Stolen Hope

farida (1)

— By Farida from Togo

On February 5th, 2005, the national television of my country, Togo, went blank, only showing an image of the president. The neighborhood went silent, shops closed, lights were turned off, doors shut: there was panic everywhere. This was the first time ever in our country that all televisions stations went blank showing only the picture of the president. Rumours started circulating that maybe he had died. A neighbor came to our house and confirmed the rumors to my father, the president had passed away. Gnassingbe Eyadema was his name, and he ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. He was the most feared person in the country, and at some point he was considered immortal. 
Deep in my heart I was relieved because I had longed for so many years to see my country freed from that dictator. I had silently prayed for it every time my father or one of his activists’ friends was jailed and tortured by the military at the command of Eyadema. I wanted to celebrate that moment with my dad, who was sitting in the dark; it was dark throughout the entire capital city because of a power outage  For the first time in my life, I saw my dad crying. I was very much surprised because I expected him to be relieved. This was the man who had jailed him numerous times in the past, tortured him for months, broken thirteen of his ribs, 9 of his toes, expelled him from the university for life, and killed several of his friends. I asked, “Dad why are you crying?” and he replied, “All my life, I was hoping that one day, Togo would be freed from this regime and this man will face trial for all the atrocities he has committed. And when I think that he gets to die, and my friends who were killed will never have justice, I feel devastated”. All I could tell him was sorry. At 8pm, the General of the Army appointed the son of the deceased president as the new head of state, even though our constitution states clearly that the president of the National Assembly was to take over when the president dies. Everybody was shocked and confused by this, a military coup, and this was the beginning of a new horror story in Togo. However, thanks to pressure from the opposition and protests, the regime finally accepted to allow the Vice President of the National Assembly take over as president, because the President of the Assembly was exiled to neighboring Benin. Elections were announced for the 24th of April. 
The electoral campaign of 2005 was extremely dramatic. The opposition formed a coalition to support one candidate and all predictions were pointing at his victory. Never in my life have I witnessed such vivacity in my country. Every campaign day was a celebration with almost everyone wearing yellow, which was the color of the main opposition party. “Ditia Kpoe Leyi,” was the slogan for the opposition militants, and it substituted as a greeting wherever you went. Then came Sunday April 24th 2005; the very day we believed would forever mark our history, like April 27th did when we got our independence 55 years earlier. Polls were to be opened at 7am, and by 5 in the morning polling stations were already overcrowded. People were determined to vote, and stay to protect their votes. There was lots of excitement and militants were touring polling stations to report on the voting activities and the trends at each station. At 5pm, polling stations closed and the vote counting started. At the station in my neighborhood, people gathered outside the school classrooms that served as voting rooms to hear the polling agents give the results. The screamings that came with the announcement that the opposition candidate, Bob Akitani, was the winner of that station, was close to the screaming that followed the victory of our soccer team at the African Cup of Nations qualifications. People were singing and dancing, and people all throughout Lome, the capital, were celebrating the victory of their candidate. Although I was 15 and didn’t vote, I also took part in the celebration. That was without knowing the worse had yet to happen.
As people were chanting victory songs in the whole city, militaries attacked every single polling station, teargassed and arrested numerous people, and seized the ballots. We were all in shock and couldn’t believe what had just happened. Two days later, at night on Tuesday April 26, which was the day before the celebration of Togo’s 45th independence day, militaries were sent in all the opposition stronghold neighborhoods to “neutralize” the youths, as the electoral commission was declaring the son of the deceased president, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the winner of the elections against all predictions. Over 1,000 Togolese people were killed that night. In a country of 6 million inhabitants, that was a huge number. Over 60 thousand people fled the following days to Ghana and over 30 thousand fled to Benin. The city was torn completely and there was smoke, blood, and debris all over the place. On May 3rd 2005, I was reading about the victims of the massacres in a newspaper when I found the name of two students from my high school. One was in his freshman year, like me, and the other was a senior. Like about 1,300 other Togolese, their only crime was to live in a neighborhood tagged as an “opposition stronghold.” 
I was angered, sad, and had never felt that helpless in my life. And whenever I imagined that it could have been me, or a sibling of mine, I couldn’t help but cry. That was when I started writing about dictatorship, military repression, and human rights abuse in Togo. I wanted the world to know about us, to hear our stories, to feel our pain and our helplessness. From then on I have never stopped, and as of today I have published over 400 articles on Togo and have become one of the most known activists from my country. When I started blogging in 2009, I never expected my voice to be heard. I was just a 19 year old trying to express her anger against injustice and hoping for change to come. But the more I wrote, the more audience I built as people were connecting to my stories. People will contact me and ask me to write about their stories, because they are afraid to do it themselves. They assumed that I was not afraid of anything, because the multiple threats and attempts on my life never stopped me from voicing my opinion. But the truth is, I too am scared. I am scared of crying just like my father for failing to one day bring justice to my friends. And whenever I think of that moment, I say: “Farida, you must keep going. You must keep going, you must keep going.”
Writing not only gave me a voice, it also made me an opinion leader, and my attempt to reject that leadership role was a failure. I became someone that others wanted to hear from and seek guidance from. Whenever there is a political turmoil in Togo, people will reach out to me to seek my opinion. So I am trying to improve myself so that my words will not create more division, but bring more closure and have an impact for the betterment of my community.

