Yes, sah, I am ready to talk today. I am sorry that it has taken me this long to cooperate. My mother is always saying how I am willing to do the Devil’s work and … well, you know, as I’m sure you and your men have already spoken to her. Is she okay? May I speak to her?

Oh, that is fine. There is no need, then. I am sure she is being taken care of. It is wrong what they are saying out there about the police. You are not the enemy. It has taken me some time in here to learn that, but I am grateful for the education. I’m sorry I am taking so long to get to the point; my feet are paining me. No, not from the beating; that was okay, I was resisting. It is just that my feet have been troubling me since I was a child, and if I am not walking around a lot, then they are growing stiff and sometimes bleeding, but it is okay. As you say, the sooner I give you what you want, the sooner I can go to the doctor. Not that the doctors here are bad! They are just so overworked with all the other prisoners—I’m sorry, the offenders—that they are having to treat. I only want to make it easier for them.

But, yes, you want to know about the radical. Her name is Femi. I do not know her last name, but I am sure you can easily find out. She was with me the day you and your men picked me up. Many of us were there for the protest action. I remember the jostling and coughing from the tear gas and everyone screaming. Everywhere there was screaming. Then the police shouting orders, and then you could hear the thunks of batons hitting the protesters who were moving too slow when you were ordering them away.

We were scared that day, yes. Very scared. We were sixteen years old! First-years! People are always talking about courage. They pretend that they are brave, that even if they are quiet, they have some deep well or reserve that is being filled and that when the time comes, they will shout or defend themselves or hit back, but really, the water is going the other way. The well is running dry, and we are all cowards. That is much of what I saw that day before I was knocked unconscious and woke up here.

Ah, it still hurts. I think the bandage on my head is slipping. Maybe when we are finished here, we can change it? I don’t want to take too much of the doctors’ time. Oh, it can wait, then. I will continue.

Femi and I were in secondary school together, but that is not where we met. When I think back on that time—we were so little—I don’t even remember her there at all. But during my first questioning session, when the other interrogator came in with her file, my memory went jogging and came back. He showed me the pictures of her as she is now and as she was before she joined the troublemakers. Then they showed me pictures of her when she was younger, and I cannot think why you were taking pictures of her that long ago. The Femi I see in my memories of secondary school is a girl nobody noticed. She could be standing in a circle of your friends and not say a word and you would not even know she was there. Just a girl in a uniform. But you know, Mama says it is always the quiet ones you should watch for. I feel like you and Mama would get along. You two think the same way about many things, and you both know what to do with a switch.

Ouch, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m not here to joke. I’m sorry, please, sah, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.

Chai. My wrist. Aye. I’m sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, secondary school, yes. I’m sorry. Please, it’s just that when you slam my hand like that, it makes me forget my place.

But yes, in secondary school, Femi was ordinary. She got into Nsukka while many of us wound up at UNILAG. And we were like all kids, still trying to figure out what it meant to have money or not. The ones who had it really had it. Many of them came from private secondary schools, the ones where one year’s school fees are one million naira. One million naira! That was not my family, but at uni, when you’re not rich like many others, you find ways to distinguish yourself. Or sometimes all you want is to blend in. Get your degree and the job that comes after that. Be a productive citizen.

That’s what you go to uni for, right? You go for the job you will get after. Learn how to get into finance. Learn how to work for the government. My mother spent so much of my life trying to make me learn the value of ten naira so that I could learn how to make that ten naira one hundred thousand times over and bring it back. I guess they do it differently in Nsukka.

My second semester, I started seeing Femi on campus. People were saying that she had transferred from Nsukka to be closer to family, but she had changed, and she had changed in a way that made it difficult to get her to talk about what she didn’t want to talk about. She was no longer shy. She had turned into … into a wall. So those of us from the same secondary school as her just wrote it off as her being standoffish. Maybe she thought she was better than us, always doing her own thing. Always putting on airs. Like she couldn’t be bothered to try hanging out with us.

I don’t know when the protest actions started, but I remember waking up one day in the dormitory and walking to class and seeing the military jeeps and the soldiers sitting in back of them and not thinking it was any strange thing.

When I talked to my mother on the phone about it and described the soldiers with their automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and their legs dangling by the tires or the olive green of their uniforms or the ways they wore their berets, she would sometimes become quiet. I always thought she was just worrying about me, and I would tell her I was doing fine. I was not involved in all that wahala. But the more I think about it, the more I am beginning to realize that maybe she worried so much because of what she saw when she was my age. They don’t teach it in schools, but sometimes when uncles or aunties came to visit, I would overhear them talking with Mama. I was small enough that I could sneak around and no one would notice me. And they would talk sometimes. About the past. About the dictators and the coups and the violence. I’m sorry, I don’t know where they live or where they are from. I am not trying to get them into trouble. Please, sah, they are good people.

