Where We Are

Illustration by Brian Edward Miller.

Illustration by Brian Edward Miller.

Read Madonna Enwe '16's winning entry for Dickinson Magazine's summer fiction contest:

by Madonna Enwe ’16

It was one of those nights that only came once or twice a year, when the full moon shone so brightly that the surrounding clouds seemed to be drifting away from it. Our grandparents had told us that it was under a full moon that the sorcerers and witches carried out their evil acts. Some of us had exams the next day, and we were studying in our classes and other secluded areas on the school campus, such as the balcony behind the shower rooms. Some of us did not have any exams or homework, and we were sleeping in class, reading one of the few books left in our scanty library, listening to gossip, recounting the Nigerian movies we had watched, braiding each other’s hair, playing card games or dancing to drum sounds we played on our desks. Some of us were outside of class that night keeping vigil at the taps, to be the first to get water that we would have to use the next day to take our bath. There were only six taps for about 300 girls to get water for a bath the next morning. Some of us did not go to class that night because we were sore from the manual labor we had done during the day, because we were suffering from an illness or because we needed to lie down due to the severe pain we felt from our monthly stomach cramps.

By two in the morning, most of us were in our beds sleeping. We slept in rooms with 20 other lower-grades girls and rooms with 50 upper-grades girls. Some of us had woken up later in the night to use the toilet with two other friends, and a few of us had gone alone. It was at about three a.m. that the men entered our school campus.

One of us was returning from using the toilet alone and saw about 20 men dressed in black overalls. They were driving up in five trucks toward our dormitory, holding long guns and cutlasses. She ran up to the school bell near our clothes lines and rang it seven times before one of the men leaped out of a moving truck, ran toward her and struck her to the ground. Some of us woke up because of the screeching sound of the school bell that was supposed to wake us up at five a.m. We thought that it was already time to wake up, but a few of us knew that it wasn’t and we peeped through the window to see who had rung the bell. Some of us, the heavy sleepers, did not budge when the bell was rung and were later pushed from our beds by our friends or felt the water that was poured on our skin by girls who were screaming that we should join the crowd and run. Some of us started running even though we did not know why we were running. When we saw the men jumping off the trucks and coming toward our rooms, we knew something terrible was about to happen.

We thought that the men were thieves who were coming to steal our pocket allowances and books, but we did not have much. We did not have phones, and our teachers and principal lived up the hill from our dormitories. We had a night watchman but we rarely saw him awake. Our school was in the middle of a forest; it took about six hours to get there from where most of us lived. We knew we were on our own. Some of us, the older ones, tried to push the younger ones to run in front, but others ran into the woods without looking back and trampled a few girls on their way. It was difficult for 20 or 50 girls to run out of one door in time, and before most of us could get out, one of the men, who had a stitch scar on his biceps, swiftly pushed us back into the room and shut the door behind him. Most of us who found a spot to hide under the bed and the shelves where we kept our luggage were also locked into the room. A few of us ran to hide in the toilets but the men followed us, grabbed our hands and dragged us out. Those of us who had been pushed to the ground by other girls were groaning in pain, and then were picked up by the men and tugged back toward the dormitory. Some of us, the fast runners and the younger ones who had been pushed forward to run, ran the whole night. We did not know where we were running to but we ran non-stop, and the full moon, which was our only source of light in the dark forest, guided us on our path to escape.

They took us out of our dorms, from under our beds and from under the shelves. They took us from the toilets and from the ground. They held us tightly and dragged us to the yard outside our dormitories, where they left us in a bundle. They did not say anything. Some of the men went into our dormitories and our classrooms, and we thought they were going to steal our things then let us go free. They did not steal anything. We saw them moving with blue containers pouring liquid inside and outside our plywood dormitories and classrooms. We saw one of them strike a match, and, before our eyes, the buildings where we had spent most of our days learning and sleeping burst into flames. Those were the classes where we had first learned how to write and read the books that opened our minds to a world in which we could do what we loved and be independent. We were confused. Why are they doing this? Why did they not take any of our belongings? Where are we going to sleep when they leave?

