Dami had the lightest skin in the whole boarding school. She was so fair that the older students liked to bring her around with them and pinch her cheeks, calling her Light-Skinned and clutching her close to them, as if fairness could be rubbed off.
Dami knew that this was not the case: light skin was not something that could be rubbed off. Rather, it had to be rubbed on.
And this was what she was doing one Tuesday night, padding stealthily down the dark hallways of her boarding house, clutching her lightening cream. The night was alive with the chirping of grasshoppers, and Dami stopped and waited for the red-headed lizards to scuttle across the hallway. It was night, and it was only fair that the true night-dwellers had the right of way, instead of illicit dark Yoruba girls who had to rub fairness cream on with their index fingers in the night, when nothing happened, when no one watched, when you could do anything.
Three steps, two steps, one. Pause in front of the house-parent’s room, suck your breath in through your nose and tiptoe with the utmost caution past the door that was always slightly open. Scamper into the bathroom, close the door firmly, flick the switch, pray there is electricity.
There was none, and she cursed the Nigerian power authority under her breath.
But Dami did not need electricity. The day she bought the cream from a irritable, fat woman toting a snotty baby in the dusty markets of Epe, she brought it home and memorized the places she’d put it – her face, neck, upper shoulders, the creases on her arms, her elbows – so that it was not obvious her fair skin was a lie.
She took a generous dollop, thinking of tomorrow, when she would laugh with Adesuwa and struggle over physics with Temi. But tonight she had to use her fairness cream so that she could make fun of the other girls’ skin, calling them Shadow and Nightie while holding her own golden-brown arms up proudly.
Over the face, the arms, the elbows – Dami applied cream until she heard the rumble of car tires on the road to the boarding house. In the window above the mirrors in the bathroom, she could see headlights, blocking out the feeble light of the moon.
But she did not think anything of it. Dami was a well-behaved student in a good boarding school on the outskirts of Lagos, the best part of Nigeria. Her blazer was always neat, her top button always done; her tie always had a perfect crease. Dami did not have time to imagine things she had heard on the news. She did not think about the horror stories the girls whispered while eating their midnight snack of pineapple. Instead, she applied her cream and thought with delight about tomorrow’s lunch of jollof rice.
It was only when Dami heard the cars stop in front of the gates that she started to feel curious. She could hear the echoes of Adesuwa’s whisper: “My driver told me they’ve left the north. They’re coming to Lagos. They’re smarter than any of us think.”
Dami twisted the cap onto her cream and dismissed her worries as foolish. Then she heard low sounds: heavy shoes meeting the ground, things moving. Her hands were shaking ever so slightly, still slippery from the cream, and she decided to stay in the bathroom a bit longer.
A low male grunt traveled through the humid air up to the bathroom window. “Da sauri,” the man said. Hausa for quickly. Dami knew this from half paying attention in cultural class. Dami also knew that only four teachers at her school spoke Hausa. All were female.
She retreated, with quick breaths, into a stall.
Later, Dami’s father would fly her to London, hugging her close and whispering, “You buy all the fairness cream you want,” but in that moment, the last thing on her mind was her cream. The latch squeaked closed as –
Bang, crash, boom. Dami knew the doors of the boarding house had been broken down. She knelt on the tile floor and finally allowed the two dreaded words to enter her mind: Boko Haram.
“You know, they kill you instantly if you’re not wearing a hijab,” one girl had said with wide eyes.
“They’ll kidnap you. Sell you to the highest bidder. You’ll be a slave the rest of your life,” a senior had whispered.
Dami was too scared, much too scared, to cry. Instead, she listened to the footfalls of men outside the bathroom door – listened as they walked heavily down the hallway, the same hallway where just two hours before she had laughed with Adesuwa about Mrs. Onabalo’s triple chin. The same hallway where she hugged her friends and helped them with homework. Boko Haram, she thought again. No, never, impossible. I am in Lagos. There is no way.
Yet there she was, crouched in the bathroom, cream in one hand, terror in the other. Although many books enjoy using the phrase “cold fingers of dread,” that night Dami learned that the fingers of dread were hot as hell. Their heat refused to let you breathe as you sat in a puddle of sweat, motionless, hearing nothing but the blood rushing through your ears and the laughing voices of the girls wishing each other goodnight just an hour before.
The men were shouting – slurred Hausa impossible to understand, English in thick accents. Dami heard the name of Allah. She wondered if she was just imagining her friend Aisha, a devout Muslim, reciting the Quran. She prayed to Jesus like she had never prayed before, with a vigor never present in hot assembly rooms with thick, itching blazers and no air conditioning.
She did not, could not, would not imagine what she would do if the men came into the bathroom, opened the stalls, and found her: a chubby, light-skinned Yoruba Christian girl who still had faint traces of her childhood British accent. She did not, could not, would not think about getting up and doing anything, calling someone, stopping something. It was not until later, when she relived these achingly long ten minutes, that tears would stream down her cheeks that had faded back to dark brown. It was not until much later that she would think, Why did you not go out and smash one of the men on the head with your cream jar? Why did you not climb out the window and run to the teacher hostel and call for help? Why did you sit there like a coward?
A coward, a little girl, a weakling, a student. Dami would later come to believe, as American and British broadcast stations came trooping through her doors and her father put on the generator 24/7, that these words all meant the same thing. She’d dust off her rusty British accent and recount the story again and again, and she’d hear the same thing over and over: It was not your fault.
Perhaps it wasn’t. After all, she was a little girl, and she felt like one, sitting in the dark restroom listening to the muffled cries of her classmates. She heard kicks, grunts, low orders being barked, and she could see without seeing her friends getting tied up, forced into hijabs, hustled onto the backs of trucks, driven off into the night. She could envision Adesuwa crying in her peculiar way, with one long hiccup and then a bursting sob. Temi swallowing and cracking her knuckles, over and over, until she was sold to the highest bidder and shipped off to whomever, wherever. Dami could envision all this, but she could do nothing.
She clutched her cream in one hand and took dread’s warm, thick fingers with the other, and did not move a muscle, not even an eyelid, even after she heard doors slamming, engines starting, trucks retreating. Even when she saw sunlight enter the bathroom stall. Even when her physics teacher opened the bathroom door, saw feet underneath the stall, and commanded her to come out.
She only stood and opened the stall door when she heard her mother’s voice. “Oluwadamisi,” Dami’s mother sobbed, holding her daughter as she had never been held before. God has saved me. Oluwadamisi. God has saved you. Oh, God has saved you. It was a beautiful irony, something her parents would repeat over and over: Oluwadamisi, a name that was suddenly taken literally.
Later that week, Dami would smash her cream against her bedroom wall. She’d watch it slide down and splatter on her desk and bookcase. God may have saved her, but only in the most literal of terms. She did not consider the vicious nightmares to be salvation. She did not consider the violent fits of tears that greeted her in the morning to be salvation, or the eerie visits she would receive from the ghosts of her best friends. Adesuwa, Aisha, Temi, good-bye forever.
Oluwadamisi. God had saved her, and humanity tried to save the others. Of course everyone tried. They marched and tweeted and protested, but it was apparent that while God had saved Dami, he had forgotten about the others. And if God had forgotten, who else could be expected to remember?
So everyone forgot.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2014 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.