This time is not like the past. This time is different. You’re not like the others that came before, sah. What is happening now isn’t a dictatorship or a coup or anything like that. Right? I … I just need to make her understand that this time is different. If I cannot, can you? Can you tell her this time is different for me? I am not asking for much. Please. Okay, when we are finished.


I learned that you can tell from the volume and pitch whether the rumble you are hearing is a demonstration or not. Speaking of things I learned at uni, I learned to judge them with my inner riot meter. Their rating depended not only on the words of the speaker but also how popular they were. A two was in the green zone, meaning there was little to worry about if you were just walking by. Just some raving fool eager for a sound clubbing. A four made me look for other routes to where I was going. The probability of riot police making an appearance was significantly higher, but they would only use tear gas. Above a six, they begin using rubber bullets, and once you hit nine, they use real ones. Tanks wouldn’t rumble in, making the streets all jagga-jagga, until you made it to ten. But that almost never happened.

One day, there was a demonstration several streets away. It felt like a four. A classmate was with me—Tunde. I think he is in this building too. The fool had come from a rich family. And you know how it is in Lagos. There is only rich or poor. Nothing but ocean between them. And the rich? They never think they will lose their wealth. If Tunde is in this building, he will likely not be here for long.

Oh, you are looking at me like I should not have said that. Well, why not? They tell us that the rich and the rest of us live in different worlds, but if you are police for all of us, then why are you not police for him? Money has cured every wound he ever had in his life, erased every punishment. Like it is some perfect ointment. Meanwhile, every time I call home, my mother tells me the price of bread at the market has gone up even further. No, after what he did, I hope Tunde is in here too. I hope you never received a call from his father in London, and I hope no money ever changed hands. I hope he sits in his cell and you are caning the bottoms of his feet like you are doing to me and pouring water on his face like you are doing to me so that he thinks he’s drowning. Let us see if being rich will save him from all this trouble he has caused.

I’m sorry. I…

My mother used to be a servant in their house. They made her clean their toilets. She did this work before I was born, but she did it for a long time, and I didn’t find out about it until well after she had stopped. Tunde’s father was so happy with her work that he sent my mother money even after she had stopped working for them. It is how she was able to afford my school fees. Tunde knew somehow, and one day, when he wanted to hurt me and he didn’t care how deeply, he told me. He told me in front of many of my friends, and there was nothing I could do. There was no well of courage inside me. I didn’t strike back; I didn’t tell him any clever insults I had. I just stood there, shaking like a leaf. The next day, he forgot about it. He was walking around and chatting like it had never happened. If he is in here and you are punishing him like you are punishing me, then that will maybe come close to justice.

I’m sorry. I’ll continue.

Anyway, Tunde pulled me along. And all the while, he had this hungry look in his eyes. The fool. When we got closer to the protest, I realized that I was wrong. This wasn’t a four. The speaker was Moshood Asari. We were standing in the middle of a seven.

Asari was stamping his feet atop a beaten Ford truck, the paint peeling away, revealing the rusted metal beneath. Just POMP-POMP-POMP-POMP.

“Do you see the holes in our streets?” he called out over the din of the crowd, silencing them. POMP. POMP. “Do you see the broken windows and the shattered homes?” POMP. POMP. “This is Nigeria.” POMP-POMP. “This is what the military has made it.” POMP-POMP. “This is what the government has made it!” POMP-POMP. “This is what the world sees. They see a broken and decrepit people who do not know what to do with their freedom. Well, I tell you, our freedom has been taken! It has been stripped away from us, just like our children. Just like our future.”

Please, I am only telling you his words. I am not believing them. I am just saying what he said. To give a truthful accounting.

Sweat sheathed his forehead, and he was waving his long arms in the air like a drunken man. But people were listening. Tunde was listening.

There’s another sound you learn to listen for at protests. It generally comes near the end. Either the protest ends and people go about the business of living their lives, or you hear the sound and know that violence is coming. It is the screeching of tires.

The first of the jeeps made their way around the corner, and I recognized some of the people in them as the men I had passed on my way to classes the day before. They took positions, and everyone waited, the air thick with heavy silence. The only sound I heard in that moment was my own heart beating. Waiting.



BANG. The first shot was fired, a warning shot into the air, followed by many that weren’t. Chaos ensued. Tear gas canisters flew toward us. FYUN. FYUN. I pushed my way through the crowd, wondering if I would ever see Tunde again, when the rubber bullets began finding their marks in the protestors. THUP. THUP. THUP. Women and men who had been hit cried out for help. Shrieking. I looked to the beaten Ford to see that Asari had vacated his pulpit. He had left his flock to take the beating for him.