A Stand Against Oppression

Abdulmumin (1)

— By Abdulmu’min from Nigeria

It was back in high school some years ago, on the Lagos Island of Lagos State, Nigeria. We had finished prep class, and it was around 9:50 pm on Tuesday night, in the boys-only high school in which four different houses: red, yellow, blue, and green, served as the major difference in the lifestyles of the boys.

We were in our finals, and as the most senior students in the school, we had every other thing going easy. We usually had our whites sparkling, well ironed out such that it could tear one’s skin. Every student had to respect our seniority, those were the benefits of being a senior class student, except of course for the tight schedule of having to prepare for the senior school exams. Everyone barely had time to do other chores, so we had to do those chores after prep class, which usually ended at 9:30 pm leaving us with just 30 minutes before lights-out.

Lately we had been complaining about our stuff going missing from the large building which the final year students of the four houses occupied as dormitories. Every dormitory contained bunk beds, arranged in rows and columns, and locker rooms to keep some of our belongings. We had started to blame each other for the theft.

The Sunday before I was up at night, like every other day, studying, when I suddenly noticed one of the security guards, employed to secure the school, trying to find his way to the hostel, which was already locked, around 2:30 am. I alerted some of my housemates who were awake then to also see what I had seen, we decided to pretend to be asleep. Just as the security guard jumped in, I switched on the lights; the guard noticed this and absconded. There were about ten security guards in the school.

The next morning was a Monday morning, at the beginning of the week there was much to do so we didn’t discuss the incident. It was Tuesday and we had just 10 minutes left until lights out, and I was determined to end the treacherous acts of the guards.

I was standing with the utility prefect, Stanley, when we saw one of the guards by the name Innocent, heading towards the hostel. Now aware of what had been happening, once prep was over, Innocent alongside two other guards nicknamed Boko and Haram, Boko was friendly while Haram was the strong faced guy, would all come into the hostel claiming to send everyone to bed even before lights out, with the aim of getting everyone to sleep at the same time to give them enough time to do whatever evil act they had to do. Innocent was the team leader.

One funny thing about the Name Boko Haram is that, it’s actually the name of the dreaded terrorist group which had been causing insurgency in the Northeastern part of Nigeria, where over 280 schoolgirls were kidnapped.

Innocent wasn’t just heading towards the hostel, he had a bamboo stick in his hand. I told Stanley, “What the hell does this guy think he is going to do with that stick in his hand, hit anyone of us! Hell no, just see what I’m going to do tonight, this will have to stop.” As he got nearer to the hostel Stanley cowardly went into his dormitory, while I went to the front of mine.

There were five of us from blue house, Steve, Owuri, Tobi, Toba, and myself. I informed them of the incident and asked them not to move when Innocent arrived, we had to stop the act. Innocent was in the hostel and as usual chasing everyone to go to bed, he got to where we were standing and suddenly Tobi and Toba made away to their beds, while Steve, Owuri, and I were left. Innocent said “Go inside,” but we didn’t respond so he told us to get on our knees.

By then the whole building was quiet, Steve and Owuri were about to kneel down, when I moved forward going head to head and chest to chest with Innocent, even though he was the leader of the security guards. My words to him were, “Why should we go to bed? Is it because you and your gang want to come and steal our valuables, No! This would have to stop today.” 

Owuri had left, Steve was about to do the same when Innocent suddenly dragged him back and hit him hard on the head with the bamboo stick. Haram was with his boss by then and both were fighting against me. We were exchanging blows and words, more students now trooped out and aided the struggle against oppression after hearing the noise, and finally the fight against the oppression of innocent students had been won.

I thought to myself the school management wouldn’t have believed us if we had gone ahead to report the incident, since we had no evidence, but now we had fought, I had fought for us. They stopped coming to the hostel, which wasn’t their responsibility in the first place, and our properties were safe again. What if I had not taken my stand against oppression?

