By Chioma Okezie-Okeh
The middle-aged woman selling rubber footwear in a nearby shop screamed at the reporter. “Please, get away from my shop,” she said. “If I give you this footwear for N200, will you gladly buy it? I am not a thief, neither are these things stolen. Go to Bakassi Camp and get it free of charge.”
The Bakassi Camp she was referring to is one of the largest refugee camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Maiduguri, Borno State. Originally built as part of the Borno Housing project, and located in Bakassi Housing Estate, it is at the moment being used to house thousands of Nigerians from villages in Borno hit by Boko Haram terrorists.
Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), from time to time, flood these camps with gifts and medical supplies. The excesses are later disposed of by residents, at little or no price. This reporter who was on a working visit to Maiduguri decided to pay a visit to the camp. It was in the course of it that she came in contact with the fire-spitting middle-aged woman selling the rubber footwear.
“Let’s go inside. You will get better quality ones, and at an affordable price,” two pretty young ladies who volunteered as guides and interpreters, stated. That was how the reporter, disguised as a refugee, and in the company of these natives, boarded a tricycle popularly known as Keke Marwa, and rode her way into the camp.
“Who is that fair woman, and where are you heading to?” a local security man guarding the entrance gate close to the military checkpoint, asked. The escorts cautioned him to keep his eyes off the wife of their community leader. He apologised and granted them unhindered access into the camp. The driver who is one of the camp’s residents, (he identified himself as Umar), asked if the reporter and her guides needed anything inside the camp so that he could direct the visitors to where to get them.
“I know you people are not from here,” he said with a grin, exposing in the process a set of kola nut-stained dentition. “A lot of persons come to this camp every day either to do business or to visit their friends, especially women.”
Umar who is said to be married to three wives and several children, and who started his new family in the camp, promised to drop the reporter and her team at the nearest market where they would get whatever they wanted to buy.
Story of Umar’s three wives and children
Soon, the reporter and Umar got into a conversation. Just like the case with several other men in the camp, he had the opportunity to marry wives without spending much money, he told the reporter. The garrulous fellow had this habit of providing information with ease, including the ones he wasn’t asked for, especially when chatting with women.
“The main thing I gained is that I now have three wives and I got them at an affordable rate,” he said with an unmistakable sense of pride. “We moved to this camp seven years ago. Then I was just 20. Our area at Marte was overrun, and my father and brothers were slaughtered. I was lucky because I had visited an aunt and decided to spend the night in her house. It was that night that they (Boko Haram terrorists) attacked.”
He added: “It was because I am the only surviving child of my father that I decided to marry plenty of wives at an early age. My extended family members who escaped with me to Maiduguri town were the ones who encouraged me. Two of my wives are orphans and they are happy to be here. If you have more than one wife, the government will give you plenty of space to accommodate them. Today, I am a proud father of seven. I think I will stop because I want them to go to school but the women are the problem.”
Encounters with sellers of different wares
Over time, the refugee camps have been turned into thriving communities of their own by enterprising residents. This truth is attested to by several makeshift markets springing up around the camps. Here you can buy anything you need, and at rock-bottom prices. Saturday Sun investigation shows that they are sold by residents and few outsiders who pay a token to be allowed to display their wares. All kinds of foodstuffs, clothes, footwear, fashion accessories, etc, are showcased from one market corner to the other.
Presently, you approached a middle-aged man selling foot wares, most of which were made of rubber. You found his prices slightly lower than those sold outside the camp. “My goods were bought from Monday market inside the town,” he explained when you asked him to sell the children’s wear at half of the original price. “I am a real businessman. If you want cheaper ones, go further inside or ask around.”
The reporter behaved as if she wanted to leave him, at that point, and go elsewhere to make her purchase. “Please buy from me,” he pleaded before adding: “Those ones you wish to get are cursed products. They are not meant for sale; it was the NGO people that gave them those kinds of stuff out of pity. Instead of using them, they choose to sell them. If you buy them, you will bring a curse upon your family and will surely regret it. I used to patronise them but I realised that at the end of everything, the money will not be used for anything meaningful.”
The reporter must have presented an incredulous mien as to make the seller respond with the next string of words. “You can go and try, since you are trying to convince me that as healthy and good-looking as you are, you cannot afford to buy from me,” he said, and asked the reporter and her team to leave his shop.
They were then directed to another place by a woman who turned out to have been listening to the conversation. She sold fried locusts and immediately volunteered to take the team to where they could find what they were looking for as soon as the reporter bought off all the fried stuff she displayed on her tray.
“You might not be able to get plenty today,” she told them. “If you want to buy in large quantity, come on Sunday night or Monday morning. We normally receive plenty of gifts from the NGO people. They are plenty of them that come to visit us, so most of the things they bring are not needed; we gather them together and sell them. Most of the children attend school, so in September and January, we receive many school shoes, bags, food flasks, stocks. A child can get up to 10 sets, so why keep them and allow them to spoil? The weather will soon turn cold, so we will be getting thick clothes and socks.”