I finally found Tunde, but he was smiling like a fool, grinning madly at the pandemonium around him. He was intoxicated by Asari’s propaganda and ideas; I could see it in the way his eyes were gleaming. And as I pulled him up, I saw her.

She looked like she was wearing a school uniform, but we weren’t in secondary school anymore. There was no uniform at uni. And that is why I thought at first that maybe this was a dream. Maybe I just thought I was seeing who I remembered her as at that protest, even though that made no sense. Still, a part of me knew it was her. I knew this for a fact. And it was that part of me that had me going out with Tunde again to the next protest action in Ikeja.

There she was. She had a scarf wrapped around her head. This was how I knew it wasn’t a dream: In a dream, she would be smiling at me, inviting me to wherever she was. But no. Here she was frowning. Like I was a fly in her pepper soup.

It went on like this for some weeks. Word would spread about the next protest action. Where? Oh, in places. I was told by someone different each time. You never know who is planning these things. They do not want to be caught. It is like this sometimes. There are no real leaders. There is no target. It is like the Hydra we learned about in mythology class in secondary school, where you chop off one head and two more are growing in its place. But no matter how many heads it is having, the whole body is still knowing how it is supposed to move.

Every time, I would show up and I would look for her. I was never there to hear who was speaking. I have not been converted. I know better. You know this. I am only here to help. Sure, there was that one time when I said the slogans and pumped my fist. I have seen the pictures. I confess that it was me. But I did not believe those words. I was only trying … I was only trying to fit in.

I don’t know that Femi was the only transfer from Nsukka. I only know that soon she had a following of her own. It was not anything big. It was a mosquito on the government’s arm. But the girls that followed her looked at you like they were made of steel, o. Ah-ah! They could draw blood with their eyes. You did not even try to play games with them. People would start rumors about them, that they were this way because they could not find husbands. Or maybe because they got kicked out of Nsukka and their parents had disowned them. If you saw what happened to those boys, HAI! I watched a classmate walk up to their group one day on campus. We were far enough away that we couldn’t tell what was being said, but when he came back, he was hanging his head and did not want to talk about what had happened. It was like his mother had broken her switch on his rump.

But you see, sah, there is something about this that drew me to her. I don’t know about you. You are a very disciplined man, I can tell. You deal with your lot in life. You work for what you have, and you are content with it. You are not like the rest of us layabouts who are always wanting what we can’t have and having what we don’t want. Mama is always telling me, “You do not know what you have,” and sometimes she is meaning that I am not treasuring the fact that I am in school or the fact that I can eat garri and egusi soup regularly. But I am learning that she is also telling me I am not knowing what peace is. What being able to move freely in your country is. Sometimes I think she is telling me I am not knowing what love is. But when I would go to the demonstrations, I wanted to call her and tell her that I was learning.

No, I was not learning to love the ideas the leaders were spouting out of their mouths or the way they were ranting and raving about the cost of bread or the state of our roads or the fact that more and more things you say can make you disappear. I was learning to love Femi. One time, I was walking to class and I was passing down a hallway and I heard soft talking in a nearby room. The door was ajar, and I peeked in. I recognized her voice. It was different, lower and with a huskiness to it that it didn’t have before, and I was getting warm inside. I am nervous saying these things, but I think you are knowing what I mean. I heard other voices, and I knew without seeing them that those were her soldiers.

When I got closer to the room, I saw that she was around a table with maybe three or four of them, and they were spraying paint on the signs that they would show at the next demonstration. They were not wearing masks, and that is how I knew they were still amateurs, no matter how professional and serious they looked. Surely they knew that the fumes would make them dizzy. Maybe that was why one of them laughed too loudly. When she did, it was such a strange sound that it startled me, and I accidentally knocked the door handle, and everything stopped.

Sah, you could hear a mouse skitter. That’s how quiet it was. In that moment, I wanted to be that mouse, o! I wanted to be that mouse very, very badly. But I couldn’t move.

Two of the girls moved to stand in front of the table to block my view, but the damage had been done. I knew. I had evidence now. Whispers travel fast in the dorms and in the halls, and it was only a matter of time before they were all “visited” by your people. But I said nothing.

Femi was still hunched over the table, but she was completely still, and she was staring at me. Just staring.

Let me tell you, I expected her to be staring daggers at me. Ah-ah—I was expecting to be ripped to pieces and fed to wild dogs with her look. I was not expecting the way she actually looked at me. Her mouth did not say a single word, but her eyes were saying please. Pleasepleaseplease. Then, finally, please.

So I said nothing. You are the first person I am telling of this.

