A Gift from Darkness

A Gift from Darkness

by Andrea Claudia Hoffmann, Patience Ibrahim

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590518496
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 569,192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Andrea Claudia Hoffmann is a political editor and Middle East expert for the news magazine Focus and has been traveling the region for more than fifteen years.  She recently co-authored The Girl Who Beat ISIS: Farida's Story (Vintage, 2016), and Raif Badawi, the Voice of Freedom (Other Press, 2016). Hoffmann's reportages about Iran have been awarded numerous prizes. 

Patience Ibrahim lives with her daughter Gift in Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Journey into the unknown

I've only ever confided my plans to a few people. But now things are out in the open and I have to speak plainly, at least to my travel agent. "I want to go to Maiduguri," I say, as nonchalantly as possible.

"Where?"

"Maiduguri in Nigeria," I say, hoping faintly that the poor phone connection is the reason for her question.

"You're not serious, are you?"

Sabine, the owner of the little agency in Munich, is used to me by now. She's been booking my flights for years. And they have regularly taken me, as a journalist and an expert on Muslim terrorism and victim traumatization, to troubled regions of the world that no one would normally visit if they didn't have to. Sabine has organized my frequent trips to Afghanistan, Iraq or Africa without batting an eyelid. But she's unhappy about today's request.

"Maiduguri airport's been bombed," she informs me. "As far as I know nobody flies there anymore."

"Oh." I didn't know that. "Is there a northbound bus connection?"

"Are you crazy? It's about six hundred miles away from Abuja. And anyway ..."

"Yes, you're right," I cut in. Sabine doesn't need to say any more. It would be too dangerous to drive through Nigeria by car. The A13, the main connection with the northern cities of the state of Borno, also lies on the road on which the terrorist group Boko Haram is active. It leads straight by the notorious Sambisa Forest. This swampland is where they have been holding the schoolgirls they abducted from Chibok, nearly seventy miles south of Maiduguri, in the spring of 2014, in an act that brought the terrorist militia into the world's eye. Michelle Obama, then the First Lady of the USA, put herself at the head of the "Bring Back Our Girls" movement, with which parents are trying to free their children from the clutches of the terrorists. Am I going to have to forget my travel plans?

"Let me just check," Sabine says. I hear her keyboard clicking. "Hm, you might be in luck: the Nigerian company Medview recently started flying into Maiduguri again, but quite irregularly. The flight might be canceled or postponed at short notice if the security situation gets worse."

"OK, great!" I hear myself saying. "Can you book them from here?"

"I can try." More clicking at the other end. "It seems to be working," Sabine says. "Do you want me to book it? Or just reserve it for now?"

"No," I say firmly. I've been dithering for long enough. For over a year I've been considering traveling to northern Nigeria. Since the Islamists of the Boko Haram sect in the north of the country began wreaking their havoc, and particularly since the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls, I've thought more and more about interviewing the female victims of the terrorist group. For a foreigner, and a white- skinned woman, such a journey is an incredibly risky undertaking. But recently I've found someone who knows the area to come with me: I can travel with Renate Ellmenreich, a retired Protestant vicar who lived there as a missionary years ago, and who still has good connections.

"I'm quite sure," I say to Sabine. "Book two tickets for me."

About a month before this I met Renate for the first time at Berlin's Central Station. Even though we'd only previously spoken on the phone, I recognized her straightaway. She was wearing a tweed jacket and a huge pair of purple sunglasses. The sixty-five-year-old strode energetically toward me, her freshly blow- dried pageboy cut bouncing in rhythm. "I'm Renate," she said in her sonorous vicar's voice.

When we're sitting in a café a few minutes later she tells me about her time in Nigeria. Around the turn of the millennium she and her husband were sent there by the mission in Basle. Renate was assigned to the station in Gavva, a small town at the foot of the Mandara Mountains, seventy kilometers southwest of Maiduguri. Her husband, Gunnar, took a similar job in Mubi, a little further to the south.

With a pencil, Renate does me a quick sketch of the area on a paper napkin. "Gavva's here," she explains, and draws a rectangle toward the top left-hand side of the district. "And this is the Sambisa Forest, about ten miles away as the crow flies." I'm startled by the small distance between the two places. Renate's chosen home in Africa is in the middle of the territory where the Islamic sect is terrorizing the population.

"We would never have expected anything like this," admits Renate, who was doing Christian development work. "Even then there were sporadic tensions between the Christians and the Muslims. But terrorism, and on this scale, was completely unimaginable."

At that moment a group of football fans drifts past us, shouting, waving the red and white flags that identify them as Bayern Munich supporters, and roaring their slogans. We have to interrupt our conversation. But Renate just smiles mildly. "Football is mostly harmless," she says. "But it's a different story if you give those young men a gun. In Nigeria, sadly, there are far too many men with guns. And it's always the women who pay in the end."

Renate lost her husband in Nigeria back then. He died in 2004 of a brief but violent fever, caused by a tropical virus. After that she set up an aid organization for widows. Now that organization looks after women victims of Boko Haram terrorism. "I urgently need to get back to Maiduguri to find out what the women there need most urgently," she tells me, deeply concerned.