After walking for about 250 metres further into the camp, the reporter and her team got to a tent that belongs to one of the wives of one Alhaji Sani. Seated on a mat outside were about six elderly women and several children while their mothers were seen relaxing at different spots close to the tent. After exchanging pleasantries, Hadiya Hauwa as she was introduced to the reporter queried where and how the information came that she was selling NGO gifts. “I hope you are not here to cause trouble for us,” she asked cautiously while casting a suspicious look on the new face.
The guide chipped in with the needed assurance that the reporter was a long time trusted customer. Relaxed, she told the reporter regretfully that she had little supply of rubber footwear and clothes at that moment and wondered if they could return in a week’s time, noting that she was expecting a lot of supplies from NGOs this season. “You have to come back,” she said. “I promise to keep some for you. I am sure that a lot will be given out because most of us will soon leave the camp. The governor has asked us to go back to our villages. At the end of the day, it might not be much as people will prefer to go back home with them since they will no longer be receiving any.”
On the alleged government’s order for IDPs to return home, Hadiya from Marte, expressed her wish that the time should be extended until some basic things that will make life comfortable were put in place. These, she said, include accommodation and food security. “We are going to suffer because everything was destroyed,” she said. “Our farms are dry and you can only harvest where you planted months ago. It is only God that will keep us safe; those who did not run are now the ones in charge. I used to be a woman leader because of my husband’s position in the village. But now, all that will change. I wish we will stay and be given more time to save money. Allah is in control and if He so wishes that we will travel back, then we will travel.”
Before the exit of the reporter and her guides from the camp, they were able to buy some children’s footwear and pants. The items were all sold at half the regular market price. They were asked to move further down into the camp where regular blocks of houses were built. Residents later directed the team to a three-bedroom bungalow said to belong to another community head from Baga. His house was allegedly taken over by the Boko Haram terrorists. Since then he has lived in the camp. They were greeted by a young woman who identified herself as Fatima.
Clutching her baby, she claimed to be the wife of one of the sons of the community heads known as Baba Ibrahim. She led the team into a room where a man called Farouk, who should be in his 40s, welcomed them. Aware of why they came, he showed them different types of wrappers. They were at least 50 pieces on display, and he asked them to pay N700 for each. But, in truth, the material in the regular market goes for N1500 or more. The intending buyers bargained to pay N500 but he asked them to leave, since they were not serious. “I thought you came here to buy in bulk,” he said. “Are you not aware of the real market value? If you are not serious, please go and if you want only a few then the price is N800. My gain here is only N100; the owners will take the rest.”
On hearing that, the reporter bought two pieces of cloth from him, just to make him happy. At this point, he felt relaxed and started narrating how he started the business. “I am from Baga,” he said. “In our own case, we luckily got information that the terrorists were planning to attack. I fled with my father and some of our family members. The women who stayed back were forced to marry the terrorists while the young men were killed. It was bad because they already announced that young men should voluntarily come and join them.”
From his tale of narrow escape from death to find refuge at the IDP camp, the conversation with him soon swung to the noble roles that individual philanthropists and NGOs were playing as part of their efforts to mitigate IDPs’ sufferings at the camp. “Allah will bless all these good people, especially the NGOs,” Farouk said. “There are times that up to 10 of them would come here in one day.”
But then, it was discovered that with the coming of the NGOs was the need to find a commodious space to keep some of the gifts being showered on the IDPs by public-spirited men and women. “These women do not have space to keep these wrappers, so it’s better to sell them,” he said in an attempt to explain how the idea of selling some of the gift products came about. “It was my friend who is a wrapper dealer that gave me the idea. They voluntarily bring them and I only add a little money as my gain. They (philanthropists and NGOs) rarely give us cash and this is what we need more. We might not get more in December because the governor had asked us to go back to our villages.”
Inside one of the rooms where the wrapper was bought, young Fatima was patiently waiting for the reporter and her guides to come out so that they could give her a ride to the exit gate.
On our way out, she told us the story of what she planned to do with her life, after the government order to vacate the place, had been carried out. “I am happy that we are going home because I will surely run away,” she confided in the reporter. “I am only 16 and from the Dikwa area. I was forced to drop out of school and marry Baba Ibrahim’s son, Shehu. This is his son (she pointed to the baby with her) and by this marriage, all my desire to go to school has been destroyed. I cannot run away now because everybody is here. I am waiting for my son to be two years and I will drop him with his grandma. I want to be a nurse and I have made contacts with some of the nurses who used to attend to us. They will help me achieve my dream.
“I was advised to marry Shehu or if the security men guarding here need a woman, I would volunteer myself. They deceived me into believing that I would be killed by the soldiers if I don’t sleep with them. It is not true. The women in the camp go to them on their own volition. In fact, the women are so many that the security men have more than enough of them to sleep with. I was disappointed but what can I do? I did not even have a proper wedding because of this environment. I am happy that we will soon go. But I will definitely run away.”