The Incredible Destiny of a Handicap

mamadou

— By Mamadou from Guinea

Once upon a time, in a small village in the midst of the thick green mountains of Foutah Djalon, lived some farmers whose source of livelihood was always determined by the season. During one of those seasons that it rained, there was a huge downpour and a son was born to the family of the Diallos. The rain barely subsided before his dad went from hut to hut in the entire village to share the good news with fellow villagers. The joy in the family knew no bounds. A week after his birth his parents gave him the name Mamadou. At this moment, no one could have imagined what the life of this little boy would be.

Three years later, Mamadou was growing up very fast for his age. He could play around the house of his parents under the admiring and watchful sight of his mother. One of the nights, Mamadou’s mother was awakened by his cry. Mamadou had become sick and this sickness would eventually change his life forever. His parents took him to the traditional doctors and healers in their village and other neighbouring villages to find a cure to this illness. These doctors could not help the child and convinced his parents that the young Mamadou has contracted an incurable disease from the evil spirits. This was the beginning of suffering for the little Mamadou and his mother. Some believed his mother is being punished for the sins she might have committed in the past and some claimed the boy is a wizard. A few months later into his illness, Mamadou lost his father and those who believed he was a wizard concluded he had claimed his first victim.
Mamadou lived under this condition until he was six years of age. At this age, he was supposed to be in school just like his mates. His mother had an important choice to make between leaving him at home to protect him from others and sending him to school so that he will have equal opportunity to excel in life like his mates. Fortunately, she settled for the second option. On the first day he was to leave for school, his mother was sad and in anguish, because she had doubts about if the other students would welcome him at school.


======Mamadou’s First Day in School:=========


The long awaited day arrived and he had to go to school. Very early in the morning, his mother woke him up and he prepared himself, wore his uniform and headed for school. On arrival, what his mother feared happened. When he arrived, all the children looked at him because he was the only one who walked with a stick. This was only the beginning of his troubles. At school, he had to sit with other children. The children had to sit two by two on a bench, a girl and a boy per bench. No girl wanted to sit next to him and yet he was not the ugliest in the class. He did not understand why all these girls rejected sitting with him. The teacher finally had him sit with another boy. At some point, he noticed several children who imitated his way of walking, which was quite different. He had resisted everything that has happened earlier in class but this time, he cried. He returned home in tears and with many other questions that also made his mother cry.

=====The Encounter that Changed His Life:========


Days and years passed quickly. In his nine years of study so far, he was never sent to write on the board like other students. Whenever his teachers wanted to send him there, his friends and his teacher made it clear that Mamadou could not go to write on the board. This happened until the day that his chemistry teacher Momo Camara forced him to go there (to the blackboard). “Mamadou on the board!” The teacher said and Mamadou, after nine years of studies, had to go to the board in front of his friends, he wrote, sweating, and finally everything went well. At the end of the course, Mr. Camara summoned Mamadou to his office. He said to him “Mamadou, it was not out of wickedness that I sent you to the board, it is because if I treat you in a special way you become a special person, which is not good for you. You know there are two types of disabilities: Physical disability and moral disability. You already are physically handicapped, with it alone, you can live your life but if you add the second (moral disability), your life will have no meaning. If you do not accept yourself as you are, know that others will never accept you. You have the choice.”


These remarks got him thinking. Since that day, Mamadou began to change the way he saw himself. He began to consider himself not as a person with a disability but as a person. From that day, he accepted no special treatment. Sadness was written all over his face whenever he was forced to sit on the edge of the field watching his friends playing football, sitting on a chair while his friends danced, or sitting alone while his friends are having a nice time with their girlfriends. Now when his friends play football, he is the goalkeeper. When they (his friends) dance, he dances too (hmmm, you need to see him dance) and as far as love goes (hmmm, that one is complicated). As each step passed, at each success, he shakes hands and quietly thanks Mr. Camara for the tips that he would share with each person who would be discriminated against. Grace to you Mr. Camara, my life now has a meaning, giving great happiness to my dear mother.


=========The School, His Saviour============


After eighteen years of study, the little Mamadou who was expected by all to be in a corner begging is now an engineer. He is gainfully employed and now lives with his family. That is not all. He works with organisations to educate parents to vaccinate their children against polio because he eventually learnt that his illness was because of poliomyelitis. He is also involved in encouraging parents to send disabled children to school because for him, education is the only way to facilitate the integration of people with disabilities.