"Then let's go together," I suggest. The fact that Renate has a local infrastructure of private contacts also brings the journey into the realms of the feasible as far as I'm concerned. "We can depend on your people there, can't we?"

"A hundred percent," she says, without hesitation. "But let's be clear about one thing: churches and vicars are high on the list of the terrorists' targets. And foreign journalists come next."

Even though I knew that, of course, Renate's words from our first conversation go on echoing in my head for a long time. But they won't put me off. Now we both have our tickets and our visas. She's given me precise instructions about what I need to pack: nuts, dried fruit, muesli bars, multivitamin tablets, protein shakes, bedsheets, towels, disinfectant spray, bandages, antibiotics, a mosquito net and — very important — instant coffee for our breakfast.

The food supply situation in the northeast of Nigeria is extremely poor. Since Boko Haram occupied large stretches of the terrain in 2014, the farmers haven't been able to work their fields, and harvests have failed. Food from the rich south comes to the north very rarely. First of all because there are road blocks and many attacks on transports. And also because there are hardly any solvent customers in the corrugated- iron metropolis of Maiduguri. The city is full of refugees who depend on government handouts.

In November 2015 we meet at Frankfurt airport. I've just come from Berlin, and as always I've allowed a very short transfer time. Breathlessly I dash into the departure lounge and look out for Renate. She hobbles toward me on crutches. She sprained her ankle the previous day. But clearly it didn't occur to her to cancel the trip. "The swelling's already going down," she reassures me, and cheerfully waves her crutches in the air. "I don't really need these things. But somebody in Nigeria is bound to have a use for them."

I grin. Now I'm quite sure that Renate's exactly the right traveling companion for me.

It takes our Lufthansa plane only six hours to get to Abuja, the seat of government and the second largest city in Nigeria. We get there at four o'clock in the afternoon local time. Hard to believe there is not even a time difference with Germany.

I step onto the escalator behind Renate and her crutches, and crash into a wall of tropical heat and high humidity. In the hall with the luggage carousels helpers run about busily to take our luggage outside on their trolleys in exchange for a few cents. They make an enormous racket. The only problem is: Renate's suitcase hasn't arrived. The big one, stuffed with the things that she needs for the job-finding workshops that she wants to do with the women in Maiduguri. Now we lack both the ingredients for soap production and the molds for muffin baking; these two skills were intended to enable the women to earn some money. Renate is in despair. "I can't travel on without my suitcase," she tells me.

We hastily fill out a series of very complicated forms to report the loss. A young woman in a pretty straight-hair wig is very helpful to us. "You might get your suitcase tomorrow, ma'am," she says, looking as if she doesn't believe it herself. "If you like, I can keep your claim slip and pursue the matter for you at the airport. Just write your phone number on it."

"My phone number?" Renate thinks for a moment. "Yes, OK." She writes down the phone number of her German friend Annegret, who lives on a farm near Abuja. We will spend the first night at her place. The sixty-year-old South German is waiting for us in the arrivals hall.

A little later we are sitting in Annegret's rickety Fiat. It's already getting dark. The road to the farm is quite heavily used. It leads through several small villages whose centers are recognizable by the gatherings of people and the proliferation of stalls. They are selling groceries, warm food and all kinds of paraphernalia. We buy a SIM card for Renate's phone. Then we turn on to a gravel track. From now on there are no villages; the bush used as pasture by the Fulani nomads stretches out on either side of the road.

Nigeria's population consists of a great variety of ethnic groups who speak a total of 514 different languages. The Fulani and Hausa in the north, who constitute about a third of the population, are among the biggest and most politically influential. They are Muslim. The south is dominated by the Christian Yoruba and Igbo, who each constitute about 20 percent of the overall population. About 180 million people in all live in Nigeria. Around half of them are Muslims, 45 percent Christian, the rest follow traditional African religions. In many places, however, widespread animist thinking mixes with the ideas of other religions.

We reach a grove of palm trees — and the road becomes even bumpier. Annegret skilfully drives around the potholes. When she stops somewhere in the darkness at last, I curiously open the door and step outside. A sweetish fragrance hits me with the warm evening air. It is very quiet. The only sound is the quiet rustle of the palms.

"Welcome to Hope Eden," she says.

Annegret leads us to one of the round huts that she and her husband, Shekar, rent to guests. It's made of red bricks that they bake themselves on the farm. Mosquito nets are stretched over the windows. There is no running water, but there's a big barrel from which water can be drawn, including the water for the toilet flush. Electricity comes from a solar cell on the roof.

At dinner in the main house lots of children join us at the table. They're all little relatives of Shekar that the couple have taken in so that they can go to school. Their own parents wouldn't be able to afford it. There is cassava with beans from the farm's fields. "And you just left the receipt with that woman? Even though you don't even know her?" she asks. "How is she even going to get in contact with you? We have no phone reception here on the farm."