The men who had gone to the dorms and classrooms returned to the place where they had left us. They started talking with each other. They took out their long guns and cutlasses again and one of them screamed at us.

“Follow us! If one of you tries to run away, we will cut you.” We all turned our heads and stared at each other. Where were they taking us? What was going on? Some of us started to cry, and they told us to not make a sound. Some of us were too cold to open our lips and make a sound. We stood in our sleeping wear; some of us had sweaters on while others only had a loincloth tied around their body. The men pushed us toward the trucks and told us to climb onto them. Some of us sat on the floor and others had to sit on other girls. There was no room to move our bodies. Some of the men sat behind us so that we could not see the road. We sat alongside friends of more than two years and locked eyes with girls we had just noticed for the first time, girls we had gossiped about, older girls we had never spoken to, girls who were once our friends, and girls who had bullied us. At that moment in the back of the truck, our past did not matter; we were all on a moving truck whose destination none of us knew. We gazed at one another while the truck swayed over potholed roads leading away from our school.

We do not know how long we drove until we came to a stop. Some of us had slept in another girl’s lap or on another girl’s back. Some of us could not sleep. We were thinking about our families, about our mothers whom we missed and in whose arms we wanted to curl up and hear them say that the men would let us go home soon. After seeing the men burn our school and put us on the trucks, we had started having strange thoughts. We thought the men would take us somewhere we had never been to and they would cut us with their cutlasses and shoot us with their guns. Some of us who thought about this before falling asleep had horrendous nightmares. We had nightmares of our friends being shot and thrown into the forest to rot, nightmares of being beaten and nightmares of being raped and abandoned, bleeding to death because we had never known a man in that way before.

By the time the truck stopped, the full moon was gone, and the sky was crystal blue, but there was no sight of houses, only bamboo-thatched tents. There were other men and boys with guns and cutlasses. They told us to get down from the trucks and made us to sit down on the cold and muddy black ground. One of us, the one who had rung the bell earlier that morning, asked the men why they had brought us here. The man with the scar on his arm dragged her out from our midst and placed his hands on her mouth. He told us that we were shameless girls who had the audacity to talk to an older man because of the lessons we had been taught in our school that was modeled after schools in Western nations. He said that we would never return to our school and that he and his men would teach us the things we needed to learn and do as a woman. He dragged our friend into one of the tents as she wiggled her legs and tried to scream through the hands that covered her mouth. We never saw her again.

In a few days we were becoming the type of women they wanted us to become. We washed their clothes, cooked their food, carried their water, and in the night one of us or a few of us were taken to the men to spend the night with them. Those of us who had been taken in the night always returned with swollen and bruised faces, and some of us, the younger ones, could not close our legs for a few days: “He slapped me when I refused to lie on my back.” Some of us had to explain to the younger ones what had happened to those girls, but we did not have enough words to tell them because our mothers had not explained any of this to us. All we told them was: “Do whatever they tell you.” A few weeks later they took some of us and sold us, for bags of rice, palm wine, and chicken, as brides to men who were older than our fathers.

During the nights that we slept together with the other girls, some of us sobbed. One of us cried for her mother who was sick and thought that she would never see her before she died. Some of us cried because we missed our siblings for whom we were their main caregivers because our parents were dead. Those of us who were in our last year of high school cried because we had missed our chance to leave our small village and go to university in the big town. We thought that we would never become the nurses, doctors, lawyers and teachers that we had dreamed of becoming since these careers had been introduced to us at our school. Some of us cried because we had been bruised while we were carrying water from the stream and did not tell anyone because we wanted to avoid attention from the men.

Some of us prayed every night to God. Some of us blamed Him for abandoning us, while some of us thanked Him for letting us see the new day, hoping that something good might happen. Some of us had never prayed to God before and did not plan to, but a few of us admired those who had someone on whom to pour their worries and learned how to pray to this person.

We did not want to stay in this place any longer. Some of us, the bold ones, made plans to escape with one or two friends when we went down to the stream to fetch water. “When we go to fetch water in the night, let us crawl through the plantain trees and see where it takes us.” Some of us spoke too loudly, and once the men heard about our plans, they tied us to a tree and did not give us food for two days. Some of us followed our plans, but when we came to the forest later one night, we stumbled upon men who were in the forest smoking, and they took us to their leader, who made us kneel down on rocks and spanked us on our buttocks. Those of us who had failed in our attempts to escape told the others that there was no way we could ever run away from this place.