I think it is because I said nothing that she eventually invited me to her village. She didn’t take any of her soldiers there. I don’t even know if anyone else knew where she came from. She didn’t speak for much of the journey, but you look at a person for as long as I’ve looked at her, and you start to notice things, like how she loosened the closer we came. The tension left her shoulders. Her breathing evened out. Her fists unclenched. This was home for her. I do not know where her immediate family lives or even if she has any, as I have confessed many, many times already. But people who were important to her were here. At least, one person was.

I didn’t realize how tired I could become just from sitting in a car. When we arrived, I went straight to sleep. The sound that woke me was the soft thwacking of machetes against the tall grass. Then I heard the chickens. When I saw the young men outside—they were only a little younger than us—they had chewing sticks hanging from their mouths.

Femi never told me whether or not the woman who cooked us yams and stew for breakfast was an aunt or grandmother or neighbor occupying the house. Maybe I was supposed to guess, or maybe there were still parts of herself she wanted to keep from me. But it was the best breakfast I’d had since I left home. Not as good as my mother’s food, but almost. When you speak to my mother again, tell her I said “almost.”

After breakfast, the woman wished us well, and Femi took me down a path deeper into the village until we reached the other end. There was an old man in a small, small dwelling. He didn’t look like he belonged in the village. Just skin and bones. But he had relics and idols all outside his dwelling. Mama would have caned me if she knew I’d set foot in a place that haram. But the man came out and simply stood in front of it with a large staff while Femi stopped me and turned to speak to me.

“I’m going in. I won’t be long.”

“What is going to happen to you?” I asked her.

“That is what I am going to find out.”

Then she left. The old man followed her inside his tiny dwelling. I am still not sure how it could fit two people.

It seemed like forever before she came back out. When she did, she was … different. Darker, like shadows hung over her. But also more determined. She had that smell again, that look, that thing that told you she was made of steel.

I think she went into that man’s dwelling to learn her fortune, and that was why she did what she did the day I was … picked up.

When we got back to Lagos, she still had that air of grim determination about her. But there was something else. It was sort of like resignation. Like she’d given up. Or … no. That’s not right. Like she’d accepted something. That visit to the village felt very much like the calm before the storm. Something important had changed.

The protests died down for a little while. I imagine they were trying to make the police think they had won. But you, sah, you were smarter. That is why you knew to look where you did. And that is why you found the stash of guns and machetes in a storage unit only I had the key to. And that’s how you knew that the protest action we eventually took, the one with Femi standing on the top of the beaten Ford truck, shouting and waving her arms, not like a drunken person but like a godling, was a diversion. You sent men there anyway, and that is how you found me. Femi escaped. She was wily like that. But our plot was foiled. I believed, and I was punished for it. I am still being punished for it. And I am sorry. And I am ready for my penance.

But I do not know where she is. Even if I did and gave her up, I would want to see her one last time. I am telling the complete truth here. I would want to tell her how much I admired her. Every time I looked at her, it was like I was looking at the type of person who could have stood up to someone like Tunde. If she’d found me that day at uni after Tunde had said what he said, she would have defended me. I know this. But she wasn’t there for me then. No one was.


What is that man whispering to you?

What? No, of course Femi is real. The other interrogator showed me her file. I am not telling lies. Why would I lie about this? What did that man tell you?

He told you that there are no school records of Femi? Did he check Nsukka? Maybe they did not transfer them to UNILAG properly. Did he tell you he asked the others who were picked up with me and that they had no recollection of Femi? Did he tell you whether or not he asked Tunde? If Tunde is even here, that is! Of course, they would never betray their comrade. They are weak, and they do not believe in the power of the state. How could I make up a whole girl with a whole full life and history? I am not God, praise be unto Him. I am not someone that can just take mud and make a person. I am not a storyteller; I am confessing.

If Femi isn’t real, then why would I be confessing to what I did do? Why not just say it was all Femi?

Ask my first interrogator! What? No, I don’t know his name, he never told me his name. Please, I am telling the truth! That man who interrogated me, he asked me about Femi and had her file and ask him please, I am not making her up, ask him and he will tell you, I am not telling lies, please believe me!

I am telling the truth, I swear. Let me go, and I will help you find her.

No no no, please don’t hurt me again, please. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But I am telling the truth, sah. I swear I am telling the truth. On my father’s grave, I am telling the truth. Femi is real. If you held me here for ten thousand years, I could not dream her up. She is … she is too perfect to be a dream.

Everything I have told you is the truth. If I am free, then I can bring her to you. Yes. That is what I will do. It … it’s not betrayal. I would only be helping her, no? Sometimes we need to be reeducated. The wrong adults are teaching us, and if I can steer her back to the right path, then I will be helping her.

Please, let me help you, sah. She trusts me.

Ah, you are smiling because you like my plan? No?

You are asking me how I know she is not already here? I … I would know.

I would know.

Trust me, sah. I would know.

Let me go, and I will find her.

{ Edited by Trisha Tobias. }