"Oh my. And internet?" Just in case we don't get the suitcase in time I need to rebook our onward flights at midday tomorrow with an email to Sabine. That would definitely be easier than trying to find the relevant office somewhere around here.

Annegret smiles. "No, there's no internet. For that you'd need to go into Abuja. It's in the opposite direction from the airport. It's about an hour to the center."

Renate shakes her head. "Let's just try our chances at the airport."

The next morning we are woken at dawn by all kinds of noises that sound like a jungle: the grove of palm trees coos, buzzes and chirrups. Annegret, who is already feeding her schoolchildren, helps us to our feet with freshly brewed coffee. It tastes delicious. "Enjoy it," Renate advises me, "we won't be getting anything like that in Maiduguri."

We set off immediately after breakfast. There is no public transport, such as an airport bus. So to avoid being a burden on our host we hire a car and driver from the village. "If it all goes wrong, just come back to me," Annegret says as we wave goodbye.

On the way, Renate keeps trying to get through to the woman at the airport, on her mobile phone with the new SIM card, but to no avail. "Maybe she hasn't got up yet," I wonder after the fifth attempt, "or ..."

"Or she's conned us," Renate says darkly. "We've been a bit naïve. With that form she could take legal possession of my suitcase whenever she liked. There's not a thing we can do. Why didn't we try her number yesterday?"

I can't give her an answer to that one. "Maybe we'll find her at the airport," I say, trying to reassure us both.

We get there a short time later. But there's nothing going on at that time of day. Since no planes leave in the morning, the counters at the international terminal are all bolted shut. And of course there's no one we can ask about the suitcase.

Renate and I are at a loss. She slumps exhausted on a bench and guards our luggage while I try to rebook our tickets in the national terminal. There are crowds of people at the Medview counter. I plunge into the crowd and fight my way to the front. It smells of sweat, perfume and deodorant.

"The tickets!" the man from the airline demands when I finally manage to attract his attention amid all the competitive customers. Luckily the official language in Nigeria is English, so at least we're able to communicate with one another.

"We have e- tickets." I hand him my phone, on which the tickets are stored. He frowns. He definitely wants to see a piece of paper. But I haven't got one. Then he passes my phone to one of his colleagues behind the counter. They chat together, looking rather skeptical. "Where did you book these?" the first one asks.

"In Germany."

"Paid for already?"

"Yes, of course."

"But the numbers don't agree with our system."

Oh, great, I think. What's that supposed to mean? Is he trying to tell me that the tickets I bought in Germany are invalid? "That's impossible," I protest helplessly. "Please look again!"

My phone wanders from hand to hand all around the airport, with me running after it. At least a dozen men stare at the document from abroad that's stored on it. It feels like hours until at last they find someone who's able to convert the international booking code into a local one — and who demands a healthy sum of money in return. I pay up.

But by now it's almost half past ten. Do we even have time to postpone the flight for another day? Just as I want to ask this awkward question, Renate hobbles up on her crutches.

She is beaming. "The lady from the luggage office came," she cries, "and the suitcase is there too!"

"So I don't need to rebook?"

"No, it's all fine!"

She points to a young man who's come behind her to the counter with a trolley: all our luggage is stacked up on it. He zealously heaves our cases on to the scales, and wants to be rewarded accordingly. A hefty charge is also leveled on our excess baggage.

This is the first personal lesson that I learn about Nigeria, which enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most corrupt country in the world: there are lots of problems and there are lots of people who make money from solving those problems. Everything costs money. That's how the system works.

Then we're on the Medview plane. I haven't a clue why the company should be called "Mediterranean view." From the window I see the skyscrapers and the mosques of Abuja, whose domes gleam in the distance. And the vast outskirts of one- story houses that twist around the metropolis and spill further and further into the bush. The houses become increasingly humble the further they are from the center. The huts of the people who have moved from the country form the outermost ring around the city.

When we've left even those behind, the land is more sparsely populated. Near Abuja the soil is still fertile and many of the fields grow maize or cassava. But the further north we fly, the sparser the vegetation. Soon there are only very scattered trees in the steppe- like landscape, through which the Fulani nomads drive their herds of thin cattle. The lack of rain has dried the ground out — even though the dry season has only just started. Everything seems to have the same earth- colored tone.

At last it becomes hazy. It looks as if a veil has settled over the earth. At first I think it must be clouds. But strangely they don't part even when the plane begins its descent.

"That's bad luck, the harmattan has started already," Renate says.

"The what?"

"The desert storm."

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "A Gift from Darkness"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Patience Ibrahim with Andrea C. Hoffmann.
Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Journey into the unknown 3

Back to the beginning 25

The omnipresent danger 43

My second chance 56

Getting things wrong 74

Women as spoils of war 97

Kidnapped 103

Among butchers 121

The demons of memory 147

A friend in hell 156

Short-lived happiness 169

Gavva 1959-2004 180

Gavva 2015 190

Shattered dreams 208

Reunion abroad 217

Dying and living 234

A bundle of hope 254

Return flight-Patience stays 273

Acknowledgments 277

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