We got very sick. We had been used to having headaches or fevers, but the type of sickness that some of us had, we had never seen before. Those of us who were sick felt nauseated every morning, our eyes became red, and we felt constant pain in the chest and stomach. We also lost a lot of weight, our stool was bloody and sometimes we bled from our eyes. Those of us who took care of the sick became sick; even a few of the men became sick too. When the men noticed that this disease might be contagious, they took all the sick people out of the area. We never saw them again.

The men keep on increasing in numbers while our numbers are shrinking. None of us had known that we were going to stay here for this long. We wonder why no one cares about us, why no one has come to take us away from these men. Deep in our hearts we know that our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters miss us. We cry every night not only because we are scared of what the men will do to us the next day, but also because we feel the pain that our families must be feeling. Will we ever leave and see our families again? We do not know, but for now we only have each other and we have to be here for each other until the day we leave this place.

The men tell us that more girls will be coming soon. Some of us are relieved that these new girls will share some of our workload, but most of us are worried that we will have to watch these other girls go through the same ordeals that we went through. In our minds, we hope that the men’s plans will fail and someone will finally find us where we are.

An Author's Inspiration

Madonna Enwe

Madonna Enwe ’16, the winner of our inaugural fiction contest, did not write “Where We Are” solely for the personal joy of writing; she did it to give a voice to the hundreds of girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. “This story isn’t for me,” she explains. “It’s for those girls.”

Enwe felt an undeniable connection with those young women, having grown up in Cameroon and attended Our Lady of Lourdes school; she and her mother moved to the U.S. when she was 16. “When those girls were abducted it really affected me because I felt like they could be me,” Enwe says. “I really identified with them."

Enwe admits that the idea of writing about these tragic events was daunting. “I knew, though, that somebody had to write about this,” she adds. “It’s been almost a year and still no one knows where they are, and people have stopped talking about it, so I knew that I had to write this story to make sure no one forgets them.”

Although very little is known about the actual missing girls in Nigeria, Enwe is adamant about not making them a cliché. “I didn’t want to just write them as victims,” she says. “I wanted to show them as girls who were desperate to go to school and whose dreams had been crushed. I wanted to give them personalities, dreams, families.”

In addition to her deep love of writing, Enwe is a neuroscience major with plans to go into medicine, partly because, growing up, doctors were scarce in her neighborhood. Her hope is to work with an NGO that provides health care and education in impoverished countries. Her research is focused on the effects of childhood concussions; she has presented at multiple conferences, completed an internship at the Columbia University Medical Center and is currently in the University of Vermont’s Summer Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Enwe’s dream of becoming a doctor dovetails with her passion for writing. She knows that the mark of a good fiction writer is being able to write about something you have never experienced, a skill she thinks will translate into her medical career. “You need to be able to identify with patients and empathize, something I try to do when I write,” she notes.

She also hopes that her medical work will allow her to tell her patients’ stories. “I’ve learned that there are so many things happening in the world, so there will always be something to write about,” she says. “No matter what, I just want to be doing something that helps people.”
—Grace Fisher ’15

From the editor

After reading Madonna Enwe ’16’s haunting story, you too will understand why we decided to launch a fiction contest. In a strong field, Enwe’s story was the clear winner.

Here’s what the judges had to say about it. Elise Levine, visiting assistant professor of creative writing: “The voice and style, use of characterization and narrative are outstanding.” Sherry Knowlton '72, mystery-thriller author: “[it] captures the confusion and desperation of these young schoolgirls.” Brock Clark '90, professor of English at Bowdoin College: “Best of all the stories I read.” Professor of English Susan Perabo: “At first I thought she would not be able to pull it off, the first-person plural point-of-view, not for more than a couple pages. But she actually did it, and the piece ultimately owes much of its power to that device.”

Read more from the summer 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published July 28, 2015