perhaps the beginning of future grief on her face, but she smiles a slight, distracted smile before she hands the scarf back to Chika and turns to climb out of the window.
• © Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
• ‘A Private Experience’ is taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, published by Fourth Estate in April 2009.