One day in primary school, they announced all Red Cross members were going to camp. This was around midterm and we were getting a week off from school. Three of those days were going to be for camping. We would start on Wednesday, spend two nights away and return on Friday.
Even at the age of 7, I already knew I didn’t want to go. This wasn’t one of those times where I was uncertain if it would be fun or not. The idea of spending two nights outside my home was unpleasant. But growing up, there was no way to avoid camp. Every school group had their own camp: boy scouts camp, girls guides camp, brownies camp. And if you were able to avoid all those, you would go to church and there would be bible camp, prayer camp, choir camp, boys’ auxiliary camp, girls’ camp, heaven’s babies camp…
There was a group for everyone and a camp for every group. Eventually, they would get you.
The camp organisers gave us a sheet of paper with a list of things you were supposed to bring with you. Camp is one of those trick words whose meaning in Nigeria is very different from regular English. I looked at the list in disbelief, it had none of the expected camping items, like sleeping bags or tents. Nope.
Two sets of bedsheets and pillowcases. one plastic plate, one plastic bowl, one plastic cup. Plastic spoon, fork, and knife. Two rolls of toilet paper. For three days?
All of the Red Cross students met at the school on Wednesday morning, ticked off the items on the list and boarded the bus.
You’ve seen us on the road in traffic. A bus full of children sweating, being forced to sing to keep their spirits up by a teacher hovering over them with a stick. Holding on to the window ledges like transported prisoners, looking out at people in their air-conditioned cars. Singing.
Hours later we arrived at the camp grounds. It was an abandoned school, or it looked like one, with dejected buildings separated by tall overgrown grass. The type of grass that someone would say ‘Watch your step’ just as the child in front of you trips and disappears into the undergrowth.
The Red Cross master carrying a long stick, would search the spot, ruffling the grass, “Femi? Femi!” Then he gives up.
“Keep walking, children. There is nothing we can do for him now, he is in a better place.”
We waded through the grass towards four single-storey buildings at the centre of the school.
It was about one in the afternoon and shimmering heat was rising from the ground playing tricks on our eyes. The buildings would grow as we approached them, then they would shrink. Even though they were supposed to be getting closer, we were always the same distance away.
We trekked towards the buildings lugging our bags for what felt like weeks with the sun taunting us. We walked between the buildings into a sandy courtyard with an empty flagpole in the middle. The space enclosed by the quadrangle was the only area around that did not have any vegetation. People were there waiting.
They turned to look at us, blinking like they hadn’t seen other humans before, like stumbling upon a forgotten civilisation. But no, they were students like us, from other schools.
Most of them were crying, some were bleeding, their legs were scratched from the thorns in the grass.
We got in line behind them for registration and received brochures with assigned rooms and a hand-drawn map with the buildings labelled.
Two of the buildings on opposite sides of the square were the hostels; one for boys and one for girls. The other two buildings were the clinic and the admin building which had an office and rooms for the officials.
Whistles were blown and we were herded together for the evening assembly. We stood in neat lines facing the admin building, shortest to tallest. The officials, in front of us on a raised platform, introduced themselves and went over the rules and events for the following day. Parade, marching, health talk, first aid training.
The camp leader droned on and on over the heads of the children going over regulations and expectations. His voice was cut short by a shriek from the back of the line.
A sudden noise like a loud bang will startle you and make you jump. A drawn out noise like a siren will cause you to turn towards the source. This was a sound from someone who had lost control, it pushed people into a scared circle around the screaming girl.
It pitched higher and higher until her mouth was wide open expelling air soundlessly. She jerked at her dress, hopping from foot to foot in one spot.
She sucked in a deep breath making a loud gulp. She was still pulling at the front of her dress when a red-necked lizard crawled out of the top of her pinafore clawing at her chest. It hopped to the ground and ran into the crowd. There was a collective gasp and people jumped out of its way.
Later in the room, they whispered that she had gone crazy. The assembly had informally dispersed after the officials escorted the girl to the clinic. She had been screaming when we went for dinner, boys uneasily beat their plastic spoons against their plates to drown out the sound. She had screamed through the night roll call. Even now, hours later, she was still screaming.
You could hear it everywhere you went, it was unsettling. It would wind down as she ran out of energy then pick up again with renewed vigour.
To hear Nigerians talk about sanity, you would think it is something people put on in the morning, discarding it when the burden gets too heavy. Everyone seems to know someone who “ran mad but is fine now.”
The surprising thing is that people are never curious beyond that. You ask them, “So what happened to him? Did he go to the hospital, did they explain what happened?”
And they’ll open their mouths, look at you–how could you even bring it up–and say, “Aah aah, it was just a one day thing. Probably an attack. It is well.”
Lying in the bunk beds after lights out, everyone was talking about telling their parents to pick them up early the next day. But how, carrier pigeon? How would you even describe the place?
“Two hours outside Lagos, surrounded by forest, follow the screams. Send help.”
By the morning, everyone knew as fact that the place was built next to a cemetery. It was impossible to single out who’d said it first, so there was no way to prove it was a lie.
The sun climbed quickly to its hottest point then stopped there, sitting directly above reflecting off the sand. Steam would rise from your clothes giving off that faint burning smell that ironed clothes have.
Children started to collapse during the parade. Four more people ran mad, almost casually. A boy from my school started screaming, scratching at his scalp, tearing at his shirt. People sidestepped him, marched around him. Left, right, left, right.
He was escorted off the field.
Whatever had been shaky at the time of the lizard event was now undone.
I walked past the clinic, peeked in and noticed that all the beds, about sixty of them, were full. Half of the people were unconscious, the other half were tied to the beds by their belts, wailing, talking to blank spaces in front of them. A nurse shooed me away.
After lunch, a wave of diarrhoea swept through the camp. This one we should have seen coming, with the stacks of tissues we had. First one person ran out of the hall during the health talk, then another, until a steady stream of people trickled out clutching their stomachs to line up outside the toilets.
I have seen panic in the days since then, but never anything like this. When structure collapses, children will imagine anything to replace it. Poisoning, being primed for sacrifice, we had been abandoned, were being killed off one by one.
As the sun went down, I sat on my bed, with my back against the wall and my knees pulled up to my chest and waited.
I wish I had more details for you but the memory is in bits and pieces like most childhood memories are. In dreams sometimes, I see the events of the last few hours. I am running through the bushes trying to get to the bus but the grass keeps bringing me back to the camp.
I don’t remember sleeping, I remember glimpses of the trip back: the stench, the children who had run out of clean shorts now had shirts and pillowcases tied around their waists as makeshift diapers. I remember the desolation on the faces. And no singing.
Then we were at school hugging our parents.
When we returned to school after the midterm break, no one would talk about it.
“Do you remember camp? No? Me neither.”